The Secret To Playing Advanced, Creative Jazz Improvisation.



One of the great benchmarks of jazz improvisation is the recorded (and live) music created by trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams (as The Miles Davis Quintet) between 1965-1968, most notably on the albums ESP, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, and the legendary Miles Smiles: a magnificent work of rare genius. Balancing both traditional and original compositions with abstract improvisation, these recordings are inimitable treasures of modern music, and a great achievement in human history. And even when he moved away from this era into his electric, rock oriented music in the 1970s, Davis and Shorter in particular still created similarly brilliant, scorching music that stands the test of time.

So what was it that made Davis’ 60s quintet music so important and influential? Primarily it was the group’s use of chromaticism: carefully balancing dissonance and consonance to create sonic paintings, equal in impact to visual artists such as Paul Klee, Picasso, Kandinsky, Joan Miro, and others.  And how was this abstraction realized? Through similar textural and “gravitational” approaches applied to scales and chords. This genius level of creativity – though seemingly alien to, and impossible for,  the common man – is actually something that can be analyzed and understood; creatively accessible once we begin thinking beyond rules and “right/wrong” scale and chord relationships.

The most common study a jazz saxophone player will engage in is the study of which scales go with which chords; learning the proper relationships unique to each style of jazz. But the problem with this kind of study is that, without proper guidance, a significant number treat the basic rules as iron clad and “right”, considering any deviation from the “rules” a de facto mistake, no matter how it actually sounds. For example, I once heard the brilliant saxophonist Michael Brecker play a dozen choruses of a C blues in the key of C#. Now, according the rules of theory, this is about as “wrong” as it can get, as every note is in the wrong key (save for B#). But it sounded absolutely fantastic, and when Michael finally returned to the “proper” key the effect was completely thrilling, and the audience went nuts. So what was it that made this flagrant rule breaking work? The answer is contained in two important ideas about scales and chords that will take you beyond the rules into a musical zone where you are not actually breaking rules but playing both inside and outside the rules simultaneously.

When first learning scales and chords, we study how to fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle, discovering which of each work best in standard songs and chord progressions. But at the advanced level, the professional jazz player is actually creating and developing scales and chord relationships through texture and color choices. Certainly, some genres require a certain set method of connecting scales and chords, which is fine. But to create art is to create new visions and perspectives, and in the case of Brecker, Shorter, and Davis, they found ways of playing with power and sophistication by utilizing the first idea: what I call chromatic intentionality, a fancy way of saying playing one highly contrasting thing over another thing to create a single overall effect: making two things sound like one thing.

To illustrate this, let’s use the example of a C dominant seventh chord (C7: C E G B♭) played on the piano. Now the regular rules of music theory say that the correct choice of scale to play over this chord would be a dominant scale, and this choice is certainly correct in ordinary circumstances. But if you arpeggiate an E♭7 chord (E♭ G B♭ D♭) over top of it on your saxophone, it sounds like you and the piano player are creating a C7 chord with a flat and sharp ninth note added, what is known as a C7♭9♯9 chord. You can also create this same effect if you arpeggiate a G♭7 or A7 chord over C7 as well.

Another excellent example is the how one can use a major seventh chord with a flatted fifth note in it to color and contrast. For example, if you arpeggiate a concert F major 7♭5 chord and hold down the note D on the piano, you are now creating the sound of a D minor 6/9 chord, because the F now becomes the 3rd of a D chord while the remaining notes spell out the 5th, a 6th, and a 9th. Even without the 7th it still sounds like a solid minor chord. Moving on, if we arpeggiate the concert F major 7♭5 chord again, and this time hold down a G on the piano we are now creating a G dominant 13 chord. The F is now the 7th of G, the A functions like a 9th, the B is the 3rd, and E functions like a 13th.  This is why memorizing standard scale/chord relationships like they are ironclad rules will only deny you the opportunity to hear such relationships and the ability to play with greater harmonic power and beauty.

So when Brecker played long strings of scales and arpeggiations in C# over chords in C, he was using chromatic intentionality to create an overall sound containing a lot of tension which would culminate in a beautiful release and return to the conventional chord/scale sound. He could do this because he was totally comfortable with complexity and such intentionality, which brings us to the second idea related to understanding scales and chords, what I call the Shitajiki Effect.



In traditional Japanese calligraphy it is standard practice to put a shitajiki (felt or paper under-sheet) underneath the writing paper to absorb extra ink and provide stability. Shitajikis also come in hard plastic varieties for use under ordinary notebook pages and loose leaf, and manga and anime companies often put out such boards in collectable forms. Many artists, and graphic score composers such as myself who use ink, also use old pieces of paper as shitajiki under our creations to avoid staining the table or desk at which we work. After several hours or days of work, these papers end up looking like abstract artworks themselves, and can be quite interesting to look at.

Like a shitajiki, when one studies scales and chords for years and years, one begins to notice that though scales and chords come and go, we tend to gravitate towards certain sounds, chords, scales, and rhythms, much of the time unconsciously until we actually sit down and analyze what we do. Thus, the cumulative effect of studying scales and chords colors our musical personality, the unique “creative shitajiki” underneath our studies.

Studying a huge variety of scales and chords, and then exploring them as the foundation for chromatic intentionality, means that we are exposed to a greater amount of potential approaches and sounds that color our soul/shitajiki and provide for us greater opportunity to become innovative, original artists.


11 thoughts on “The Secret To Playing Advanced, Creative Jazz Improvisation.

  1. i grasp the basics of this, just about. really wish i understood more though & could actually utilize some of it for my own playing.
    am i right that Brecker could play c# arpeggios over c because though they are not exact they still have c in common somewhere, as a root?
    i think Brian Wilson does something on Pet Sounds, i think the track ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ where he has one instrument in D & the other in A. it mentions this in the film ‘Love & Mercy’ in which Paul Dano plays Wilson. i checked it out though & it is true, my musician friend who i watched it with also confirmed this.
    great post again Daniel. just wish it didn’t fall on these untrained ears.

    1. C# and C arpeggios only share a C on paper, because an arpeggiated C# major seventh chord has a “B#” – which is the same note as C. But don’t worry about music theory, or having untrained ears. They are only tools to be used to create, and there are other ways of creating music that don’t rely on this kind of theory be be effective.

      My teacher Ornette Coleman’s career began with a rather innocent theory mistake he made that, once he investigated why it was a mistake, turned his discovery into a new way of approaching music that eventually earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He even taught himself theory eventually but it was the mistake that launched a whole new thing. So there are excellent individual arguments to be made for or against studying music theory, depending on the situation.

      Whether one learns to mix their own paint or just buys it at the store, all that counts is what you actually DO with the paint. 🙂

        1. Ornette taught himself how to play the tenor saxophone when he was young, and did not realize that it is a B-flat instrument, not a C instrument like the piano or double bass. So when he began performing he discovered he was always playing in the wrong key and had to learn how to transpose. But, though he had made a mistake and he understood why it didn’t work in “regular” music, he was deeply curious about, and fascinated by, the sound of completely different keys being played simultaneously, and thus started exploring playing in many keys at once or in no particular key at any particular time. He soon began trying his new ideas onstage and everyone thought he was crazy or had no idea what he was doing. One R&B band leader even paid him to NOT solo during songs because Ornette’s improvisation was so completely out of place for that kind of music.

          Thus, he also started exploring writing music where his style and ideas would be able to grow and develop, and eventually became an innovative, Pulitzer Prize winning musician; an innocent error from teaching himself led to his becoming an icon.

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