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!

Sophisticated left hand patterns: how to avoid the “arpeggiator” sound

I’ve got some new exciting left hand patterns for y’all! Let’s dive right into it. You know I’m a great fan of arpeggiated broken 10ths, right? This is the pattern that stride pianists of the 30s-40s have been using in their ultra-fast left-hand rolls when they got bored by stride bass and triads. 10ts are nothing less but 3rds transposed up an octave — but they sound much sexier, airier and just cooler. Think of them as 3rds with the make-up on. Or 3rds in lingerie. Okay, I guess I made it clear enough, let’s not explore this analogy further—

So, the 30s guys used to play them fast and mostly harmonically, meaning — as chords (that require a hell of a finger span), but the real magic happens when you play them melodically, i. e. when you arpeggiate them. You can then add other diatonic intervals and discover whole new universes of left hand patterns. By the way, if you’re lazy, I have a ton of exercises on this very topic for you.

Just like any other chords, 10th “chords” have “inversions”. And just like any inversions, 10th inversions have — ahem — permutations. If you aren’t familiar with the concept of chord permutation, read this post. Inverted 10ths come very handy when you want to diversify your left hand playing style. For example, if you have a pattern that goes: Cm7 — Bbm7 — Ab∆7 — Eb∆7, it would be a bit repetitive and stale to use the same broken 10th pattern for all four bars. By alternating inversions and combining them with normal 7th chord arpeggios (and arpeggiated chord shells) you can create the fabric that flows very smoothly, blending between chords in intricate and subtle ways, as opposed to robotic switches when you just repeat the same pattern in a different harmonic context.

Let’s take a closer look at inverted broken 10ths:

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This is the classic 1-5-10 pattern for the Cm chord: starting on root (C), then on the fifth (G) and on the 10th (Eb one octave above).

Here’s how you can construct a unique left hand pattern using three different ingredients: inverted 10ths, 7th arpeggio in two permutations and the shell voicing.

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And that’s just one chord! So, even if you’re going to be staying in Cm for a couple of bars, by having your left hand pattern flow like this, you’re much less likely to sound stale and static.

Here’s the C Phygian piece using some combinations of the aforementioned patterns to create smooth connections between the chords and make the whole thing sound richer and more interesting. The progression is the same: Cm7 — Bbm7 — Ab∆7 — Eb∆7, right hand plays simple arpeggiated triads.

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I hope my new score highlighting approach improves legibility of the ideas that I’m trying to communicate here, and not vice versa 😆 Let me know if the old one was better! So, back to the piece — as you can see, I’m alternating here between the three ingredients we’ve already seen before, trying to create the uninterrupted line by starting each new bar on the closest note possible to the last note of the previous bar. It’s very much like walking bass lines, right, bass geeks? 🤓 Seriously, I guess I have to credit Todd Johnson and Scott Devine and many other bass instructors here for making me internalise this principle of voice leading — make it flow, make it flow.

Check out how it sounds:

 

Okay, that should be it for today, I hope it was helpful! See you later and — harmonise till it hurts! 🤙🏻

 

Comment j’apprends

Long time no see, huh! Sorry about the relatively long gap between the posts — I am currently rehearsing the tracks for my new EP, and it takes pretty much all of my time (which is the issue that might — and should — be addressed by proper practice 🤓)! Anyway — today I wanted to share a part of my workflow concerning the jazz books: how I use them, adapt them to my (sometimes not-so-jazzy) needs and make them work together with other practice routines that I have.

Here’s one of my long-time favourites: Jazz Piano Voicing Skills by Dan Haerle, one of the world’s most renowned jazz educators and pianist (he’s retired from his university job, but he’s still touring with his trio, by the way!). It’s the book that opened the Pandora’s box of 13th chords voicings — all that 7-3-5, 3-7-9, 7-3-6, all the polychord and fourthy stuff that I keep going on about here — it’s from Mr. Haerle. If you’re just starting your journey from the block chords to the new horizons, I would recommend getting this book, closing your browser tab and just diving in it for a couple of months — it will take your playing to the next level, no shit 🤭

So, back to today’s topic — here’s an excerpt from the book:

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All exercises there are called “skills”, and what they are is basically different types of 7th or 13th chords moving around the cycle of fourths while using the smart voice leading to ensure minimum finger movement. Sometimes the quality of the chord will also change, but in this case, it’s just the dominant chords with suspended 4ths, the left hand plays the root, and the right plays 7-9-4 → 4-7-9 pattern. You can also see that the marks that I leave in my paper books look exactly the same as the ones I have in my own sheet music here 😆

Okay, so, this is a great exercise, but after a while, it kind of gets too simple, particularly because of the left hand only playing the tonic. How can we improve that?

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Of course! Instead of playing just the tonic — I’m going to play the full block chord with the left hand, which will give me the full dominant polychord sound and a very satisfying sentiment of being smarter than the jazz book. But chords are boring. Let’s arpeggiate things!

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Just doing the same thing, only I added some eighth notes and shells to the left hand pattern. Only using the notes of the corresponding dominant 7th chords (C7 & F7) here. What’s next? Extensions, obviously! How about extending the left-hand pattern one octave lower and adding major 10ths?

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I’ve probably said it too much already, but just for the record — broken 10ths in piano is like ollie in skateboarding: once you’ve mastered them, you have access to all the crazy tricks out there. I have all kinds of posts on 10ths here, check them out if you want.

Next stop?

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Here, I’ve added one of my new favourite bass patterns that is based on so called “8-to-the-bar bass” that has been used a lot by stride pianists like Willie Smith. I learned it recently from the brilliant book Jazz Piano: The Left Hand by Riccardo Scivales. I’m definitely going to write a separate post to this topic, as it is extremely interesting. But for today, I think that’s it. I love jazz books (although I am not necessarily a jazz pianist), and this the way I incorporate them in my practice routine. Hope you found it helpful too! Thanks for reading and — till later! 🎹

Finger independence routine as a composition tool

Hand independence is one of those technical things that I unconsciously put off for as long as I can, trying to justify it by telling myself that it’s not as important and that I’d be better off focusing on theory or learning pieces, plus it’s just plain boring and frustrating, so why start it anyway. And it’s all right until I sit down to record another piece and realise that I need 20 exhausting takes to lay down a fairly simple part because I just can’t reconcile left hand bass pattern with the melody that my right hand plays. Furthermore, because of the lack of focused work on independence, my fingers tend to avoid complex patterns and I often end up with similarly sounding, repeating melodic landscapes. So yeah, dedicated hand independence workout is important because it improves composition.

But instead of reaching for a Czerny book and embarking on a 10-year nightmare of finger exercises, I decided to make use of some jazz voicings and — as always — come up with a routine that would be fun and musical. So I could actually compose stuff in the process.

Here’s what I started with:

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As you can see, the right hand simply plays notes from the shell voicing of a major 7th chord (7-3-5 in this case), while the left hand walks up and down the major 7th arpeggio (in full 1-3-5-7 form). Just breaking a shell chord voicing into individual tones already creates a pleasant sounding line! What is the obvious next step to sex it up?

Yes:

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Add broken 10ths in the left hand. Alternating 10-5-1-5-10 pattern and walking ∆7 arpeggios with LH against the same line with RH already sounds super jazzy and very rich. Just in case — I’m going around the cycle of 4ths here (C∆ → F∆ → etc.) and playing corresponding 7-3-5 shells with my right hand.

Next step — try a more sophisticated intervallic pattern. I love 6ths, James Jameson loves 6ths, why not take them?

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First, isolate them and practice over descending and ascending arpeggio to let the right hand get used to the new pattern, and then — combine all left hand and right hand lines in one workout:

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Here C∆ 7-3-5 figure is played over broken 10ths, and then in the next bar, the 6-5-3-7 pattern in F major is played over F∆ arpeggio. Obviously, you can continue on and go around the cycle of 4ths / circle of 5ths or a modal II—V—I.

Finally, here’s an example of a real world application of the all aforementioned techniques. I took the first couple of bars of Always on My Mind by Brenda Lee (D | A | B- | D) and just improvised on them playing mostly 1-5-10, 1-5-1′ pattern with the left hand and different intervallic patterns with the right (mostly focusing on melodically played 7-3-5 shell). Check it out, I’m using colours now! Does it make notes on the staff look less (more?) annoying? 🤓

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And here’s what it sounds like:

Hope you find it helpful! Till later—

Practice session: scale dissection and revisited ii — V — I’s

Scale studies

Jazz voicings + left hand

Observations

Scale dissection is getting much better, but still sucks in Bb- and other keys with a lot of accidentals, where the “white are 1 & 2, black are 3 & 7” pattern is not there anymore. This is why visual pattern are shit! To take a slightly better thought-through analogy, they are like sugar — addictive and unhealthy! 😄

Session timing: 1h 40m

Piano day (1h 45m)

Scale studies

Left hand + jazz voicings

  • iim9 — V13 — I∆9 | iiø — V7b9 — im9 (format 2) — skill 45 from Jazz Piano Voicings by Dan Haerle (C thru F#). Left hand:
    • 1-5 shells
    • 1-5-6 runs
    • Broken 10ths (ascending on major part, descending on parallel minor)
    • 1-5-10 + blocks octave above
  • 10ths w/o clashes going up and down, focusing on with 2-octave leaps at range switches (e. g. Gb — B 8vb)