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Some Notes for the New Improviser
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When asked ‘what is jazz?’, Louis Armstrong is reported to have replied ‘if you’ve got to ask, you’ll never know’.   Nobody is going to argue with Louis, but Mark Levine (the pianist and educator) suggests that the ‘voodoo’, if there is any, is in the 1% inspiration that makes a great performer as opposed to the 99% component, which can be learnt.   We think that you will find these notes valuable in developing your improvising skills.

The text and musical notation of this article is © Jazzorg Ltd. 2005, except where the copyright is acknowledged elsewhere.   Copies of these notes may be downloaded at [this link] , subject to the Jazzorg Licence 2, described under the 'Copyright' menu tab.       You can discuss or comment on this item in the forums.




Introduction.   [TOP]

Improvisation is basically composition ‘in performance’ within a harmonic and rhythmic (and probably ‘style’) framework, agreed with your fellow participants.   Like all composition, it requires attention to melody, harmony, rhythm and rests (don’t forget the rests).   Because of its ‘on the hoof’ nature, unlike most art forms, it exposes the composer’s instant creativity (as well as his/her performance) to analysis, with no chance to ‘perfect’ it before delivery.   As a result, it takes a bit of courage to participate.

The following notes summarise some of factors in improvising.   As a summary, it is necessarily incomplete and occasionally imprecise.   The notes may introduce some new terms and ideas to you, which you find a bit mystifying.   But remember, in reality, the suggestions are only different ways to organise your thoughts for improvisation.   In the end it is still the same old 12 notes.

'Western' Music.   [TOP]

Firstly, let’s take a quick overview of ‘Western’ music.   ‘Western’ music, that is the musical evolution in Europe and North America, as opposed to Chinese or Indian or other ‘non-western’ areas, has a few fundamental ingredients.   It is conventionally built on ‘major’ and ‘minor’ scales and on a harmony framework (chords) constructed by stacking notes on top of each other in ‘intervals’ of major and/or minor 3rds (an interval is the ‘distance’ between the notes).   The basic three-note chord is called a triad but, in practice, a 4th note (major or minor 3rd above) is frequently added, with the option of further additions, on top of the stack.   The bottom note of the chord is called the ‘root’ and example chords, with C as the root, are shown in Fig. 1, together with their most common description in jazz notation.   (There are, notionally, some 60 chords for each note as a root but a few of the chords are seldom used).

Our music is also key-based and we have been subjected to so much exposure, in the west, to key-based harmony that the listener is aware of some ‘home’ note or harmony, which will release musical tension (usually an arrival at the ‘tonic’).   As a result, all of us can sing a major scale but we find the music of China and India unfamiliar and frequently unsatisfying.

When the harmony chord is built using the notes of one particular key, the chord is described as diatonic to that key and Fig. 2 shows the diatonic, 4-note chords for the key of C major.   Under each chord is the common jazz description for each chord.   The chords built on each degree of the scale, as the root, are given Roman Numerals (C=I, D=II, E=III, F=IV etc) and, thus, the chord Dm7 is the II chord of the key of C and G7 is the V chord of the key of C.   Playing any of the diatonic chords in any order will make the listener vaguely aware of the key of C but will also hint at the nearby keys of F and G.


However, there are 2 particular sequences, known as ‘cadences’, which define the key for the listener and, when these cadences are played, the listener is strongly aware of their approach to the ‘tonic’ I chord.   These 2 sequences are IV-V (Fmaj7 – G7) or, more usually for the jazz player, II-V (Dm7 – G7), since the II chord is very similar to the IV chord.   These cadences, followed by the I chord, are ubiquitous in our music and awareness of them is a useful part of the improviser’s tool-bag.   (When the improviser sees the pattern II-V-I in any key (e.g. Cm7 – F7 – Bb or Fm7 – Bb7 – Eb) he/she knows that the improvisation over that sequence can use the notes of the tonic key.   More of that, later).

Structuring the underlying harmony based on a stack of major and/or minor 3rds creates what we regard as a concordant sound.   When we play a note coincidentally with that harmony we are playing an ‘interval’ between our note and the constituent notes of the underlying harmony.   We could stick to diatonic intervals but melody and harmony played only on diatonic notes would be an unnecessary restriction and composers add ‘colour’ to their pieces by the introduction of non-diatonic (‘chromatic’) notes and harmonies.   Thus, in addition to the diatonic intervals, we have chromatic intervals and the set, with the note C as the reference, is shown in Fig. 3.   The enharmonic intervals (i.e. sounding the same but described differently are not shown).   Intervals which span more than an octave, are sometimes described as ‘compound’ intervals (e.g. C to D plus an octave is called a ‘compound 2nd’) but the more popular jazz descriptions are shown (e.g. C to D plus an octave is called a ‘9th’).   These compound intervals are described using jazz vernacular, which tends to omit ‘major’, ‘minor’, ‘diminished’ etc.


When we improvise, we generate a succession of these intervals related to the notes in the underlying harmony.   We want these intervals to be ‘consonant’ (i.e. sound ‘good’) or, when they sound ‘dissonant’ (i.e. ‘clash’ with the underlying harmony), to be at least something over which we have some control.   Before we look at that more closely, let’s just review the ‘framework’ in which we will be playing our jazz.

The Performance Format.  [TOP]

Historically, the format for playing jazz has been an ensemble rendition of a tune (sometimes called the ‘head’ and usually recognisable by the audience) followed by improvisations (solos) on the melody and harmonies of the tune by some (all) members of the band.   At the end of the solos, the ensemble tune is repeated to finish.   Like a lot of jazz terms, ‘head’ has had different meanings (don’t even ask about ‘jelly-roll’ and ‘hot-tomato’) and was originally short for a ‘head-arrangement’ – one that was conceived in the heads of the participants and not written down.   A lot of early bebop was recorded as ‘head arrangements’ and much has entered the jazz repertoire by patient transcription of the recordings.

The basic tunes give rise to the harmonic pattern, which may occupy 12 bars for a ‘12-bar blues’ or 32 bars for a ‘standard’.   (A ‘standard’ is a tune so popular and frequently played that ‘everybody’ knows it.   A standard usually comprises two 8-bar melodies (A&B) which are played in the sequence AABA with B being known as the ‘middle eight’, ‘bridge’ or ‘release’).   Tunes of other harmonic lengths are not excluded, of course.   A complete statement of the underlying harmonic pattern is called a ‘chorus’ (e.g. 12 bars or 32 bars) and a soloist will improvise one or more ‘choruses’.   The harmony pattern will have built-in cadences at the end of a chorus to return the soloist/band to the start of the harmony and these are known as ‘turn-arounds’; often some variant of the II-V-I sequence.

Sometimes the choruses will be broken up by soloists playing 4 bars (or 2 or 8 etc) followed by another soloist, so that the harmonic pattern is completed in these increments.   This is particularly popular when it is the drummer’s turn to solo, in that each melodic soloist swaps 4 bars (colloquially ‘trading 4’s’) with the drummer.   (Even though the accompaniment often stops during the drummer’s solo, the harmony is deemed to have moved the appropriate number of bars so that the next soloist must pick up at the right point in the harmony).   These presentation deviations will be pre-agreed or may be communicated on the bandstand, so it is useful for participants to pay attention.

Accompaniment to the solos is generally left to the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums and maybe guitar), who lay down the beat and the harmony.   Occasionally, however, the band might support the soloist with a written or agreed ‘backing figure’ or they might play a repeated melodic ‘motif’ (known as a ‘riff’) which drives the soloist both rhythmically and harmonically.

The above loose performance format is pretty much the same now as it ever was.

What do I do for a solo?   [TOP]

In early jazz, the improvisations might merely be embellishing the tune (with emphasis on ‘syncopation’) and a few arpeggios on the underlying chords for good measure.   Early on, however, the practitioners had also recognised the harmonic possibilities of the ‘blue notes’ in a scale (the ‘blue notes’ are the flattened 3rd, flattened 5th and flattened 7th).   The passage of time brought increased technical facility, more sophisticated harmonies and rhythms and the jazz educators.   Dwarfing the problems of rhythm and rests, the minefield of ‘what notes to play’ is what consumes the aspiring improviser.

The improviser can:

  • Solo ‘by ear’ either knowing the chords or listening to the harmony (only recommended if you’re good at it – not many people are).
  • Know the harmony and the embellishments that can be applied to the chords in the harmony
  • Know a selection of scales related to the harmony, which can provide a pool of notes.

The jazz educators decided that the best way to teach jazz improvisation was by reference to scale options available against an underlying harmony (Option 3).   However, according to ‘Bird’, who said ‘learn the changes, then forget them’, the target is to be good at option 1)!   And in the end, it is probably technical mastery of your instrument and the ability to ‘hear and play’.   We can regard option 3, therefore, as the route to the nirvana of ‘Birdland’.

So, what’s your current position? There you are, you’ve just played the ‘head’, hoping the band leader didn’t notice a couple of bum notes in your reading and it’s your turn to solo.   You stand up and what do you do? – you ‘flannel’ (OED: ‘hot air’, ‘nonsense’).   You generate a flurry of notes searching for some that fit what the rhythm section is playing.   When you find them you play them louder until you discover that the rhythm section have moved on and your contribution is now dissonant; this triggers another flurry and search.   You have a go at hinting at the ‘head’, throw in a snippet of ‘Summertime’ which always fits a minor chord and then treat the audience to the ‘lick’ (a pre-practised ‘difficult’ phrase) that you’ve been working on for 4 weeks.   You sit down, grateful that the ordeal is over until your next attempt to ‘do it by ear’.   Everyone ‘flannels’ at some point in their career; some semi-pros have been doing it for years, banking on braggadocio rather than consonance.   Don’t worry about it, you’ve just constructed a solo and, although you won’t make a living out of it, it’s your own artistic work made with the tools you have available.   All your musical friends will applaud your courage if not your expertise and many in the audience won’t have noticed.

O.K., but what notes could you have played?   According to Band Leader Ed Harvey, the ABRSM writer, arranger and educator, any one you choose.   A tempting doctrine, but one that is fraught with pitfalls.   The problem is that the listener (and the player) will soon get bored with too much dissonance so some of the notes might have to be used sparingly.

Let’s have another look at Fig. 3, which shows us the intervals relative to C.   If the note C is in the underlying harmony, and we play any one (or more) of C and the 11 other possible notes in any octave, we are playing one of the intervals shown in Fig. 3.   The good news is that there is only one interval that ‘western’ ears find discordant and that is the ‘minor 9th’.   (Whenever you hear a discord in your band, it’s 95% sure someone is playing an unscheduled minor 9th interval with another instrument).   So, against our harmony containing the note C, to be concordant we can play any note we like, as long as it isn't the Db an octave and a semitone above.   Applying the same logic to the notes E and G, if they were in the harmony, we would avoid playing F and Ab respectively.   The notes C, E and G make up the triadic chord C maj so if we see that chord in the harmony we’d have to remember that we can play any notes except Db, F and Ab (leaving C, D, Eb, E, Gb, G, A, Bb, and B).

Let’s look at the II chord in the scale of C; remember it was Dm7 comprising the notes D, F, A and C.   Avoiding minor 9ths in this harmony means that we can’t play Eb, Gb, Bb and Db (leaving the notes C, D, E, F, G, Ab, A, B).   Before your eyes blur over, let’s just do the same thing with the V chord of C i.e. G7 comprising G, B, D and F.   Omitting the minor 9ths against this chord gives us available notes of Db, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, B.   (There is a pattern beginning to emerge here but, for the moment, just be aware of it.   For example, you may have noticed that the 5 tones G, A, B, D, E are ‘permitted’ notes on all the 3 chords and we could also use the scale of C major on all 3, if we are careful with C and F).

Having painted the minor 9th interval as the only joker in the pack, however, there are situations where even that interval is harmonically acceptable.   One nice exception is the dominant 7th chord, where the harmonic content of the sound permits a minor 9th on the root.   So we can add Ab to our available notes against a G7 chord.   (In general, in any chord the 2 most important constituents are the 3rd and the 7th and these don’t respond easily to having a minor 9th placed on top of them).

But there is even more relief in that a discord depends on where you put the dissonant note in a bar.   Ray Brown, bass player to Oscar Peterson among others, had a view that a ‘bum note’ was only an ‘accidental’ in the wrong place.   It is useful that a chromatic or discordant note on a weak beat in the bar (usually 2 or 4 or the ‘and’ beats) or perhaps used as a ‘passing note’ between 2 concordant notes can pass the listener by without too much disturbance.   Also, if the player generates a repeated motif, at different pitches, then the listener will begin to ignore the harmony and listen for the motif, permitting the player to play ‘outside the chords’ (a common jazz device).   Again, the player could hold a discord across the harmony waiting for following chords to render it concordant (like a ‘suspension’).   So there are situations where you can use any of the potential discords as long as you put them in the ‘right place'.

As an aside, before we leave the subject of dissonance, it is worthwhile mentioning that some authorities regard the minor 9th interval as ‘hard dissonance’ and characterise other ‘dissonant intervals’, such as the minor 2nd and major 7th, as ‘soft dissonance’.   However, the minor 2nd and major 7th are so widespread in jazz that to classify them as ‘dissonances to be avoided’, would be unnecessarily severe.   Some mixes of ‘soft dissonances’ e.g. two major 7ths in one chord (Cmaj7#9), might offend your ear, but the choice is yours – remember dissonance is great for building musical ‘tension’.

Scale Selection.   [TOP]

Looking at the previous section, it looks as if Ed Harvey is right; we can play any interval with just maybe a bit of extra care in some places.   But it would be useful if we tyros could ‘know’ the right notes before we have to consider making sure that the dissonant notes are in the appropriate places.

We could remember all those permitted tones for a particular chord as one pool of consonant notes.   Alternatively, we could learn that, for example, seeing a minor 7th chord meant that we could play any note of the scale starting a tone below the root with the addition of the flattened 6th (see Dm7 above).   There are maybe other ways that we can commit the options to memory but the jazz educators came up with the idea of developing scales and applying modes to enable us to link the harmony chord with a pool of available notes for improvisation.   In effect, you can forget the ‘obscure’ explanations given above as to ‘why’ you choose some notes and not others and just concentrate on the following scales and modes!

Why scales and modes? Well, firstly, it is a method where a selection of notes are related to the root of the chord and its ‘description’ (e.g. Cm7) and, like major or minor scales, can be ‘drilled’, thus minimising the instantaneous thought process in improvising.   (Bad news, these scales and modes get added to your scale practice).   Secondly, the various scales and modes contribute a musical ‘flavour’ to the improvisation, like a major or minor key does.   Thirdly, it works better, they say, to relate chords to scales rather than ‘harmony'.

Let's remind ourselves of the permitted notes of our sample chords:

Cmaj permitted notes: C   D Eb E   Gb G   A Bb B
Dm7 permitted notes: C   D   E F   G Ab A   B
G7 permitted notes:   Db D Eb E F   G Ab A Bb B

Examples of some of the scales devised to cover these chords are shown below and the notes which require care in emphasis or placement are shown shaded.   The notated examples of some possible C scales are shown in Fig. 4.   Note that the example scales are not exhaustive; there are other options and a more complete list is shown in Fig. 5, using C-root chords as examples.

Cmaj scale options:

Cmaj permitted notes: C   D Eb E   Gb G   A Bb B
Major Scale (Ionian Mode): C   D   E F   G   A   B
Major Pentatonic scale: C   D   E     G   A    
(Minor) Blues Scale: C     Eb   F Gb G     Bb  
Lydian Mode: C   D   E   Gb G   A   B

Dm7 scale options:

Dm7 permitted notes: D   E F   G Ab A   B   C
Dorian Mode: D   E F   G   A   B   C
(Minor) Blues Scale: D     F   G Ab A       C

G7 scale options:

G7 permitted notes: G Ab A Bb B   Db D Eb E F  
Mixolydian Mode: G   A   B C   D   E F  
(Minor) Blues Scale: G     Bb   C Db D     F  
Diminished Scale (H)
Starting on Half-Tone
G Ab   Bb B   Db D   E F  
Major Pentatonic: G   A   B     D   E    


The Pentatonic scale, surprisingly so-called because it has 5 notes, gives an open, spacy feel to a solo but is restrictive in its note choice (‘Auld Lang Syne’ is pentatonic).   The modes provide their characteristic sounds (‘simple and solemn’ for dorian and ‘soft and effeminate’ for lydian according to the OED, but what do they know.   The dorian ‘What Shall We do With a Drunken Sailor?’ is hardly solemn).   The (Minor) Blues does just what it says on the tin and is very accommodating of the emphasis of its shaded note.   The ‘minor’ is in brackets because some authorities only recognise one blues scale (the ‘minor’) but some separate 2 scales into major and minor.   The Diminished Scale (H), starting on Half-Tone, has a bebop feel.   The selection of notes from the scales/modes do not have to be played either beginning on their root or sequentially (as, indeed, a ‘normal’ scale doesn’t); the scales and modes represent a ‘pool of notes'.

You might have observed that the three ‘modes’ shown in the options are all the scale of C major but starting on different notes.   What imposes the modal or scale ‘flavour’ is the playing of tones from that scale over the underlying chord.   A melody in the scale repeatedly using all the tones in a mode and, preferably, starting and ending on the modal root, would also give a modal flavour, without the underlying chord.

The example chords shown above give some scale options when confronted by the chords Cmaj, Dm7 and G7.   These chords also constitute a II-V-I in the key of C major, permitting that scale to be played over the 3 chords but remembering to take care with the shaded notes.   This is exactly what you do if you select the notes from the ionian, dorian and mixolydian modes for your improvisation.

But what about the other chords and keys? Well, first let’s consider all those chords on C as the root, shown in Fig. 1, (the chords become more complex from left to right, in the illustration).   Fortunately, in many tunes, the pianist will be playing only the first couple, or so, of the chords shown in each group, unless specifically instructed to include the more complex structures in the harmonies.   He may voluntarily add some other notes to a chord, such as 9ths and 13ths but he should also be listening to the soloists and responding to their scale choices.   Keeping the harmonic accompaniment to the simpler chords allows the soloist to add all the rich embellishments from a scale that he chooses.   (The wealth of alterations available on a dominant 7th chord makes that one of the improviser’s favourite chords).   So, if the chords are kept simple, we might get away with learning a couple of modes and the pentatonics.

However, chords like Calt have changes built into them so you’ll need to know what scales are available for chords like that.   Unfortunately, we do have to cover all the options (see Fig. 5) if our skill is to developed as far as possible.   Additionally, we have the problem of that ‘throw-away’ line, beloved of all music educators.   ‘Now learn the above in all 12 keys’.   Not good news if you have a day-job, run a home and family or are doing your A-levels.   Maybe you can get away without the most obscure scales but, in addition to your major and minor scales practice, you ought to consider adding the Dorian, Mixolydian and Lydian modes plus the (Minor) Blues and Diminished (H) starting on Half-tone scales to enable you to handle a selection of chords (sorry about that).

Learning modes and scales in all keys does present a challenge of a similar magnitude to learning major and minor scales.   Is it necessary to do them all? Well, the more you do, on more roots, the better.   The ABRSM, in its Course work, consider that a Grade 5 Jazz student should know the following scales and modes in the keys shown.

Major (Ionian) Minor Major Pentatonic Minor Pentatonic b3 Pentatonic Dorian Mixolydian Lydian Blues Chromatic
C, F, G, Bb, D, E, Eb, A, Ab C, F, G, D, A, F# C, F, G, Bb, D, Eb, C, G, D, E, A, B C, G,(This scale only used for grade 1-2) C, F, G, D, E, A, B C, F, G, Bb, D, E, A, C, F, G, Bb, D, Eb, Ab C, F, G, Bb, D, E, F#, A, C, D, Ab

Fig. 5. Scale Options for Chords.   [TOP]

Typical Chord ScaleDegree Scale or Mode Options
Don’t let the classical-sounding names put you off. They are just handy names for a group of notes.
Scale Intervals
(W = Whole Tone, H = Half Tone, b3 = Minor 3rd)
Scale Tones On C
I Ionian or
Lydian (usually when acting as IV)
Major Pentatonic
Cmaj #4
I Lydian (usually when acting as IV)
Major Pentatonic
Cmaj #5 I Lydian Augmented
(3rd Mode Melodic Minor)
W-W-W-W-H-W-H C-D-E-F#-G#-A-B-C
Cm maj7 I 1st Mode Melodic Minor
Minor Pentatonic
Diminished (W) starting on a Whole Step
Harmonic Minor

Cm b6 I Aeolian
Minor Pentatonic
Cm7 II Dorian
Minor Pentatonic
  III Phrygian (not usual, mainly only as III in III-VI-II-V)
Minor Pentatonic


  VI Aeolian (not usual, mainly only as VI in III-VI-II-V)
Minor Pentatonic


Co V Diminished (W) starting on a Whole Step W-H-W-H-W-H-W-H C-D-Eb-F-F#-Ab-A-B-C
C7 #9
V Diminished (H) starting on a Half Step H-W-H-W-H-W-H-W C-Db-Eb-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C
C7 alt V Diminished Whole Tone
(7th Mode Melodic Minor)
H-W-H-W-W-W-W C-Db-Eb-E-F#-G#-Bb-C
C7 V Mixolydian
Diminished (H) starting on a Half Step
Lydian Dominant


C7 #11
(#4, b5)
V Lydian Dominant
(4th Mode Melodic Minor)
W-W-W-H-W-H-W C-D-E-F#-G-A-Bb-C
Csus V Mixolydian W-W-H-W-W-H-W C-D-E-F-G-A-Bb-C
Csus b9 V 2nd Mode Melodic Minor H-W-W-W-W-H-W C-Db-Eb-F-G-A-Bb-C
(C7 #5)
V Whole Tone W-W-W-W-W-W C-D-E-F#-G#-Bb-C
Cm7b5 VII ‘Half Diminished’ or Locrian
Locrian #2 (6th Mode Melodic Minor)

A Closer Look at a Solo.   [TOP]

So back to ‘what do I do for a solo’.   Is it a little run up the Dorian mode when I see a minor 7th, adding a pinch of mixolydian and a half-bar of half–tone diminished, when I see a dominant 7th? Well, yes, if it works, but probably not.   Certainly Louis and Bird didn’t do it that way.   The scales and modes pertaining to a chord are giving you a pool of notes to fashion your solo.   As your technical facility increases, you will be able to ‘hear’ the modes/scales and move through them in an interesting way perhaps linking them to a following chord by a common tone or a ‘lick’ (qv) or familiar motif or some other way.   Because you are ‘composing’, you can use any of the widespread composition tricks.   Even the best composers weren’t averse to borrowing a phrase, to ‘keep the rhythm and change the pitches’ or ‘keep the pitches and change the rhythm’ or ‘turn a melody upside down’ or ‘work lots of variations on one theme’.   (The development of a theme is an important constituent to give ‘structure’ to your solo, so that it has a ‘beginning’, a ‘middle’ and an ‘end’).   Also, you will accumulate a stock of remembered phrases, which help you, in performance, to link melodic ideas.   (Not all jazz is instantaneously created).   All this comes later; at the moment your first job is to fashion a solo in which all (or most) of the notes are ‘right'.

Let’s look at Fig. 10, the lead-sheet of ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’.   A popular and well-known ‘standard’ built on the 32-bar AABA format and written in F (concert) - a nice, simple key, you’d think.   The tune is written out twice, bars 1-32 are ‘straight’, as read in a ‘Real’ Book (see paragraph on ‘Repertoire’) and bars 33-64 are how a jazz rendition might be phrased.   Bars 65-96 are an annotated improvisation, within a relatively small compass.   Since the written solo and your solo would be related to the harmony, let’s examine the harmonic pattern of the tune....

Bar 1 is a tonic major chord bar (the triangle is sometimes used to indicate ‘major’) and the pianist could select any chord from the tonic major group in Fig. 1 (in F, of course!).   (If he uses a maj7 or 9th, he’ll try and ensure it doesn’t interfere with any solo).   Bar 2 has a D7b9, which is the dominant (V) of the key of G minor so the ear next expects a G minor chord.   This chord is duly supplied in Bar 3 but with a minor 7th (rather than the expected minor ‘tonic’ chord), which hints at a return to the key of F.   Bar 4 confirms the return to F with a C7 (the good old II-V heading for a I) and, just when you are expecting the Fmaj, the composer interrupts the cadence with an Am7-Dm7-Gm7-C7 sequence in bars 5-8.   The sequence in bars 5-8 is the ‘well-known’ III-VI-II-V ‘interrupted cadence’, where Am7 and Dm7, which are very similar to the F maj, replace the expected F chord.   Our old friend, the II-V turn-around in bars 7-8, returns us to the tonic in bar 1.

The first 6 bars are repeated but at bars 15 and 16 a key change takes place in a II-V, which, sure enough, is confirmed with the I at bar 17; we’re now in Bb major!   But don’t get too comfortable, a II-V at bar 18 puts us in the key of Gb major, confirmed at bar 19 and then the roller coaster hits us with another II-V at bar 20 putting us in the key of D major (confirmed by the I at bar 21).   Still reeling, we’re back to Gb major at bars 22 and 23 with another II-V-I until the II-V at bar 24 gets us back to the key of F major confirmed at bar 25.   That is, in bars 15 – 24 our solo must travel through the major keys of Bb, Gb, D, Gb and F..

Bars 25-32 are similar to bars 1-8, but with the harmony squashed up a bit to end on the tonic F for bars 31 and 32.   (Or permit a II-V turn-around in bar 32 to start all over again).

Yes, very interesting, but enough of all that,’ you’ll say.   ‘Just tell me what notes should I be playing for a solo on ‘Have You Met Miss Jones?’.

Well, we can look at it in, at least, 3 ways:

  • Playing chord tones and embellishments from our knowledge of the harmony chords (The educators’ non-preferred way).
  • Choosing notes from the scales inferred from all those II-V-I movements in the harmony.
  • Playing notes from the modes/scales appropriate to the chords.

The following table in Fig.6 summarises the last two methods in columns 3 and 4.   Column 5 shows the scale choices made in the Solo Chorus of Fig.10.

Fig. 6. Scale Options for solo on 'Have You Met Miss Jones?'   [TOP]

1 2 3 4 5
Bar No. Chords Possibilities inferred from the II-V-I chords
Any note from the following scales. (Potential dissonant tones shown in brackets)
Possible ‘First Choice’ Scale/Mode Possibilities
Any note from the following modes and scales. (Potential dissonant tones shown in brackets)
Note how the names of the choices in this column relate to the chord root.
Scales/Modes Selected to give notes in example Solo Chorus of bars 65-96
(Scales selected which differ from col. 4 are in bold italics)
1 Fmaj F maj. (Bb) Ionian on F (Bb) Ionian on F
2 D7b9 G min. (G, Bb) Diminished (H), starting on Half-tone, on D Diminished Whole Tone on D
3 Gm7 F maj Dorian on G Dorian on G
4 C7 F maj (F) Mixolydian on C (F) Lydian Dominant on C
5 Am7 F maj (F, Bb) Phrygian on A (F,Bb) Phrygian on A
6 Dm7 Fmaj (Bb) Aeolian on D (Bb) Aeolian on D
7 Gm7 F maj Dorian on G Dorian on G
8 C7 F maj (F) Mixolydian on C (F) Lydian Dominant on C
9 Fmaj F maj. (Bb) Ionian on F (Bb) Ionian on F
10 D7b9 G min. (G, Bb) Diminished (H), starting on Half-tone, on D Diminished (H), starting on Half-tone, on D
11 Gm7 F maj Dorian on G Dorian on G
12 C7 F maj (F) Mixolydian on C (F) Mixolydian on C
13 Am7 F maj (F, Bb) Phrygian on A (F,Bb) Phrygian on A
14 Dm7 F maj (Bb) Aeolian on D (Bb) Aeolian on D
15 Cm7 Bb maj Dorian on C Dorian on C
16 F7 Bb maj (Bb) Mixolydian on F (Bb) Mixolydian on F
17 Bbmaj Bb maj (Eb) Ionian on Bb (Eb) Ionian on Bb
18 Abm7-Db7 Gb maj – Gb maj (Gb) Dorian on Ab –Mix. On Db (Gb) Dorian on Ab –Mix. On Db
19 Gbmaj Gb maj (B) Ionian on Gb (B) Ionian on Gb
20 Em7-A7 D maj – D maj (D) Dorian on E –Mix. On A (D) Dorian on E –Mix. On A
21 Dmaj D maj (G) Ionian on D (G) Lydian on D
22 Abm7-Db7 Gb maj – Gb maj (Gb) Dorian on Ab –Mix. On Db (Gb) Blues on Ab –Mix. On Db
23 Gbmaj Gb maj (B) Ionian on Gb (B) Ionian on Gb
24 Gm7-C7 F maj – F maj (F) Dorian on G – C Mix (F) Dorian on G
25 Fmaj F maj. (Bb) Ionian on F (Bb) Blues on D
26 D7b9 G min. (G, Bb) Diminished (H), starting on Half-tone, on D Blues on D
27 Gm7 F maj Dorian on G Blues on F
28 C7 F maj (F) Mixolydian on C (F) Blues on F
29 Am7-Dm7 F maj (F,Bb)– F maj (Bb) Phrygian on A (F,Bb) - Aeolian on D (Bb) Blues on A
30 Gm7-C7 F maj – F maj (F) Dorian on G – Mix. on C (F) Dorian on G – Mix. on C
31 Fmaj F maj. (Bb) Ionian on F (Bb) Lydian on F
32 Gm7-C7 F maj – F maj (F) Dorian on G – Mix. on C (F) Dorian on G – Lydian Dominant on C

For our solo, we can use any mixture of the columns 3 and 4 (plus a bit of ‘harmony knowledge’, if we want to).   However, if our tune had not had the plethora of II-V-I’s, the key centres would have been more difficult to define, as listed in the column 3.   The approach in the Scales/Mode column (4) avoids that problem and also gives us the opportunity to apply some different scales to ‘colour’ the improvisation.   The selection in Column 5 shows what a soloist might choose and these have given rise to the solo ‘melody’ of bars 65-96 of Fig. 10.

Repertoire.   [TOP]

If you can get to grips with the requirements to develop a solo, as broadly explained above, you still have to choose your style and the source of the tunes on which your improvisations will be based.

All aspiring jazz players should have a few of their favourite tunes (or, better, audience favourites) for which they know the melody and the ‘changes’.   These can be learnt from a ‘Real Book’, which is a compendium of ‘standards’, ‘blues’, jazz transcribed from records, ‘pop’, funk etc. usually comprising a single ‘melody line’ and the associated harmonies.   (They are ‘Real’ to differentiate them from their precursor ‘Fake Books’, which were normally ‘bootlegged’ versions of melody and chords, with doubtful harmonies).   Although there is no need to commit the whole of your ‘real book’ to memory, it is undeniable that you will fashion a better solo if you are familiar with the chords of a tune.   Some people have a talent (or think that they have) for playing by ear, but even the best won’t do anything outside their current repertoire.   George Shearing, who had a better reason than most for playing by ear (he is blind) refused to busk ‘Mountain Greenery’ with Mel Torme despite playing together for years.   Zoot Sims claimed to have a repertoire of 24 tunes at any one time and wouldn’t play anything other than those.

If your favourites are a bit obscure, keep copies of the ‘concert’ lead sheets (showing melody line and chords) in your instrument case to give to the rhythm section on a gig.   A couple of ‘must knows’ are 12 bar Blues sequences in concert F (plus Bb and Eb) and ‘Rhythm Changes’ – the chords to Gershwin’s ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’, which form the basis of a number of jazz standards.   Although there are a number of variants of both these sets of chords, the ‘basic’ changes are shown in Figs. 7 and 8, in concert key.


Licks.   [TOP]

A ‘lick’ is a practised phrase intended to dazzle the audience by its apparent spontaneity and virtuosity.   The purists will tell you that real jazzers don’t use licks, because everything comes from the ‘instant creative process’.   Don’t believe it.   Stan Tracey, when resident pianist at Ronnie Scott’s, became increasingly exasperated by the giant egos of visiting American jazzmen.   So he listened to their records and practised their licks.   During performance at Ronnie’s the big egos would let loose their stunning licks, which Stan would nonchalantly echo at the piano; a nice ‘cutting down to size'.

Licks are part of your repertoire to assist you in performance; use them with the same sensitivity and taste that you bring to your solos.   A typical lick used over an F7 chord, which incorporates both the triad of the basic chord and that of the chord a ‘tritone’ away (B7), is shown in Fig. 9.   A couple of books of licks are included in the bibliography, which, although aimed at the piano, give many single note ‘runs’ useful for ‘horns’.   The best and most exclusive licks, however, are the ones you invent yourself.


Backing and ‘Comping’. (jazz vernacular for ‘accompanying’)   [TOP]

When non-professional musicians are confident and relaxed with a piece, there is a tendency for them to play their part molto fortissimo.   Since a ‘backing phrase’ is often quite simple, the poor soloist gets submerged under a welter of sound, when supported by an arranged harmony or a ‘riff’.   Playing quietly so that the soloist can be heard helps in everyone listening to what is going on around them.

Pianists in general should stay out of the register of the soloing instrument.   The modern tendency is to voice the chords so that the root (and the 5ths) are left to the bass player and the pianist includes ‘bite’ tones of 9ths and 13ths.   For a more ‘traditional’ style, the pianist might omit the bite notes and play the chords in the root position.

Always be aware of the style of the jazz you are playing.   Guitarists beating ‘4 to the bar’ may be alright in a Django inspired ‘Hot Club’ band, or even as a Freddie Green soundalike in a Count Basie Big Band but it should be remembered that Django and Freddie had acoustic guitars with rapid decay and a lightness of touch.   To apply the same techniques to bebop or to strum electric guitars with boomy chords is not sympathetic.   In a more modern jazz framework, the guitarist’s job is either to ‘lay-out’ (stop playing) or undertake the pianist’s duties of comping by feeding chords to the soloist (the pianist and guitarist might agree on sharing comping duties).

The addition of a ‘rhythm guitar’ also adds a further rhythm voice and too many rhythm voices frequently complicate the pulse of a piece.   Additional rhythm needs to be used with care.   Dave Holland once had the temerity to ask Wynton Marsalis to stop tapping his foot since it was upsetting the ‘groove’ of a number.   (Foot-tapping can be a general problem also; there is nothing worse than a bar’s silence from the rhythm section being disturbed by a ghostly Monty Python army of foot-tappers, keeping the beat).   On a 4/4 piece the walking bass frequently controls the pulse (and, indeed, can increase tension by beating 2 or even not playing, before finally entering in 4/4).   The bass player usually sketches the outline of the harmony, often using chord tones on all 4 beats or, alternatively, chord tones (maybe tonic and 5th) on strong beats (1 and 3) linked by diatonic or chromatic passing notes.   On funky/rock numbers with a heavy back-beat, the drums have a more dominant role, with the bass-player supporting with a repetitive riff, helping to define the rhythm by the repetition.

Swinging.   [TOP]

Another question to which Louis Armstrong might have given his ‘if you’ve got to ask’ answer is ‘what is swing?’.   When a group is ‘swinging’ it is normally playing a tune in 4/4, usually at a moderately fast tempo, and has a rhythmic pulse, which all the participators (and the listeners) ‘feel’ is moving in an exciting way.   The emphasis contributed by the players tends to ‘push’ the beat.   In particular the pianist will feed chords perhaps a quaver ahead of the changes (aka ‘syncopation’).   (In unpractised hands, the pushing of the beat can result in the tempo gradually getting faster...).

ImageThe players also tend to play quavers as ‘swing triplets’, as shown below and this mark is often shown on ‘big-band’ and other scores to indicate a ‘swing’ feel:

The description comes from the ‘swing era’, mainly 1940’s and 50’s and, with the advent of more latin, funk and rock jazz, the ‘swing’ has been replaced with a ‘groove’.   Manifestation of the ‘feel’ might be a primal urge to dance, nod your head or shake your bum.   If you can’t feel a swing or a groove, we have a serious problem.

Modal Jazz.   [TOP]

The modes (modal scales) described in Fig. 5 are a sequence of notes separated by fixed increments of tones and semitones, which give the mode its musical flavour.

The names are a useful identification for the available pool of notes against a harmony chord.   Some of the names of the modes refer to divisions of Ancient Greece but the modes did not come to us from some Delphic mist, where, for example, all the Dorians were whistling embryonic Coltrane solos as they fluted their columns.   The Greeks didn’t write their music down, so we don’t know for sure.   However, the existence of modes in some mediaeval and Gregorian chants indicate some prehistory and the names were given, by the Church, to celebrate that possibility.   For many of us, an early familiarity with a mode might have been singing or listening to the Dorian ‘Scarborough Fair'.

Modal jazz tends to confine itself to improvising using mainly the notes from the mode appropriate to the harmony chord (e.g. Dorian mode for minor 7th chord).   The style is characterised by a slow harmonic rhythm (infrequent changes of chord) and this is often offset by a fast tempo.   Because of the repetitive chords, the soloist can often experience the ‘where are we?’ effect and a sympathetic rhythm section will develop a motif, or pedal, to indicate the end of a chorus.

Conclusion.   [TOP]

So if you know, and are deft with, all (or most) of your scales and modes, can recognise chords, II-V-I’s and other cadences, have a ‘back-up’ repertoire of remembered phrases and some ‘licks’ and a developing ‘ear’, you are well on the way to becoming an improviser.   Reading some of the Bibliography can help, but it doesn’t replace practise.....

Bibliography, Play-alongs and General reading.   [TOP]

Title Author Publisher ISBN £ (2003) Comments
Jazz Theory Book, The Levine, Mark Sher Music 1-883217-04-0 35 Its all here. Scales, Harmony, repertoire. The current best ‘how to do it’.
Jazz Piano Book, The Levine, Mark Sher Music 0-9614701-5-L 30 Excellent Reference for Pianists. Deals with Harmony, Scales, Voicings, the Lot.
Exploring Jazz Scales for Keyboard Boyd, Bill Hal-Leonard 0-7935-1544-0 9 Detailed treatment of pentatonic and blues scales.
Jazz Piano From Scratch Beale, Charles ABRSM 1-86096-015-4 17 Mainly for pianists but is a useful guide with a good CD.
Contemporary Piano Styles Mehegan, John Amsco 0-8230-2574-9 17 Informative for pianists on styles but chords are in Roman Notation
17 All-time Standards Vol 25. Abersold, Jamey Jamey Abersold Play-along     Part of a series. Useful work-outs but tend to be a bit fast for the beginner
Approaching The Standards. Vol 1. Hill, Willie L. Warner Bros. Play along 0-7692-9217-8 12 Part of a series. Relaxed tempos. Transcribed solos. Useful
Keyboard Runs for the Pop / Jazz Pianist Lienhard, Noreen Grey Ekay Music Inc. 0-943748-93-3 15 Mainly for pianists but lots of single note licks, some on CD. Etude joins licks together in a solo.
Tons of Runs Leverne, Andy Ekay Music Inc. 0-943748-95-X 12 Mainly for pianists but lots of single note licks on dominants, II-V-I’s etc..
Jazz Fordham, John Dorling Kindersley 0-7513-0050-0 15 A coffee-table anthology covering the instruments, the music, the musicians and key recordings.
History of Jazz, The Gioia, Ted OUP 0-19-509081-0 14 A scholarly but readable analysis of the development of your art form.

'Have You Met Miss Jones?'   [TOP]


A solo on 'Have You Met Miss Jones?'   [TOP]

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