2 Jazz Improv Concepts and an Etude Over Solar

“Solar” is a jazz standard written by one of the most famous jazz musicians of all time, trumpeter Miles Davis. The best-known Miles recording of “Solar” is probably from his iconic 1957 Prestige album Walkin’.

Miles typically receives compositional credit for this song even though there is an ongoing debate over the true authorship of “Solar.” Some musicians and scholars have argued that Davis’s “Solar” is essentially a copy of an earlier tune called “Sonny,” which was written by guitarist Chuck Wayne.

Indeed, Miles is no stranger to authorship controversies. There are some well-known disputes over the origin of other famous jazz songs as well.

For example, Miles claimed he wrote the bebop standard “Donna Lee” (many credit Charlie Parker as the true composer). Similarly, both Davis and jazz pianist Bill Evans have been credited as the sole composers of “Blue in Green” from the best-selling jazz record of all time, Miles’s 1959 album Kind of Blue.

Regardless of the true provenance of “Solar,” this tune has certainly been made popular by Miles Davis, and it is a “must-know” tune because it is frequently called on gigs and at jam sessions.

“Solar” is most commonly played in the key of C minor, but be aware that the tune goes through four tonal centers: C minor, F major, Eb major, and Db major.

This lesson on “Solar” is going to tackle two different concepts simultaneously:

  1. First, we’re going to look at the melodic minor scale and a few of its modes and use them to generate melodic ideas.
  2. Secondly, we’re going to work on the eighth-note and quarter-note triplet subdivisions to help us spice up our solos with some nice rhythmic variety.

At the end of this post, I have an etude over Solar that uses these concepts.

Part 1: The Melodic Minor Scale

In addition to learning the major scale in all 12 keys and the 7 diatonic or “church” modes derived from the major scale, the melodic minor scale is one of the most important and useful scales for jazz improvisers to master.

To review, in the jazz context, a melodic minor scale is just the ascending version of the “classical” melodic minor scale. Basically, a melodic minor scale is identical to a major scale except the third scale degree is lowered one half-step.

Here’s the C melodic minor scale:

C D Eb F G A B C

You can create modes based on this scale by playing the same melodic minor scale but starting on a different scale degree, just like you can with the major scale.

There is a lot of confusion over what to call the various modes derived from melodic minor, so I’ll give you multiple names for each scale.

It’s important to know all the different “aliases” or nicknames that are used to refer to the same scale so that you’ll know which scales other jazz musicians are talking about.

For this lesson, we’ll focus on the melodic minor scale played from the tonic, from the 6th, and from the 7th.

From the tonic = melodic minor.

The “modal” nickname for the melodic minor scale is “Dorian natural 7,” because the melodic minor scale is just like a Dorian minor scale except with a natural (or major) seventh instead of a flatted seventh (when compared with a parallel major scale starting on the same root).

The melodic minor scale played from the root is simple to use, you can use it over any tonic minor-major-seventh chords, and you can also use it on II minor chords. So, for example, the C melodic minor scale works perfectly over a C-(maj.7) chord.

The melodic minor sound is so strong that it often works over a II-7 chord despite the fact that the seventh of the melodic minor scale might clash with the flatted seventh of a II-7 chord.

Additionally, sensitive pianists and guitarists will quickly hear it if you play a strong melodic minor sounding idea over a II-7 chord, and they will likely change their voicing to accommodate your melodic choice (they can do so by switching to a minor-major-seventh chord voicing or by avoiding playing the seventh in their voicing altogether).

From the 6th = Locrian natural 2.

One of the other very common modes of the melodic minor scale is the 6th mode. This mode works great over half-diminished 7th chords (also called minor-seven-flat-five chords) when you want a natural 2 in your scale (which corresponds to a natural 9 in a piano or guitar voicing).

This is particularly useful over half-diminished chords that are part of minor 2-5-1’s that resolve to a major I chord because the natural 2 of the II-7(b5) is the same note as the natural/major third of the tonic major scale.

Because of mode mixture, in jazz, it’s common for tunes to have major 2-5’s that resolve to a minor I chord and vice versa. Even if you do play a minor 2-5-1 that does, in fact, resolve to a minor tonic chord, however, you can still play Locrian natural 2 over the II-7(b5) chord.

So in the key of C minor, the II-7(b5) chord is D-7(b5), and the melodic minor scale that works over this (the “parent scale”) is F melodic minor. So F melodic minor played from D works well over D-7(b5) chords.

From the 7th = the altered scale.

Yet another commonly used mode of the melodic minor scale is the 7th mode. This scale is used frequently in mainstream jazz melodic vocabulary, and it is known by at least four different names.

Perhaps the most common name is the “altered scale” or the “altered dominant scale,” but this scale is also sometimes called “the diminished whole tone scale” (because the first half of the scale is like a diminished scale with the half-step first and the second half of the scale is like a whole-tone scale).

Ionian #1” (because it’s just like a major or Ionian scale except with a root/tonic that’s been raised a half step), and “the super Locrian scale” (because it’s like Locrian but with a lowered 4th, which makes it “super” dark sounding to some people’s ears).

Because there are so many different names for the same scale, people also sometimes just refer to it as “the seventh mode of melodic minor.”

Using C melodic minor as a parent scale to generate modes, the seventh mode gives you the B altered scale. It is C melodic minor played from B, and it looks like this:

B Altered Scale:

B altered scaleB C D Eb F G A B

The altered scale is a type of dominant scale, and it is used of dominant 7th chords that have been altered. You can use it over a dominant 7 (b9) chord, for example.

The full list of altered notes contained in the altered scale (also called “upper structure tensions” or just “tensions” by some) are the following: b9, #9, #11, b13.

Since this scale has a b13, it doesn’t work as well over dominant 13 (b9) chords because they have a natural 13 which clashes with the b13. However, many jazz standards notate altered dominant chords as a generic “7(b9)” chords without a 13th specified.

In such cases, the altered scale generally works well as a viable scale choice option for generating improvised melodies.

Further, anytime a chord progression features a dominant 7th chord that features a root movement that resolves up a perfect 4th or down a perfect 5th, the chord progression is moving in a V7-I type of pattern, and you can almost always turn the dominant 7th chord into a 7(b9) chord in such scenarios.

So for example, if you have a chord progression such as G7 to C (major, dominant, or minor), you can turn the G7 into a G7(b9) and play the G altered scale (Ab melodic minor, played from G).

This holds true regardless of whether the C is actually the tonic chord of the song – it doesn’t matter, because no matter what key the song is in, C is being temporarily tonicized.

So for this etude on “Solar,” we’re going to maximize our use of the melodic minor scale.

We’ll use the melodic minor sound to create melodies every time we have a minor chord, and we’ll use the 7th mode of melodic minor (the altered scale) every time there is a dominant chord that is resolving V7-I.

Part 2: Adding triplets

As an added layer of musical challenge, we’ll also practice spicing up our melodic improvisations by alternating between using 8th note vs. triplet rhythms as we create our melodies.

Triplets are important to practice because the 8th-note triplet is the primary subdivision in jazz. Jazz vocabulary is rich with triplet-based rhythms, and you can really create a wonderful sense of rhythmic interest and variety by introducing more triplets into your playing.

It’s true that the rhythmic feel we call “swing” certainly is elusive and hard to define and conceptualize. But subdividing in 8th note triplets gets you close to a good model for a solid 8th-note swing feel. In other words, jazz is all about the 8th-note triplet.

If you want to approach a more “authentic” swing feeling in your jazz playing, you need to address the triplet feel that gives swing its characteristic “bounce,” and you need to become aware of and internalize, visualize, and exploit jazz’s polyrhythmic elements.

In recent decades, a consensus has emerged among many scholars, musicians, and jazz aficionados that many rhythmic characteristics of jazz, including swing, are the result of the influence of West African music on jazz.

Jazz is inherently polyrhythmic, and the cultural preference for polyrhythms can be traced back to African practices that both influenced jazz directly and informed the musical precursors to jazz.

The polyrhythms that are common in jazz involve the mixing of duple and triple rhythmic feels. Swing feel arises at least in part from tapping into the triplet or 12/8 feel and exploiting all of the polyrhythms, rhythmic tensions, and variety of ways of breaking up the beat that is possible when a triple-meter subdivision is superimposed on a duple-meter foundation.

This is not to detract from or deny the fact that everyone will place their swing 8th notes in a slightly different place – perhaps somewhere between a triplet-swing and -straight-8th feel. This is a good thing!

Part of what makes swing special is that, though it is almost always understood to arise from polyrhythmic use of a triplet time feel inside a duple meter, everyone has their own slightly different rhythmic “voice” – their own approach to swing.

By tapping into the triplet subdivision and becoming aware of the inherent polyrhythmic aspects of jazz, you will automatically increase your rhythmic prowess and improve your time-feel when playing swing 8th notes.

On a final note, it is also important to note here that certainly, the 8th note feel of jazz lines tends to straighten out as tempos increase, which is natural since it allows the music flow better. So don’t be afraid to let go of the triplets a bit as tempos increase.

Solar Etude:

30 Stepsto Better Jazz Playing

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