Breaking down the building blocks of Jazz Improvisation – Saxophonists

By Josh Hatcher – Saxophonist and lecturer at Jazz Music Institute

Saxophonists have a habit of putting great players on a pedestal. Sometimes this means imagining that our idols have access to a secret stash of hip lines unavailable to the average player. Upon closer inspection, however, these masters of improvisation actually just developed creative ways of using very basic musical rudiments. This is the very same simple material that many young musicians are forced to play up and down during their first few instrumental lessons or jazz classes in Brisbane. I’m talking about scales and arpeggios! Let’s take a closer look at how these musical building blocks have been used in the solos of 2 key saxophonists from the jazz tradition.

Johnny Hodges – Basin St Blues off the album “Back to Back” Duke Ellington & Johnny Hodges



From the first 8 bars of Johnny Hodges’ solo on Basin St Blues it’s obvious that pentatonic scales formed a central part of his improvising language. Excepting the descending line through bars 3-4 and the C in bar 6 this entire passage uses vocabulary derived from the A major pentatonic scale combined with Hodges signature smears, vibrato and inflections. Let’s examine his creative approach phrase by phrase.


In bar 1 his line targets the A by first descending towards it and finally ascending to arrive at it from below. This phrase is completed in bar 2 using the only 2 available notes from the A major pentatonic scale that are chord tones of C#7.


After smearing into a G# in bar 3, bar 4 features use of the chromatic scale between F# and C# with both of these notes interestingly, but perhaps incidentally, being part of the A major pentatonic scale.


Bar 5 finishes the previous phrase by way of targeting of the tonic (A) from below and above common in blues vernacular. Note how Hodges actually repeats his targeting device from the last beat of bar 4. This phrase could easily have resolved on beat 1 of bar 5 but by extending the phrase he delays the resolution until beat 2. The triplet pickup into bar 6 features a line ascending through the A major pentatonic scale from E which is ornamented with a C (chromatic approach tone) and resolving on a E an octave above using an enclosure.


Bars 7 and 8 develop the previous phrase by setting up a repeated grouping based on a variation first 5 notes from the previous that he varies on the 3rd repetition with a similar resolution to bar 6 by targeting the final E. Interestingly the phrases that come to rest on E’s in bar 6 and bar 8 occur during or in anticipation of a E7 so perhaps Hodges was trying to reinforce the cadential nature of these points in the phrase.


Coleman Hawkins – Body and Soul




We can see from last 8 bars of the first chorus on Colman Hawkins’ famous solo on Body and Soul that he really knew his arpeggios inside-out. In these 8 bars Hawkins employs an approach that exclusively relies on arpeggios and a range of techniques to ornament them. Every phrase here is packed with meaning so let’s take a closer look to see how he put arpeggios to work.


In bar 25 he uses a simple descending F minor arpeggio ornamenting the F with a turn like figure. Next a figure using the notes of the C major triad leads into bar 26 where he descends through an Fmin7 arpeggio, embellishing it with an approach tone (D). His resolution from Bb7 to Eb (bars 10-11) is interesting for several reasons: firstly because Hawkins employs a tritone substitution to delay the perfect cadence until beat 2 of bar 27 and secondly because of the sense of contrary motion he sets up inside his line. He creates the feeling of 2 distinct voices in his melody by placing one in the low register of his instrument and the other in the middle register employing a technique used extensively in much of Bach’s solo string music. The line over Ab7 again implies contrary motion and pre-empts the arrival Gmi7 in bar 28 by targeting first the Bb using 2 upper chromatic approach tones and subsequently the G with a lower chromatic approach tone.


In bar 28 Hawkins ascends through a Gmin7 arpeggio and descends through an F#dim arpeggio, inserting the D as an escape tone. In bar 29 he restates the last 2 notes from the previous bar delaying the resolution of Fmin7 until beat 2 and again creating a sense of contrary motion by resolving the D up to the Eb and the A down to the Ab.


He then ascends through an Fmin7 arpeggio substituting the 9th (G) for the root (F) in the lower octave. In bar 30 the 9th from the Fmin7 arpeggio actually turns out to sound as the 11th of Dmin7b5. This creates a suspension that is resolved upwards to the Ab over the G7. From here he descends through an Ab diminished arpeggio (implying G7b9) resolving to the G in bar 31 using a double chromatic approach as part of an enclosure.


To conclude this passage his line starts with a basic Cmin arpeggio that leads to the Eb over Fmin7. However, here he quickly changes course, treating the Eb as a chromatic approach tone of an Emajor triad, implying a tritone substitution, and then sets up an enclosure of the G in bar 32 by using a double chromatic approach from below (F, F#) and a 2 notes to complete the enclosure from above with the Bb acting as an escape tone.

These are just excerpts from solos recorded by 2 great musicians and are by no means representative of their respective improvising languages in entirety. However, these examples do provide useful clues as to what each of these saxophonists practiced and how they approached creating melodic improvisations over harmonic progressions. It’s also an important reminder that whether you’re just playing in your bedroom, or doing jazz classes in Brisbane or at the Village Vanguard in New York that technical and creative development of scales and arpeggios is a fundamental part of successful saxophone practice and critical in developing a language for improvisation.

If you’re interested in learning more about the building blocks of improvisation, Jazz Music Institute – a music school in Brisbane – runs jazz classes in Brisbane, as well as other accredited jazz courses in Brisbane

Leave a Reply