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The challenge on this topic is Jazz improvisation scales and ideas on the following chord progression: C#maj7 - Cmaj7 - Bmaj7 - Bbmaj7

So 4 chords are descending chromatically within 2 measures and repeat over again. (4/4, Tempo ~120) I am not sure honestly even what to try because every next chord has all different notes from the previous one which kills the idea to try some scales (Except chromatic scale)

What works for me is to choose certain notes from the chord present in given moment and create licks from those notes. That way I can be sure that the current note is compliant with the current chord but however that seems very difficult to think about and invent licks in real-time while improvising.

What would be your approach to improvise on this?

  • My approach? Try something. Are you familiar with the concept of "wood shedding"? Try anything that comes to your mind. Do you have any recordings of people playing this music? What did they do? We can't tell you what sounds good to your ear, nor what will be acceptable and palatable to your audience. Spend a couple hours in a practice room (or wherever you go to play by yourself) and find something that works. – John Doe Oct 1 '18 at 23:39
  • Thanks for the comment. The line is from Blink from Eldar but there the bass is on A# which makes the Cmaj7 on top actually A#6/11 but I simplified the case in this question. I can listen and transcribe his improvisations but I can’t read his mind. The point of the question is music theory ideas that are compliant to chromatically descending chords and in which direction should I think when improvising. – Alexander Oct 3 '18 at 20:00
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Thisd woud be tricky, indeed.

Root notes would be safe to work from, of course. Major 3rds and 4ths could work (in [loose] theory) across a couple of chords in the sequnce because the chords change by a semitone, for example a major 3rd of C#maj7 is a 4th of Cmaj7.

Similarly with the root and a maj7 note.

I'd steer clear of lingering 5ths and 6ths that straddle two chords as I would guess they'd end up as notes not in the scale (eg a 6th could become a minor 7th in the next chord).

I haven't got a guitar to hand to try it, but that's where I'd start.

As you say, the alternative is to play in the scale as of the chords as they change, which is safe and would work, but it's hard to come out with somehting that has some flow.

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    It is nice observation for the 3rds and 4ths. Seems more safe from mistakes because hiting the 3rd note late will not ruin the harmony of the next chord :) – Alexander Oct 3 '18 at 20:32
  • Hiya Alexander, I had a go at this the other night on my guitar. What a strange chord sequence! It sets a mood though. The 3rd ,4th , root and maj7 notion seemed to work. If you throw in some 5ths as well but don't let them straddle when a chord changes, it starts to sound feasible as a kind of 'scale toolkit'. It's not an easy progression to improvise over though. What piece of music is it ? Is there an example online ? – user2808054 Oct 5 '18 at 8:44
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    Hi, I wrote in some of my comments. Eldar Djangirov - Blink. He plays these exact same chords with Ab, G, Gb, F in the bass which I makes the actual chord progression Ab6/11, G6/11, Gb6/11, F6/11. I wrote Cmaj7 just for simplicity of the question. – Alexander Oct 5 '18 at 15:59
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I disagree with John Doe's comment that "We can't tell you what sounds good to your ear, nor what will be acceptable and palatable to your audience." In order to sound authentic as a jazz musician, you want to play the chord tones on the correct chords. Your audience is other jazz musicians, and they will judge your skill based on your ability to hit the chord tones when the chords change. You are right that each chord has completely different set of notes, so you will have to play different notes on each chord.

While practicing, start by playing the 3rd of each chord in half notes (B#, B, A#, A) each time those chords come around. Then try changing the rhythm in simple ways, while continuing to play just the 3rd of the chords. Once you get comfortable with that, start over with the 5ths, then the 7ths. All of this will probably take several weeks of practice, but playing chord tones will sound like you know what you're doing, and it will train your ears to gravitate to those chord tones.

Don't worry about playing eighth note lines or hitting chord extensions until you're really solid on these chord tones. And especially don't worry about scales. Bassist Carol Kaye often gives the sage advice "Don't play OVER the chords, PLAY THE CHORDS."

  • This is good way to start practice. I’ll try but will take weeks to get used to for sure. I’m playing Blink from Eldar which contain such descending chords but when it comes to improvising it feels like hell :) – Alexander Oct 3 '18 at 20:44
  • Cool! I'm not familiar with that tune, but Eldar is a monster! He is able to play very fast complicated over these changes. Nonetheless, I would bet that if you transcribe some of his lines, you will see that he is outlining each of these chords clearly as they change. – Peter Oct 9 '18 at 19:28
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You say playing scales wouldn't work, but you could play the scale of whatever chord you were playing (say C♯ major, then C major, then B major, then B♭ major). Then, from there you could get creative in mixing it up. Another thing you could do is play something, then play the same thing (or something similar) a half-step lower, which tends to sound cool in my opinion.

  • Sounds a bit weird to be honest since the chords change fast and have nothing in common. For comparison this works much easier on Giant steps where the chords keep the same or similar tones and you can change the scale smoothly. But it is clear that i need lot of practice to get comfortable with this one. – Alexander Oct 3 '18 at 20:27
  • Well, if you like weird, then there you go :) – user45266 Oct 4 '18 at 0:09
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I usually put my saxophone aside and try to sing a melody over the harmony in question. Even try to think up some lyrics – then the line becomes more vocal- like and musical. Actually, it’s all not about scales, it’s about musical ideas that are being developed and lead somewhere. By the way, why not to try using Lydian mode on, say C#maj7 and major scale on Cmaj7, then the two measures will have a common tone F double# and G. As for me, I’d been trying to reinvent the bicycle for quite a long time then I decided to take lessons from a good teacher. I’ve been learning over the internet at https://usaxophone.com/private-saxophone-lessons/. Not overpriced, really helpful. You chose what you want to concentrate on, be it ear-training (which is vitally important for improvising), theory or improvising itself. You can always ask questions!

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