A Few Tips for Beginner Jazzers Regarding Improvising
The most melodic lines are scalular in nature. If you do too many large intervals you will begin to sound unmelodic. Also, avoid playing the nine at the bottom of your melodic line as it will tend to make you sound like you are playing in a different key than the chord you are playing over. The most common way jazz musicians use chromatics is between the nine and the root, the seven and the root, and between the fifth and the sixth.
Chord tones are the most important notes in improvisation. Chord tones define the tonal center of your melodic lines. The best and most straightforward manner to play with logic is to place your chord tones on the downbeat and non chord tones on the upbeat. This leads us to the problem of changing keys or making the transition from one chord to the next chord as you play over a chord progression of a tune. What you are aiming for is to make the transition as smooth as possible. In order to do this make the transition using a chord tone from one chord to a chord tone of the next chord with a half step or a whole step. This is also something the bass player does when he/she plays the bass line. An example of this would be, say on going from a C dominant 7 chord to an F Major chord (V, I), on the last upbeat of the C dominant 7 chord play an E natural (the third) and let it lead to F natural (root) on the down beat of the F Major Chord, or you could also use G natural (the fifth of C7) and let it lead to A natural (the third of F Major). These are just a few examples.
One of the best ways to practice your scales is to do so in a chromatic fashion which will help you become more comfortable with changing keys and make you more flexible. For example a sax player might start a Bb Major scale starting on low Bb and playing it up a full octave then switching to B Major playing down a full octave then switch to C Major and play it up a full octave then going to C# Major and playing down a full octave and so on and so forth over the entire range of your horn. You can then start at the highest note of your horn and come down in a similar manner; I would do this with all the minor scales as well. For wind players, try not to take a breath right before you start the next scale. You should also do this with your Major and minor chords in an arpeggio form as in C,E,G,C.
Memorizing licks is fine as far as that goes but it’s better to actually know what you are doing and why because when you know what you’re doing you can develop your own style and sound logical. And playing chord tones on the downbeat and non chord tones on the upbeat will take you a long way in this direction. Of course you have to have your chords, not just your scales memorized to do this. Another thing that will help you is to write solos over chord progressions from standards made up of eighth notes using chord tones and non chord tones as I described and making the transitions between the various chords as described. Do this without using an instrument. After you have written it play it to see if it sounds like what you expected it to sound like and change anything you don’t like. If you do this the benefits will be great. Of course you cannot always play chord tones on the downbeat and non chord tones on the upbeat depending on how the melodic line develops but you can do it most of the time. It will make you sound like you know what you are doing because you will know what you are doing.
When you write out your solos try beginning a phrase on the same note you ended on in the previous phrase, this will help your solo be more cohesive. Also, it is important to leave some space between phrases, think Miles Davis. Don’t always start your phrases on the same beat; try starting them at a different place in the measure, same thing for endings. Also vary the length of your phrases but don’t make them too short because playing a succession of short phrases will give your solo a nursery rhyme sound, something to avoid.