Improve Your Improvising – December 2013

Improvisation 5 – December 2013

This month we are going to look at a concept in improvisation that most players use to some extent and can range from a few simple rules of thumb to very involved, advanced ideas. The concept is superimposition, that is to say, playing a non-obvious structure over the given harmony. For example, the obvious way of approaching improvising over an A minor chord would be to use some kind of A minor scale or arpeggio however it is possible to superimpose other less obvious selections of notes on this chord such as an E minor pentatonic scale, a C major 7 arpeggio or a B minor triad. As these choices relate indirectly to the harmony in question they may sound somewhat unusual and may not work in all circumstances, some superimpositions can create very dissonant, tense sounds which can be used to produce very potent effects.

As this is potentially a very large are of study, I am going to limit the possibilities by sticking to pentatonic scales given that this renders it accessible to players of all levels. I am not going to attempt to be comprehensive even in this restricted view of the subject but instead I would like to give a flavour of the kind of results which can be produced using this technique.

All of the following examples will use an A minor chord vamp as the harmony.

1a) Minor pentatonic scale a perfect 5th above the root of a minor chord

(E minor pentatonic over A minor chord)

1b) Minor pentatonic scale a major 2nd above the root of a minor chord

(B minor pentatonic over A minor chord)

The reason these ideas work is that the notes contained in these ‘alien’ scales still fit with the chord in question. They sound unusual because they tend to emphasise notes other than the simple chord tones:-

E minor pentatonic scale over A minor chord (1a):

Scale Notes

E

G

A

B

D

Relationship to A minor chord

5th

7th

Root

9th

11th

B minor pentatonic scale over A minor chord (1b):

Scale Notes

B

D

E

F#

A

Relationship to A minor chord

9th

11th

5th

13th

Root

One of the best ways to integrate these ideas into your playing is to start an improvised phrase with an obvious choice of notes (A minor pentatonic), move into one of the other scales and then back to the first.

e.g.

A minor pentatonic – E minor pentatonic – A minor pentatonic

A minor pentatonic – B minor pentatonic – A minor pentatonic

This gives the effect of a settled (resolved) sound moving to a more tense sound and then back to resolved again.

This idea can be taken further by using scales containing ‘outside’ notes. These are notes which are outside the chord tones of a particular chord but also outside even the scale normally applied to the chord. In the vocabulary established in previous articles they are the ‘chromatic’ notes which under normal circumstances would be considered ‘wrong’. This is because they create a very powerful tension beyond what your ear would normally expect in that situation. However, if used judiciously in a controlled way, this high level of dissonance can leave a very effective impression in the ear of the listener.

2a) Minor pentatonic scale a diminished 5th (b5th) above the root of a minor chord

(Eb minor pentatonic scale over A minor chord)

Scale Notes

Eb

Gb

Ab

Bb

Db

Relationship to A minor chord

b5th

13th

maj 7th

b9th

maj 3rd

2b) Minor pentatonic scale a major 3rd above the root of a minor chord

(C# minor pentatonic scale over A minor chord)

Scale Notes

C#

E

F#

G#

B

Relationship to A minor chord

maj 3rd

5th

13th

maj 7th

9th

These notes have a very strong flavour so need to be used sparingly. It is especially important with these to follow the pattern of ‘Usual scale – New scale – Usual scale’ discussed above. The following video demonstrates 2a) and 2b) in this manner.

This article has just scratched the surface of this topic which can extend to substituting over all other chord types and using structures other than scales (arpeggios, triads etc.). Although this idea is often associated with advanced playing it can be seen from the examples above that even someone with quite a limited experience of improvisation can begin incorporating them into their playing.

Next month we will be looking at playing by ear.

Jamie Howell has been performing and teaching for over 20 years. He studied jazz at Leeds College of Music and has been running his own jazz, funk and rock bands ever since. He has taught privately and in various institutions and has a special interest in improvisation.

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