INTERVIEW: Ariel J Ramos (The Jazz Standards Progressions Book and mDecks.com)

Jazz Standards Progressions Book
Publicity Photo Front Cover

“Without music, life would be a mistake.” US musicians Ariel J Ramos and Mario Cerra quote Nietzsche on their educational website, mDecks.com. The two have developed The Jazz Standards Progressions Book, with chords, scales and analyses of over 1000 tunes. (Available in Concert, Bb and Eb versions, as PDFs or paperbacks). Alison Bentley emailed Ariel. 

LondonJazz News: Can you tell us about your musical background?

Ariel J Ramos: We both went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. Mario graduated with a degree in performance (saxophone) and I have a degree in Film Scoring. We have always loved and played jazz. I have written music for independent films, TV, chamber music and jazz ensembles, while Mario has concentrated more on performing. I think our different points of view, mine being more harmonic and Mario’s more melodic, was a great combination when we analyzed the jazz standards.

LJN How did the mDecks organisation come about?

AJR: mDecks was founded in 2008. I had been teaching music for many years at the time, and had developed a few “tricks” and methods to teach harmony and improvisation which were really effective when trying to explain some of the concepts; such as a map to explain harmony and graphing scales over the circle of fifths to explain modes and upper structure triads. Since I had studied computer science before becoming a full-time musician, I thought it would be a great idea to turn those methods into apps and books that other teachers and students could use.

LJN: How did you choose which tunes to include?

AJR: Since we used our Mapping Tonal Harmony app as a tool to create the analyses, we were limited to tonal progressions, although we expanded the options of chords and chord-scales quite a lot to fit all the borrowing from other modes that occur in a jazz tune. We took the harmonic concepts represented in the map as far as possible to allow the analyses of many tunes that try to escape the boundaries of tonality. A typical example would be the use of a 1 7 as a tonic, which you see in blues progressions all the time. We chose the tunes based on the Real Book volumes.

LJN: What level of jazz musicians are the books aimed at? Could a beginner use them?

AJR: These are books for intermediate to advanced players who are used to reading from a lead sheet, understand chord changes and have played quite a few jazz tunes. Also, a beginner might immediately interpret the chord-scales included in the analyses as something they must play when improvising, which is not at all the intention of having them included in the analysis. An advanced jazz player will know these (the chord-scales) are extensions of the chord symbols, indicating the amount of tension created by the different notes based on the current harmonic function.

LJN: You demonstrate ideas on piano in your YouTube videos. Can other instrumentalists use the books too?

AJR: Mainly because I am a piano player, but any instrumentalist can benefit from the analyses. Even arrangers and composers will find them extremely useful. I think it is crucial to understand and hear harmony from a functional perspective. In tonality, every chord implies a harmonic function. This creates a certain amount of tension, and tendencies which are best understood when we analyze the chord in relationship to the key of the moment.

LJN: I like the way you have everything together on the same page! Can you explain a bit about how you’ve done that? (I imagine visual learners would find your graphics especially helpful.)

AJR: We created the analyses using the map in Mapping Tonal Harmony Pro, which organizes the entire set of harmonic functions based on fundamental harmonic rules. Using the app you can input the chords, from the map, as functions (not as chord symbols.) Every function is associated with a chord and a chord-scale. You have to decide which function best represents a chord. The app then creates the chart, finding important cadences and bass-lines that are essential in a well-constructed harmonic progression. All these cadences are represented by the standard arrows and brackets symbolism used in many jazz harmony books. Yes, symbols are a great device to see right away what’s going on in a progression.

LJN: You’ve also brought out the Jazz Standards Progressions Book Reharmonised. Could you tell us how you’ve done that?

AJR: The re-harmonizations were created using standard re-harmonization techniques, such as substitutions, borrowing from minor, interpolating secondary functions, etc. The re-harmonizations are mostly a way of offering the player an alternative version of a standard that derives from the original, works harmonically and at the same time gives the player the opportunity to play the same standards using a fresh harmonic progression.

LJN: In your videos you recommend we “consider the melody as much as you can.” Do you have any plans to bring the books out with melodies included?

AJR: We would love to include the melodies but it is really hard (not to mention costly) to get the rights from the proper copyright owners. Hopefully, in the future, we might be able to afford it. In the videos we mention melodies, because when creating the analyses we were always considering what the melody was doing, to decide which was the best functional analysis.

LJN: The charts also come as XML files to be imported into your Mapping Tonal Harmony Pro app and can be used as backing tracks. Is the app part of the package or bought separately?

AJR: The app is independent from the book. Users of the app can just get the XML files, which include all the same Jazz Standards, and then view them and play them from within the app, without the need to have the PDF version of the book. Of course, loading the XML files into Mapping Tonal Harmony gives the user the chance to interact with the analyses using all the features included in the app, from the play along, to the voicings panel, the map, etc.

LJN: Your apps are for iPad and Macs but I only have Windows and Android! Can I adapt them?

AJR: At the moment the apps ore only for macOS and iOS, but we are working on the Android and Windows versions of the apps. (pp)

LINK: The Jazz Standards Progressions Book and the apps are available at mDecks.com

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