Intermediate jazz improvisation: 5 Exercises to boost your jazz language

So you’ve finally realized the importance of jazz language and you’re starting to learn lines in all keys…it’s like a whole new world has opened up. More creativity. More possibility. More options…Done are the days where you randomly mixed notes up from a scale trying endlessly to improvise a lyrical melody over the chord changes. That’s what a beginner does…

An intermediate jazz improviser knows how to utilize language…but how can you start this transition to intermediate and take your progress with jazz language to the next level?

Well as a beginner, when you start to acquire jazz language, the first lines you study are usually quite basic, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. They might start from the root of the chord, avoid “complex” chord tones like the b9 or #11, and perhaps they use simple rhythms too.

But hey, if you’re new to the idea of jazz language and just taking a line through all keys is difficult enough, don’t sweat it!!

When you’re moving from beginner to intermediate, you don’t need to add complexity to your language concept. That’s NOT the goal. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with “simple” musical ideas. It’s what you can do with these ideas and the musical information that matters…

Over time, you want your facility and understanding of jazz language to grow. You want musical freedom…

This freedom comes from the ability to play jazz language from any possible angle, from – any chord-tone, any direction, and from any beat of the measure.

As you advance and acquire more jazz language for all the common chord progressions that you might encounter, to reach this state of freedom you’ll need to add some new creative practice tactics to your routine.

These tactics will get you thinking about and working on your jazz language in different ways, resulting in much greater improvisational flexibility.

Welcome to intermediate jazz improvisation…

Let’s Get Some Language

For today’s lesson, we’re going to need a little jazz language to work with. Not too much. You don’t need a whole solo or even a chorus. Even a line or two can be PACKED with valuable information that can catapult your playing forward!

And there’s this great Charlie Parker solo on Rhythm Changes that we recently we’re looking at from a rhythmic perspective that is perfect to illustrate to you some of the language concepts and exercises that we want to explore today.

As I mentioned in this Charlie Parker Rhythmic Lesson, his lines are PACKED with musical information. Well, today I get to prove that to you and you’ll see just how much we can squeeze out of every note Bird plays.

To begin, the first intermediate jazz exercise will help you get rid of your root dependency…

Intermediate Jazz Improvisation Exercise #1: No More Root

You know what’s easy to think about? A line that starts on the root of the chord.

You know what’s slightly more difficult to think about?? A line that starts on a note other than the root…

But you know what’s quite a bit more difficult??? A line that doesn’t even contain the root.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with using the root in your lines. Coltrane, Bird, Diz…they all do. So it’s not a rule or even a suggestion. This is an exercise, and the point of it is to learn to easily think through and play language without the need to reference the root of the chord.

So for this exercise, you will be avoiding the root of the chord because it’s time to finally rid yourself of your dependence on the root.

Exercise #1: Getting Over Root Reliance

The Goal: To be able to think and play over a chord without needing to have the root of the chord in the line. You want to train yourself to be able to know any chord-tone as easily as you would know the root. NO more reliance on the root!

Directions: Find a line you like and transcribe it. Work on a piece of it that doesn’t use the root of the chord through all keys.

So if you have a line like this Charlie Parker lick…

Take a piece of the line that you like that doesn’t contain the root of the chord…

…and move it through all the keys around The Cycle

To make this an Intermediate jazz exercise, DO NOT write it out in all keys.

Instead of writing an exercise out in all keys, create a narrative that will help you initially think through it. For example, with our previous line it could be “Start from the 6th of the dominant chord, then move down scale-wise to the 3rd, and when I reach the 3rd, arpeggiate up to the 9th, and finally resolve to the 5th of the tonic chord.”

Again, DO NOT write the exercises out in all keys…

That goes for ALL the exercises we’re going to cover today. I know it’s difficult. I know it might seem impossible at first.

Resist the temptation to write them out. Struggle through it and force yourself to put the line through all keys without writing it out.

That is the whole point of the exercise.

As an intermediate jazz improviser, you MUST learn to think and play in all keys. This is brain training!! And to activate your brain, it has to do the work, NOT your eyes!

The benefits of this exercise are great. With practice, you’ll be able to think about a chord without having to put so much attention on the root.

And after you’ve made some progress with root reliance, it’s time to start using all those tricky altered dominant chord-tones that you’ve been avoiding…

Intermediate Jazz Improvisation Exercise #2: altered tones

When you think of a G7 chord, do you naturally think of improvised melodies that start on the b9? How bout the #9, or the #5?

All of these altered notes add harmonic and melodic depth to your playing, but they’re not easy to use.

In fact, if you can’t visualize them clearly, or hear exactly how they sound against a chord, then you’re going to have a very difficult time playing them.

But once you have a foundation with the altered notes, you’ll want to practice exercises that specifically target the use of these colors.

Exercise #2: Learning to Wield Language From Altered Chord-tones

The Goal: To be able to think and play over a chord starting from less used chord tones, especially altered chord-tones like #9, b9, #5, b5.

Directions: Find a line over a dominant chord you like and transcribe it. Work on a piece of it that starts from an altered note. Or, modify the line so it does.

To show you this, let’s take the same Charlie Parker lick, but this time we’ll focus on another part of the line…

Notice how he uses all sorts of altered notes on the dominant chord here?

He starts on the #9 of the chord, then uses the 6 (also called the 13th), the b6th (the same as the b13th, or the #5), followed by the 3rd, 5th, and 7th.

That’s exactly what we’re looking for in terms of a line for this exercise because our goal is to get comfortable starting our lines on altered or less frequently used chord-tones.

Now, take the line and put it in all keys around The Cycle like this…

Again, don’t write it out. Instead think through it in real-time as you play. Make sure you always know what chord you’re playing over and what chord-tones you’re playing.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, chances are it’s going to be very difficult. Take your time! Focus on one key at a time and aim to hear the altered sounds in your mind.

Next, we’ll learn an important intermediate skill…how to practice language in various root movements.

Intermediate Jazz Improvisation Exercise #3: root movements

Ok, now you’re going to learn how to take the lines you’re working on and move them through all keys in less common root movements…

The common root movements that people usually practice with are half steps and Cycle Movement. There’s nothing wrong with these and you’ll want to continue to practice these forever. They are crucial.

But you’ll also want to expand your root movement practice vocabulary to include:

  • Whole Steps
  • Minor 3rds
  • Major 3rds

Now, when you practice in these root movements, unlike The Cycle or half-steps, you don’t hit all 12 keys in one pass.

You see, for each of these less common root movements, you only cover a portion of the keys with each “group” so you have to make sure that you still hit all keys like this…

  • Whole Steps – There are 2 groups
    • Group #1: C D E F# Ab Bb
    • Group #2: Db Eb F G A B
  • Minor 3rds – There are 3 groups
    • Group #1: C Eb F# A
    • Group #2: C# E G Bb
    • Group #3: D F Ab B
  • Major 3rds – There are 4 groups
    • Group #1: C E Ab
    • Group #2: Db F A
    • Group #3: D F# Bb
    • Group #4: Eb G B

Exercise #3: Learning to play in different root movements

The Goal: To be able to play and think through root movements besides The Cycle and half steps. And to be able to move musical information in creative ways and to think fast! Remember, this is BRAIN training!

Directions: Find a line over any quality of chord you like and transcribe it. Take a piece of the line and move it through whole steps, minor thirds, or major thirds.

So let’s take another piece of this Charlie Parker lick…

…and to illustrate this exercises, we’ll move it around in major thirds…

With all these root movements, make sure to practice both up and down the full range of your instrument. After this grouping, you would then practice the other 3 major third groupings to cover all the keys.

If this is tricky for you, you’ll want to learn how to clearly visualize through these root movements. If you want in-depth training of how to practice this, our Visualization Course contains an entire chapter dedicated just to this.

So, now when you go to practice something in all keys, realize that there is not just one way to take something through the keys. You can make it quite a bit more challenging and force yourself to move melodic information in more creative ways.

Next we’ll work on starting language from other beats…

Intermediate Jazz Improvisation Exercise #4: Different Beats

A simple yet very effective technique to gain rhythmic flexibility with a line is to start it on a different beat than it was originally played from.

You can shift it forward, backward, across multiple measures, to an up-beat…or anything else you can come up with! The important aspect of the exercise is that you’re learning to take a musical idea and start it from other beats…

Exercise #4: Learning to Play From Different Beats

The Goal: To be able to start jazz language on a different beat then it was originally played from.

Directions: Find a line over any quality of chord you like and transcribe it. Take a piece of the line and start it from any beat other than the one it was originally played from.

So taking our Bird line, we’ll now use another piece from it…

And instead of practicing it starting on beat 3 as Bird played it, we’ll try practicing it from other beats of the measure like this…

Of course you can begin a line from an up-beat or even modify the rhythm! When you understand the goal of an exercise, you can do anything you like to the language to make the exercise more effective.

And finally, we’ll work on using the concept behind the line…

Intermediate Jazz Improvisation Exercise #5: using concepts

When we first learn a piece of language, we may initially tend to play it the exact way we transcribed it. But over time, this changes. In fact, we want to IMPROVISE with the musical information, modifying it, morphing it, changing it, and combining it with other language in real-time.

And one of the best ways to work on this improvisational freedom is to practice improvising with the concept behind the line.

Exercise #5: Learning to improvise with the concept behind the line

The Goal: To be able to create improvised lines based upon the idea or concept behind a line. The idea can be a harmonic concept, the shape, the chord-tones, the rhythm, ANYTHING that you see or hear.

Directions: Find a line over any quality of chord you like and transcribe it. Take a piece of the line and figure out how you might think about what’s happening in the line. Distill this into a solid concept and improvise with that concept in mind.

Back to our Charlie Parker lick to show you how to do this…we’ll take the piece of the line we used for Exercise #4, but now we’ll think about the concept behind the line…

And this is not some crazy theoretical concept that you’re after. You want to determine a concept that you can actually apply and use with ease in real-time, so….

For this line there are so many different concepts you could think about. In terms of harmonic and melodic thinking, here are a few that come to mind…

If you now think about a C major #5 arpeggio when you’re improvising over D7, you may come up with a line in real-time that is similar to what Bird came up with. Or, you might think of an E major triad, or an A minor major 7 arpeggio. There are endless ways to think about the concept behind a line.

Use your own creativity and constructs to determine what works best for YOU when thinking about a concept.

Like the other exercises, this is going to be tricky at first. Go slowly and tackle one thing at a time…

Welcome to Intermediate Jazz Improvisation Practice

There you have it. 5 powerful jazz improvisation exercises that will help you enter the world of intermediate jazz improvisation.

Make no mistake about it…these exercises are by no means easy.

But with focus on each one, you’ll see huge improvements.

  1. Rid yourself of root reliance – When you become free from having to think about the root of every chord, you can think about a whole lot more.
  2. Start using altered chord-tones – When you can use these colors easily and make them sound right, your playing will become more mature.
  3. Get comfortable with different root movements – When you can move musical ideas through various root movements, you’ll have a new found freedom with melodic ideas.
  4. Learn to use every beat of a measure – When you can start lines from anywhere, you unlock rhythmic freedom.
  5. Understand the concepts behind language – When you understand what’s happening behind a line, you gain a deeper understanding of what’s possible with the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic information.

If you want to excel and move beyond where you are now, then you need to mix up how you practice the same old things.

Use the intermediate jazz improvisation ideas we talked about today to break free from beginner habits and limitations. Remember, even though these exercises are challenging, have fun while adding these new creative approaches to your always evolving practice routine!