Scales from Chords

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Melodic ornamentation in jazz

Here are some useful resources for developing your extemporisation and improvisation skills …



Pentatonic Pairs

I’ve just been looking at Willie Thomas’s teaching on ‘Pentatonic Pairs’ as a simple way of navigating ii-V-I progressions. Link

Here’s my adaptation of the technique using just four notes of the pentatonic scale (major or minor), i.e. avoiding the tonic. For each chord play the associated pentatonic pair in any order, or choose just one of the pair.

Partial pentatonic solutions to major ii-V-Is
added notes (chords 1 & 2) are ∆9ths

Partial pentatonic solutions to minor ii-V-Is
added notes (chord 1) are 4ths and m6ths

Not and end in itself, but a useful exercise nevertheless.

Playing the Saxophone & Sailing

John Harle’s advice on tongue position when playing the saxophone has come as a revelation, liberating my playing from constant bother about intonation, tone and dynamic range. It got me thinking about parallels with sailing (an old passion of mine): e.g.

  • you can’t steer a boat unless it has power, you can’t play the sax with ease and accuracy unless the breath is properly directed;
  • the need for multiple navigational clues when piloting a boat in and out of harbours, as well as when improvising on an unfamiliar chord progression.


Chord-Tone Practice

In an earlier blog I noted the potential un-musicality of the popular chord–scale approach to jazz improvising. But there is an additional issue about this approach: i.e. the need to build skills from firm foundations, which this quote from Berklee makes clear:

‘… for beginner and intermediate-level players, the chord-scale approach has a potential downside. Many students begin studying chord scales early in their musical education and attempt to apply the knowledge acquired immediately on their instruments. Unfortunately, this often happens too soon in the student’s development as an improviser–before he or she has learned how to shape an appealing improvised melody by ear on a chord or chord progression using only, or mainly, chord tones.’ source

As a precursor (and possible antidote) to chord-scale theory, try improvising on chord tones instead, then incorporate this approach into your improvisations, as many great players do. Here’s an initial exercise to try:

Chord tone practice 01

Modes #2

Here’s another exercise on the common jazz modes, this time those using one b

Modes using one b

However, remember that the key signatures of modal music should refer to the appropriate major or minor scale, in order to establish the tonic: e.g.

F major = b
C mixolydian = C major (i.e. no flats or sharps) but with accidentals changing B to Bb
D minor = b
D dorian = b but with accidentals changing Bb to B


Modes #1

Modes #1

Here’s an exercise on the common jazz modes using one #

Modes using one #

However, remember that the key signatures of modal music should refer to the appropriate major or minor scale, in order to establish the tonic: e.g.

G major = #
D major = ##
D mixolydian = ## but with accidentals changing C# to C
E minor = #
E dorian = # but with accidentals changing C to C#


Modes #2

Sonny Rollins, thematic improvisation and the subconscious

Thanks to Joan Vicens (see video below), Gunther Schuller and others for their insights into Sonny Rollins’ approach to thematic improvisation.

N.B. this transcription is for instruments in Bb.


But Rollins has said: ‘When I get on the stage, I don’t think. I sort of let the subconscious take over. That’s what it’s all about … I surprise myself, occasionally, with something that might come out that is striking. I don’t really think about whatever else is happening. It just happens.’ See Levy 2014 for thoughts on the subconscious and conscious mind.

More on Schuller and Rollins