Connecting Your Phrases in the Language of Jazz

January 30, 2014

Hey Jazz Guy,
How can I string together lines and arpeggios in a way that sounds like jazz? — Not Connected in Nashville

Dear Not Connected,
When learning any language, we usually focus first on the nouns and verbs— the basic words we need to express an idea. Next, our attention turns to the connecting words: adjectives and prepositions. The same holds true in the language of jazz. Arpeggios and scales are the nouns and the verbs, but the subtly and expressivity comes from the connections between words. In jazz, there are a few simple concepts that when added to your vocabulary will allow your musical words to really come together.

The first major connection concept is the art of approach notes. One note, for example C [Ex. 1], can be approached by a note from a half-step or whole-step above or below. If we allow ourselves two approach notes, the possibilities multiply, as in Examples 2, 3, and 4, where we use combinations of half-steps and whole-steps from above and below. Just applying this concept to a simple 7th chord arpeggio in Ex. 5 gives us a more interesting line than by simply playing chord tones. It is important to remember that we are not playing outside the chord, we are only accenting the chord tones with approach notes from above and below. We see these effects again in the next line [Ex. 6], where many different approach notes are used to surround the chord tones. Notice also that more often than not, the chord tones are placed on strong beats with the approach notes on the weaker beats.

The second concept that is important in the jazz lexicon is the concept of bebop scales. Simply put, bebop scales are a way of adding passing tones into an existing scale. If we look at a G major scale [Ex. 7], we see that it has seven notes. The bebop scale in Ex. 8 adds a passing tone between the 6th and 7th degrees. The effect is to both introduce an out-of-key note and to create an eight-note scale out of a sevennote scale. There is a deep science to bebop scales—and certain types fit better with particular chords—but the underlying principal is the same. Any naturally occurring whole-step in the scale can, in theory, be replaced with two half-steps to create a bebop scale. If we examine the next few examples, Ex. 9 places a note between the 5th and 6th degrees, and Ex. 10 between the 2nd and 3rd degrees.

Approach notes and bebop scales cover a lot of ground when it comes to connecting scales and arpeggios. If we apply these ideas to some chord changes, the possibilities are nearly endless. In Ex. 11 we use a bebop scale and diatonic approach notes. Throwing a bebop scale over a minor chord [Ex. 12] can add a nice texture to the minor sound. Playing these ideas over our usual I-VI-IIm-V progression [Ex. 13] gives us a combination of chord tones, approach notes, and chromaticism derived from the bebop scale.

To practice these concepts, it helps to work out the lines slowly and even write them down. That way, you can visualize where the chord tones are, how they are approached and what passing tones are getting added to create bebop scales. These techniques will drastically improve your musical vocabulary and greatly assist you in connecting the words you know in the jazz language. You may even become quite the eloquent orator. Jazz hard!

Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the non-jazz world. Send your questions to Jake’s latest release is Evolution [Buckyball].

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