Improvising Over Chromatic Passing Chords

It’s tough choosing a tonality when chords move by half step.  Here is a method that gives good results.

My student wanted to practice “Gone With the Wind.”  We focused on bars 13 -16, whose chords (on a Bb horn) are:
Fmaj7 – E7 – Eb7 – D7 – Gm7 – C7

Using Band in a Box, we slowed down the tempo and created a loop of those 4 bars.  (Loops with an even number of bars are generally smoother.)  Fig. 1-a below shows the basic arpeggios.  For added interest, we alternated direction as shown.


Once we were able to play that phrase smoothly at tempo, we began experimenting with variation.  First, we harmonized the phrase up a third (see Fig. 1-a).  Then we inverted it, as shown in Fig. 1-b.  After trying several approaches, we agreed on one we felt had melodic interest and nice swing (see Fig. 1-c).  It utilizes syncopation, which adds rhythmic snap.  The motif of bar 13 is repeated (down a third) in bar 15.  This device is called “sequencing.”  It lends both variety and coherence to your melodic flow.  Sequencing is used by most of the masters, and it adds unity to their ideas.  The phrase migrates downward by half step every 2 beats from A to Eb.  This is also a type of sequence.

Any time i find a “lick” worth developing, i practice it in all 12 keys, usually moving around the Circle of Fifths.  In Fig. 1-c, Bar 16 has been altered, so it modulates into the next key.  Try playing along with the recording below.  (Contact me, if you need a chart.)

It is worth the effort to master this progression, as it crops up in several tunes, such as “Sweet Georgia Brown” (bars 29-30), “Body and Soul” (bar 24), and “Sophisticated Lady” (bars 2 & 4).

As luck would have it, we had some extra time, so my student asked if we could work on “It Could Happen to You.”  It turns out the two songs have much in common, including a similar set of chromatic passing chords in those same bars (13 & 14).  In this case, the progression is in the relative minor.  On a Bb horn, the changes are:
Dm – Dm(Maj7)/C# – Dm7/C – BØ

This progression occurs in “Round Midnight” (bar 1) and “My Funny Valentine” (bars 1-4)  Fig. 2-a shows the basic arpeggios.


In Fig. 2-b, we utilize the sequencing device of moving down by half-step every 2 beats described above.  Bars 15 & 16 illustrate how a sequence is clearly recognizable, even though the “lick” is slightly altered.  Fig. 2-c presents an approach incorporating all of the devices presented here.  It also uses space – that attribute so beloved by Miles Davis – so the line can “breathe.”  Bars 15 & 16 facilitate the modulation from Dm to Gm, so you can play this lick in all 12 minor keys using the background track given here.

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