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A problem a lot of beginners in jazz have is that they tend to get lost in the solos (theirs and their bandmates' solos, where they accompany the soloist). Trying to follow the chord progressions with their many modulations, while thinking about their improvisation can often lose their focus and get lost in the 'chaotic' song. When the melody is being played you can follow the melody and figure out in which part of the song you are, but not so much in the solos.

What can I do when I get lost in a jazz song?

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    There's a lovely anecdote of Stéphane Grappelli looking increasingly concerned during an improvisation. When a band mate (John Etheridge) asked what was wrong Grappelli replied "What tune are we playing?" – dumbledad Feb 23 '16 at 19:00
  • When in doubt, lay out! – mkingsbu Feb 23 '16 at 19:23
  • It's usually best to just ask for directions. – Dan Feb 23 '16 at 23:28
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    This happens to me all the time on the drums when it comes to my solo. I have to keep it stupid simple to be able to count 1,2,3,4 and I think that's how you have to start. – Kolob Canyon Feb 24 '16 at 0:12
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    I tend to work on the rule that if I make a mistake then play it twice. The listeners should then think it "interesting, if a little unusual". – Transistor Jul 27 '16 at 13:40
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  • A thing some advanced musicians can do is to listen to the harmony. This will require a bit of advanced ear training, because the chords in Jazz often have many notes and use weird voicings, so a not-so-well trained ear won't be able to pick up the harmony.

  • Ask a bandmate where you are. This might sound bad to you, like you will give off a bad image to your bandmates, but it's better than playing randomly or stopping all together. We all make mistakes and it's common for a beginner to get lost, so it won't harm you to ask for help.

  • If you play with an experienced musician, his/her solo will resemble the melody. By this I don't mean that it will be slightly different than the melody, but by listening closely to the solo, you'll be able to listen to the melody and figure out where in the song you are.
  • Before you play the song, listen to it many many times, by many different musicians. This way you'll be able to remember parts of the harmony (if not the whole thing) and even if you get lost, you'll pick up a few chords and realize where you are. This differs from my first tip as such: In this case it's memory that helps you, whereas in the first one it's your ear training.
  • This one is for when you are soloing. Before you play with your bandmates, when you are practicing alone, try to think the melody over your solo; if you can sing it, even better. This way not only your solo will resemble the melody, but also you will know at all times where you are.
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    When I solo, I like to have a few "safe" notes in mind that I think I can use at almost any point. Not all songs will have good safe notes. If I get lost, I might jump to a safe note and play a bit of a "rhythm solo" while I try to find myself again. Learning to make a rhythm on a single note sound interesting is a good exercise for improving solos, also. – Todd Wilcox Feb 23 '16 at 14:06
  • This is pretty much what i tried to say in my fourth point, only with chords. You should yours as an answer as well – Shevliaskovic Feb 23 '16 at 14:17
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Counting helps a lot. If the passage is 8 bars long, two counts of 1,2,3,4. 2,2,3,4. 3,2,3,4. 4,2,3,4 will keep you together. In a well written song, it should, to a degree, tell you where you are. You should hear the cadences as they approach, and that ought to put you onto the next line , stanza, sentence, call it what you will.

EDIT: just realised I didn't actually answer the question! If playing from dots/charts, it's quite easy if you get lost to come back in at 'A', 'B' or 'C'. bandmates can tell you that and even count you in. It's easy to say talk to them - YOU can, 'cos you may well not be playing. In the middle of a solo, no-one's going to thank you for disturbing their frame of mind, and probably can't talk properly anyway!

If you're busking a piece, it needs to be from some sort of memory - as in you know the format, chord sequence, codas, etc. If you're getting lost, you shouldn't really be there in the beginning. Know the song well, maybe even have the tune proper going through in your mind. And count...

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In the moment, don't think about the mistake you just made at all. Identify the next place to jump back in, and do it.

It's all about finding a place to come back in -- the next downbeat or measure/bar, the next phrase in a new key, the next section on the chart ("A", "B", "C"). How many bars until the next verse? The next chorus? Where's the bridge? Is it time for the coda?

Before the song began, you need to have familiarized yourself with the "road map" of the chart for that song, so you know where the section divisions are, where the repeats are, where the "navigational" notations such as "Segno", "D.S. al Coda", "back to the head" and "Coda" symbols are, and how to navigate them all.

When you come back in, play confidently, not timidly. This may sound silly, but you need to try to convince the audience that you know what you are doing -- whether you think anybody is paying attention to you or not. There's a quote that's attributed to Beethoven that says something like "To play a wrong note is trivial. To play without passion is inexcusable."

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One good way to keep track of it all is to analyze the song on a more macro scale. If you look at the overall form of the song and identify the tonal centers (keys), you should be able to make a sort of road map. A lot of Jazz tunes will use II-V-I progressions to move from key to key. Instead of identifying each individual chord, you can begin to identify tonal centers and their structures. Memorizing the general motion from key to key should give you less to be remembering on the whole. This will also give you an idea of the harmonic structure of the song that you may be able to use to identify where you are when you get lost in a tune. You can basically try to determine where the I is in each tonal center and commit that placement to memory and when you get lost, you can listen for the resolution to I in a given tonal center.

This is clearly a little harder to do if you're the chordal instrument in the group or if the chordal instrument is the one taking the solo but, as others have mentioned, an experienced player will be choosing their melodic lines based on the structure of the song, so to some extent or another, you should be able to hear them resolving melodically in the same way. This of course does not account for when people play 'outside', so it's not a sure fire bet but can help to some extent.

You can also listen to the drums and try to follow their phrasing. This is a lot easier with some drummers than others, such as those that clearly spell out the downbeats with a crash cymbal or regularly fill at the end of phrases, which is a lot more common with beginners of Jazz. It becomes a lot more difficult when you're playing with 'heady' Jazz drummers. They tend to play around the beat just as often as they play within it and often place accents and fills in different places than beginners.

I would also suggest practicing soloing in specific phrases. Take 4 bars at a time and loop it up so that you can practice all sorts of different rhythms and melodic contours while trying to stay within the 4 bars. Then try to practice odd phrases against that, such as 3 bar phrases or 5 bar phrases, or maybe a 3 bar phrase followed by a 5 bar phrase, and try to keep track of where you are within that 4 bar loop. You can then expand this to 8 bars or whatever else makes sense. This should help you develop a stronger sense of time in the long term, as in overall phrases, and help you get more in touch with how the melodic and rhythmic ideas that come to you fit into these phrases. Feeling a form can end up being the same as feeling a measure. I'm sure we can all relate to early attempts at improv and not being able to stay within the measure while trying new things, so developing a strategy to feel the form can eventually lead to the same proficiency as feeling a measure.

Ultimately the easiest way to recover from getting lost in the form is to know the song really, really well, or at least the framework of it. A more advanced ear will help you locate yourself once you a more familiar with the tune. It can also be really helpful to be more familiar with the other players and their styles but that tends to be more difficult in Jazz, where a lot of Jazz gigs are just a few cats, that maybe even never met before, playing standards from the Real Book. If you know that you are more likely than the others that you're playing with to get lost, I would recommend mentioning it to them and asking that they try to give you an obvious signal of where you are in a song when you look to them with a sense of undying despair.

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Listen to the bass player - part of their job is to outline the chord changes and for many "straightahead" jazz tunes the bass will be playing a regular walking quarter-note pattern where the first note in each bar will usually be the root of the current chord. Also, the drummer will often play fills at the end of the tune's 4 or 8 bar sections.

  • Good advice. But if you're the bass player, follow the drummer. – luser droog Sep 24 '16 at 1:15
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It helps to get an intuitive feel for when 8 bars (measures), 16 bars and 32 bars have passed at given tempo. Most jazz tunes are written in AABA format, where the letter stands for the A and B themes and 8 bars. If you know where you are in the jazz piece by the number of bars that go by, if you lose the thread, you can either vamp or play long tones in the key until you get to a spot you recognized.

A key landmark is the B or "bridge" part which typically has a different chord progression from the A or even modulates to a different key.

You can start by counting bars but with enough playing you'll just know automatically.

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I find having the chord sheet in front of me a great help.

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First off I'd say DON'T sight read the song, learn it. If you really want to play Jazz, not just run through show tunes at a gig, learn it inside out. Appreciate the structure of the song as the composer intended, not just real book changes (which are often wrong). If you know the song you will not likely get lost. To that end I'd encourage my students to commit songs and changes to memory before attempting to solo over them.

There is more to jazz than just trying to "fit the right mode over each chord". Even when you know a song you can get lost for other reasons. Cycle extensions and other devices can imply more than one type of movement, and clever rhythm section players can often obfuscate the chords by not emphasizing the tonic or injecting other subtleties (not to be tricky, but to add new texture to a tune). In such cases if you forget where you are at you can go off the rails and not know when the top comes around.

My advice to help with this is simply practice with a backing track, listen to the original tune or a good version of the tune, and follow. Don't be a passive listener (which is how we come to love music) but an analyst. Keep track of where you are at all times. When listening to recordings try to predict when the top of the head comes back, especially on extended 20min long solos. This will help you become more familiar with the tune.

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