Improvising With Chromaticism

As improvisers we are always looking to create new harmonic concepts or to find new ways of soloing over traditional changes that are innovative and creative. Actually, for the past sixty years jazz musicians have been playing the same basic set of standard tunes, each generation making their stylistic mark on the history of the music. This is a lot of development and after the innovations of Parker, Trane, Miles and countless others it seems like every possible way to play over these progressions has already been done…twice.

One area left to really explore, though, is chromatic improvisation and from listening to some of the great players today, it seems that this concept is becoming an essential part of the vocabulary for modern jazz musicians. Now, this is not just using chromatic scales or playing free jazz, but constructing lines, patterns, triads and arpeggios that move in different directions chromatically; a concept that has infinite possibilities. For example, look at the figure below of a very simple line using this structure:

In the above example, the line is composed of whole steps that descend chromatically. This same idea can be applied to larger intervals (fourths, sixths, tritones, etc.), triads (major, minor, diminished, augmented and inverted) and even chord progressions to create new possibilities for improvisation. Players today like Dave Liebman and George Garzone have explored these concepts in depth and have even developed their own methods for chromatic improvisation.

This trend really began with Miles in the mid-60’s when he was playing with his second great quintet with Wayne, Herbie, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Because of the freeness and daring of this group, playing complex chromatic lines really worked well, especially with a rhythm section that could go anywhere at any moment.

Check out this video of the quintet playing Joshua and listen to how Miles uses chromatic lines and patterns throughout his solo…actually, check out everybody’s playing, this whole band is so killing it’s scary.

Where to start

Playing these close chromatic structures works well over modal and complex progressions, as well as conventional changes simply for the fact that these types of lines have no strong tonal center. When you use these devices in effective places within your solos though, they can add harmonic tension and forward motion to your lines. The trick is to incorporate these patterns into your playing and technique after establishing an approach to improvising that is diatonically based.

When we learn music theory and start to improvise, we use material that is based largely upon diatonic construction or modes of the major scales. Gradually, as we progress, we add some altered or non-traditional scales like the octatonic, diminished, or whole tone scales to our vocabulary. Still, at the core, everything is rooted to diatonic modes and their resulting progressions.

Coming from this type of musical education, lines that move in intervals and patterns not found in the traditional modes (i.e. chromatic movement) can feel foreign at first and will take some work to get them in your ears and under your fingers. What you must do to gain familiarity and eventually facility with these patterns, is create exercises aimed at acquiring this technique. Start simple with isolated exercises and then slowly build upon those concepts until you are creating your own vocabulary.

Practice in 4 Directions

Just as practicing your diatonic scales in all four directions covers all possible variations, shedding these chromatic patterns in all four directions will ensure that these lines will be in your fingers. For our purposes here, we’ll take one intervallic pattern (whole steps moving chromatically) and explore it ‘s variations. Start with this example and take it through all four directions ascending and descending:

Down Down

Down Up

Up Up

Up Down

Emphasize Goal Notes

Once these exercises become comfortable, start to think of how you can use these devices in your soloing. Playing with these kinds of lines can be especially effective in creating momentum in your lines towards a goal note or strong arrival point. One of the reasons this technique is so effective is that the chromaticism acts as a harmonic tension, building towards a resolving note. Try aiming for a chord tone as the arrival point of your chromatic based line.

In the following example over the chord E -7, the resolution point of each chromatic structure is a chord tone (the root, 3rd and 5th):

Chromatic lines over ii-V’s

Continuing with the idea of aiming for goal notes over one chord, try to write down some lines that work over a progression and resolve on the final chord. Since ii-V’s occur in countless standards, having some new material to navigate this common progression will be very beneficial. Try constructing a line built upon ascending and descending chromaticism, for example:

Where to go from here

Approaching improvising from this type of mindset opens up new possibilities because the structure of the line and relationship of the intervals become the focal point rather than the accompanying chords. The above examples are only a glimpse of what is possible when you incorporate close chromatic structures into your lines. Just keep watching that clip of Miles to see what’s possible. Here are a few things to think about and to look into to expand your technique and knowledge of chromatic concepts:

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