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What Are the Rules? A Guide Tone Exercise

Christian Wissmuller • ArchivesAugust/September 2021Current IssueFocus Session • September 16, 2021

As we live our lives, we abide by rules we establish for ourselves. Some rules a young person might have would be: Do your homework on time; Do not be late for class – and so on. Rules are guidelines and tools.

As with most things, in learning to improvise it is wise to establish some rules to follow as we teach ourselves this valuable and complex skill. These guidelines may not be agreed upon by everyone, but I am going to put forth some rules I think are applicable in learning to improvise. How have I come up with these procedures? By analyzing transcriptions and jazz songs. What follows is a transcription of a solo by Bill Evans from the song “Beautiful Love,” starting at 33 seconds in (The Best of Bill Evans).

Rule #1: When I have a dominant 7th that resolves down a 5th to a minor chord I will use the flat nine as a passing tone. Bill Evans does this at bars 10,14,18,20, and 30 (the flat 9 being B♭).

Rule#2: When I see a dominant 7th resolve down a half step, I will play the #11 (Lydian Dominant). Evans does this at bars 13,29, and 32 (the #11 being E natural).

Rule # 3: When I see a ii-V-I cadence in a major key, I will make the five chord altered to create a more varied harmonic sound. The altered sound is most identified with using #9 and ♭9 together. Evans employs this strategy at bar 8 and bar 24.

Rule 3a: It is ok to repeat a line with a small change in rhythm and melodic content. Bill Evans does this at bar 23-24. This line is almost the same as bar 7-8.

What – you need more proof ? If you go to the Charlie Parker Omnibook (Hal Leonard), page 24, line 5 measure 4, you will see the flat 9 passing tone on the VI chord which resolves down a 5th to a minor chord. If you look at the 6th measure of “The Girl from Ipanema,” the dominant 7th chord resolves down a ½ step and the melody is the #11. If you look at bar 16 of “Donna Lee,” you will see the ♭9 and #9 are there creating the altered dominant sound.

Sometimes rules are handy.

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