Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

« Playing musically: Part 1, play the lyrics | Main | Playing musically: Part 3, play with direction »

January 22, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 2, play the chords

Last week in Part 1, we looked at the "spiritual" side of playing, the muse inspiration of the lyrics. These week we want to talk more of the mechanics of playing, particularly the harmonic structure of our improvising. In a nutshell, we want to be able to express the underlying chords of the song, in a melodic way of course, but in order to do that, we need to be able to express the chord changes in a linear way. (By the way, we also devote eight pages of exercises in the "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin" devoted to developing 7th chords in this manor.)

4 Meas Maj7ths Sample
Click for page with sample exercises

Skipping notes in intervals of 3rds feels funny on the mandolin because you are often alternating 1st and 3rd fingers, 2nd and 4th fingers, so improvisation can be somewhat counter-intuitive, but this is an important skill to develop. We don't want your soloing to sound like you're drilling arpeggios, but these patterns need to be in your fingers in order to express the chord.

We'll discuss the notes between the chords next week, but for now let's consider how important it is to be able to spell chords in a melody. One of the most annoying habits of a beginning jazzer is taking a key and improvising only on scale degrees of the home key. First, this completely disregards the appearance of brief and probable tonal center changes that require different scales, and second, it discounts the importance of note priority. Some notes are wrong (not part of the key), some notes are right (part of the key), and some notes are benign or somewhere in between (notes of the scale that aren't in the chord at the moment). A good improviser will avoid the first set (or intentionally use them as dissonance), emphasize the appropriate (linger on the chord tones), and use the benign ones as bridge notes between the chords. This is the true art of advanced improvisation.

For example, were you in the key of C and soloing over a Dm7 chord, all the notes of a C Major scale would be fair game, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C. The better notes under this chord would the chord tones themselves, D, F, A, C, and anything else from the C scale (E,G, B) should only be passing tones. Bad would be an F# because it would infer a conflicting D major or D7 chord, unless it were leading to a G7 chord, but we'll leave that topic for next session. The point being, choose notes that express and emphasize the chord as much as possible.

Because of the mandolin's lighter texture and higher soprano register, we tend to shine in thinner ensemble settings. This means fewer instruments to carry the accompaniment load and the song's harmonic content, so the burden is very much on us to carry the harmonic content vertically while soloing.

Knowing music theory is most beneficial, but just knowing the chord tones is enough to get you started. Use the notes of the chords you already know; figure out where the missing chord tones and use the "grip" as a jumping off point for your improvisation. From there, all you have to do is hunt and peck for the appropriate sounding connecting or passing tones. It also helps to drill 7th chord arpeggios into your practice regimen.

Four Finger Salute to Major Seven!
Improvisation: Pattern Based vs. Theory Based
Jazzed Pentatonics

Posted by Ted at January 22, 2009 11:40 AM

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