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Improvisation Tactics for the Aspiring Jazz Player

Jazzed Magazine • Focus SessionMarch 2017 • March 20, 2017

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by James LaReaux

The melodic minor scale modes are some of the first complex modes jazz musicians tend to learn. The structural theory makes for a difficult grasp on the subject, however it also makes for the most unique sound that many of the great jazz musicians play. In the classical world, the melodic minor scale is different than in the jazz world. In the classical world the melodic minor scale has a 3 going up but then a 7, 6, and 3 going down. In the jazz word the melodic minor scale has a 3 going up and going down and no modification of the 6th and 7th degrees of the scale. As an example, Oscar Peterson’s quick runs in and out of the jazz modal scales make for a tasteful recording.

The melodic minor scale modes are labeled after the major scale modes, only with added dissonances. There are 7 modes to the melodic minor scale, just as with the major scale. The first mode is the Ionian 3, or just the ascending melodic minor scale.

The Ionian 3 is primarily played along with a minor-major 7 chord. The scale hits all of the critical chord notes, that being the 3 and major 7. The Ionian 3 can also be used with another chord, the minor 7. Since it can sound wrong, having the major 7 of the Ionian 3 played on a 7 chord, it is only to be used sparingly. Dabbling around with it for more than a measure or two could prove distasteful. With any scale the application of the Ionian 3 on the minor 7 chord should be used within the bounds of good taste. The Ionian 3 over the minor 7 chord sounds best over the second or third pass of a song where the melody is still played however improvisations are now embellishing that melody. Such embellishments could include the Ionian 3.

The second mode of the melodic minor scale is the Dorian 2. The mode is the same as the normal Dorian scale however the second scale degree is flattened.

Although it introduces such a small note, you can really sound professional when playing it over the right chord. It is to be played over a m7 chord, however this scale can also be played over the minor-major seven. The same concepts apply as with the Ionian 3. The scale really should be played conservatively over the minor-major 7. Where this scale does really shine is under a minor 7 9. The 2 in the Dorian scale is the same as the 9 in the chord. So now every note in the mode works for the minor 7 2. Any note could be landed and held. But because the scale and chord are so similar try and avoid just playing arpeggiations. Arpeggiations are good, especially if the chord is being passed by quickly, but passing notes that belong to the Dorian 2 scale are highly advised as well.

The third mode sounds the most intimidating and it breaks off from the major scale mode pattern, where the next mode would be an alteration of the Phrygian scale. The Lydian augmented scale is definitely one of the more exotic modes there are. There are only two sharps in this scale, #4, and #5. 

The scale is actually very close to the whole tone scale, but of course they are very different. The scale is great for playing over major 7 chords. All notes in this scale work for major 7 chords. What’s so smooth about this scale is that every note can b e landed on and held and it sounds very exotic. The #4 doesn’t clash with the 3, and neither the #5 with the 7. This scale can be played for long periods of time as its notes are harmonically sound.

The fourth mode of the scale is the Lydian dominant. Similar to the Lydian augmented, the Lydian dominant has the #4 but the dominant 7 rather than the #4 and augmented 5th.

This scale can be used over any dominant chord. This scale is especially favored on the V7 chord. Most of the notes in the scale have a leading tone quality about them. The #4 and 3 of the V7 of course want to resolve to the root of the I chord and so does the 7 to the three of the one chord. The tone quality of the #4 is already so pleasant, but adding the leading sensation is overwhelmingly pleasurable to hear as an audience member.

The fifth mode of the scale is the Mixolydian 6. This is just the same as the Mixolydian but with the flattened sixth.

The scale is to be played on a dominant chord. Although the Mixolydian 6 has a rich sound in the upper part of the scale, it can sound a little bland towards the root with the first few notes. Up until the 6 of the mode, it’s just simply the major scale. An easy fix to the blandness of the major scale is grace notes and embellishments. However, one shouldn’t get carried away with too many ornamentations as holding a simple but thoughtful improvisation is also highly desirable.

The sixth mode is the Aeolian 5. The scale is the same as the major scale Aeolian mode, but with a changed 5.

This scale is a very rich and dissonant sounding mode, to put it lightly. It can be played over m7 chord, however it is not preferred. The scale’s primary chord to play on is the half diminished due to the scale passing over 3, 5, and 7 which all belong to the half diminished. What is also highly likeable about this scale it that you can nicely flow in and achieve a blues scale sound by only adding the natural five. However staying on the natural five isn’t a great choice because it could change the nature of the chord, especially because the fifth, in most chords, is such an expendable note. However it is a great passing tone and grace note.

The seventh mode of the melodic minor scale and most interesting mode is the Super Locrian. It can also be classified as the altered scale. It’s the same as the major scale Locrian mode, but with a 4.

What makes this mode so interesting is that the altered scale has every alteration you can add to a chord; 9, #9, #11 and 13. The other interesting theoretical side to this scale is that, technically, it has the flattened third which should make it minor, however the 4 acts as the major third, which changes the b3 to act more as a #2. So although you can play the Super Locrian on a minor 7 chord and a half diminished chord, it is better played on any altered dominant chord because it has every alteration you can make on a dominant chord. The performer can also change the scale by giving it a tritone substitution, which then technically becomes the Lydian dominant. For example take the chord C7. The altered scale for that is C, D, E, F, G, A♭, and B. If you give it a tritone substitution it becomes the F# altered scale. The scale now goes as F#, G, A, B, C, D and E. This is also the same as the C Lydian dominant scale. What’s tricky is that although this is the C Lydian dominant scale this is not to be played as one. When playing the scale the emphasis has to be on the F#, which is now the new modulated root for the scale, not the chord. This same tritone substitution that was just applied to the altered scale can also be applied to the Lydian dominant scale. The Lydian dominant scale would become the altered scale but with the emphasis on the #4 as the new root for the scale.

Let’s apply some of these scales to the chorus of “Misty.” “Misty” in the key of E has the chord progression | Emaj7 | Bm7 Eb7 | Amaj7 | Am7 D7 | Emaj7 Cm7 | Fm7 B7 | Gm7 C7 | Fm7 B7 |. For the first bar, the scale most appropriate is E major or E Lydian. Playing the E Lydian augmented is acceptable. However, it may be to ambitious to start with. Easing the audience into those type of scales could be more pleasurable.

In the second bar, you can play B Dorian. This really works well here because of the next chord is E7. The B Dorian has nearly all the same notes as E Mixolydian which is the scale that will be played on that chord. Don’t play the Mixolydian 6 only because the C (6) of the E Mixolydian 6 scale clashes too much with the root (B) played in the previous chord. It also clashes with the C (the major 3rd) in the next chord in the song (Amaj7). Playing the Mixolydian 6 on the E7 is functional, but use the 6 sparingly and focus more on the more important notes, the third (G) and the 7 (D). The next chord can really utilize one of the modes that was talked about above. The best mode to play on the Amaj7 chord is the Lydian augmented. When the song lands on Amaj7 it is a bit unsettling because Amaj7 being the resolution chord is not the tonic. To exploit this false resolution use the A Lydian augmented scale. In this scale the D (#4) and the E (#5) resolve the E (1) and the D (7) of the previous chord E7. The D and the E of the Amaj7 sound very intriguing. The next chord Abm7 is a tricky chord to find a scale to play over. The purpose of the Am7 is to destabilize the previous resolution of the Amaj7. To further destabilize add the 9. The additional b9 will also play a role into the scale chosen. For the chord Am79 you can now play the A Dorian 2. The added 9 now works simultaneously as a destabilization part of the chord and as the 2 in the scale.

Continuing through the circle of fourths we find ourselves at the next chord in the song D7. For this scale you can play the D Lydian dominant. The Lydian dominant is the appropriate mode to use because it includes the 7 (C) of the D chord. The #4 (G) is distinguishingly pleasant to hear because when the chord changes to Emaj7 the #4 (G) now acts as the third. A good tactic for improvising on D7 to Emaj7 is to hold the G and when the chord changes to Emaj7 the G will resolve itself by shifting from a #4 to a third. Once the note has been held long enough, or if it is not held at all, on the Emaj7 chord improvise over E Lydian. You shouldn’t play the Lydian augmented because the B natural (#5) clashes to much with the next chord Cm7 which has a B (7). The next chord Cm7 should have the Dorian scale. This is better than the alternative C natural minor scale because it continues keeping an A natural. The E Lydian has the A (#4) as a natural so it is appropriate to keep that A as a natural for the Cm7 chord. If you want to play the C natural minor scale then play the E major scale on the Emaj7 chord. Now both the C natural minor and the E major scale would have the A.

For the next chord, Fm7, you can play the F Dorian. Again this is a better choice than F natural minor because the D (6) will clash with the upcoming D natural (maj3) of the B7 chord. On the B7 chord just simply play the Mixolydian scale. The scale that I’ll suggest for the next chord (Gm7) is contradictory to what was said earlier. For this chord play the G natural minor scale. Although b (E) of the G natural minor clashes with the third (E) of the next chord (C7) you can manipulate the chord a bit to tamper with the scale. On previous chord progressions you cannot play the natural minor because the 6 would conflict with the upcoming chord’s third just like Gm7 to C7. However, now that we are on the turnaround of the song, | Gm7 C7 | Fm7 B7| changing things a bit more because there is no melody on this part is acceptable because it is not necessary to abide by the chords given. With that in mind, change C7 to C7 altered. This is done so that the C Super Locrian can be played. Note that it also makes the E of the G natural minor flow better because we now have an E in the C7 altered scale.

For the next chord, Fm7, you can just play the Dorian. The last chord of the turnaround is an important chord because this is where a lot of tension should be built up. By nature, the tension is built and released because the final chord (B) is the fifth and the next chord (E) is the tonic. To really build up tension we will be manipulating both the chord and the scale. For the final B7 chord play a tritone substitution on the B altered scale. This would result in E altered scale. Since B7 chord is played over the third and fourth beats it would sound wonderful if on the fourth beat you did a tritone substitution on the B7 chord and have it become an E7 and then resolve to the tonic. This would result in playing of a B7 chord on the third beat while improvising on an E altered scale. On the fourth beat shift only the chord to E7 so now you’ll be playing an E altered scale over an E7 chord.

James “Jimmer” LaReaux taught himself music theory after learning the basics from a variety of short-term instructors including classically trained composers, percussionists, and professional musicians who were drawn to his enthusiasm for jazz piano.  With Hawaii’s limited opportunities to learn jazz, he participated in the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Summer program last year, where he gained his first real exposure to the genre from jazz-minded teachers.  LaReaux currently is being mentored by jazz master Tommy James, who fortunately resides in Honolulu.  After graduating from high school next year, Jimmer plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in musicology, followed by a doctorate in music theory. 

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