Lester Leaps In

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Before you get obsessed with scales and before you start worrying about turnarounds or ii-V licks, you need to remember one thing – you’re playing music.

Each time you take a solo your goal should be to create melodic ideas based on what you’re hearing. But this can be harder than it seems coming from the entrenched chord-scale approach to improvisation.

A great lesson in the art of simple melodic construction and musical phrasing over Rhythm Changes comes from Lester Young. In his famous solo on Lester Leaps In he creates melodic phrases with surprisingly simple material.

Many musicians practicing improvisation are simply trying to tackle too much at once. A valuable exercise is to limit your note choices and create a solo with only a few key techniques. Do more with less material!

Are you making the process of learning to play jazz standards harder than it has to be?

…searching for answers in theory books, obsessing over scales, and turning your daily practice session into a soul-searching quest for your personal sound when you just want to be playing music?

The thing is, learning to play a great solo doesn’t have to be overly abstract or even complicated.

If you want to see results in the practice room, it comes down to something much more concrete: Find someone who sounds good and figure out what they’re doing.

It’s as simple as that. The process is the same for learning to play over a single chord as it is for learning to navigate the progression to a jazz standard.

And it’s the same for learning to create a great solo on Rhythm Changes.

So if you’re frustrated with your playing, stop guessing, stop worrying about hundreds of scales and stop mindlessly jamming for hours with a play-a-long track.

With some key techniques ingrained from the right sources, you’ll go from scraping by in frustration to playing better than you ever could’ve imagined.

In today’s lesson we’ve taken 6 incredible solos from the masters and highlighted dozens of specific techniques that you can begin practicing today.

On first listen the recording and musical style may sound dated, but the musical lessons inside are timeless. In the opening of his solo he states a simple musical idea with rhythmic clarity and swing and develops it in the phrases that follow – the essence of improvisation in any tune that you play.

One thing that’s notable about Lester’s solo is that he isn’t trying to outline every underlying chord in his lines. If you take a closer look, he’s primarily playing over a Bb chord – the tonic, creating musical phrases in one key instead of playing every single chord.
When you begin trying to improvise over Rhythm Changes, the prospect of changing chords every two beats is enough to make you freeze up. (Similar to tunes like Giant Steps, Stablemates, or Moment’s Notice.) Instead try something more conducive to creativity, approach the A section as an extended tonic chord (in this case Bb).

Here are 4 techniques Lester uses to create melodic statements while approaching the A section of Lester Leaps In as the tonic:

Create melodic statements using the major pentatonic scale

Throughout his solo, Lester creates phrases using the notes of the Bb pentatonic scale:

Instead of quickly moving from chord to chord, try this approach in your own solos. Limit yourself to creating melodies only from the major pentatonic scale. Can you create music with only five notes? What variations and intervallic permutations can you come up with?

It’s not just the scale or note choices that make a musical statement, it’s the shape, rhythm, time and sound of the lines you play. Try the same approach with major scale fragments, triads, or even intervals to create your musical statement.

Utilize ‘blue notes’ and blues language

Aside from using major pentatonic material, Lester also utilizes blue notes and blues language to navigate that extended Bb sound.

Listen to how he highlights the b7 over Bb in the line below: In your own solos, try emphasizing blue notes like the b3, b5, and b7 in your phrases or using melodic material from the minor pentatonic or blues scale.

Use approach notes and enclosures with chord tones. One way that Lester spices up the diatonic notes in his lines is through the use of approach notes and enclosures: This technique is an effective way to augment simple phrases constructed of chord tones. Simply approach the triad or chord tones of the sound with approach notes that are a half-step below the goal note.

Create a motif around a specific chord tone, harmonic technique or interval.

The fourth technique that Lester uses to navigate the A section is by creating a motif around a specific harmonic or melodic device. For instance, in this line he chooses to highlight the color of the 9th of the chord:

You could use this same approach with other harmonic or melodic concepts that you know. For example utilizing an augmented sound on V7 chords, a lydian sound on Major chords, or altered scales on the bridge – the options are endless. Pick one and make music with it.

Still wondering how to create a melodic statement over chords?? Check out our course Melodic Power for in-depth instruction, examples, and exercises on developing this essential skill.

Keep in mind that great melodies don’t have to be complex. When you’re practicing, the simpler the idea the better!

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