We’re going to do some improvisation exercises on Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues”. This inspired piece of minimalism takes a two note riff and repeats it over a simple blues sequence. That makes it useful not only for people quite new to improvisation but also for people like me who tend to play too many notes and not leave enough space.
Let’s stick with the key of C which means D for instruments like tenor sax (Bb transposing) and A for instruments like alto sax (Eb transposing). The notes of the riff are G, GGG, C. For Bb instruments that’s A, AAA, D. For Eb instruments it’s E, EEE, A.
First we will play it straight as an ensemble, then each player in the band takes a solo using just those notes. You can play them in a different order if you want and introduce different rhythms and repetition.
Next we will play solos which add up to 2 extra notes. They can be “inside” notes (ones within the chords) or “outside notes” (ones not normally part of the chords). For instance, one example of an outside note would be Bb. It “alters” each of the chords, making the C a C7, the F a suspended 4th and the G a minor chord. But it sounds colourful and is perfect to jazz up your solo. And you don’t have to play every note over every chord. You might play an Eb, part of the blues scale for both C and F chords but maybe not play it over the G chord.
Now let’s try solos that stick to chord notes. That means you will need to synchronise your solo with the chord changes. You can play arpeggios if you want. More advanced players may want to play “extended chord” arpeggios; for example, Duke’s theme has a G against the F chord, which in jazz suggests a ninth chord with a flattened seventh. So your arpeggio over F could include Eb and G. If that doesn’t make sense, ask me to explain…….
For the rhythm section, remember that you can help support soloists and make the music interesting by varying the groove, the bassline and the supporting harmonies. Let’s try a couple of options this time.
Always listen to the soloist - try to get more intense as they get more intense. Think about quietening down every so often. Leave space too. Then maybe put an extra chord or accent between the regular ones. You might try extending chords too; perhaps the C can be a 9th, the F a 13th and the G7 can have an augmented 5th. Experiment along those lines. You can even introduce an altered blues sequence - just make sure everyone does it together! For instance:
/C /Bb6 /C / /F /Eb Db /C /A7 /Dm7 sus4 /G7 /C /G7 /
Next we’ll work on a “head” arrangement to put the piece together. Let’s try a 12 bar intro by the rhythm section to set the pace. Then everyone plays the theme in unison. Let’s try repeating the theme with some harmonies…Then solos for everyone; this time make a special effort to pick up some licks or ideas from the previous soloist; this helps unify the performance. Finally, finish off with a reprise of the theme; at least one instrument must play it straight but the others can add riffs and licks in the style of New Orleans counterpoint.