Way back when I was a brand new instructor at Musician’s Institute, I used to run a morning “before school” improvisation theory class that a lot of guys used to come to. I picked out 20 standards from the Real Book that I felt had pretty much every kind of harmonic improvisational situation that you would ever see, so if you could play over these tunes, you’d probably never have a real problem with any other tune you would see in your musical life.
I have two sayings that I always remember, the first I made up: “Harmony is like a rock, it will only move as much as it’s pushed – and the only thing that changes it are new chords that contain notes outside of it.” The other I think I read in an improv book somewhere that stuck for me: “Before you can play ‘outside’, you gotta know what ‘inside’ is.” The purpose of this article is to help you to always know what “inside” is.
I decided to put that list of songs up here at JGS, as well as some of the solos I wrote over them, because I’ve found it personally really valuable, as well as a few “rules” for improvising, which are of course made to be broken, but apply most of the time, they are:
- “NON-DIATONIC MAJOR 7 CHORDS: Unless a non-diatonic maj7 chord is preceded by it’s related II-7/V7 chords (in which case it is a I chord or the Ionian mode), it will probably sound like a iV chord (Lydian mode).
- “NON-DIATONIC MINOR7 CHORDS”: Are probably II-7 or Dorian mode chords. The reason for both these rules being that you will find that these modes will change the current chord scale as little as possible to accommodate the new chord – try it out, you’ll see.
- “DOMINANT 7TH CHORDS GOING TO MINOR CHORDS”: Almost always will take dominant 7th scales with b13/#5, as this is the minor third of the target minor chord. Common choices would be the altered scale or 5th mode of harmonic minor, but symmetric diminished (half/whole) works as well of you want to be more “outside”.
- “DOMINANT 7TH CHORDS GOING TO MAJOR CHORDS”: Can take both altered (raised or lowered 9th, 11ths, 5th, and 13ths) or of course, straight mixolydian mode or blues scale.
As I write this decade later, these rules still ring true. Here’s the list of the 20 tunes from the Real Book that I recommend to learn to play on most any tune, with the reasons why. Bear in mind that OF COURSE there are others, but these will do the job nicely:
- “Stella By Starlight” – functional harmony with twists, uses both major and melodic minor modes.
- “Invitation” – melodic minor tonic chords, with melodic minor dominants.
- “Falling Grace” – Modal interchange harmony with pivot chords that subtly change scales.
- “All The Things You Are” – Functional harmony with some diminished and IV minor chords.
- “Dolphin Dance”: Modal twists including phrygian modes, non-functional (not staying in any one key) harmony.
- “Coral” Functional harmony with some exotic (major #5) scales.
- “Body & Soul” – Descending resolving diminished chords.
- “No More Blues” – Latin common chord progressions.
- “500 Miles High” – Totally modal harmony.
- “Captain Marvel” – surprise harmonic cadences.
- “Desert Air” – non-functional harmony and exotic chord scales.
- “Pinocchio” – non-functional dominant chords.
- “Fall” – Dominant and minor substitution chord scales.
- “How Insensitive” – Descending back-cycling chord progression.
- “The Dolphin” – constant twists and turns with chords that don’t resolve.
- “La Fiesta” – Chromatic progression requiring Spanish modes.
- “Maiden Voyage” – Parallel dominant chords.
- “Moments Notice” – Coltrane “tonic systems” composition, like “Giant Steps” but in some ways harder.
- “Nefertiti” – Non-functional chord progression, a challenge to be melodic on.
- “Windows” – Modal 3/4 tune using exotic scales, 1/2 step resolving dominant chords.
That’s my list, and of course, there are many others what would do the job as well that you might prefer, but I stand by this list as something that will “get you there” in terms of being able to play on any tune if you can play over these – enjoy.