A fundamental problem with the “chordal scale” approach to improvising is that it tends to produce mechanical-sounding performance; all scale tones tend to be given equal weight as to whether or not they “work.”
Frequently we hear players running out patterns scrupulously derived from chordal scales and it can sound like they’re practicing. Once we hear the first sequential repetitions of a pattern, we know what’s coming next!
Players who are exploring the flavors of the various chord tone extensions, and finding ways to highlight and embellish these colorful tones, are more musical and interesting!
One approach is to find triads comprised of the chord tones and/or the extensions and arpeggiate them. These melodic configurations are unusual enough that they tend to sound fresher and more spontaneous than scalar exercises. Here are some examples of triads derived from arrays of extensions:
Another approach is to use overlays consisting of pentatonic variants:
As interesting as these configurations are, they still lack the element of opposition that is so useful in melodic construction. Since so many notes “work” in a dominant environment (the whole purpose of the dominant chord is opposition to the home tonality), it takes an intentional “wrong” note to create further opposition in a dominant chord. Here’s the catch, however—in order to play a “wrong” note, we have to know what the “right” notes are.
There is a continuum of “oppositionality” within the dominant chord universe. A “G7” is more “vanilla” than a G7#9—and, the more chromatic alterations there are in the extensions, the more dissonant or unstable the dominant chord becomes, with a greater tendency to resolve.
An example of melodic “oppositionality” would be to play a natural nine on a flat- or sharp-9 dominant. It sounds really wrong, but it’s very satisfying when it’s resolved to the 9th that is providing a primary color to the chord. Conversely, to play a flat nine or sharp nine in a “G9” environment creates a similar oppositional tension; there are many others; a natural 11th resolving to a sharp eleventh in an (X)7#11 chord is another…
There is no “one way” to approach dominant extensions. We need to be aware of them, and also aware of the primary nature of these extensions; they are fundamental to the quality of a particular chord.
My preferred way approach improvisation is to emphasize the chord tones—either by playing them, or opposing them and resolving to them with a variety of melodic devices (we’ve covered in previous columns).
For this purpose, a handy way to think of these extensions is to elevate them to the status of “chord tones” in our thinking. These extensions are a primary element in the sonority of a particular flavor of dominant chord. In a hierarchy of fundamentality, the order might be something like this: root, extension, seventh, third, fifth.