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How to Improvise Over Unrelated Chords

One of the biggest challenges of improvisation involves coming up with melodies that make sense over chord changes that are highly chromatic.

Much of the standard jazz repertoire from the post-bebop era includes songs with chord progressions that leap around between contrasting key centers, such as “Giant Steps,” “Dolphin Dance,” and “Cyclic Episode.”

I’ve already talked about “Giant Steps” and “Dolphin Dance” here on LJS, so I’d like to use the first four bars of chord changes from “Cyclic Episode” as a case study for this post. I’ll discuss a few different strategies for navigating these complex and dissimilar chords.

Firstly, as I’ve mentioned many times here on LJS before, I’d just like to point out that nothing replaces training the ear and learning jazz vocabulary intuitively through focused listening and imitation of great improvisers.

Theory always comes after practice, not before, and nothing can substitute for the immense value that comes from listening to great jazz recordings and trying to absorb these musics’ vocabularies organically by ear.

But that being said, having theoretical tools to supplement your aural instincts can be helpful.

The first four measures of Sam Rivers’s composition “Cyclic Episode” feature minor chords which cycle in ascending minor thirds (probably providing the inspiration for the song’s title).

This harmonic progression presents a challenge for improvisers because every measure you’re essentially in a new key center.

Here are some strategies to help you navigate these types of progressions.

Try to find one simple scale, chord, or set of pitches that work over all the chords.

Or at least two or more chords in a row. For example, you can use the minor or major pentatonic scales if they work over the chords in question. In order to do this, you must try to find common tones between the chords.

Because most chords imply a scale that usually has at least seven notes, and given that there are only twelve notes in the chromatic scale, chances are that even two of the most distant chords will share at least one note in common between their chordal structures (especially once you start including upper structures, i.e., 9ths, 11ths, and 13ths).

Here are some examples:

Take a short melodic fragment and sequence it.

One of the ways to get around chromatic chord progressions is to set up a short motivic idea and just transpose it through the key centers.

This way you’re guaranteed to nail the changes while playing a melody that makes musical sense because sequences carry a musical logic that brings unity to a musical statement.

In other words, sequences are a great way to tie together your musical ideas while navigating rapidly shifting tonal centers.

Here are three examples:

Ignore the key center movement, simplify the progression, and pick a target key to resolve to.

If you play a strong enough melodic statement that clearly lands on a key center that fits with the chord progression, you can get away with not perfectly outlining every single key center as they pass by.

This is a great technique to create emotional excitement by playing dissonant melodies that clash with the underlying chords, and it works well as long you as you eventually resolve into the “correct” tonal center.

Just avoid the trap of using this technique as a crutch — don’t use this strategy as an excuse not to learn the changes to difficult songs.

Likewise, don’t allow yourself to use this approach as an excuse for not learning how to smoothly voice lead through complex chord changes.

But that being said, much jazz music is highly complex and chromatic, and many of the tunes with chromatic harmonies feature chord changes that shift key centers rapidly.

So in the “heat of the moment,” most listeners won’t be able to tell the difference on a chord-by-chord basis if you’re voice-leading perfectly or not, but almost everyone can tell if you resolve a line clearly.

Here’s an example:

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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