Improvising with Triads (Arpeggios)

When we think about improvising in jazz we most often think about more notes, bigger arpeggios and more complicated scales as the road to playing more intricate and exciting solos. It’s true that 9ths, 13ths and all manner of complicated extensions do add beautiful colours to our solos. In this post, I’d like to point you to an easier route to achieve this goal. We will explore how simple 3 note triads can be used to create beautiful lush textures in our improvised solos.

So how does this work? Let’s start with some simple examples. First off, we will examine a couple of 4 note 7th chords and look at them in a different way. What if we visualize them as slash chords. What is a Cmaj7 chord? Cmaj7 has 4 notes; root, major 3rd, 5th and major 7th. Some will also say that a Cmaj7 is a C major triad with a major 7th. All true.

What if we look at Cmaj7 the other way. What if we say that a Cmaj7 chord is an Em triad with a C in the bass?

We can do the same for a Dm7 chord.

Visualizing our chords in this way gives us a new tool to improvise with. Instead of thinking of a Dm7 arpeggio or a D Dorian mode, we can think of playing a simple F triad over a Dm7 chord. This is perfect as we avoid playing the root. The bass player has the root covered so that leaves us to everything else.

Next let’s look at some 9th chords. What if we take the top 3 notes of a 9th chord and see what kind of triads we end up with. Let’s look at Dm9.

If we use an Am triad to improvise over a Dm9 chord, the triad will give us the 5th, 7th and 9th of the Dm9 chord.

For the Dm7 chord, I’ve used only an Am triad.

Now we will go one step further. Lets look at G7(sus4). In this chord we have  the root, 4th, 5th, flatted 7th and 9th. Remember that we are using the 4th to replace the 3rd and not adding the 11th on top with the 3rd still present. We will however visualize our chord as having an 11 (no 3rd) for the purpose of creating our triad. In other words, we will use the 7th, 9th and 11th. We end up with an F major triad.

A nice way to incorporate the F triad into a nice improvised line is to combine it with a G triad. In the example below I am using F and G triads to create a line.

Bars 1 and 2 are G triad to F triad, 2 beats each while bars 3 and 4 do the opposite: G triad for 2 beats followed by F triad for 2 beats.

The same 2 triads also work very well over an F Lydian mode. Our chord is Fmaj7(#11).

Triads often make up the upper extensions of more complax chords as in the example below.

If we take the 3rd, b9 and the 13th, respell enharmonically the Ab as a G# we end up with an E triad. In the example below, I’ve used an E triad over the G7 chord.

Here we have only looked at a few possible ideas for improvising with Triads. There are many other possible triads to explore. Your next step would be to look at the chords to one of the songs you are working on and experiment with some of the possible triads contained within the chords. Look especially at chords with lots of extensions and try to see what kinds of Triads each contains.

As always, have fun and be creative with your practice!

 

Autumn Thieves (Stealing from the melody)

In the words of the great Igor Stravinsky: “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” As I’m sure you don’t want to be a “lesser artist” but a great artist, we’re going to learn how to steal. What are we stealing?

When it’s your turn to improvise you need a place to start. If you are going to take your solo right after the sax player, you want to take the last idea she or he played and work that into your solo. If you are the first soloist, you’ll be playing right after the head so you want to take your cue from the melody. We are stealing musical ideas, licks, melody, rhythms or whatever we can from whomever is playing before us or even from the melody. It’s always nice when one solo blends into the next and the spirit of one solo is passed on to the next solo.

In this post, we are going to look at how we can use elements of the melody to craft a solo. We will be looking at “Autumn Leaves” as this is a very well known tune. It also has many strong melodic motives which can easily be worked into new ideas. So the idea is to take one of the motivic ideas from the melody and use it as a starting point for your solo.

If you plan on taking more than one chorus of solo, you need to have a plan as to how you will begin your solo, what you will play in the middle and how you will conclude. It’s not the best idea to just play 3 choruses of Bebop lines. You want to have some variety, a sense that you are on a journey and a feeling that your solo is part of the overall structure of the piece. I’ve always felt that you should not just be soloing but rather playing a specific piece of music. Apart from having different chord progressions, what make one tune different from another. Whatever standard you are playing, use ideas from the melody in your solo. Play that piece.

Here is the beginning of the melody to Autumn Leaves.

And since I play jazz I would probably play the melody more like this.

Here is what I played to start my solo. Can you hear how I’ve referenced the melody?

For the entire chorus of the solo, I’ve tried to develop the “borrowed” musical idea. Sometimes it is more obvious than others. This is good. I like to start with something familiar and see where it takes me. Just like in composition, the goal is to use melodic techniques such as the sequence and melodic inversion to name a few, to develop your improvisational ideas.

The solo below would be played as the first chorus of the first soloist. In other words, we are coming out of the head (melody) and so the solo will build on what we hear last and go from there. For a second chorus of solo, I would probably start to play more lines or perhaps play something more rhythmic. Either way, after a chorus of building on ideas from the melody, I think it is time to change direction.

Have a listen to the track below and as always, feel free to use (steal!) what you like.

  • Dave Watts: bass
  • Claude Lavergne: drums
  • Michael Berard: guitar, piano

Harmonic Minor

Improvising over songs that have a lot of chord progressions in minor is always so much fun. The thing I like most about playing tunes with a lot of progressions in minor is that you get to play harmonic and melodic minor scales. Both scales are very colourful. Minor is never dark. Minor is full of the some of the most beautiful musical possibilities available.

In this post, I’d like to look at the “Harmonic Minor” scale. There are a couple of ways one might visualize this scale.

  1. We can visualize the scale as being a natural minor scale with a raised 7th degree.
  2. Another way to visualize harmonic minor is to compare it to the major scale. I like to compare every scale and mode to the major scale. We all know the major scale well so comparing the notes of any mode or scale to the major scale will usually give us a pretty good idea what’s going on. The harmonic minor scale is then a major scale with a flatted 3rd and 6th.

A great standard with lots of minor progressions is “Alone Together.” In this post, I have included a solo over the chord changes to Alone Together and so to make our examples relevant, we will look at harmonic minor scales in D as the song is in D minor.

D Harmonic Minor Scale

Obviously it is possible to play the D harmonic minor scale over a Dm chord but that is not the most interesting and colourful way to use the scale. D harmonic minor is most often played over the IIm7(b5) – V7(b9) chords or the “minor two-five.”

Let’s look at D harmonic minor from E to E. If we look at the R, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the scale, and compare these notes to the chord tones of the IIm7(b5) chord, we see we have all the notes we need.

Now let’s spell our D harmonic minor scale from A to A for the V7 chord. I’ve used “alt” for a very specific reason. We’ll see why in a minute. First, look at the R, 3rd, 5th and 7th of the scale to make sure we have all the notes we need to spell our A7 chord. We have A, C# E and G notes so we are good.

At the beginning of the post I mentioned that harmonic minor was a colourful scale. If we look at the passing tones between our chord tones we see some very interesting notes. We have a b9, sus4 and a b13. The reason one would notate a 7th chord with the “alt” extension is to give the player the flexibility to chose the extensions she or he wants to play in their chord voicings. You can play a simple A7(b9) or an A7(b13) or some combination of b9 and sus4 or any other combination of the 3 possible extensions.

In terms of soloing, harmonic minor is going to allow you to play all of those beautiful passing tones over the dominant chords.

As always, (and this is quickly becoming my way of demonstrating the sound of whatever is being discussed) I’ve included a written solo over the chords to “Alone Together.” I’ve used harmonic minor as often as possible over IIm7(b5) and V7.

Listen to the recording, check out the lines I’ve played and feel free to use as much of it as you like in your own solos.