As jazz musicians, we’re always trying to find ways to hear and come up with different types of melodic lines while improvising.
One strategy that can help break up a hyper scale-focused approach to building lines involves thinking about and trying to hear lines built around chord arpeggios. I recently posted about practicing arpeggiating chords for tunes we know in root position.
In this post, I want to take this idea a step further. In addition to thinking about arpeggios built from the root of a chord (1-3-5-7), we can also practice harmony by arpeggiating what are often called upper structures.
An upper structure is a chord that is built on a note other than the root of a chord. For example, if you play an F major triad and then add a D in the bass register, you have F/D (F major over D) which is the same thing as a D-7 chord.
So an F major triad is an upper structure triad that fits with D-7. Likewise, for D-9, and Fmaj.7 chord is a common upper structure, since the 1-3-5-7 of Fmaj.7 is the 3-5-7-9 of D-9. For a more detailed review of how upper structures and slash chords work, check out my post on dealing with jazz chord symbols.
Practically, this means we can get a lot of value out of arpeggiating upper structures by themselves, without play the roots of chords.
It’s a cool way to help you hear and play important chord tones and colorful notes high up on the extension of the chords. Here’s how I practice arpeggiating upper structures:
Upper Structure Practice #1
Practice arpeggiating all the upper structure chords strictly in root position (i.e., 1-3-5-7 for the upper structure itself; you’ll actually be arpeggiating 3-5-7-9 of the original chord).
When creating practicing exercises for yourself, keep in mind that not all upper structures have to be 3-5-7-9. An upper structure could be just a triad, and/or it could be built on a wide variety of different scale degrees.
For example, for a G13(sus4) chord, you could use Fmaj.7 as the upper structure. In this case, the upper structure is built from the b7 and includes the chord tones 7-9-11-13 relative to the root of the chord (G). Similarly, Fdim.7/g (an F fully diminished 7th chord upper structure played over G) is a viable option for a G7(b9) chord.
Here’s an example of what I mean over “Solar.”
I’ve notated what the upper structure chord by itself is above each measure for this first example (notice how it switches to 8th notes to accommodate 1-bar II-V’s where each chord only lasts 2 beats):
Upper Structure Practice #2
Practice arpeggiating all the upper structure chords in various inversions.
The goal is to try to be unpredictable and to create smooth voice leading between chords (i.e., avoid big melodic jumps between chords if and whenever possible).
Here’s an example again over “Solar,” using the same upper structures (notice the attempt to voice lead a 7th of one chord on beat 4 to a 3rd of the next chord on beat 1 on many occasions to enable smooth transitions between chords):
Upper Structure Practice #3
Turn your upper structure arpeggios into full-blown improvised melodies by varying the rhythms, adding rests and repeated notes, etc.
Here’s an example using the same upper structures used above:
I hope this is fun and helpful to practice. Try applying your knowledge of upper structures to another jazz standard you are familiar with and see if you can apply some of these concepts.