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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 youve got to
ask, youll 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.
Fig. 1. Chords and Symbols with C as Root.
'Western' Music.
The Performance Format.
What do I do for a solo?
Scale Selection.
Fig. 5. Scale Options for Chords.
A closer look at a solo.
Fig. 6. Scale Options for solo on 'Have You Met Miss Jones?'.
Backing and 'Comping'.
Modal Jazz.
'Have You Met Miss Jones?'.
A solo on 'Have You Met Miss
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 (dont forget the rests). Because of its
on the hoof nature, unlike most art forms, it exposes the composers 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, lets 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 improvisers 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
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, lets 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 (dont 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
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 drummers
turn to solo, in that each melodic soloist swaps 4 bars (colloquially trading 4s) with the drummer. (Even though
the accompaniment often stops during the drummers 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
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 youre 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
So, whats your current position? There you are, youve just played the head, hoping the band leader didnt notice
a couple of bum notes in your reading and its 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 youve 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. Dont worry about it, youve just
constructed a solo and, although you wont make a living out of it, its 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 wont 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.
Lets 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, its 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 wed 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).
Lets 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 cant play Eb, Gb, Bb and Db (leaving the notes C, D, E, F, G, Ab, A, B).
Before your eyes blur over, lets 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 dont 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 doesnt); 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 lets 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 improvisers 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 youll 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
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
C, F, G,
D, E, A,
C, F, G, Bb,
D, E, A,
C, F, G,
Bb, D,
Eb, Ab
C, F, G,
Bb, D,
E, F#,
C, D, Ab
Fig. 5. Scale Options for Chords. [TOP]
Scale or Mode Options
Dont 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
Ionian or
Lydian (usually when acting as IV)
Major Pentatonic
Cmaj #4
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
Minor Pentatonic
Cm7 II
Minor Pentatonic
Phrygian (not usual, mainly only as III in III-
Minor Pentatonic
Aeolian (not usual, mainly only as VI in III-
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
Diminished (H) starting on a Half Step
Lydian Dominant
C7 #11
(#4, b5)
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 halftone diminished, when I see a dominant 7th? Well, yes, if it works, but probably
not. Certainly Louis and Bird didnt 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 werent 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'.
Lets 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, youd 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, lets 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, hell try and ensure it
doesnt 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; were now in Bb major! But dont 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, were 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, youll 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
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
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-Is, 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
wont 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 wouldnt 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 Gershwins Ive 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 dont use licks, because everything comes from the instant creative process.
Dont believe it. Stan Tracey, when resident pianist at Ronnie Scotts, became increasingly exasperated by the
giant egos of visiting American jazzmen. So he listened to their records and practised their licks. During
performance at Ronnies 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 guitarists job is either to lay-out (stop playing) or undertake the pianists 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 bars 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 youve 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...).
The 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 1940s and 50s 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 cant feel a swing or a groove, we have a serious
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
didnt write their music down, so we dont 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
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-Is 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 doesnt replace
Bibliography, Play-alongs and General reading. [TOP]
Title Author Publisher ISBN (2003) Comments
Jazz Theory Book,
Levine, Mark Sher Music
Its all here. Scales, Harmony, repertoire.
The current best how to do it.
Jazz Piano Book,
Levine, Mark Sher Music
Excellent Reference for Pianists. Deals
with Harmony, Scales, Voicings, the Lot.
Exploring Jazz
Scales for
Boyd, Bill Hal-Leonard
Detailed treatment of pentatonic and
blues scales.
Jazz Piano From
Mainly for pianists but is a useful guide
with a good CD.
Piano Styles
Informative for pianists on styles but
chords are in Roman Notation
17 All-time
Standards Vol 25.

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
Part of a series. Relaxed tempos.
Transcribed solos. Useful
Keyboard Runs for
the Pop / Jazz
Noreen Grey
Ekay Music
Mainly for pianists but lots of single note
licks, some on CD. Etude joins licks
together in a solo.
Tons of Runs
Ekay Music
Mainly for pianists but lots of single note
licks on dominants, II-V-Is etc..
A coffee-table anthology covering the
instruments, the music, the musicians
and key recordings.
History of Jazz,
Gioia, Ted OUP
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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