Draw from the melody.
I was listening to 2 albums yesterday, the first one being “A Night At The Village Vanguard (live)” by Sonny Rollins and the other one was simply called “Standards” by Steve Grossman. The similarities in style were striking. What really stood out was that both players referred to the melody time and time again during their improvised solos.
When you first start out trying to improvise over the chord changes of a song it’s easy to become a little preoccupied with playing the right notes harmonically. Sure, you need to know the chords and study them but don’t ignore the melody! It is your most important connection with an audience and you can use it to your advantage to build a meaningful solo.
The melody is what makes a song unique. Most harmonies are a lot less unique. You will encounter the same harmonic elements in almost every tune. There are II-V ‘s everywhere.
It’s nice (and important) to have some vocabulary over these common chord progressions but you don’t want to end up playing more or less the same solo over every tune. Drawing from the melody insures that you won’t.
To be able to draw from the melody you have to know that melody really well. Here’s what you could do to get a melody down.
– Listen. Make a play list in Itunes or Spotify and get different versions of the song or tune. Adding a version of a player you don’t know is a great way of broadening your horizon. If it’s a song (with lyrics) get a vocal version too. It helps you to understand what the song is about and may help you to remember the melody with more ease.
– Get a “play a long” version. (Aebersold, YouTube or other internet sources, or make one on Band in a Box.) Play the melody straight, without alterations or embellishments. Learn to walk before you run. Use the whole track and repeat the melody over and over again. Focus on tone and intonation. Repeat this until you can play it flawlessly and convincingly.
– Play the melody in different tempos. With the metronome on 2 and 4.
– Play the melody in another key. This helps you to think (and hear) the melody as a series of intervals instead of relying purely on finger memory.
Now that you have the basic melody down you can fool around with it a bit.
Start with changing the rhythm and phrasing. Think of your favourite player and play the melody like he (or she) would play it.
Then start to embellish the melody slightly. You can use the notes in the scale to run from one melody note to the next. Use neighbouring tones of melody notes, or add a little run on a place where there is room for it.
Expand this process but keep the melody in mind. Take another listen to the melody and define what you think are the most essential or prettiest notes.
Keep these notes and play towards them.
Another great exercise is to improvise one phrase (or simply play nothing, rest for a few bars) and then go back to the melody in the next one. That way you’ll learn to use fragments of the melody.
Advanced improvisers usually draw from both harmony and melody,
so I am not saying you shouldn’t study the chords of a tune. Learning them gives you a better understanding of the underlying harmony. But by ignoring the melody you rob yourself of a valuable, often more “story telling” tool. So next time you play or practice, pay some extra attention to the melody!
Good luck !
saxophone improvisation tips