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I'm trying to figure out one jazz improvisation on this chord progression (Sunny - Bobby Hebb)

Am7 Gm7 C9 Fmaj7 Bm7b5 E7b9

So as the chords go Am7, Gm7 - C9 the improvisation starts in Am pentatonic when the chord is Am7 and Gm7 and then shifts on C9 to some scale which consists from C, Db, Eb, E, F, G, A, Bb, C. These are all of the notes which I caught up by ear. I would assume that the root of the scale should be C, but then these notes doesn't build any scale familiar for me (standard, mode or altered...?!). There could be a off-scale note as an ornament since it is an improvisation that confuses me so I can't recognize the scale?

  • This will probably end up closed, as analysis of a particular song is not in the site's remit. Can you move it round so it only includes a progression? And are you certain that the scale notes are exactly those? Showing us which version will put another nail in the coffin... – Tim Dec 9 '15 at 9:38
  • Tim - I have edited to try and help focus on the chord progression, not the actual song. – Doktor Mayhem Dec 9 '15 at 9:45
  • Thanks for editing. I apologize if the question wasn't clear enough. I tried to put focus on the scale, but mentioned the song just to give the idea where I'm trying to apply the scale we're talking about. – Alexander Dec 9 '15 at 13:32
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When improvising over standard changes it's important to understand the function of the chords in the progression. You need to see that Gm7-C7-Fmaj7 is a II-V-I progression in F major, and Bm7(b5)-E7-Am7 is a II-V-I in A minor. So if you know how to play over II-V-I progressions in major and minor you can improvise over this song.

Over Gm7-C7 you could simply play F major (which is G dorian / C mixolydian). However, over the V chord jazz musicians often add alterations to add tension that can nicely resolve to the I chord. If you heard the notes correctly (which I don't doubt), then what you heard was a C mixolydian scale with an altered 9, i.e., the note D was altered to add tension. Both possible alterations of the 9 are used: the b9 (Db) and the #9 (D#/Eb). This is very common, and I think it's more natural to view the notes just as a collection of possible notes over a dominant seventh chord that resolves down a perfect fifth. This collection of notes consists of the notes from the mixolydian scale, possibly plus some of the following alterations: b9, #9, #11, b13. You can freely mix notes from the mixolydian scale and altered notes. The altered tensions can also completely replace the standard tensions, which will give you the altered scale: C Db Eb E F#/Gb Ab Bb.

But anything in between is also possible.

If you want to give a scale name to the collection of notes you found, I would suggest "mixolydian b9/#9", because that's what it is.

  • Thanks a lot. I could accept this answer since this looks logical to me. (a self taught pianist). For the sake of correctness, if you could listen the following example at the begining (8th second) when goes to the C chord... do you think this is the case ? Leaving Amin pentatonic to C mixolydian but altering the 9th ? youtu.be/LQ_CyyhCLJs – Alexander Dec 9 '15 at 14:03
  • @Alexander: over C7 he plays F E G Bb Db Eb Db C Bb -> (G# ->)A (over Fmaj7), which is just C7 (mixolydian) with a b9 and a #9 instead of the unaltered 9. The G# before the A is just an approach note and shouldn't be analyzed as a tension. Note that the A is already over the F chord. – Matt L. Dec 9 '15 at 14:26
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If you had a F# instead of the F, that would be the diminished scale, often played on 7b9 chords.

As Matt mentioned, playing such a scale on a chord that "shouldn't" match (here the C9 chord) adds tension, which releases nicely on the next chord.

It might be that the improviser built the tension this way but had an F there somehow.

  • Thanks for answering, I have considered the case if I'm wrong at some note but playing with F# doesn't sounds as the recording I'm analyzing (at least for my amateur ears) – Alexander Dec 9 '15 at 13:45
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The entire progression is A minor (or C Major is you prefer) so you could just play an A minor scale over the whole thing. I think looking at the G-7 to C9 as a key change is not really correct and overly complicates what you are trying to do (it's actually serves more as a II-V of the IV in C major).

Point being that you might be better off improvising in the key center of the progression before exploring ways of making it more interesting by using altered scales to add color such as the suggestions I see above.

Nothing wrong with doing that of course, but step one is to become comfortable at hitting good notes and use that as a foundation for adding additional color for tension.

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