How Master Improvisers Actually Think About Tunes

As a musician, you often find yourself listening to the best improvisers you can. Searching for inspiration, guidance, and answers to the challenges you’re facing. Especially when it comes to those records that include the same jazz standards you’re trying to learn…

You want to figure out exactly what your favorite players are doing over the chord progressions that you’re tackling in the practice room. You want to know their secrets to sounding great!

But if you’re anything like me, the second you press play and hear those lines you think: “Where in the world are they coming up with this stuff??”

The chords and melody are written out right in front of you. You’re intently concentrating on every line. But somehow these players are able to soar above the progression, creating amazing melodic ideas out of nowhere.

It could be over Autumn Leaves, It Could Happen to You, or any of the scores of other standards in the jazz repertoire. But the result always seems to be the same…

In an instant those scales and theory rules you thought were the extent of your musical options, suddenly become mere suggestions. The best players improvise with complete freedom & ease. They break the rules, they play “wrong notes,” they ignore the chords, they play outside of the key…

Think of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Woody Shaw and all of the other masters out there. They seem to be operating by a different set of rules when it comes to the building blocks of music, creating a musical story in real-time, while the rest of us are piecing together the ABC’s.

How do they do this??

…I mean, we’re all dealing with the same twelve notes and basic harmonic progressions, right?

True. But here’s the thing, the best improvisers are looking at tunes and approaching harmony in a very different way from the average musician. From a perspective that gives them unparalleled musical freedom and allows them to bend and break the rules.

More than simply practicing more, it’s this perspective that will get you to the next level of musicianship and creativity that you’re looking for in your solos.

And in this lesson we’ll show you how to get there…

Pick a Tune, any Tune…

There are hundreds of tunes in the jazz repertoire, but the process for learning them is the same. And the more you learn, the more you’ll see that they’re composed of the same harmonic puzzle pieces.

For our purposes today, let’s check out the standard I Didn’t Know What Time It Was by Richard Rodgers from the 1939 musical Too Many Girls…

As with any tune you learn, start with the melody:

Then figure out the chord progression (here’s the first half)

Along the way, make sure you listen to different interpretations – the simpler the better at first. Check out singers, horn players, different tempos, and different keys. For instance, listen to how Billie Holiday interprets it or to how Kenny Drew creates an unique arrangement…

So at this point you have the melody and the chords. This is the musical information we all start with, whether you learn it by ear or read it from a leadsheet.

The question now is what are you going to do with it? How are you going to approach it as a soloist to achieve the same freedom and creativity as your heroes?

A beginner and the world’s best improviser start out with the exact same raw materials…a melody and a chord progression. The difference comes in the way they approach it, conceptualize it, and hear it.

And this difference is what separates an average solo from a musical interpretation that moves the listener…

The typical approach to tunes

If you take a theory class, a basic improvisation course, or a few private lessons you’ll learn the fundamentals of harmony…

Chords, chord tones, scales, ii-V’s, etc.

You get the basic idea that any tune is comprised of a melody and a sequence of chords. And that your goal as a soloist is to play the right notes over each of these chords as they pop up in the progression.

While all of this information is technically correct, this perspective can put you into somewhat of a musical box, especially when it comes to a creative endeavor like improvisation.

To see what I mean, let’s take a look at the first few bars of I Didn’t Know What Time It Was. On this tune, and hundreds more like it, many players get stuck in a one note/one chord approach to the progression…

With the chord progression memorized, they think of the first chord and a note to play. Which chord tone are you going to play over Eø7?

Then there’s the problem of getting from this chord to the next one. How can you connect the chord tone you just played to one from the next chord?

Maybe you can you insert the stuff you know…the scales, your ii-V licks, etc? So you scan the progression for these places:

This mindset or perspective creates a reactive approach to each chord and the larger progression. You’re thinking of singular chords and inserting the stuff you know, one-by-one until the end of the form.

What’s worse is that you’re ignoring your ears and the bigger harmonic picture at work.

It’s easy to fall into this pattern…I know because I was stuck there for years! The tendency when you begin a solo is to picture the first chord and a chord tone or lick to play.

…right out of the gate you’re into that mental box of one chord and one note at a time. However, with this mindset it’s difficult to think beyond single chords, it’s hard to create phrases, it’s even hard to play music!

If you’ve been practicing scales or focusing on individual chords, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong or off track…it simply means that you’re just getting started. You need to go even further, ingraining this information on a deeper level and understanding the bigger harmonic relationships at work!

You can practice all you want, you can learn tunes in all keys, and you can search far and wide for new improvisation concepts. But if you continue to create from this limited perspective, that free approach of your favorite players is going to continually remain out of reach.

Getting to the next level requires a new way of looking at things…

3 Steps to Thinking like a Pro

One thing I’ve noticed in studying with great improvisers over the years is that the way they talk about and conceive of harmony is starkly different from nearly everyone else…

In the past as I was struggling with a chord progression, I’d often ask my teachers about it. But time and again I’d receive answers like…

“Just play in C over that” or “Use your minor stuff there” or even “This tune is basically Major moving to relative minor.”

I’d be confused. I was looking for answers about single chords, about specific notes that I could play. My perspective of harmony and improvising was worlds away from the perspective of the players I wanted to sound like.

It was like someone struggling with spelling asking a famous novelist for advice and getting answers about the finer details of character development and story arc.

It wasn’t until I ingrained the fundamentals on a deeper level and changed my perspective, that I started to see the improvement I was looking for.

To get to this different perspective you need to change 3 main things

I) A Melodic approach: Language instead of notes

The biggest difference between the typical approach to standards shown above and the great solos you hear on recordings comes down to improvising with melody!

Great players are hearing and playing melodic ideas over chord progressions rather than focusing on individual notes.

This means transitioning from single notes and arpeggios on each chord to playing musical ideas and creating melodic statements.

Think about it…you can’t compose a sentence when you are focusing on a single letter at a time. To communicate effectively you need words, ideas, and simple phrases.

And the bigger your vocabulary, the more you’ll be able to say, the more complex ideas you’ll be able to convey.

The same is true with improvising. You need to develop language rather than relying on individual notes to create your solos. Like speaking, the more language you have, the more freedom and creativity you’ll have as an improviser.

Great players have language and melodic techniques for individual chords:

…as well as common progressions:

Develop both and you’ll see an immediate improvement in your musicality!

II) Zoom out and see the larger chord relationships

Great players understand that the chords in a progression don’t exist in a vacuum…

Each chord is there for a reason, connected to the chords that came before it and the progressions that follow it. You can’t play one and ignore its relationship to the rest of the progression.

As you look at a progression, ask yourself How does each chord function? What is the relationships between each of these chords?

In any tune there is a hierarchy of importance among the chords. Some chords are arrival points and carry more weight, while others are transition chords/passing chords creating resolution and harmonic motion:

In the opening to this tune, the D minor sound is the main arrival point. The other chords serve as transitions or passing chords to and from this primary sound.

When you see these larger harmonic relationships, you can improvise over bigger chunks of music in a less complicated way – focusing on melodic phrases rather than theory:

It’s also important to pause and clarify what playing or thinking in “D minor” means to a great player. While the average improviser may think of a single scale or arpeggio, an accomplished improvised will think of…

  • D minor language
  • ii-V language in D minor
  • V7 to i techniques in D minor
  • the relationship to the relative major
  • other common progressions in D minor

…all of this information is contained in the thought or the sound “D minor.” It’s not a single chord or scale, but an entire world of minor harmony and the techniques associated with it.

This is why my teachers gave answers like “play in C” or “it’s just minor.” From my perspective this meant a scale or an arpeggio, from theirs it was an entire world of information.

Strive to approach the progressions to jazz standards in this way. Pretty soon you’ll be seeing and hearing bigger chunks of the progression as one unifying concept.

III) Know how the progression functions within the larger key

When you tell an advanced improviser to play over Rhythm Changes, they don’t have to mentally go through every chord or think about individual notes on a specific chord.

They see and hear the entire tune as one entity, from start to finish. In other words, the best players are starting out with a mental map of progression in their minds…

This is the goal with every tune that you play. Rather than simply memorizing a sequence of chords, understand how harmony works. What is the home key and where are the major arrival points in the progression?

You need to have a mental map of the big harmonic arrival points in the progression before you start improvising…

With this ingrained in your mind and your ear, you don’t need to outline a progression or play chord tones to know where you are in the form…you hear it going by and you know where it’s going.

Putting these concepts to work

Now that you have an idea of this larger harmonic perspective, let’s look at these concepts in action in the hands of some musical masters…

Below we’ll look at 4 solo excerpts from master musicians over the opening bars to I Didn’t Know What Time It Was…

Some ideas are simple and some are more advanced, but all are possible using the 3 concepts we highlighted above.

We’ll focus on a few techniques in each solo, but dig deeper and see what you can find on your own based on everything we’ve covered so far.

1) Sonny Clark, Utilizing Language

The first example we’ll look at comes from the great pianist Sonny Clark on his self-title trio album. His solo begins at [0:51] in the video:

These opening measures are a great example of using a melodic approach to this chord progression. Remember using language doesn’t have to be complex, if fact the simpler a piece of language the more creativity it will inspire.

Here are a just few examples of Sonny using language and thinking melodically (instead of relying on scales or single notes) over the opening of the progression…

First, he utilizes language over single chords, like this a short example over a D minor chord:

*This example may seem simple, but the difference between this idea and picking chord tones based on theory is subtle – one is a musical idea with shape and rhythm and the other is simply music theory.

Here’s another simple minor language idea he uses later on in the solo:

Along with single chords, he also applies language to progressions. Check out this simple ii-V language that utilizes arpeggiation:

And building on the concept of treating those minor ii-V’s in the first four measures as one phrase in “D minor” listen to the opening line of his solo…

Very quickly, a few simple pieces of language can be combined and varied into longer musical phrases.

2) Stan Getz, Phrasing

Next, we’ll check out to how Stan Getz approaches this standard on his album Getz Meets MulliganHis solo begins at [3:21] in the video…

As Getz demonstrates, with a larger perspective of the harmony, you don’t have to rely on each chord to play a solo.

Instead you can start improvising with a melodic shape that you hear, rather than being a slave to the chord tones and progression

After embellishing the melody for a few bars, check out the line Stan plays below:

The melodic skeleton of the line is three notes ascending the he displaces by an octave – A, B, and C. Rather than worrying about ii-V’s or connecting each chord, he is improvising melodically over the larger harmonic movement.

He plays a similar phrase over the same ii-V later in the excerpt, creating a melodic phrase that encloses the 3rd of the chords and utilizes the octave motif:

Another idea worth noting is how he approaches this ii-V in A minor:

Rather than playing each passing chord, he simply thinks in “A minor,” utilizing blues language and ending the phrase on the 9th of the chord.

3) Charlie Parker, Melody and ii-V language

The third example we’ll look at is from Charlie Parker and the classic album Bird with Strings. Take a listen to his solo starting at [1:38] in the video below:

There is a lot going on here, in fact this excerpt is like an improvisation class! But for now, we’ll focus on two ideas in particular…

The first is the idea of using the melody as a framework for constructing your own melodic approach to the chord progression.

It’s important to remember that the melody to any tune is built over the larger progressions and relationships, just like we want our solo to be. Listen to how Parker opens his solo by embellishing this melodic framework:

The melody centers around the unique sound of the 11th…

Between these melodic notes, he embellishes the melody notes with the underlying chord movement (ii-V’s), enclosing the 3rd of each V7 chord.

This is a great way to find a melodic approach to the progression without having to start with a blank slate, simply create small variations on the original melody

The second aspect of Bird’s solo we’ll focus on is how he applies ii-V language and techniques within the larger progression.

Parker’s melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic approach is so strong that he doesn’t have to think in terms of notes or even lines, he simply hears the movement of the tune and applies his language at key points in the progression.

Here are a few examples:

 

Rather than typical ii-V lines, he is hearing the motion of the harmony and improvising over that with his melodic tools. What other ii-V techniques can you find, and how do they related to the larger harmonic movement?

4) Mulgrew Miller, Thematic Develpment

When you see the larger picture of the progression you can create motivic ideas based its motion, rather than playing over individual chords.

In fact you can even play outside of the chord progression or create your own harmonic substitution, letting the strength of your musical line lead the way.

Take a listen to how Mulgrew Miller does this in the opening to his solo [3:33] and note how he creates 3 motivic ideas based on the larger harmonic movement of the tune…

As you can hear in Mulgrew’s solo, your melodic ideas and statements can take priority over the movement of single chords. Let’s take a closer look at each theme…

First melodic theme:

Mulgrew begins his solo with repeated two note motif at the start of every measure…

Here he is essentially thinking in D minor, creating a phrase over 4 bars rather than one chord at a time. Looking at the repeated notes, he is using the notes of a d minor triad.

Second melodic theme:

Here Mulgrew plays a descending idea that moves down by whole-step.

Third melodic theme:

Here he continues the descending step-wise motion of the previous theme. He utilizes triplet rhythms with 3 notes ascending and 3 descending.

Harmonically he plays a descending D-7, C-7, BbMaj7 #5, A7, G-Maj 7. Which all fit with the underlying chords, in addition to working as a melodic motif.

He is able to freely create ideas like this by looking at the larger harmonic direction.

Changing your perspective…

There’s no secret scale or pattern that will automatically make you sound great over a tune. And you can’t just change your mindset or think creatively…

It’s a process that has specific steps and takes time and practice to achieve.

Think about a tune you’re learning or working on…

  • Are you falling into the one chord/one note approach?
  • Do you have language for individual chords & progressions?
  • Do you know which chords are arrival points and transitions chords?
  • Do you have the road map of the tune in your mind and your ear?

These factors will determine how you improvise over the tune. The type of phrases you’ll make and how you develop your solo…

Here’s how to get there

Using the concepts we highlighted in the excerpts above, you can improve your musicality and broaden your harmonic approach. It just takes some consistent and focused practice.

Here are the main pieces that you need to cover:

Language:

The first step to getting past the one note/one scale approach is acquiring language.

  • Develop language for individual chords
  • Develop language for basic chord progressions
  • The Melodic Power course is a great place to begin transitioning from the chord/scale approach to actually playing musical ideas

Hearing chord quality & chord relationships:

Your perspective of a tune isn’t just mental or based on music theory. It’s how you hear the progression.

This means devoting some time to ear training. Along with the fundamentals of developing your ear, it’s also important that you ingrain the common chord progressions found in the jazz repertoire.

This is the key to approaching your solos from a larger harmonic perspective!

*Check out the brand new updated Volume 4 to the Ear Training Method that focuses on the 9 Essential Elements you find in nearly every jazz standard.

Zoom out and understand the road map of the tune:

With any tune that you learn be sure to take time to study the larger harmonic framework of the tune before you start soloing…

  • What key is the tune in?
  • What are the arrival chords vs. transition chords?
  • What is the overall road map of the tune from start to finish?

Use the melody as your starting point:

Finally, when you learn a tune, use the melody as a starting point for your improvisation. If you want to solo in a melodic way, study the melody!

The truth is, you still need to study lines. You still have to practice linear techniques like approach notes and enclosure. And you still need to be able to visualize theory concepts and brush up your instrumental technique.

…but beyond these details lies the ability to approach a tune from a larger harmonic perspective.

This is the shift that will get you on the path to playing musical phrases and telling a story to the listener. Above all, it’s the key to finding the freedom and creative approach of the players you love to listen to!