Improvising options

April 4, 2011 9:27 AM

Could you provide me with some improvising ideas?

Hi ! I'm currently participating in a jazz class at my local music school. We've got a workshop of one hour a week, and we are playing several tunes. We are going to play a short concert in a week. Actually, we are going to play 2 tunes. I've got no formal training and I've got to play both rhythm, along with the rhythm section, and a chorus or two on each of the tunes. Well, would you be so kind as to give me some ideas about what to play on the changes. I'm already figuring out some options, but I'd really like to hear about yours, it would broaden my horizon.

Here's the deal : the tunes are Jody Grind and Insensatez

Jody Grind changes : Bb- / Eb7 / Bb- / A7+4 / G7+4 / Bb-

Insensatez changes : D-9 / C#°/ C-6 / D79b / G9/B / BbMaj7 / EbMaj7 / E-75b / A7b9 / D-9 / A7

thanks !
posted by nicolin (14 comments total)

i've hit on two methods for this sort of thing. one is play over the changes as many times as is humanly possible and just work things out by trial and error. start with embellishing the basic melody and then get more adventurous. that's kind of time intensive...the other is to write out all the notes of each chord vertically (if you're not intimately familiar with them) on the chart. looking horizontally across the page you'll start to see patterns of notes or scales emerging.

presuming you're playing either guitar or piano here? with guitar this stuff seems more to be about muscle memory to an extent.

that's not very scholarly perhaps, but i'm not a schooled player by any means. i'm hoping koeselitz may contribute here. there are some people who are totally unschooled yet find improvising a piece of piss (i'm thinking of the major here) and others who know every permutation of scale pattern that can be played over how high the moon or whatever. i'm neither, but those are the ways i've gotten into soloing over changes. hope it helps a bit, even if it's that you work out what not to do!
posted by peterkins at 10:10 AM on April 4, 2011

Any practice or method idea or indication can help to find new things, so, thanks !
posted by nicolin at 11:28 AM on April 4, 2011

Excellent use of the whatever tag, nicolin!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:22 PM on April 4, 2011

My secret weapon is to loop the changes over some kind of rhythm without the melody and then play it in the car as I'm driving, and sing over it. For some reason it's way easier to improvise melodies with your voice than with your fingers. Once I have a melody I start singing harmonies to it, which gives me new melodies and so on.
posted by unSane at 6:15 PM on April 4, 2011

Jody Grind changes : Bb- / Eb7 / Bb- / A7+4 / G7+4 / Bb-

it's basically a blues progression that moves up a major 3rd for what would be the F - Eb part of the changes - play the blues in Bbm until you get to the A7+4 and slide down to Am blues until you get to Bb - although there are other things that might work - such as c#m pentatonic followed by bm pentatonic for the A7 - G7 part of it - probably figure out ways to mix them up there

the other one's a bit trickier and would take me some time

but if i were you i'd load up the jody grind and insensatez in my browser and play with them over and over and over until you drive everyone around you nuts

one tip that we was told in a college class by a couple of professional jazz musicians from detroit is that you can get away with playing ANY notes as long as you're playing them with the right feel and rhythm - but that was over 35 years ago and i'm STILL learning ways to make this work

but i play rock and roll and am jazz challenged
posted by pyramid termite at 9:39 PM on April 4, 2011

hmm - i just played along with the jody grind and i swear it sounds more like Gb - Ab instead of A7+4 - G7+4
posted by pyramid termite at 10:14 PM on April 4, 2011

there are some people who are totally unschooled yet find improvising a piece of piss (i'm thinking of the major here)

Very kind of Peterkins to say that (many thanks), but not entirely the case I'm afraid. Improvising over complex chord changes is rarely a piece of piss and if I sat down with some "real" jazz improvisers I'm sure I'd find the whole experience a crushing embarrassment. My "natural state" in playing is not something I'm very proud of. If I wasn't so lazy and actually learned some theory (even the names of the chords might help!), I'd be a better musician I'm sure.

Generally my approach is intuitive and I try to find a way inside the music, trying to sit right in the driving seat with everything I need within easy reach and then putting my foot down on the accelerator - can't put it more articulately than that I'm afraid. If that doesn't happen pretty quickly with something - first or second take when recording, for example - then it inevitably turns into something very far from a piece of piss. It becomes a slog where you more or less are writing a solo rather than improvising something.

I can't really give any tips with those chord changes you've set out nicolin because I've no idea what they are (although I would know them if I heard them, I'm sure). Best advice I can give is to try to relax, let your musicality lead you to finding the key that unlocks the track (golden thread, path, or whatever cliche comes to mind) and go for it. And if it doesn't work pretty quickly - move on to something else. Sponteneity is the absolute deal here - all the best solos are, without exception, completely off the top of the head in my experience. Sure you might go back and do a little tidying up here and there, but you need the vast majority of the thing to come out in one hit. Live - well, you have to just jump out of that plane and hope the parachute opens because there's no going back and fixing clunkers later!
posted by MajorDundee at 1:26 AM on April 5, 2011

My mind is goin' all through them changes.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:43 AM on April 5, 2011

I can see the challenge with those particular chords, though.

One thing that might help would be to work out what scales the chords fit with. For example:

C major: C D E F G A B C
Chords are built on every other note of a scale, so:

C E G B (C maj 7th)
D F A C (D min 7th)
E G B D (E min 7th)
F A C E (F maj 7th)
G B D F (G7)
A C E G (A min 7th)
B D F A (B min 7 b5)

9 11 etc chords built up by going further on every other note, so:

C E G B D (C maj 9)
D F A C E (D min 9)
E G B D F (E min 7b9)
F A C E G(F maj 9)
G B D F A (G9)
A C E G B (A min 9)
B D F A C (B min 7 b5 b9)

D-9 / C#°/ C-6 / D79b / G9/B / BbMaj7 / EbMaj7 / E-75b / A7b9 / D-9 / A7

The D-9 (D F A C E) can come from C major or F Major, for example. The C-6 (C Eb G A) from Bb major and so on.

It's possible to map out which scales work with which chords. There will probably be scales that work with a number of the chords - Bbmaj7, Ebmaj7, C-6 are all in Bb major, for example.

Also, going through the notes in each chord and working out which notes fit "between" them to make a scale.

You don't have to think about all this stuff all the time, in fact it's best to forget it as soon as you can, but it can be a useful way to map out unfamiliar or confusing territory - begin with what you know (the major scale, simple chords), map that on to the changes you've been given, and see how the chords/scales need to be changed to fit with the changes.

I learned to play solos by playing along with whatever was on the TV or radio at the time, including adverts and TV themes, but there were lots of things that completely bewildered me because they changed track all the time, and it was only much later when I began to learn this stuff that I got a handle on it. I still essentially play by ear, but having a map available is invaluable.

Sorry if that doesn't make sense, or if it's patronisingly simplistic - it's just a splurge of thoughts.
posted by Grangousier at 5:43 AM on April 8, 2011

Actually, for years, my approach has also been to "play along" and finding whatever works most of the time, but since I've grown increasingly tired of my own sound (I mean, I sound the same all the time, whatever I'm playing over or with) I thought that it was high time for a change.
When I began the jazz class, I was thinking scale (and I mean, one scale), trying to find the right one. I had to discard that approach and get into chord territory, playing chord after chord, trying to go from this one to that one, etc.. Well I had a hard time but things are getting nicer now. Still, I'm looking for new ways of considering what I could play on this and this.

For Insensatez, I've opted for those scales :

D-9 : F maj
C#° : diminished arpeggio or diminished scale from C#,
C-6 : C minor melodic
D79b : G harmonic minor
G9/B : I wonder.... C major ?
BbMaj7 : I'll use F major
Ebmaj 7 : C minor
E-75b : Back to F major
A7b9 : D minor harmonic
D-9 : F maj again
A7 : since we're going back to D-9, I think I'll give a try to Bb mel minor, but it's just a thought, and I have to test it on my guitar, incorporate it in my playing, and try to really think about it in front of an audience. Well, I guess it's more likely I'll just fill in with whatever note my numb fingers will be able to reach to on the spot, and wait for the theme to come back...

Grangousier, you mentioned Bb major ... well I have to try this, since it could work with Bbmaj7, Ebmaj7 and C-6 ...

About Jody Grind :
Bb- / Eb7 / Bb- / A7+4 / G7+4 / Bb-

Bb- : Ab major / F min pentatonic or not
Eb7 : C# minor melodic, I don't know why
A7+4 : D major
G7+4 : E major
( I've got another option with those two, but I can't figure out which one right now...given the pace of the tune and the duration of the chord, I should select only one option anyway)
posted by nicolin at 9:18 AM on April 8, 2011

Ah, you have all that stuff already!

Yeah - when I was just playing along, I began to notice that it would sound good if I changed this note or that note, but I really didn't know what was happening until later on. Having the map made it repeatable in a way it wasn't before. It also gave me a way of disrupting habits of playing.

C#° - don't forget this is part of the C and C# symmetrical scales (half-whole scales), which contain various major and minor arpeggios, which might work, or at least not work in an interesting way. I think C# symmetrical also goes with D79b

I also find it's sometimes useful to sing solos (as a part of the prep), as I'm more likely to do something melodic rather than purely systematic.

Also try Lydian mode against maj7 - I read George Russell, and though I can't say I understand it, those sharpened 4ths sound rather jazzy.

Of course, the thing is to have all the stuff somehow internalised so that one doesn't have to think about them and play at the same time. You obviously have loads to play with.

(And all this said, it's ages since I've done much of this stuff. It was quite fun, I remember, if a little disorientating after a while.)
posted by Grangousier at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2011

hey, I made a mistake (at least one ) - you're right, Pyramid termite - the chords for jody grind are A7+4 / B7+4 - and so the choices I've made are : E maj scale / F# maj scale or : E mel min scale, F# melodic minor scale (don't ask me why).

About the lydian stuff : thanks, Grangousier, the second Maj7 in Insensatez sounds better like this. (Ebmaj7, so the scale is Bb major, right ?)
posted by nicolin at 5:17 AM on April 9, 2011

Well, as a follow-up to the question : the concert took place on sunday morning. I managed to play the two solos, which were very lame, since I really felt more like a guinea-pig for a study on stage fright than like a musician getting a kick out of soloing. Anyway, thanks for helping in putting my musical problem into perspective.
posted by nicolin at 6:39 AM on April 11, 2011

Metafilter Music: putting my musical problem into perspective.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:45 AM on April 11, 2011

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