This article is copyright 2016 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in Down Beat, Vol. 84, No. 1, January 2017. It is used by permission of the author and, as needed, the publication. Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

Improvising over Contemporary Harmonies Using Common Tones


by Antonio J. García


What divides us is often not as important as what we share in common, and that can lead to greater successes. The same can be true regarding chord progressions, especially the contemporary harmonic colors that don’t follow a cycle-of-fifths (iii-vi-ii-V-I) pattern. Here I’ll illustrate such a practical path.

When I composed “A Question of Hope,” commissioned by the Illinois Music Educators Association (ILMEA) for the January 2018 ILMEA All-State Honors Jazz Band (and published by Doug Beach Music), I decided to base it on the chord changes to George Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful.” Experimenting with the three notes that begin the last four bars of his tune, then adding different bass-tones, I created new harmonies that I could see would provide ensembles and soloists the opportunity to explore contemporary harmonies in a very approachable way.

First Glance

At first look at m. 77, the solo changes over the even-eighth groove look daunting: Cm7, Abm(maj7)/Cb, and later Fm9, Emaj7(b5#9), Bb13sus, and Bb13.

Example 1

(Click here to download a printable PDF of the above for your own practice.)
(Click here to hear an mp3 audio demo of the above progressions for your practice, with one repeat.)

How do we approach a minor-major chord? And who puts a #9 over a major-seven chord? A gut reaction might be to decide on using some sort of C Minor scale, then an Ab Melodic Minor, some F Minor scale, who-knows-what for the Emaj7(b5#9), Bb Mixolydian (dominant)-but-avoid-the-third, and Bb Mixolydian—a routing that would confound if not halt so many of the very soloists the piece is intended to inspire.

Common Ground

But so often accurate chord symbols mask the very truth within them: that their sonic palettes share so much. Rather than approach each chord as some scale from a different root, see what’s possible when you view each chord as a variation from just one scale—often the tonic (home) scale of the piece.

In this case, the tune is in Gershwin’s key of concert Eb (where the changes are headed following this example); so let’s examine the chords as variations on an Eb Major scale. The Cm7 can be within the key of Eb major, as a C Aeolian (Natural) Minor scale (i.e., the vi chord in the key of Eb). So the soloist can improvise using the Eb Major scale.

The Abm(maj7)/Cb indeed calls for an Ab Melodic Minor scale. If you view that from the pitch Eb and on, it’s “Eb Major-lower-the-sixth-and-seventh”: it’s combining the first five notes of the Eb major scale with the last two notes of an Eb Aeolian (Natural) Minor scale. So it’s two accidentals off of the Eb Major scale. Some might call it the Eb Hindu scale, or a G Altered-Dominant scale (a.k.a. G Super-Locrian or G Diminished-Whole Tone). No matter what you call it, it includes a Db.

But what if you wanted to stay even closer to the context you started in, the key of Eb major, including instead a D natural? By editing that one pitch, you’ve found the Eb Harmonic Major scale: it’s the major scale with a lowered sixth degree (from C natural to Cb).

So for the first 32 bars of improvising, you have the option of soloing as simply as with either Eb Major or “Eb Major-lower-the-sixth”—done! At m. 97 you can address the Fm9 chord as again within the key of Eb major by playing F Dorian Minor (i.e., the ii chord in the key of Eb). And that brings us to the most unusual chord on the page.

A Conversation

When encountering as striking a symbol as Emaj7(b5#9) at m. 101, I like to have a conversation with it: “What are your required tones to be consonant, and how closely to our tonic/home key can I view you?” The answers revealed—as in most conversations with the unknown—are far more settling than unnerving.

The chord’s answer to the first question provides two possible scales. The one shown on top of the staff at m. 104 is Ab Melodic Minor, which we’ve already addressed as being two accidentals off of the Eb Major scale. The other scale, shown at the bottom of m. 104, is Eb Mixolydian with a lowered second and sixth degree. Exotic as that may seem, it’s still just three pitches off the Eb Major scale (or two off of Eb Mixolydian).

After a return of the Fm9 (the ii chord in the key of Eb) comes a Bb13sus and Bb13 (both the V chord). Think of them as an Eb Major scale over Bb—done! So of the 48 bars of soloing shown, 28 measures (58%) can be soloed over consonantly using just the Eb Major scale. Of the remaining 20 bars, 16 (33% overall) could be addressed using a scale one pitch off the Eb Major scale (with additional options to change two pitches). The four bars left, mm. 101-104, can be soloed over by varying either two or three pitches off of the Eb Major scale.

A solo section where 91% of the blowing can be one major scale or a pitch or two varied off that scale is not a difficult context for improvisation, no matter what the chord symbols initially look like. And when those chords shown then yield to swinging over the original chord changes to George Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful,” less-experienced soloists will find that the concert Eb major scale will suffice for all but one of the A-section bars of that AABA song-form. The key shifts to concert G major a bar before the bridge for five measures and back to Eb a bar before the last A section. So just two major scales—Eb and G—can cover 90% of the swing solo changes, with the remaining bridge keys of concert C, F, and Bb major. For more on that key-center approach to improv, see my book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music).

Only the Beginning

These are of course only paths to the improvisatory colors that are most consonant with these chords. There are infinite soloing possibilities to add with dissonances, additional keys, the diminished scale, and more. Try them all yourself, using the accompaniment audio track linked above.

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Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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