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Chord tones

There’s an old saying in jazz: “Someone made a mistake, and jazz was born.” That mistake led to a discovery, which led to questions about freedom and creativity, about form and content. Space was made for invention. Freedom to embellish became a thing. All from accepting a mistake and exploring it instead of running away from it (“Don’t fear mistakes. There aren’t any” – Miles Davis).

The easiest (safest?) way to embellish – at least in terms of note choice – is to use the notes of the chord that you’re playing on. They never sound bad. And more importantly, each one has a specific emotional effect. The root of the chord, for instance, has a different level of tension – a different colour – than the 3rd,  the 5th, or the 7th.

Getting the feel of these colours in your ear and in your body is essential if you want to be as good as you can be improvising over jazz changes.

That being the case, your job is to figure out how each chord tone makes you feel. Try this:

  1. Loop a single chord. Use a Cmaj7 chord for simplicity.
  2. Play the root and nothing but the root while the chord plays. Really figure out how that note makes you feel. Play it with the same articulation for a while (soft, hard, staccato, etc.). Then vary the articulation. Don’t vary the rhythm. Keep asking how it makes you feel. Don’t worry about coming up with an answer. The point is to feel, not explain.
  3. Do the same thing with the other chord tones.
  4. Improvise using only two chord tones. Your choices are 1 and 5; 1 and 3; 1 and 7; 3 and 5; 3 and 7, 5 and 7. Play with each pair.
  5. Use three chord tones in the same manner – 1, 3, 5; 1, 3, 7; 1, 5, 7; 3, 5, 7.
  6. Use all four chord tones.

If you do all this, you should have a decent idea of how each chord tone makes you feel, and how the relationships between chord tones makes you feel. This is incredibly important.

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