Non-jazz improvisation in 5 moderately easy steps

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.

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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.

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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.

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This already starts to sound interesting.

 

Let’s add a bit more complexity to the left hand.

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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 😃

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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.

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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!

Dorian superposition and the bottomless pit of melodies

So, let’s talk about modal superposition, shall we? I guess there were a lot of relatively technical (to avoid the word boring) posts in the recent time where I was mostly talking about scale practice and left hand patterns and whatnot — let’s take a break from that and look at composition.

I adore modes. They’re pure math that lends itself very well to the creative process (which is normally the opposite). They help you widen your composition framework and explore new areas. The cool thing about them is that you don’t have to master them in order to start using them. It’s kind of counter-intuitive as most jazz books assume that you’re familiar with Dorian scale in every key to such extent where you can improvise and harmonise without any effort. That scares a lot of people (me included), so they get stuck and spend years diligently running all the scales and memorising chord qualities, never really getting to the actual application. But that’s wrong!

You can start applying modes right away. The key is, it’s not about taking a particular Dorian scale and blasting it over a minor 7th chord at lightspeed. Instead, it’s more about picking E Dorian key and then adjusting your tools to match its colour.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

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Here, I chose to play the 3rd degree of the harmonised Dorian scale (the III∆7 chord) in different shell voicings over the tonic (which is the i7, in this case, represented by a simple 5th chord). The same pattern is played in 3 keys: E, A and D Dorian.

I guess I’ve already mentioned the usefulness of jazz chord voicings like 7-3-5 or 3-7-9 or 3-7-6 — you name it — but I’ll do it once again: they are great material for improvisation, and they are extremely simple to play, because all you have to do is just arpeggiate the shapes you’re already familiar with (if you’re not, practice them harmonically first, I’ve got tons of workouts for that plus there are jazz books).

So, by superimposing G∆7 (Dorian III∆7) over Em7 (Dorian i7) we get a really nice and interesting sound — and that’s already a starting point for a song or improvisation. Cool, right? You don’t need to master Dorian mode in all 12 keys (or — 30 keys, you geeks) to start coming up with great ideas.

Let’s improve the piece above and add some more patterns to it:

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It’s the same melody, only the left hand now plays full minor 7th arpeggio and switches to chord shells every second bar. See what I’ve done here? The right hand uses the arpeggiated version of the chord shells as the material for the melody, and the left hand plays the same shells harmonically as an accompaniment. Check out how it sounds:

 

Fun fact: one of the tracks from my coming piano EP is based on this workout, so — stay tuned if you’d like to hear the full version! 🤓 (In the meantime, you might want to check out my new album that landed just two days ago.)

That’s it for today, wishing you a nice and productive week, practice hard, harmonise till it hurts, talk to you next time! 🤙🏻

Practice session: Locrian dissection and more

Scale studies

Improv

  • Always on my mind
    • Shells
    • 10ths
    • Free improv

Observations

When playing from the chord chart, there is always a temptation to look on it even after you already know the progression by heart. It could be helpful to try and memorise the chords in the process of improvising to be able to look away from the chart and concentrate on introducing new left hand patterns and right hand runs.

How to deal with mad accidentals in harmonic minor modes

Harmonic minor is a bitch. Well, what I wanted to say is that it’s tricky in terms of getting fluent in it and not messing it up when you improvise. That raised 7th degree is super dissonant, it almost gives a feeling of a “wrong note” in a lot of contexts, so in order to get it properly wrong, you need to make sure your fingers remember what it is. The problem with accidentals in Hm is that the standard formulas for flats and sharps do not work, and “4 flats” does not automatically mean “Bb, Eb, Ab, Db”, as it would in any major mode. So you really need to get quick at figuring out what the 7th is and then raising it half step — or just get comfortable with all the accidentals in each key. Sounds like a lot of boring math, but I actually came up with a fun exercise that makes it sound super fancy and can turn your next practice session into a — you guessed it — extremely entertaining pastime.

The idea is simple: one of your hands only plays scale degrees with accidentals, the other one only plays naturals — in any octave, in any combination, harmonically or melodically. That’s it! You do it for one measure, and then you change hands. If the left was playing only altered degrees, it has to switch to naturals, the right then will switch to accidentals. For the next measure, you change the key (like, go around the cycle of 4ths maybe?). Here’s an example of Bb harmonic minor going into F harmonic minor going into Eb harmonic minor:

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And here’s how it sounds:

It might start sounding a bit like shit once you get to the keys with a lot of accidentals (like Eb here), but in this case, you can just turn off the restrictions and use all notes in both hands.

Oh, and yes — try in any major mode or blues scale to experience the instant gratification of not having to think about the raised 7th 😆

Till later—

Piano day (1h 30m)

  • Comping practice (“A Child is Born” by Thad Jones) — exercise from “Jazz Language” book by Dan Haerle
    • Playing a jazz standard from the Real Book (to walking bass + drums accompaniment) with roots / block arpeggios in LH & shell voicings in RH
    • Using 3-7-9, 7-3-6, 7-3-5 shells
    • Trying to follow the “minimum movement” principle
  • Improvisation (only left hand)
    • Cycling dominant 7th chords in 7-3-6 — 3-7-9
    • Cycling minor to dominant progression in 3-7-9 — 7-3-6