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Seven Steps to Heaven by Brent Jensen, Step 1 (A)

Brent Jensen, Professor of Jazz at the College of Southern Idaho and saxophone recording artist for Origin Records, has graciously done a handout for us explaining how to improve your improvisation. He also explains several of the steps in videos! Here’s Step 1 (A).

Video’s Handout

Brent Jensen’s Seven Steps to Heaven (.pdf)


by Brent Jensen

(with thanks to Jiggs Whigham)

1. Memorize the melody. Listen to a wide variety of recordings of the song. Work on playing the song in different keys, tempos and styles. Try to exhaust the melodic possibilities of the song and absorb it into your subconscious.

2. Memorize the form of the song (blues, AABA, etc.) and the chord progression. Play through the entire form using root/third/fifth patterns on the changes. Play through the form using whole notes & half notes (background figures) and quarter notes (as in a bass line).

3. Play through the tune using short, repeated rhythmic patterns (riffs) and note groupings (non-repetitive) of three to seven notes.

4. Play using long, connected lines (mostly eighth notes) without breaking the flow. Concentrate on creating as much density (ala Coltrane) as possible.

5. Play using very few notes and relying primarily on color (vibrato, bends, growls, sub-tone, etc.) and space. Concentrate on creating as much space (ala Miles) as possible.

6. Work on varying articulation by playing through the tune entirely in a legato style and then again in a marcato style. Experience the extremes of each method of attack and work to integrate them more naturally into your playing style.

7. Work on the elasticity of your time conception by playing “on top” of the beat, “behind” the beat (laying back) and “ahead” of the beat (rushing). Practice with a metronome set for “2 and 4” (ie: the drummer’s hi-hat) and on all four beats (ie: a walking bass line).

For more posts by Brent Jensen, you can go to:

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 1 (B)

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 2

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 3

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 4

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 5

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 6

Seven Steps to Heaven, Part 7

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Camden Hughes
Camden is a working jazz pianist, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator currently living near Boise, ID. He teaches music at the Idaho Arts Charter School, and is the jazz adjunct professor at Northwest Nazarene University. Check out his music at


  1. I should probably comment more often, since I spend a lot of time here trying to absorb all of the great material. I appreciate all of the hard-earned knowledge and countless hours of work that go into making these articles and videos available. Many thanks!


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