Improvisation & Licks


Improvisation is what jazz is all about. Use these lessons to learn how to improvise.

Master improvisors of the bebop style use four basic elements to create their solos: chord tones, arpeggios, scale passages and approach patterns. Watch how Hank Mobely's solo over his Rhythm Changes contrafact Tenor Conclave from his 1956 album of the same name is deconstructed into these four components and learn how he uses these elements to create a masterful bebop solo.

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Improv Drills

The Improv Drill series of lessons (there are four in this category) is a critcal group of lessons that will get you deep into the changes of any tune by teaching you how to isolate and drill the four components of melodic construction: chord tones on strong beats, arpeggios, scale passages and approach patterns. Once you gain the skill of manipulating these components in real time, you "own" the chords and are well on your way to being able to fluently improvise a melody over any progression.

Through an analysis of a transcription of Hank Mobley's solo over the changes to the tune "Remember" from his 1960 recording "Soul Station," watch how this master of bebop improvisation uses chord tones on strong beats as a foundation for his strong and logical improvised line over the changes to this Irving Berlin classic. Then learn an extensive series of drills to gain control of these notes over this or any chord progression to help you develop fluency with these primary components of good melodic construction.
Joe Zawinul is perhaps best known as a fusion-based synthesist, co-founder of the popular jazz-rock group Weather Report and explorer of World Music styles as leader of his band the Joe Zawinul Syndicate. But he played straight-ahead jazz on the acoustic piano well before venturing off into the varied directions of the past 30+ years. His considerable talents as a bebop pianist are on display in this lesson through an analysis of a transcription of his solo over the tune "Teaneck" from the 1961 classic "Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley" for his use of approach patterns in crafting his lines. This lesson codifies four common approach patterns and demonstrates a series of drills to help you gain control over these patterns for use in your own soloing. The second installment in the Improv Drill series of lessons, this lesson builds on the fundamentals outlined in the first lesson, Improv Drill: Chord Tones.
Bill Charlap, the reigning mainstream jazz pianist, makes commanding use of arpeggios in the second chorus of his solo over the tune Blue Skies from his 2000 Blue Note recording "Written in the Stars," his major label debut. In this lesson, his solo is the basis for several drills of commonly used arpeggios that will help you integrate these essential melodic devices into your own playing. The fourth installment in the Improv Drill series of lessons, this lesson builds on the fundamentals outlined in the first two lessons, Improv Drill - Chord Tones and Improv Drill - Approach Patterns.
Improv Drill - Chordscales completes the four lesson sequence of the Improv Drill series with a presentation of nine drills that aim to help you develop an exhaustive command of the chordscales to "Rhythm Changes." Tommy Flanagan's solo over the "Rhythm Changes" contrafact "Oleo," from his 1977 recording "Eclypso" is used an an introduction to the drills which aim to help you assimilate the chordscales into your head and hands allowing you complete freedom when you improvise. The lesson also describes how to apply the drills to any tune so that you can achieve improvisational freedom for any repertoire.
This installment of the improv drill series accomplishes two goals: it condenses the improv drills presented in the original four lessons (chord tones, chordscales, arpeggios and approach patterns) and it shows you how to play them over the major ii-V-I progression. The idea here is to present to you a more manageable yet still effective drill over the major ii-V-I progression to help deepen your improvisational facility.

Hank Mobley’s solo over the standard tune “If I Should Lose You,” is analyzed in this lesson for his use of the four components of melodic construction and several of his licks are isolated and transposed in the practice sessions for you to use in your own solos and as jumping-off points for your own ideas and licks.

Improvising Over . . .

The "Improvising Over . . ." series of lessons provides insight into how to improvise over the chord changes to important tunes in the jazz repertoire. Based on a transcription of a master musician improvising over the changes to a standard jazz tune, each lesson describes how the soloist uses chord tones, arpeggios, chordscale passages, approach patterns and other improvisational techniques to develop their solo. The onscreen practice sessions will take you from the lesson to the piano and help you get started improvising over these tunes.

Cedar Walton’s concise two-chorus solo over Kenny Dorham’s blues head, “Blue Spring,” from his 1959 album of the same name is a model of melodic economy. From the opening blues scale lick, to the minimal left hand comping, not a single note is wasted on flourish or unnecessary gesture. In this lesson, learn how he crafts his surgically precise lines from blues scale and chord sound material and then download the practice session PDF file to play the transcription and transpose seven of his licks into 12 keys to use them in your own solos.
Lester Young's development as a player spanned the late swing years through the bebop era. He rose to fame as a member of Count Basie's Big Band and then led small groups for the rest of his career. This lesson looks at his solo over the tune "All of Me" from his 1956 recording "Pres and Teddy" and isolates licks and improv techniques specific to Lester Young that you can integrate into your own soloing. The tune itself is also of interest from an improvisational perspective as it's harmonic sparseness (it's composed mainly of two-measure long spans of single chords) presents a challenging progression over which to improvise.
This Disney classic was made famous as a jazz standard by Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis and has since become one of the hallmarks of the jazz repertoire. Often played as jazz waltz, improvising over it's particularly satisfying changes in 3/4 requires that you construct your lines differently than you would when soloing in 4/4 time. Learn about these differences in this lesson through an analysis of Sarah Jane Cion's solo over the changes to this tune from her new book "The Pianist's Jammin' Handbook."
Sonny Clark's star burned bright and hot but was short lived. In barely a decade, he rose through the ranks as a sideman starting in 1953 for everyone from Serge Chaloff to Dinah Washington and by the time he ascended to the role of leader on seven highly regarded recordings on Blue Note from 1957-1961 he was considered to be the definitive hard bop pianist in jazz. By 1963, he was dead at the age of 31. In this lesson, a transcription of his solo over his blues head, "Blues Blue," from his 1959 Blue Note recording, "My Conception," is analyzed for his use of blues sound and chord sound.
Hiromi's understated solo over this well known baroque keyboard piece is an accessible introduction to improvising with pentatonics. In this lesson, a transcription of her solo from 2010's "Place to Be" is analyzed for her use of the major pentatonic scale within the framework of the Four Components of Melodic Construction. As an added bonus, she incorporates stride and gospel elements as well.
The Dave Brubeck standard, "In Your Own Sweet Way," presents a challenge to improvisors: how to solo over a progression that spans a wide range of keys at a fast tempo. It starts in G minor, moves to Bb, Gb, D, C and then Db in it's thirty-two bars. Kirk Lightsey sheds some light on this problem in his recording of the tune on his 2004 Sunnyside release, "The Night's of Bradley's." Watch as the transcription of his solo is analyzed for the four components of melodic construction and gain insight into his improvisational concept to inform your own approach to soloing over this tune.
Listen to Wynton Kelly improvise over his blues tune "Old Clothes" from his 1959 recording "Kelly Blue" and you will hear him use not only the blues scale but also chord sound. Watch this lesson to see and hear what chord sound is, how he uses it and how you can use it to open up the melodic potential of the blues progression.
The melody of this 1956 standard tune is, you could say, spare. The basic motive is composed of two notes a half step apart that are repeated in quarter notes up to 15 times in each section. To say that Anthony Wonsey's solo over the chord changes to this tune is in contrast to this tame theme is an understatement to be sure. His energetic and exuberant solo from his 2004 Sharp Nine trio album "Blues for Hiroshi," features extended eighth and sixteenth note bebop lines punctuated with a classic blues lick, a tritone-laced outburst and a flashy arpeggiated right hander all extending beyond a three octave range. Use the insight gained from watching the analysis of his take on hard bop in this lesson to invigorate and inspire your own solos over this or any tune.
Here is a transcribed solo of Hank Jones improvising over the changes to "Yardbird Suite" from his 1977 recording "Bop Redux" which was re-released on the 1998 double CD "Master Class." His solo is analyzed to see how he uses chord tones, arpeggios, scale passages and approach patterns to build a masterful solo over these changes.
Explore Hank Jones' improvisational concept by examining the melodic content of his solo over the changes to the 1948 Tadd Dameron tune "Lady Bird" from his 2008 IPO Records release "Our Delight." After considering his use of chord tones, scale passages, arpeggios, approach patterns, tensions, phrasing and his use of chromaticism, take a turn at improvising your own solo with three licks of his taken from the transcription of this recording.
Tommy Flanagan spins out a dizzyingly virtuosic solo (at quite a brisk tempo, needless to say) over this classic Charlie Parker standard on his 1977 Enja trio recording "Confirmation," with George Mraz on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. In this lesson, the tune is analyzed for harmonic content by deriving chordscales from the progression and then his solo is deconstructed into it's component parts of chord tones, scale patterns, arpeggios and approach patterns to demonstrate his use of each element in this lyrical and exciting solo.

There is a lot of uncertainty that surrounds diminished chords. How do they work exactly? What chordscales do they take? How do you improvise over them? Gain some insight into these questions through an examination of Red Garland's solo over the changes to the standard tune "It Could Happen to You" from the recording "Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet" from 1956. This lesson will show you a couple of his strategies for negotiating passing diminished chords and how you can adopt them to your own solos so you can finally dispel the mystery of these chords once and for all.

Motivic development is the compositional technique of creating a melody that is made up of a single melodic idea (a motive) that is subsequently "developed" by being repeated, altered, modified or transformed melodically and/or rhythmically. As a technique of improvisation, it can help you create strong, logical, coherent and interesting solos. Learn how to use this technique in your own improvisations by watching a motivic analysis of Keith Jarrett's solo over the Jaki Byard tune "Chandra" from his 1994 recording "At the Deer Head Inn."