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How to Improvise Over “Inner Urge”

Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” from his iconic 1965 record also entitled Inner Urge is one of the most frequently called tunes at jam sessions when jazz musicians want to play a fast and challenging song.

It’s a good tune to know because it’s one of the testing-ground tunes that more advanced musicians call to challenge each other and themselves to up their level of music making.

Henderson describes the inspiration of this tune coming from a time where he was “consumed by an inner urgency which could only be satisfied through this tune.

During that period I was coping with the anger and frustration that can come of trying to find your way in the maze of New York, and of trying to adjust the pace you have to set in hacking your way in that city in order to just exist.”

This piece reflects this attitude quite accurately. The melody is intense and the harmony is modal; a reflection of the era in which it was written.

It’s a difficult tune to improvise on because it combines two very contrasting sections. So in order to tackle this tune, let’s split it in half and talk about different approaches to handling the very different types of changes.

The first half of the tune is comparatively easy because it only features one chord per every four measures.

This slow pace of the harmonic rhythm gives the improviser plenty of time to “get inside” the mode and try to hear melodies. Scale choices are pretty straightforward for the first half of the tune. F# Locrian or F# Locrian natural 2 are viable options for the first chord, and Lydian works for all the other chords (because in this case, the “b5” in the chord symbol actually corresponds to a #4 in terms of the scale that fits best with a maj7b5 chord).

Here are these scales notated:

The second half of the tune is trickier because you have less time to try to hit each chord since the harmonic rhythm is faster. You only have one measure per chord.

Here are some strategies to practice this section:

Play down each mode from the 9th

(Ionian or Lydian will work for all of the major chords, Lydian dominant AKA Mixolydian #4 will work for the Bb7#11 chord).

String the modes together into one continuous descending scale

(Inverting the melodic direction via octave displacement when necessary). If you start on the ninth, you end up with a nice pattern switching off between playing down the scales from the ninth or the third (feel free to vary when you displace the melody to make it sound less monotonous).

Arpeggiate the chords

It sounds best, for me, when not done in root position—there are many possibilities, this is just one option.

Use pentatonics

Play the major pentatonic scale built from the fifth scale degree of all the major chords (to keep it simple, use the tonic major pentatonic for the Bb7#11).

This gets you to all the nice color tones and chord tones (5th, 13th, major 7th, 9th, 3rd). Because the harmonic progression of the tune is so patternistic, you can switch your brain to just thinking about the pentatonics themselves and follow the same root movement.

In other words, once you find the right starting pentatonic, just try to hear/think your way through the pattern outlined by the movement of the chords: down a minor, up a half step, etc.

Here’s a sample melody built from these pentatonic scales:

I hope these ideas are helpful for you. To apply what you’ve learned here, just pick one of these strategies and put it to work. If you connect with one more than the others, spend some time exploring it.

Inner Urge is a tough tune, but these strategies should help you start to build a foundation for improvising over it.

Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian
Josiah Boornazian is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and scholar primarily active in Brownsville, New York City, Miami, and California. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Jazz and Applied Saxophone at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. For more information, please visit:

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