I’ve been wanting to talk about improvisation for a while — not that vague and obscure term most textbooks teach you, but the one you could start practicing right now, without waiting till your scale fluency is perfect.
My problem with the way the jazz texts teach improv — is that they either overwhelm you with pre-written lines that you first have to plow through in order to become capable of creating your own — or, they just give you the chord chart and a passing modal scale name. Which is fine, but, if you don’t have a good grasp on scales, the exercise risk to remain very shallow, meandering around blurry and watery 7th chords, which in turn might make you feel bored and eventually abandon it. Which is, of course, not cool at all!
I’ve been there, and, after having hit the wall several times, I decided to use a slightly different approach: start by choosing a progression, gradually develop left hand patterns and use chord shells as a basis for the right hand melody. Let’s go over it step by step.
My progression of choice is I — iii — V — iii in G major. Here I’m just starting to shape the bass line using my favourite (and probably a bit overused) starting point — broken 10th chords. Nothing fancy yet. Let’s go to step 2.
Same bass line, plus — I’ve added something to keep the right hand busy. It’s normally much more satisfying to make it do any kind of work from the very start (as opposed to learning both hands’ lines separately and then trying to marry them somehow). Shell voicings are my go-to, since they have a very nice jazzy sound while being dead simple to execute, so you can focus on left hand almost entirely.
This already starts to sound interesting.
Let’s add a bit more complexity to the left hand.
Here, I went from simple 10ths to a combination of different elements: broken 10th, regular triad arpeggio, 7-3-5 voicing and, finally, the triad played harmonically, i. e. as a block chord. All this makes the line somewhat more interesting by creating more movement in the left hand (you may notice that broken 10ths transition very naturally to the triad arpeggios in terms of fingering — although it might seem scary on the staff). Right hand remains unchanged, doing its simple shell business.
Here’s how it sounds:
Now, it’s time to make the left hand pattern beautiful 😃
What’s new here? A couple of things: first of all, I’ve switched to 8th triplets for the more animato sound, second of all, I’ve arpeggiated everything 🤓 The structure is now the following: normal broken 10th, broken 10th in 1st inversion (yes, you can invert 10th chords just like the normal ones), regular triad arpeggio, root played one octave up, 7-3-5 voicing one octave up, played harmonically. As I said earlier, it might look like a lot of stuff, but you will be surprised by how naturally these structures blend into each other. All of this creates a sonic texture that is not anymore a repeating pattern, but rather a smooth flow.
It does restart the same way when the chord changes, but there is a way to tame that as well — I’ve recently written a whole post dedicated to that topic; so, let’s not veer too far for now.
As the last step, I would, of course, bring back the right hand and play— what should I play? Well, I was playing shell chords up until now, what shall I do? (Voice from the back of the room: “Play them melodically!”) Yes! Arpeggiated shells or, if you want to get more science-y, shell permutations are the perfect starting point for the improvisation. From there, you’re free to build up on top of that and create a more sophisticated melody.
As you can see, I used different kinds of shells for different parts of progression: 7-3-5 for Em and D and 3-7-9 for G. Check it out:
I’m not sure if this is more fun that cycling Dorian scales over minor 7th chords and then all Mixolydian over dominant 7ths, but something tells me that it might— Anyway, I hope you found this post insightful and this practice routine will be helpful for you in some way! Thanks for reading and listening, that’s it for today.
Next time, I’m going to be looking into some new bass patterns (take a break from 10ths shall we? 😄) Have fun and — harmonise ’till it hurts!