Once the basic jazz scales have been mastered and a general understanding of the harmony they express has been grasped its time to start assembling a vocabulary of lines. The goal is to start taking our understanding of harmony and scales and using that to develop an understanding of melody. Transcribing and learning licks is one way for students to start to analyze the improvisations of the great masters in the tradition. Transcription (and more importantly learning to play our transcriptions) is definitely an important part of learning to improvise and I’ll write more about that on another blog entry. What is not at first obvious to the young improviser is how to develop an understanding of melody from licks and scales. Personally I have never sounded good spewing out a lick in the middle of a solo and nor have any of my students. It can sound kind of stilted and unconvincing especially if the melodic material in the lick doesn’t resemble anything else that is being played in the solo. What students also realize is that improvising based on an intellectual understanding of the “right” scale for the chord symbol doesn’t always yield pleasant musical results. (knowing what the “right” scale is for the chord of the moment is what Jamey Aebersold calls “Chord/scales”. For example when we see a Dmin7 chord we know that the “right” scale is D Dorian so we bust into that scale without an understand of how to create a melody that expresses D Dorian.) In other words once we have a working understanding of scales and their corresponding chord symbols it can be difficult to make it all come together musically when we improvise.
The following is an exercise that I use for University level students to start practicing scales in a way that will help more directly with improvisation. Several things are worth explaining. First of all the exercise is in a descending contour and each line expresses the sound of G(alt). However the exact scale changes depending on what note the line begins on. This is useful because unlike a lick (which must by nature always begin on the same note) practicing these lines will help you play a descending altered line beginning on one of many notes that you could find yourself on in the middle of a solo. Each line still expresses a similar altered dominant colour.
Also each example is only two bars in length which is also a lot shorter than the licks that many of my students transcribe. I have found that its more useful to develop a working and proficient understanding of melodic material that is short in length (2-4 beats) because there are more possibilities to be creative in constructing melodies with smaller, simpler pieces. This is a major distinction between this exercise and the rote practicing of licks and II-V patterns. In a sense I want to distill only one particular sound and one particular direction (descending). At the bottom I have composed a 4 bar exercise as an example of how a student can start to build on the foundation of the exercise as a whole.