I would like to hear what everyone knows about the mechanics of Jazz music.. like what makes it what it is, how it sounds pleasant without following any traditional theory of tonality or key, etc.
Jazz Theory is a topic that would (and does) fill many large volumes. It's an incredibly encompassing topic that covers everything from the most simple and tonal of songs to avant-garde atonal explorations that defy traditional means of explanation. Most jazz is, in fact, a tonal based medium- a great deal of which can be examined, described, analyzed, etc. using "traditional" jazz theory terminology. What your definition of "pleasant" is may be different than mine so I can't really comment in any greater detail as far as that goes. But I would be wary of using the phrase "following any traditional theory of tonality or key" when it comes to describing music. It's important to remember that the theory describes the SOUNDS, not the other way around. It's very important to understand that an interesting note combination that happens to be called an Eb7#5b9 chord is just the musician's way of labeling what a visual artist might call "mauve" an interesting color combination of grayish-blueish magenta. The music should come first and theory is then used to describe those sounds in language terms, whether it be English, Spanish, French, etc.
Some fundamentals to understand about how jazz works is to invest in a serious study into the concepts of intervals and chord construction. One needs to look at how intervals combine to create 3, 4, 5, 6 and even 7 note chords and how the larger, more "colorful" chords (relative to much Classical and pop music) are used. Also, one should look into how certain intervals create "consonances" against chords (unisons, 3rds, 5ths, 6ths, 7ths, octaves), how they create "dissonances" (called chord tensions - 9ths, 11ths, 13ths, altered 5ths and 9ths) and how jazz composers and improvisers use both these consonant as well as dissonant sounds to create what it is we recognize as and call "jazz".
Earlier jazz composers were heavily influenced by many Classical-based elements such as tonal based chord motion (emphasizing the Tonic (I), Subdominant (IV), and Dominant (V) chords), root movement up a fourth (or down a fifth) in their chord progressions, and tonal shifts to the subdominant chord (IV) within a given piece in a contrasting or developmental section such as a bridge. Jazz composers slightly altered the traditional IV-V-I cadence of Classical theory by substituting a related chord, IIm or IIm7, for the IV major chord- creating what has become perhaps THE defining chord motion in all of jazz, the IIm(7)-V7-I progression (which features consecutive root motion up a 4th between each chord).
This concept of chord substitution is one of the true innovations of the jazz world and is in itself a fascinating study into the highly subjective realm of complex combinations of consonances and dissonances, often within the same chord. In a tune in the key of C major, how can I get away with playing am Em7, Gmaj7, or even Bm7 chord if the "correct" chord is Cmaj7? The answer lies within the related fields of intervals and chord substitution. This example I have given merely scratches the surface of this very involved topic. The ultimate guide to chord substitution (IMO) can be found here
Chord-scale theory is another jazz innovation in that it weighs note series' and chord structures against one another on an intervallic playing field, allowing one to quickly assemble a series of individual notes to allow one to improvise on a harmonic, rather than a purely melodic, level. If I'm soloing over that same C major tune and the chord after that Cmaj7 chord is E7, what should I play? What's a (relatively) easy way to think of a series of notes related to that E7 chord rather than thinking one note at a time? There are several but here's one: E mixolydian b9b13. Huh?? Again, think of how visual artists use terms like "mauve" and "fuchsia" to describe the colors they use- the term E mixolydian b9b13 is simply a way we musicians have of labeling a series of 7 notes that happens to sound a certain way (very satisfying IMO) when played against this E7 chord in this context. It may not exactly be pretty but it is a good, concise way of condensing the note series [E F G# A B C D] into a more immediately usable form. The hows and whys behind this and other particular scales and their uses is a long study but it is extremely useful to the improviser, as well as to the composer who wishes to develop and expand his or her melodic, as well as harmonic, vocabulary. Some great books that deal with the concept of chord-scale theory can be found here, here
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The best book I have come across that deals with the overall topic of jazz theory can be found here
Also i was wondering about the crazy atonal sax solo at the end of Walk on the Wild Side by the Velvet Underground. Would that be considered jazz and what the hell key is it in? sorry if this sounds noobish
It's very tonal, actually. It was played by the late jazz saxophonist Ronnie Ross. It's mainly comprised of phrases based around the Cmaj pentatonic scale (matching very nicely with the C-G-F chord progression), with some non-diatonic notes (not in the key of C major) in there as well. The non-diatonic notes are in no way random however. Ross is using the (previously discussed) concepts of chord substitution and chord scale theory in his soloing at times to spice up the flavor of his solo, substituting Fm pentatonic based lines over the G (V) and F(IV) chords. This scale choice opens up the chord tensions b9, #9, 11, b13 (or #5) and a basic b7 extension which we hear and digest in our own ways. To some it may sound bluesy, jazzy, "outside" or simply indescribably "cool" in some way. How do you get those sounds? By being able to understand what they are, how they're named, how to recognize them on paper and in your mind's eye- as well as by ear- and, ultimately, how to use them in your own arsenal. A good book that delves into how to use pentatonic scales to create cool, jazzy sounds can be found here
Say you write a song that you and your bandmates say needs a "Walk On The Wild Side"-style solo, but on guitar. The pressure is on you to do it....but how does one even attempt such a thing? A good way to start is to be able to hear the chords that are going on behind Ronnie Ross' solo, and then be able to aurally and mentally understand how his note selections create the "effect" that they do in our ears. Our "colors" in this case are the notes we call the b9, #9, 11, b13 (or #5) and b7 against the G and F chords. Want more? All of this can be done through a thorough study of intervals, chord construction and the related topics of chord substitution and chord-scale theory. Remember- the theory and sometimes bizarre terminology merely describes the sounds we hear. Some people can do all this without even attaching names and labels to all these notes and structures, but that level of musical genius I won't venture to even attempt to explain....