how to navigate chord interchanges.
Beginning jazz students are told they must learn to play their jazz scales...major, dorian, mixolydian, diminished, etc. Memorizing these scales only does so much, however, and I have a sad tale to tell of a young trombone player who spent years memorizing ALL of these scales while feeling constantly frustrated at his total inability to play a good solo over the simplest of changes. More about me later...
So, another common, and important procedure is to have students practice a variety of jazz patterns or licks. These could include Arban's style scale and arpeggio patterns and transcribed licks from the jazz masters. I personally feel that these patterns are all valuable, and certainly more useful than scales alone. However, they still only PREPARE a student to improvise, and don't really get her playing well over chord changes.
What the student needs now is an understanding of how to negotiate chord interchanges. This develops as a student memorizes all the tones of each chord in the progression, and through lots of practice connecting the various chord tones at the moment of each chord change. This moment, when you are at the end of one chord (playing an "approach tone") and the beginning of another (where you will play a "target tone") is exactly what I mean by the "interchange", just like the place at which two high-speed freeways intersect.
There are several good options here, and plenty of bad options as well. Bad options would include approaching with a non-chord tone, and targeting the root of the new chord, or going from root to root, or going from non-chord tone to non-chord tone. Another common interchange problem is to not change chords at all, but to continue playing chord tones of the previous chord. With young improvisers these kinds of problems are far too common, and tend to be more of the rule than the exception.
The most important good option for handling interchanges is to play the guide tones (which are typically the 3rd and 7th). For most jazz chord progressions you can find and play a half step between the approach and target tones if you are going from the 3rd to the 7th, or the 7th to the 3rd. I call these options the 3-7 and 7-3 interchanges, and the Improv Pathways jazz improvisation method helps students both understand how and why they work, and provides multiple exercises for practicing them in context.
Other good options are to target the 3rd of a chord by approaching from below with the 5th, or to target the 7th by approaching from above with the 5th. Additionally, you can find a common tone between two chords and use it at the interchange, such as playing the 5th as an approach tone and holding the same same note to target the 9th of the next chord. Any of these good options helps improvisers to create flowing (rather than disjunct) melodies that sound as if they are truly utilizing different notes to match the changing chords. In short, they sound as if they are NAILING the changes, and they feel (and sound) successful.
Can you see how important it is to understand and practice good interchanges when learning jazz improvisation? This critical concept and skill is typically not taught in classroom improvisation methods, or is not taught very thoroughly. However, it is a key component of the Improv Pathways classroom jazz improvisation method, and explains why students who have used the method are able to crank out amazing solos after only working through the method for 3-4 months. In this method, blanketing a chord progression with a single scale is NOT an option, and mastery of all the interchanges of the basic Blues progression is pursued. Don't settle for all those books that just teach you what scale to play, or gobs of licks without strategies for connecting them at interchanges. Improv Pathways covers all of the critical concepts and skills that so many other method books ignore. Give it a try this year!