As jazz pianists, we do many things simultaneously. We keep time, delineate song form, accompany other musicians, and improvise solo lines. We log countless practice hours honing skills in each of these areas. One challenge during soloing is to be able to diverge from the “muscle memory” we’ve developed during our scale and chord practice, and create the sense that notes or phrases in the solo are having a conversation with one another. Here are a few ideas over a standard jazz chord progression, the I-VI7-iimin7-V7 (and in the final example, a 12-bar blues) to help you build better jazz solo lines. Click the sheet music thumbnails for larger images.
1. Question-and-Answer Phrasing
Phrasing can give direction to a solo by increasing idea length. Phrases can follow a common “question-and-answer” (a.k.a. call-and-answer) speech pattern, as seen in Ex. 1. The first half of the solo line ascends toward a high point, and the second half answers it by descending.
2. Recycling Phrases with Leading Tones
As the solo progresses, Ex. 2 illustrates the effective technique of reusing phrases from earlier in the solo. This time, approach some of the notes chromatically with leading tones to add variety. Re-using earlier phrases can help unify your solos.
3. Rhythmic Motifs
Ex. 3 demonstrates how figures that repeat a stated rhythm can build tension in a solo. These rhythmic motifs can be any length, regardless of the time signature. In this example, the time signature is 4/4 and the motif is three beats in length.
4. Melodic Motifs
Melodic motifs are seductive solo devices and are illustrated in Ex. 4. They can be as simple as using three-note upper-structure shapes as the basis for part of a solo. Upper structures are familiar chords (like sus2 shapes, for instance) whose roots are different than that of the chord change, and whose notes come from the same scale as the chord change. For example, a sus2 upper structure triad consisting of G, A, and D fits nicely over an F major chord.
5. Harmonic Momentum
Strong solo lines have momentum—they push toward the next chord change, as in Ex. 5. Try using consonant notes (like the root, third, fifth, sixth, and ninth), for the first half of a chord change, and then move into more dissonant extensions (like flatted ninths, sharp ninths, flatted fifths, sharp fifths, sevenths, and sharp 11ths), for the second half of it. The result is often an easy chromatic lead-in to a consonant note in the next chord. This example demonstrates the concept over the first eight bars of a typical 12-bar blues progression.
Making it Look Easy
“Jazz pianists strive to know a multitude of elements well enough to interact spontaneously during a live performance,” says pianist and composer Dan Geisler, who has worked with artists including Jon Secada and the Backstreet Boys. Geisler holds a Master’s degree in Studio and Jazz Writing from the University of Miami School of Music. Geisler lives in Denver, Colorado, where he performs as a pianist and keyboardist and also writes extensively for publisher Hal Leonard’s music books.