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#2258971 - 04/09/14 04:50 AM Embellishing Melodies
saiman Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/18/10
Posts: 125
Hi all

I have been doing a bit of reading and found that a lot of early Jazz improvisers mainly focused on embellishing melodies instead of the chord/scale approach that is so popular today. (I believe Tristano was also a master at this)

Also, I have found this really amazing lesson from Mark Titlebaum on this topic


I wanted to find out if any of you has spent a significant amount of time learning and applying embellishing techniques. What were your experiences. From what I notice, one can fairly quickly learn the techniques in isolation but applying then on musically and freely is a whole challenge in itself.

The approach is usually:

1. Distill the original melody into a skeleton melody
2. Connect the notes in the skeleton melody through passing notes, neighbour tones and chromatic approaches

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#2259137 - 04/09/14 01:29 PM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: saiman]
Michael Martinez Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/22/12
Posts: 516
Loc: California
Music Educator, Computer Engineer, avid reader of literature, enjoyer of the outdoors

#2259189 - 04/09/14 02:42 PM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: saiman]
saiman Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/18/10
Posts: 125
Hows is this supposed to be spam???? I posted the video as an example. The video is a recording of a master class by a Jazz professor. My question is independent of the video. I like these techniques but I still battle to apply them freely hence my question.

Edited by saiman (04/09/14 02:49 PM)

#2259200 - 04/09/14 03:31 PM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: saiman]
Cudo Offline
Full Member

Registered: 03/11/09
Posts: 142
Loc: Heidelberg, Germany
Hi saiman,

I would not take it so technically as shown in the video-clip. Starting with the theme, trying to make slightly variations with it would also be a good start.

I did this with Bobby Timmons "Moanin'". I hardly leave the idea of the theme.
The main thing is rhythmically working.
Listen ---> www.cisum.info/moanin1.mp3

#2259261 - 04/09/14 06:17 PM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: saiman]
Michael Martinez Offline
500 Post Club Member

Registered: 11/22/12
Posts: 516
Loc: California
1. remove all the melody notes except those that fall on the first and third beats of each bar (and those that anticipate the first and third beat)

2. this is your new "reduced melody"

3. use those tones as targets and choose appropriate tones based on each chord to lead up to and away from those targets

practice that a while, then ....

4. remove each target tone and replace it with one of the basic chord tones from the chord

5. this is your "new reduced melody"

6. practice only these new targets with no embellishment

7. keep practicing #6 over and over until you internalize it

8. once you hear the new targets in your head, then repeat #3 using embellishment around these new target tones
Music Educator, Computer Engineer, avid reader of literature, enjoyer of the outdoors

#2259456 - 04/10/14 01:24 AM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: saiman]
erichlof Offline
Full Member

Registered: 04/26/10
Posts: 422
Hi saiman,
First of all, thanks for posting that great vid! I've added it to my favorites and will be using it as an instructional resource for my improv students. There are some real nuggets of wisdom and clarity there.

If you are just starting out, simply embellishing the melody is the way to go, IMO. Like the presenter in the video said, if you are a reader who can't be parted from sheet-music,

Option #1: write half note melodies for a while over some easy jazz standards, like Fly me to the Moon in C.

If you don't like to read and have a pretty good ear, try

Option #2: humming the melody to yourself from memory all the way through the tune once, then the next time around, only embellish parts of it, like 40 or 50 % of the notes. Try this away from your instrument, then at it the next time.

In the end, you have to be able to do the second option (away from the sheet music) to be a good improviser. It's like writing on these forums vs. talking to someone directly and in the moment. Eventually you'll have to talk/play in the moment to someone, right so why not learn away from the written page? smile

I'm 40 now and have been improvising since 14 (started formal piano at 6). Even now I find myself coming back to option #2 above to keep my improv skills sharp. A great resource for embellishing ideas is listening to the iconic jazz/big-band singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. They pretty much stick to the melody at least the first time through the song form, but listen to them on the repeats and you will hear how they subtly alter the melody to make it seem fresher and more dynamic. Examples are Ella's version of How High the Moon live, Cheek to Cheek with Louis Armstrong, and Frank Sinatra's version of Just One of Those Things live, or You Make Me Feel So Young live. Frank was especially good at changing the rhythm and timing of the melody on the fly, which is just as important and wasn't covered in your vid link as much as note choices were. Spontaneously changing both notes and timing, while sticking to the song framework, are the heart and soul of jazz IMO.

Good luck to you in your improv endeavours, saiman! smile

Edited by erichlof (04/10/14 01:52 AM)

#2259500 - 04/10/14 03:51 AM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: erichlof]
saiman Offline
Full Member

Registered: 02/18/10
Posts: 125
Hi Erichlof

thank you so much for your helpful and encouraging response. I will definitely try those -away from the instrument- exercises. Its amazing how much dicipline it takes to just stick to half notes and simple embellishments without wanting to play some scale or the other. I also notice that all this isnt easy at all.

Anyways I have nothing to loose so I will try to stick with this approach for a while and see where it takes me.

#2263072 - 04/17/14 01:28 PM Re: Embellishing Melodies [Re: saiman]
RonDrotos Offline
Full Member

Registered: 08/31/13
Posts: 105
Loc: New York City
I love this topic, since it's really at the heart of jazz, historically. In fact, I think there's a description in Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz of the very early bands having a 2 instruments playing the melody: a violin (I think) playing it straight, and a clarinet embellishing it, at the same time. (I may be wrong in the details, but that's the gist of it). Funny how this came full circle in Miles' late 60's recordings such as Fall.

The jazz musicians from 1900-1955 heard these melodies as part of the pop culture of the day, and they internalized the songs with an ease and naturalness that we have to work for today.

The best advice I've heard on how to do this was given by the jazz singer Giacomo Gates, with whom I used to teach performance classes. He advised singers to sing the original melody so many times that they would get bored with it. Hundreds of times. Then, they would naturally find variations on the melody as a way to keep it interesting. They'd also automatically sing them in a personal style, since the tune had been internalized so well.

This technique works on piano as well,especially if we as pianists spend some time singing the tunes in addition to playing them.
Ron Drotos


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