A while ago I was working with some of my adult students new to jazz improvisation. We were practicing playing over the tune Take the A Train and I wanted to give the beginners in the group some ideas on how to select good note choices over the tune. We broke down the chord progression into vamps and practiced blowing over a single chord or one spot in the chord progression first, then applied what they learned in the context of the whole tune.
This concept, breaking up improvisation into working on 1 or 2 things at a time, works very well. By putting yourself into a box and forcing yourself to be as creative and musical as possible within those constraints you develop better technical and conceptual facility with your topics. What’s nice about this approach is that you can make it as easy or as hard as you need to in order to challenge yourself.
While the summary and practice tracks I’m posting here are related to note choices (e.g., “what” to play), you can easily take the same approach while practicing other topics. For example, I usually spend time with new students helping them practice improvising creatively while using lots of silence in their soloing (e.g., “when” to play). By forcing yourself to stop playing for a while you can take a moment to evaluate what you just played and think about what you’re about to play. Other topics could include “how” to play ideas (i.e., what register you play in, dynamics, etc.).
The tune Take the A Train is in C major, and most of the changes to the tune are diatonic to C major. This means that you can play C major scales for a large portion of the tune. If you’re new to improvisation, this takes some of the choices of what to play out of your hands and gives you a chance to work on other improvisation topics. Or, it will give you a chance to really listen to how the note choices fit over a particular chord. You’re not trying to just develop your technique, but also your ear.
Let’s take the first chord, C6 or Cmaj7. In the particular arrangement we’re playing the chord is notated as a C6 and to get students started with that chord I like to use the C major pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scales are fun to play over and provide more melodic interest than a major scale because they have built in steps and built in leaps already in the scale.
Here is a MIDI file of a C6 chord vamp. Practice improvising only using the notes in the C major pentatonic scale above over this practice track. While you’re practicing, take some time to stop playing and think about what you just played and how it sounded. Then wait for a moment before playing to think about what you are about to play. Really try to be as creative as possible while only practicing the C major pentatonic scale over this chord. You might also try improvising over the notes in a complete C major scale and compare the difference in sound. Certain notes will sound hipper, while other notes (the F, for example) will sound quite dissonant and want to resolve a step up or down.
Skipping one of the chords in the tune for a bit, let’s look at the Dmin7 chord. This chord is diatonic to C major. Since it is the diatonic chord based on the second note of the major scale this chord is analyzed as a minor ii chord. If you play the C major scale but using D as the root tone the scale becomes the dorian mode.
Here is a practice track of a Dmin7 vamp. Try the same approach as above – use lots of silence to give yourself a chance to evaluate what you just played and think about what you will play next. Experiment with the different pitches in the D dorian mode over this chord. Some notes will sound more colorful and some will be a bit bland sounding (such as D, the root of the chord).
The G7 chord is analyzed as the V in the key of C. This diatonic chord is harmonically unstable (particularly with the 7th added) and wants to resolve to the I chord (C6, using Take the A Train as our example). Like the Dmin7/D dorian example above, the chord and resulting mode (G mixolydian) are diatonic to the key of C.
Here is a G7 vamp practice track.
The bridge of the tune temporarily changes the key center from C major to F major, but both for the sake of keeping the examples diatonic to the key of C and to give us another approach to the Fmaj7 chord, I want to demonstrate this chord as functioning as a IV chord in the key of C, rather than a I chord in the key of F.
Playing a C major scale using F as the root results in the above lydian mode. This is 1 note away from being a major scale. Instead of a Bb we have a B natural. This is a very colorful tone (#11) and provides a slightly different sound when used over a major 7th chord. Try it out with the below practice track.
There’s one other section in the arrangement of Take the A Train we were working on that contains a chord progression that can be largely thought of as diatonic to the key of C major, that is the turnaround. A turnaround, if you’re not familiar with this term yet, is a chord sequence that is really static in that it doesn’t really provide a cadence pattern or otherwise move us away from the tonic key. In our arrangement the turnaround happens in the last two measures of the first A section and the final A section. The chord sequence itself is C6, A7b9, Dmin7, G7 (or a I VI ii V sequence). As you can see, all but the A7b9 chord are diatonic chords that are covered above. Rather than get into the weeds about what to play over the altered dominant type of chord that this one non-diatonic fits into, to get us started improvising over this turnaround I want to present this turnaround with a diatonic Amin7 chord instead (a very common chord progression, I vi, ii V).
Here is a practice track of the turnaround C6, Amin7, Dmin7, G7, but rather than two beats per chord each chord lasts one measure. All of the chords and resulting scale/modes are diatonic to C major, so if you play nothing but notes in the C major chord you can get by. As you’re playing this chord pattern, though, you will want to listen for how certain notes sound over each chord. Remember to use lots of silence to help you evaluate and think ahead.
There are three other chords in our arrangement of Take the A Train that are not diatonic to the key. Two of them are dominant 7 chords. Like the G7 chord above, using the mixolydian mode will provide good note choices for your to practice.
The C7 chord happens just before the bridge. It functions as a V chord to the IV chord. In other words, C7 leads to F.
The last chord to discuss is the most unusual, but it’s not all that hard to play over. The D7#5 chord that happens in the 3rd and 4th measures of the A section provide some harmonic instability and help set up the following ii V I diatonic pattern. A scale that gets good note choices for this chord is the D whole tone scale. A whole tone scale is a 6 note scale that only has whole steps between pitches. Because it only uses whole steps, you could even think of the below scale as having no real root. Any of the pitches in the scale could sound like the root of the chord.
Try out the whole tone scale of this practice track. Remember to use silence in your soloing.
Once your comfortable enough over the individual chords you can work on applying them in the context of a tune. Here’s a practice track to the entire tune Take the A Train.
If you need the changes to the whole tune, here is a PDF of just the chord progression, but you’ll want to know that this particular PDF isn’t exactly the same as the arrangement my students are working on. It’s close enough, though, that you should be able to use it to help practice the above note choice exercises in context. As always, use lots of silence during your practice to evaluate and think ahead. Listen closely to how particular notes of these scales sound over the chords. Listen to the musical effect of improvising only using steps and compare this to times when you might use leaps (or, in the case of C pentatonic, when they happen to be built into the scale).
Then after a while, make sure to forget about all this and jam. Let your ear be your guide as to what you play and let the spirit and mood of the music tell you what to play, when to play it, and how.