9 Jazz Standards That’ll Boost Your Melodic Skills

You know the routine…You pick out a new tune, read through the melody, and start to work on a solo. You’ve got a few ideas, throw in a couple of your favorite licks, and follow the guide tone lines. And then it happens…you’re stuck playing the same old scales and patterns that you use in every solo.

Not exactly the creative musical experience you imagined.

So how do you break the endless cycle of staring at chord progressions and thinking about scales? How do you actually start creating long melodic lines with shape and musical impact??

This is the million dollar question that every musician wants to know. 

You’ve probably realized by now that music theory alone isn’t going to cut it. But the good news is that you don’t have to wait years to see improvement. The solution to elevating your melodic skills is much simpler than you think –you need to study great melodies!

In the past we’ve explored using jazz standards like etudes to build your musical skills, and you should do the same thing to build your melodic skills. But, the problem is that many musicians get sidetracked into treating melody as an assignment…

A list of tunes to quickly memorize, a throwaway that you’re required to play so you can get to your solo. A separate entity from the chord progression or the process of improvisation.

If you want to change the melodic content of your playing, this is where you need to be focusing your time. That’s why in today’s lesson we’ve selected nine jazz standards that will improve your melodic skills.

As you dig into the tunes below, there are two keys to practicing these tunes that will elicit the most benefit:

  • 1) Treat these melodies like technical etudes. The simple act of listening to and practicing these melodies from recordings, note for note, will intrinsically give you valuable skills. Not all musical information is mental or theoretical – steal these lines, copy each detail, & absorb them into your playing.
  • 2) Analyze & isolate specific melodic techniques. Find the devices within each melody that make it unique. Remember, the melody and the chord progression go hand-in-hand. Identify what makes these melodies sound good and incorporate it into your approach.

Ready to go? Here are 9 tunes from the jazz repertoire that will boost your melodic skills. Let’s get started…

A Melodic Approach to Common Progressions

When you start building your repertoire, it can seem like each new tune you work on presents a completely new set of chords that you must memorize and learn to solo over…

However, this is a common misconception. The truth is, the majority of standards that you’re going to play actually use the same harmonic devices over and over again.

Think about it… Autumn LeavesInvitationGiant Steps, All the Things You Are.  Hundreds of tunes with the same set of basic building blocks, just presented in different variations. In most tunes you’ll find:

  • 4 basic chords: Major, minor, V7, and half-diminished
  • Major and minor ii-V’s
  • Turnarounds (I-VI-ii-V7)

If your long-term goal is to play solos with long flowing melodic lines, you need to begin developing a melodic approach for each of these musical situations in the practice room.

Luckily, you have the perfect resource sitting right in front of you – the melodies to the tunes you’re trying to learn. To see what I mean, let’s start by checking out two tunes that use an effective melodic approach to these familiar harmonic building blocks…

1) Milestones (old)

The first tune we’ll at look is Milestones written by John Lewis in 1947…

Spend a few minutes singing along with the recording and ingraining the melody in your ear.

A great melody can stand as its own musical statement, exhibiting contour, harmonic color, and outlining the movement of the chord progression. The same should be true of your solos.

Before we jump in and take a closer look at the tune, let’s take a look at the chord progression by itself. Looking at this sequence of chords, what musical ideas pop into your mind??

If you’re like most players, your mind goes right to music theory. Relying on the chord/ scale approach to choose which notes to play. This however, puts you in a predictable musical box with a limited set of options.

And from this mindset it’s hard to create the flowing melodic lines you were hoping to play in your solo…

You see, when you start every solo by looking at a set of chords and trying to think of what to play, you’re already heading in the wrong direction. This is why studying melody and melodic techniques is so important.

When you truly learn the melodies to the tunes you’re working on (not just reading through them in a fake book) you’ll gain some important musical tools that you can use in any solo. Check out the melody to Milestones:

This melody is probably different than the ideas that popped into your mind as you looked at the blank chord progression. A strong melodic statement trumps commonplace music theory rules or conventions, and this tune is a prime example.

Let’s look at two spots in this melody where this happens. In the opening phrase, you find the following phrase over a ii-V-I in Bb:

It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that a ii-V has to be played a certain way. However, this ii-V doesn’t exactly follow the rules. As you can see, the ii chord doesn’t resolve to the V7 chord, the b9 is emphasized and sustained, and there is no resolution to the I chord.

The same thing happens in the 6th bar of the tune. On a ii-V in A (B- E7) the tritone is emphasized on the V7 chord in a typical bebop fashion, again avoiding conventional harmonic resolution:

Creating melodic lines over a ii-V-I progression doesn’t mean that you have to start on the ii, move to the V7, and then resolve your line on the I. And it doesn’t mean that you have to restrict yourself to using chord tones.

As you create your own melodic phrases, be sure that you understand the rules of theory, but don’t be chained to them!

Simplify progressions & create better melodies

The key to creating long melodic lines isn’t playing more notes or using increasingly complex scales and harmonies. And it’s not trying to cram everything you know into the space of a single solo…

The more you listen to and transcribe the solos of great improvisers, the clearer it becomes that these players are actually thinking of relatively simple ideas to create strong melodic lines.

Let’s look at an example of this concept in action, highlighting two techniques that you can utilize to simplify complex chord progressions.

Check out  the second four bars of Milestones, shown below:

Here you have a C-7 chord that immediately moves to a two beat ii-V in B minor. This sequence of quickly moving chords is enough to give even the most skilled improvisers pause.

However, rather than trying to quickly insert a fast ii-V, you can simply substitute that ii-V7 with the V7 chord. For instance in this example, you can approach the C#-7 F#7 as a simple F#7 chord moving to the upcoming B minor chord:

You can use this technique on any ii-V7 or complex progression like the one above. This will simplify your thinking and in turn, your musical statements. Remember, you can always add in more complexity once you have the basics down!

The same concept also applies to the art of creating melodies. As the chord progressions become more dense, simplify the melodic content of your solo. Rather than forcing in double-time lines, use triads, chord tones, or even  arpeggios to create melody…

As this melody demonstrates, you can essentially think of a C minor idea moving to a B minor idea and returning to C minor over this otherwise complicated progression full of ii-V’s.

2) Dewey Square

Charlie Parker’s tune Dewey Square is another tune that deals with standard progressions in a unique way.

As you listen to the melody, take note of the rhythmic content and the placement of each phrase within the progression:

Now let’s take a closer look at what is going on. If you took a traditional theory approach to this progression,  you’d end up with 3 separate ideas in the first four bars, that start and stop on the bar lines:

Melodic playing is as much about rhythm, phrasing, and musical style, as it is about playing the right notes on the right chords.

However, if you listen closely to the melody, you’ll immediately hear phrases that aren’t confined to the established chord progression. You find phrases that begin on upbeats and extend over bar lines, lines that move between the chords, and ideas that avoid predictable resolutions:

After establishing a melodic foundation and transcribing language, the next step is learning to create interesting musical phrases.

Don’t let a changing chord dictate your line or stop the flow of your ideas. Let the flow of the melody and the direction of your musical statement come first.

In the practice room:

  • Think about the melodic shape & direction of your lines, in addition to the rules of harmony
  •  Give some thought to where your phrases are placed within the progression
  • Practice starting your lines on up beats and keeping the momentum moving across bar lines

Bird Blues

One harmonic pattern that can trip up a lot of players is sequential ii-V’s, either moving in half or whole-steps. Charlie Parker’s reharm of the blues progression is a good example.

Parker took the central movement of the I chord to the IV chord:

…and he expanded on this progression with a series of ii-V’s descending in whole-steps:

The trick is getting through this progression in a melodic way without just inserting separate ii-V licks. Let’s look at two techniques Parker uses to create forward motion in his melodies…

3) Confirmation

One of the most familiar examples of the Bird Blues progression is the tune Confirmation:

Listen to how Parker constructs a melody over this sequence of descending ii-Vs between the I and IV chord:

Instead of trying to piece together separate ii-V licks, he anticipates each upcoming phrase or chords with pick-up notes.

Check out how he uses this technique in the first five measures of the melody:

If you look at the progression in terms of melodic phrases, this becomes clearer. In this opening phrase he plays four melodic ideas, using the highlighted  approach notes to transition to or connect to the next idea:

As you can see, each melodic idea is prefaced by a pick-up that anticipates the upcoming chord progression.

It’s also important to remember that you don’t have to feel obligated to play every single chord or progression when creating a melody. Notice how the melody lays out over the 3rd bar (D- G7).

In the practice room:

  • Practice not only focusing on the chord you’re on, but on the chords that are coming up.
  • Utilize pick-ups to create forward motion and anticipate upcoming chords
  • This can be as simple as an 8th note pick up to the next chord or an entire phrase. Start by practicing the transition from one chord to the next.

4) Blues for Alice

As we mentioned at the beginning, one effective way to learn how to play longer lines in your solos is simply by practicing and memorizing longer lines.

Sounds obvious right?

Find longer phrases in solos or melodies and learn them note for note. Sing them, slow them down, and practice them measure by measure on your instrument.

Half the battle is ingraining the feeling of what it’s like to play long melodic lines – learning through osmosis. Tunes like Donna Lee or Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice are a great place to start with this type of practice…

Once you have the melody in your ear, it’s time to figure it out on your instrument:

You can simply take the first five bars of the tune and learn it in all keys. And after a few practice sessions, you’ll have one long melodic line ingrained for navigating sequential ii-V’s.

The next step is analyzing the melody and figuring out why it works. You’re looking for specific harmonic and melodic techniques that you can use in your own solos.

Switch your perspective of the chord progression 

Instead of looking at this progression as three separate ii-V’s and inserting a lick for each bar, focus on the resolution from V7 to I, leading from one measure to the next, rather than stopping your line:

Using this mental shift of forward motion will naturally lead to playing in a more linear way, creating connection between the various chords of the tune.

Check out how the melody uses this technique to create a continuous line through the progression:

Rhythm Changes

Another tune that can be challenging for many players to improvise longer lines over is Rhythm Changes.

For some more in-depth study on this tune, check out these two lessons:

The trick with this progression is finding a linear approach to chords that change every two beats:

How do you create melody over constantly changing chords or create phrases that extend for multiple measures?

Here are two tunes to learn that will give you a head start in creating melodies over Rhythm Changes

5) Anthropology

The first tune we’ll check out is the bebop standard Anthropology:

As you listen, take note of how the melody flows over the underlying chord progression.

Many players get hung up the first time they solo on Rhythm Changes by trying to play every single chord. However, the key to developing a basic melodic approach lies in looking at the bigger picture.

You can approach the first four bars of the progression as the tonic (in this case Bb), simplifying your harmonic options. And you can also utilize the enclosure of chord tones to create linear motion:

With simple diatonic material in Bb and the aid of chromatic and diatonic enclosures, you can begin creating musical lines with shape and direction.

You can gain some melodic information by checking out the bridge to the tune as well:

Here you have stretches of two bar dominant chords moving around the circle of 5ths. Some melodic devices over these V7 chord to study include:

  • Creating linear motion with triads or chord tones by using chromatic and diatonic passing tones
  • Utilizing major pentatonic material 
  • Imply ii-V over longer V7 chord, (C-7 F7) instead of a static F7

6) Dexterity

Another Rhythm Changes tune with a linear melody is Dexterity. Take a listen:

Like Anthropology, you hear a line that is centered around diatonic material in Bb

However, this tune relies on some dissonant notes, accenting or ending phrases with altered notes on V7 chords (b9, b13):

On the F7 chord in the second bar the b9 is emphasized. In the next measure the b13 is played on the downbeat of the G7 chord and in the 7th measure the b9 is again emphasized on a G7 chord.

These altered notes aren’t just passing notes that should be immediately resolved, but unique color tones that can be an integral part of your harmonic and melodic arsenal.

7) The Kicker

When it comes to creating musical ideas, something as simple as four measures of a single chord can be harder to improvise over than an established progression with changing chords.

This is because a moving chord progression like a ii-V gives you direction. There are built in resolutions and guide tone lines, a harmonic path to follow. Whereas a static chord puts all of the melodic weight on you – the improviser.

Take something like a simple extended Bb7 chord:

Which rhythms are you going to play? Which notes do you choose? Where do you even begin??

A good example of creating melodies in these situations is Joe Henderson’s tune The Kicker:

Instead of using scale fragments or trying to fill up every measure with complex lines, Henderson creates this melody by using a motif or a simple recurring musical idea.

For instance, check out the opening measures of the melody:

Here you find a descending interval used as a melodic them, a whole-step and then a series of descending 3rds. This theme continues throughout the remainder of the tune.

We often get into the habit of approaching a chord in the same way every time – a scale, an arpeggio, or a piece of language that we’ve transcribed. But this can limit the options you have as you improvise, it can even get boring!

Instead, work on creating a melody in the moment, improvising with small melodic ideas and developing them into a larger musical phrase.

In the practice room:

  • Break the mold of starting each solo the same way, instead start with a rhythmic or intervallic motif
  • Aim to make melodic statements over static chords instead of inserting licks or scales
  • Remember to start simple, even one interval can produce a melody!

8) Chick’s Tune

Chick’s Tunes is an early Chick Corea composition based on the changes to You Stepped Out of a Dream.

You hear a different melodic approach to a jazz standard with familiar changes:

Again, we see the technique of using forward motion to create linear continuity…

Coming from music theory instead of an aural melodic approach, it’s easy to get into the habit of playing one idea on each chord and stopping the flow in between:

You hear this in many solos, playing an idea or lick on one chord or section of the tune, stopping and then starting a new idea on the next section. However, this creates a disjunct solo.

As we explored in previous tunes, try anticipating upcoming chords and starting your phrases early, leading into the upcoming chord. Notice how the phrasing in the opening of this tune leads into the upcoming Db chord:

Corea also employs a novel harmonic approach to the standard ii-V-I progression found in the 5th bar of the tune:

Instead of standard scales or language, he utilizes a pentatonic approach to both the ii and V7 chords.

Over the Bb-7 (ii) he uses F minor pentatonic material and on the Eb7 (V7) chord, he moves outside of the harmony to create tension by using F# minor pentatonic material.

Uncommon chord progressions

As you learn more tunes and expand your musical repertoire, you’ll encounter tunes and progressions that don’t follow the typical musical rules and conventions.

These uncommon chord progressions and complex chords can often be a barrier to creating melodic lines and coherent musical phrases.

But getting bogged down in the endless minutia of music theory is not going to help. Like the tunes above, studying the melodies to these tunes will give you immediate insight into creating your own melodic approach.

Let’s take a look at one melody built on exactly this type of progression…

9) Jacky’s Place

Mark Turner’s composition Jacky’s Place is a great example of a tune with a strong melody over unconventional chords. Take a listen:

Here are the first six measures of the chord progression:

What exactly do you play over these chords?? Well, let’s check out the melody to the tune to see how Mark Turner approaches the progression…

As we explored in Milestones above, a good way to approach complex chord progressions like this one is with simple melodic material.

While you might expect a complicated melody full of exotic scales, notice how Turner uses a simple triadic approach to create melodic shapes and navigate these chords…

Over the FMaj#5 chord, he plays an A major triad. Over the B/C chord he simply uses a B and C triad, and a kind of Db sus shape over the Bb-(b6) chord. Notice how he also utilizes diatonic and chromatic passing tones and connects each phrase with half-step movement.

Another part of the tune to check out is the section in the middle of the tune comprised of a D Major (#11) moving to an Ab7 sus. Listen to how these chords sound:

Now let’s take a look at the melody Mark Turner created over these chords:

One device he uses in this section is identifying common tones between seemingly unrelated chords. For example, take the DMaj7(#11) and Ab7sus chords…

These two unrelated chords share 3 common tones – C#/Db, F#/Gb, and G#/Ab. Using these shared tones as a starting point, what melodic approaches can you come up with connecting these two sounds?

Again, with a complex progression try to simplify your thinking or melodic approach. For example, using these 3 tones you might think of moving from:

  • F# minor on DMaj7#11to F# (Gb) Major on Ab7sus
  • C# minor pentatonic on DMaj7 #11 to C# (Db) Major on Ab7sus

Suddenly, a progression that looked impossible at first glance, becomes as simple as switching between major and minor sounds that are much more familiar…

Now you can focus on creating a linear or melodic approach, connecting and leading into the two sounds, as opposed to playing two individual chords.

In the practice room:

  • Start by using a simpler approach to melody over complex chords & progressions – use triads or other basic shapes and rhythms
  • Try using half-step motion to connect unrelated chords in your phrases
  • Find common tones between unrelated chords and uses these notes as a starting point for your melody

Practice the stuff that you can’t do

Developing great melodic skills is not something that comes from talent. And it’s not something that will magically pop into your playing by chance.

If you want to improve the melodic lines and phrases in your improvised solos, you need to spend time in the practice room focusing on exactly that – listening to, learning, and studying great melodies.

Start by taking one tune from the list above.

Remember to take your time. It’s all about focusing on one thing, going slow, and mastering it. One tune mastered will be much more beneficial than nine quickly skimmed over.

As you begin, this method may seem tedious and time consuming, but trust the process! If you put in the time to completely learn a tune in the fashion shown above, you WILL see progress 😉