Tempos range greatly, from ballads where a chorus lasts for two minutes to a fast twelve-bar blues where a chorus is over before twenty seconds have passed. In this article, however, we will focus on slow tempos - ballads, of course - and include some information about timing and chords in the mix.
Chances are that, if you're a jazz musician - or even if you've played 1970s-1990s pop music - that you've played a ballad before. For those reading this article who are jazz fans, you've probably listened to a ballad before, either by listening to a band play one live or by hearing one on a recording. They offer plenty of opportunities for phrasing and offer plenty of space to improvise over but can also be difficult to play: ballads are usually so slow that getting lost in all the space becomes easy. There are a few things that musicians do to get around this problem, if possible:
1. Mostly, ballads have plenty of chord changes. The chord changes are often placed at regular intervals, like a chord every two beats, so you can use the chord changes as signposts to tell you where you are in the song. However, this isn't so simple if the pianist, who is playing accompaniment, does not play the chord change every two beats. Also, some tunes have chord patterns that come at faster intervals, and these are important elements of the ballad and should be kept but you could confuse the soloist. An example of this is a ballad called "Darn that Dream". Here are the Real Book chords in the second and third measures of that ballad:
Measure 2 | Measure 3
| Amin7 B7 | Emin7 Emin7/D A7/C# Cmin6 |
Notice how there are two chords in the second measure of this song; these chords last for two beats each, so they would work as straightforward signposts for a solo instrument. However, the third measure contains four chords, each lasting one beat; the chord's intervals have changed from once every two beats in the second measure to once every beat in the third measure. Those four chords in the third measure of the song form an excellent chord progression for soloists; the progression is created by the rhythm section.
In situations like the third measure of "Darn that Dream" as described above, especially if you are improvising, you will need to be very careful that you do not play those chords as if they are this:
| Amin7 B7 | Emin7 Emin7/D | A7/C# Cmin6 |
If you turned those two measures into three measures like the immediately above diagram shows, then you as the soloist would put yourself one measure behind the rest of the group.
2. But there's another solution, which is arguably a better one. It's called double-time feel and basically means that the soloist plays the tune and improvises as if the tune were a slow ballad but the rhythm section plays as if the tune was twice as fast. The recording of "Tenderly" by Clifford Brown is an excellent example of this:
During the first half of this recording, all of the band plays the tune at the tune at the normal tempo, but about two minutes and thirty seconds into the song, the drummer (Max Roach) starts to play at twice the ordinary tempo. But the rest of the band continues as if nothing has changed. That's because, really, not much has changed. Keep in mind that we're talking about playing with double-time feel, not double-time. There's a difference. If Brown's band went into double time, the rate of the chords would double: where four chords were previously spread across two measures they are now squeezed into one to fit the doubled tempo. But, in the recording shown above, everyone except Max Roach is actually still playing at the slow tempo, so the chords come at the same rate. However, the drums' increased rate makes it easier for the other musicians to know where they are on a chord: you can easily get lost when the drummer is playing slowly, but when the drummer plays faster, like in double-time feel, it is easier for the rest of the band to follow the chord changes.
3. There is one more option, however, and this is not as desperate a solution as it sounds at first: if you're on a really nice ballad, stick closely to the ballad and only play a little improvisation. This is called embellishment. A good example of embellishment is when Charlie Parker played a ballad called "The Gypsy" (shown below):
Unfortunately, Parker's near-death condition at the time of this recording made much serious improvisation impossible for him, but sticking closely to the melody actually worked well and this recording was after its release regarded as one of Parker's great ballad pieces.
Basically, there is little need to worry about keeping time when you're playing or improvising on a ballad if you use one or more of these "tricks". And don't feel guilty that you're resorting to these - Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker did the same things and we've provided the evidence!
For listeners, you now have the opportunity to identify when a ballad goes into double-time feel, or when a soloist is embellishing on the chords. It should help you understand more about ballads and how musicians play them.