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Improvisations in jazz is done over the song itself, typically. However, I don’t hear the theme in plenty of recordings, the harmonies and solo are so far away that I can’t see the connection to the theme that they’re soloing over.

When I play myself, solo piano, I run into the same problem. I lose track of the theme and the improvisation typically becomes some kind of abstract mess that ends in confusion, heh. How do I clean this up? How do I make sure I don’t lose the “frame”?

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I'm afraid a tendency to work just with 'the changes' and ignore the original melody is endemic in today's jazz world. Particularly if your improvisation technique is based on the chord=scale system. I agree that it's an excellent idea to start of by presenting the original melody. Many players don't.

What can I say? You've noticed that your improvisation has become generic, unrelated to the original song. Is there much advice beyond 'Well, don't do that then!'? You could look at the melody, isolate any particular melodic or rhythmic features that could be used in your improvisation. For instance, if you're playing 'Over the Rainbow' there's the initial octave leap and the 'police siren' motif ('Someday I'll wish upon a star'). There's an old joke about that...

  • What is the alternative to " the chord=scale system"? To play in terms of modes? – Frans Jun 11 at 17:03
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    @Frans - the chord/scale system is the same as using modes - it's based on the idea that each chord quality has one or more scales/modes that can be used for improvisation. The main alternative is chord-based improvisation, which relies more heavily on arpeggios and classifies all non-chord tones as neighbors or passing tones. – Peter Jun 11 at 18:14
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Firstly, know the geography of the song.Know the song inside out. The chord sequence, the order of verses/choruses/bridges you are going to play. So the accompaniment is semi-automatic.

Secondly, play the changes. Stick with the harmony and notes that fit the bars you're on. Don't just play blindly with notes that you think will fit - make them fit. If you only played the improv. without even a bass or chord line, the listener should know where you are in a section. This is easier if you target 'key' notes, the 1,3, 5 or sometimes 7 of the chord that's at that point, and play it on beat 1 at least while you carry on improvising.

That's a start point. Once the song is well enough known, you can afford to target every two, or four bars, because by then, you'll be playing the changes without so much thinking. At that point, get lost in the song. I don't mean get lost but lose yourself in it!

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This is just an idea, and I can't guarantee that it works for you, but: start from the original melody and its accompanying chords, and then start jazzing it all up more and more, until you think you broke it. Don't jump straight into completely free improvisation, but first make small and then larger and larger changes and variations to the original song's harmony, melody and rhythm. Can you do the following:

  • Improvise different chords for the same melody, but keeping the swings of the harmony - or changing them if at all possible. I think it's actually an important skill to be able to fool around with backing chords for existing songs. Not that anyone would actually want to listen to your "creative" chords, but you need to have a feeling of the whole array of modifications from "just slightly different" to "completely wrong and spoiled".
  • Imply chord progressions with a single-note melody line. Does your single-note melody give hints about the harmony? Or is it random? You have to have a feeling for how even individual notes played at specific rhythmic moments can be used to affect the harmony. For example if you only play notes from the minor pentatonic scale, you're being ambivalent about chord changes, and don't have leverage to strongly tilt the harmonic feeling to either the subdominant or dominant side.
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This is common for players who learn "licks." I call them embellishers not improvisors. They become divorced from the melody and just follow the chord progression. I have attended several improvisation workshops and some of the presenters have actually taught to just play anything. WHAT!?!?!?! That like is be anything saying anywhere inject ish you.

I love Oscar Peterson but if you transcribe his music, after several pieces you'll quickly realize he plays the same scales, patterns and arpeggios in every song. He is still genius. Those licks have become his vocabulary and distinguishes himself from every other player. Each musician needs to develop their own vocabulary.

Everyone is offering great advice. I would first suggest learning how to utilize upper and lower neighbors and passing tones to chord tones and melodies then use licks to get between points A and B if you need to. Then, play less. Winnow it down. My favorite improvisors are those who don't play a blizzard of 64th notes.

I admit that I need much work on this topic but as an organist, I improvise mood for ritual rather than solos. Here is a very simple example of "Mary Had A Little (flea infested, toxoplasmosis ridden) Lamb" utilizing UN, LN and PT's. I would also suggest looking into the Schillinger System of Musical Composition to imprint how to craft a solo so that it actually goes somewhere, has a climax then comes back down rather than just rambling along to nowhere. enter image description here

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