Every jazz vocalist and every instrumentalist that works with a jazz vocalist needs to know how to start the song. Having a collection of vocal jazz introductions at the ready will help you to keep the set moving and improve your performance.
What is an introduction for?
An introduction serves several purposes. First off, an introduction helps to set up the time and groove. After the count-off (check out my video on how to effectively count off the jazz band), the band plays for 4, 8 or even 16 measures to establish the groove and the tempo. This not only gives the rhythm section a chance to “warm up,” but it also gets the singer warmed up to join in the music making. The introduction also sets up the key center of the song. This helps the band, the vocalist and even the audience to get centered in a key area. Lastly, the introduction sets up the emotional feeling of the song.
A good introduction will:
- Clearly set up the tempo and groove
- Provide the singer with the key center and/or their first pitch
- Set up the right mood of the piece
- BONUS POINTS if the introduction is extra creative or somehow unexpected
- What is the first chord of the song? The first chord of the song matters a lot, because it will help us to determine the harmonic structure of the introduction. If the song is in the key of C, and the first chord is a Cma7, then we only only need to make sure our introduction ends in a G7 chord, since that would be the V7 chord. If the song starts on an Fma7, then the G7 wouldn’t work for us.
- How long do we want the intro to be? Generally speaking, 15-30 seconds is a reasonable amount of time for an introduction. (We don’t want to keep our audience waiting too long for the vocals to come in!) Make sure to take into consideration the tempo of the song: for a very slow ballad, 4 bars will be long enough, but an up tempo swing tune might require 8 or even 16 bars.
The Importance of Listening
In order to develop a repertoire of introductions, it is imperative to listen to as much quality vocal jazz as possible so you can hear what the great masters play. The larger collection of introductions you have, the faster you’ll be able to pull out ideas at jam sessions or performances.
To get started, I have made a comprehensive list of the most often used introductions in jazz. I hope this provides you with a great starting place while you develop your arsenal of introductions. Once you have these ones down, you can certainly use your creativity to try different ideas.
The Most Often Used Jazz Introductions
- The Last 4 Bars or 8 Bars
Using the last 4 or 8 bars of the song is by far the easiest vocal jazz introduction to play and is usually quite satisfying. Since it includes the turnaround at the end of the song, it will contain the correct harmonic material to land on the first chord of the piece. You might choose the last 4 bars for a ballad, while 8 bars might be better for a faster tempo.
2. Pedal 5
This introduction works great for both ballads and faster tempos. All you have to do is pedal the 5 of the key in the bass (or the left hand of the piano) and move between the 1 chord and V7 sus.
This is a fast and easy introduction that quickly establishes the key center. This introduction works best if the first chord of the song is the 1 chord.
This intro serves a very similar purpose to that of the 1-6-2-5, and can be used in exactly the same way that the 1-6-2-5 can. Version 3 is the brightest version of the progression, since it exclusively uses dominant chords. Version 1 is the least bright. Once again, you can choose whichever one best suits the piece.
5. Composed Introduction
There are some songs that come with their own composed introductions. Think of the intro of Take The A Train, or the Miles Davis version of If I Were a Bell. You can also compose your own introduction for a song, which should be notated in the chart.
6. Just Drums
This is one of my favorite vocal jazz introductions because it is unexpected and a great way to really bring the groove to the forefront of a piece. If you are choosing this introduction, it is really important that you get your first note before the song starts!
7. Just Bass
This is my other favorite vocal jazz introduction, as it creates a really intimate space for the song and can really highlight both the bass and the voice in a really unique way. Make sure you practice singing along with just bass, as it can be much harder to find pitches without the help of a chordal instrument.
8. Bell Tone
The bell tone is a dramatic way to start a piece. The pianist plays the first note of the piece in octaves in the high range of the piano, like a bell ringing. You can also have the pianist play the 5th of the key center in the same way.
9. Rubato Verse
Some Great American Songbook songs have terrific verses that are perfect to use as introductions to their respective songs. The Gershwin song But Not For Me is a great example of this. People frequently sing the verse rubato (out of time), then go right into the main portion of the song in time.
Listen and Learn
Now that you have learned each of the introductions, you can start to put this material to work. Choose one of the songs in your repertoire and try out each of the introductions.
As with everything in jazz, it is always a necessity to go back to the source and listen to the great masters. You will learn so much by listening to Tommy Flanagan with Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Tucker with Billie Holliday, Bill Miller with Frank Sinatra or Oscar Peterson with Sarah Vaughan. There are a lot of great ideas for introductions to be gleaned from instrumental recordings too.
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