Free Online Saxophone Lessons

As seen in January 2011 DownBeat - reprinted here with the permission of DownBeat Magazine

Lessons By Jody Espina


Improvising on Chord Changes
Step by Step
By Jody Espina

Part I – The Basics
1. Learn the melody to the song.

The notes and rhythms of the melody can and should be one of your prime sources for inspiration and clues on how to play the tune.

 2. Arpeggiate the chords of the song.

Play up to the 9th and back down – slowly at first as you try and hear the chords. Accompany yourself on a keyboard if you can.  Then arpeggiate the chords in time as 8th notes up to the 9th.

Arpeggiate means play the notes of the chord one at a time in ascending and descending order. 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1

3. Learn the chord scales.

This means learn the scales that best go over the chords. Often there is more than one choice as to which scales can work but pick the most inside sounding one first and learn that one. Try the scales out over a play-along or better yet when you are accompanying yourself on keyboard. Ask for help when you are not sure which scale to use.  Play the scales slowly at first and then eventually in time as 8th notes going up to the 9th.

4. Now improvise over the song.

There is a lot you can already do in improvising with your knowledge and (mastery? I hope) of the melody, chords and scales. Go for it and don’t worry if it doesn’t sound great yet. Getting you to sound great comes in the next steps but you really need to work out on steps 1-4 first before you can get to the real deal.

Part II – The Language and Rhythm of Jazz

Speak the language of the country you are in. We have words in English but if we speak those English words in Japan no one can understand us and we sound very strange and uninteresting to them.

Your notes are like those words and just because you are playing the so-called “right” notes that doesn’t make them interesting or even in the right language.

Improvising, like all aspects of playing music is a lifelong pursuit so these next steps will never get old.  For the rest of these steps I will be talking specifically about improvising in the Jazz Idiom but all steps should be transferable to literally any style of music.

Paraphrasing the Greats

Learn short motifs of two to 4 bars from recordings or your favorite players. Slowly over many repetitions change them little by little. Your first iteration may sound virtually like the original and the second, just ever so slightly altered and then each iteration gets more different than the last.

Make sure that you learn and are able to reproduce all aspects of the original motif exactly. Articulation, timing and nuances such as tone, vibrato, pitch bending and embellishments are all extremely important to get you speaking in the language of Jazz.

Don’t forget to paraphrase the melody which is too often overlooked as improvisational fodder.

Example 1

Miles Davis beginning phrases in Kind of Blue. His solo is beautifully constructed – it sounds so good but it is amazingly simple and logical. This would be a great place to start learning how to paraphrase.

Here’s my suggestion:  learn the 1st 4 notes of his solo, which is his first motif. Let’s not go to the next notes yet which are an elaboration of his first phrase.

Play the 4 note first phrase over and over until you are sounding as much like Miles as you can. The timing on this phrase is one of the most important things here. Once you have found the pocket of the timing, play some different notes using the exact same rhythm. Pick different notes from the chord and scale that you have already practiced over this tune. Maybe change only one note at first and keep playing and slightly changing notes – keep going back to the original to make sure you haven’t lost the feel of the original idea.

Now take the whole 1st 8 bars of Mile’s solo and work on that. You should be transcribing this yourself. You can totally do it – especially if you have done steps 1-4 because all the notes are already under your fingers.

Isn’t this a beautiful and simple 1st phrase? I wish I had thought of it. But I didn’t but I won’t let that stop me from taking inspiration from it like all great artists have done throughout history. We imitate only so we can learn and add to our toolbox of techniques and ideas and then we can express our own thoughts while speaking in the right language.

More Paraphrasing the Greats

Please take a look at an article I wrote for DownBeat Magazine called paraphrasing the greats. In the article I use some phrases from Charlie Parker on Billie’s Bounce and I write out my examples of paraphrasing changing just a very little bit with each iteration.  You will find this article at under Resources, in the Free Online Lessons Section.

Part III – Back to basics

There is a lot of cool stuff that can be done with so called basics. Remember, we are assuming that you have mastered steps 1-4 of the basics, and have learned some real Jazz phrasing.

Here are a bunch of ideas based on the chords and scales of the song that you are working on.

Always practice as slow as you need to to be able to play in time (slowly) and then eventually progress to 8th notes, triplets and possibly 16ths.

  1. Ascend and descend on the Scale by thirds. Which would sound like this: Ascending 1 3 2 4 3 5 4 6 5 7 6 8 7 9 – Descending 8 6 7 5 6 4 5 3 4 2 3 1 2 7 1
  2. Three note arpeggios on the scales.

1 3 5 2 4 6 3 5 7

Note: There is a reason that I haven’t written these out in music notation form. I want your brain to start thinking about the degrees of the chords and scales and I want you to have to figure out these things for yourself.  Also I’d like you to realize how much of the music we listen to is based on small patterns. The ear likes to listen to things that it can recognize, and it can pick up patterns very quickly. Eventually you may want to not use many patterns in your solos but to get there I believe you have to be able to make melodies like Mozart, Paul Desmond, Ben Webster and Lester Young first. And many of those melodies are pattern based.

Some resources to purchase:

In The Funk Zone With George Garzone – DVD
George Garzone – Tradin With The Greats – CD
Kenny Werner – Tradin’ With The Greats – CD

Jamey Abersold – Vol 54 Maiden Voyage– Track II,

Jamey Abersold – Vol 50 Magic of Miles Davis

Jamey Abersold Vol 24 – Major and Minor

Tunes to get  – John Coltrane – Impressions, Coltrane’s solo starts at 00:27

MyCoy Tyner -Impressions, Michael Brecker’s Impressions solo starts at 2:47 (Michael Brecker won a Grammy for best Instrumental Jazz Solo – for this solo).

Miles Davis – So What, from Kind of Blue – Look at 2:50 and 1:37 and see how they are alike

look at 2:27 for an interesting idea to paraphrase

Play along with the real recording – You can also improvise over the piano starting at 7:06