Simplifying your jazz improvisation

I’m organizing my thoughts for my next video and I wanted to use this post as a way to flesh them out a bit and to share some concepts with you.

Improvising over jazz is hard. You have so many choices as the rhythm section is flowing along that it’s hard to believe improvising over all those changes is even possible. But musicians do it, and many do it extremely well.

I want to show you how to make jazz improvisation much simpler than you may be experiencing it as you struggle to know what scales to play and to keep up with the blur of chord changes whizzing by. Sound familiar?

First, let’s set the table by agreeing on what improvisation is and what it isn’t. This post and the subsequent video rests on our agreement to these three points:

  1. Improvisation is NOT an academic exercise where you are graded on hitting all the right notes within the chord or related scale. Improvisation IS spontaneous composition that fits within the overall context of the song over which you are playing. The result resonates with you and the listener.
  2. There are no wrong notes. There is only poor context. Can you play an F natural over a D7 b9 chord? Yes, as long as the notes around it allow it to sound right within the overall framework of your solo.
  3. If your rhythm (or swing) is feeling good, you can get away with almost anything. If your sense of time is poor, nothing you play will feel solid, even if you manage to play every note exactly within the chordal harmonic context.

Playing over I Thought About You

For the video, I want to use the jazz standard I Thought About You. It was written by Johnny Mercer and Jimmy Van Heusen originally as a ballad, but I’ve always loved playing it at a medium tempo swing.

Lead sheet page 1 for I Thought About You

If you are a beginner at improvisation or not yet very experienced, the above first page of this tune looks complicated. It starts out with a completely different chord for two beats in each of the first two bars. We’re off to a rough start! What the heck do you play over that?!

A technical analysis of the lead sheet identifies a total of seven keys (Eb, G, Gb, F, Bb, C Min, and Ab) and this is only the first half of the tune. “I thought this post was on simplifying improvisation. You’ve now scared me from wanting to play it!”

Don’t fret. All of this can be made very simple if we remember from what I wrote above that improvisation is NOT an academic exercise. Yes, learn chords, scales, and harmonic relationships, but when it comes to standing up and soloing, simplify it. Here’s how…

Earlier, I wrote that there were seven different keys, but look at the root of those keys. With the exception of Gb, every other root is a chord tone within the main key of the tune which is Eb. Is it possible to play just Eb major over this entire page (and the rest of the tune as well)? The answer is yes.

Making “wrong notes” right

Before I play you an example, let me remind you of point #2 in the above list of what jazz is and isn’t. There are no wrong notes, just poor context. That means you can play any note over the D7 in bar one including Ab, Bb, F natural and Eb–all which are well outside of the D Mixolydian scale tones that you’ve been taught to play over D7.

You can play those notes as long as the context you create allows for it. That means that you need to resolve those notes in a way that sounds appropriate to the rest of what you play. Here’s an example of playing those notes over a sustained D7 that does not resolve into an appropriate or good sounding context.

  •     Playing-non-chord-tones-over-D7

I think we can agree that what I played above isn’t the feel-good improvisation of the year! “But I thought you said that any note can be played over any chord?” I did. But it has to have context and resolution. All I played were the non-chord tones without any context or resolution. It’s like eating a entire clove of garlic instead of mixing the garlic flavor into the pizza sauce in the right proportions. Plain garlic is bad. Pizza is yummy.

Now I’ll play those same non-D7 notes, but this time I’ll weave them into the context of the chord. Let’s see how that sounds.

Instead of the Eb, Bb, F, and Ab sounding wrong, they now add colors to the overall improvisation. Like putting a bit of garlic into the pizza for flavor.

  •     Playing-non-chord-tones-over-D7-with-context

I can hear you saying, “I hear you, Mike, but isn’t creating the context for those ‘wrong’ notes as you just did the very thing that separates the good improvisers from the novices, and that’s not some small or easy thing. I don’t know how to do that.”

Yes, it is more advanced, but I’m not asking you to play what I did over a suspended D7. I’m laying the groundwork for you to get comfortable with playing over passing chords that may have briefly different key centers and to not get bogged down in thinking, “Eb major for two beats then D mixolydian for two beats then Db mixolydian with a raised four for the next two beats…”

Instead, for I Thought About You, think simply Eb major throughout the entire tune. Period. Here is a link to the entire lead sheet.

The most challenging part of that will be when you come to the Ab min7 to Db7 in bar 10 of the tune. But again, your improvisation isn’t some academic exercise where you are given demerits when you happen to play a C natural over the Ab minor chord. I want to free your musical mind to play melodically long-term over the tune rather than play haltingly precise from one chord to the next, or worse, from one scale to the next.

As you learn the tune better and gain more experience improvising, your ear will gravitate more precisely and automatically toward the outside keys. Your ear will take your instrument to the Cb in the Ab minor Db sequence, or at least make it more intuitive and musical to resolve a C natural over those chords.

Playing just one scale over the entire tune

What does Eb major sound like over the entire tune? I’ll play the Eb major scale for a while over the form of the tune. I will try to avoid starting on Eb because a beginning trait of improvisers is to aim for chord roots. Don’t do that. Your improvisation will sound much better if you start on notes other than the root of the key.

And to make the point from a different angle, I’ll also throw in a chromatic scale as well. I will try to keep good time and feel but for the most part, I will play boring a major and chromatic scale just to prove that the world doesn’t end when a few notes aren’t strictly within the chord of the moment. Again, I think melodic flow and good time and feel are by far the most important aspects of this lesson and are what allow this oversimplification to work well.

  •     Playing-the-first-half-in-Eb-and-chromatic

I won’t win any music contests with that, but I was exaggerating to make a point. For the most part, I stayed in Eb major and the chromatic scale. Notice that my ear forced me to accommodate the Ab minor Db7 with a Cb – but later I played a G over the Ab minor and by the time I hit the next note, all was forgiven!

Notice also that I tend to resolve the phrases at the end. That’s another musical habit that you will develop as you gain experience. I also have a limited tolerance of sounding exclusively mechanical!

The first step in doing this simplification exercise is to know the tune. Before diving in, learn the melody. Hear it in your sleep. Again, here’s the lead sheet.

Learn the tune so that you can hear the color of each note over these chord changes. It’s not good enough to play with reckless abandon “because Mike Lake said it doesn’t matter what notes I play.” No. Mike Lake said that any note can be played within a certain context. Doing this exercise will help your ear hear note colors and develop that context.

Here’s a rhythm track over which you can play. I recorded the first melody so that you can get it in your ear, then you have two choruses of pure rhythm for you to run Eb major and chromatic scales and patterns to feel what it’s like to not think about chords and instead, just let your ear guide you through three flats while you create melody and play with good rhythm.

  •     Thought-about-you-with-first-head-and-two-rhythm-choruses


  1. Jerry Gordon on April 8, 2019 at 7:28 am

    I am studying the Chinese art of Tai Chi. The “chi” in that name refers to energy that, according to traditional Chinese theory, circulates in the body.

    The other day I was in a class and the teacher quoted his own teacher as saying, “chi does not understand English.” Nor, he might have added, does it understand Chinese. What that teacher was saying was that in order to move beyond the basics, a tai chi practitioner has to access a part of the brain that is different from the part used to speak a language, solve algebraic equations or engage in computer programming. The practitioner has to shut down the analytic part of the brain (to an extent) and allow himself or herself to “feel it.”

    Moving away from analytics can be scary. I think it takes courage—in tai chi and in music. I suspect that one of the shared characteristics of great jazz musicians is that they all manifest this kind of courage. On the other hand, it helps to understand theory before you motivate yourself to move beyond it.

  2. Michael Lake on April 8, 2019 at 8:30 am

    That’s a great point, Jerry. I think it’s very much related to improvisation. I’m doing a lot of thinking about the role of the left and right side of the brain as I encourage people to let go of the left side analytics and instead, allow for the flow of the creative right side that knows music.

    It’s hard for many people especially with all the teaching of improvisation that focuses on harmonic theory and chord/scale relationships. “The A major section is coming up. What scales do I play over the B minor?” Trusting your ears can be scary, as you mentioned.

    Here’s a recent video that illustrates the left/right brain challenge:

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