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

Author: Michael Berard

Michael Berard was a part-time music professor for over 25 years at Concordia University in Montreal Canada. There he taught jazz guitar, jazz arranging, jazz composition as well as other jazz related courses. He has worked over the years as a jazz musician playing jazz clubs, concerts and studio sessions. Michael has played on numerous recordings including 3 of his own: "It's Autumn," "Little Voices" and "Good News." Michael is also the author of "Jazz Guitar Elements," a comprehensive jazz guitar method and "Jazz Reading Elements," a new jazz sight reading book geared towards jazz guitarists.