Excerpt two from: Improving Your Improvisation Skill on Trombone

I’m making good progress on my book on alto trombone/improvisation. As I go to great lengths to explain in the book, the improvisation section is not dedicated strictly to the alto. I do offer tips here and there for the alto throughout the improvisation sections, but the writing on becoming a proficient jazz player and the exercises I’ve created apply to any instrument (certainly tenor trombone!)

I am including several tunes in the book as examples and exercises. For each, I have recorded a solo and transcribed it for your modeling. For each tune I have also recorded my rhythm section under the solo and another audio file with only the rhythm section – no solo. Based on the special challenges of each tune, I’ve also created simple exercises along with tips and written examples for practicing. Based on the amount of writing and playing, I’m not sure if I am writing book or recording one!

One of the tunes I explore in the book is Clare Fischer’s Pensativa. This is a challenging tune but an important one in the jazz literature and one that can teach us a lot about improvising jazz. Here is an excerpt from the section on Pensativa along with a couple of exercises and companion audio files.


Ready for something a little more challenging? On Page 47 is my solo to the late great Clare Fischer’s Pensativa.

There was a bit of controversy on this tune from the recording by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on the album Free For All. Freddie Hubbard arranged the tune changing some of the chord progressions and in so doing, angered Clare Fischer. Unfortunately for Clare, those changes lived on to forever change the original harmonic intent of his song. Since those changes are the more standard version, I have used them for this exercise. Sorry Clare!

Unlike the previous blues, rhythm changes and standard, Pensativa moves around key centers a good bit. And unlike Miss Jones, the complex harmonic movement is not just limited to the bridge. The lead sheet containing the melody is pretty easy to find with a search on Google. Having the lead sheet is necessary if you’re going to learn this classic tune.

The tune is the standard AABA form with the first four bars containing an alternating two bar progression that appears throughout the tune. These two bars are not as difficult as they at first may appear. Comparing the Gbmaj7 and the G7(b5) illustrates some important common tones. F works well between them as does Db. F is the major seventh of the Gbmaj7 and it is the dominant seventh of the G7(b5). Db is the fifth of the Gbmaj7 and is the b5 of the G7(b5).

To practice, I’ve created a two bar vamp using these chords. Start by holding the Db and F across both chords to get the sound of those notes in your ear. Next, play (or better yet, sing) some simple melodic phrases across the two chords. I’ve created a few to play on trombone to get you started.


There are two fundamental key centers within the tune: Gb major and C major. Interestingly, these are a tri-tone apart which, for major keys, is a somewhat difficult transition.

The A sections are in rooted in Gb major and the bridge is rooted in C.

When playing a tune like this that goes from one key to the next from bar to bar, it is tempting to aim for the chord root and then play a scale or pattern from there. Because the focus of my method within this book is on melody, I am encouraging you think in terms of phrases that lead from one tonal center to the next. My transcribed solo is a first step in helping you gain some facility with this.

Listen to my solo and hear how my phrases go in and out of the various changes in key centers. While the blues, rhythm changes and many standards make it easy to weave phrases throughout the form, you have to be on your toes for tunes like this that change bar to bar. A note that sounds sweet in one bar can sound sour in the next. That two bar beginning vamp is a good example.

This is not a tune that a beginning improviser (or even a somewhat experienced one) will play fluently sight reading the chord changes. Good improvising on this requires hearing the harmonic flow of the tune. (As with any tune, but this one is more difficult.) Play the changes on piano or guitar to ingrain the tune into your ear. At the very least, listen the rhythm track until you start to anticipate the sound of the harmonic movement.

Find areas of the tune that cause you problems. Perhaps one area is bars 12 – 15 going from D major to Ab minor to the two bar G7(b5) to Gb Major seventh. For problem areas like this, write out a simple phrase for practicing that will sound good for these four bars. Sing it and then play it.

Something like:






Here’s a loop of the above four bars:


By the way, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing out or preparing by ear phrases that cause you difficulty. You’re not writing out a solo pretending to be improvising. Instead, you’re learning and preparing your ear for improvisation. Transcribing, composing, playing on the piano or guitar, and listening to recordings of masters are all great ways to get a tune in your ears. You cannot improvise well without having the tune living inside your ears.

Remember back in the beginning of this section on improvisation, I encouraged you to come up with simple songs that you already knew, and play them by ear in different keys. You can only do that effectively if you “hear” the melody and the key center. After a while you should be hearing the beginning two bar repeated chords in your head. Once you can, start playing lines without the rhythm section. Can you hear your melody lines fitting inside those changes?

Here’s the audio file for my solo followed by an additional chorus of rhythm section for your blowing. Within the book, I transcribe my solo (as with each example tune) so that you can play along.

1 Comment

  1. James Balsley on November 11, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    Mike, looking forward to your book. Hope you finish soon..

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