Composing for Improvisers

As a composer I have been fortunate enough to have many great improvisers perform my music. Having written literally thousands of compositions for improvisers (and otherwise) I have decided to present my thoughts, philosophy and practices on this important art form.

Jack DeSalvo
Wyckoff. December 2010


Composing for improvisers, far from being a contradiction, operates from the premise that improvisers are artists that can create music not only from nothing, or at least solely from their imaginations, but also from other extant musical sources. Artists who compose music for improvisers simultaneously serve the improviser by providing flexible, stimulating material while staying true to their own vision.

Other than making transcriptions for horn players, it’s good to chart pieces in two ways, one with the bottom staff in treble clef for guitarists, vibes players and others, while the charts with bass clef are for bass players and pianists and musicians who work with grand staff. In an effort to produce chord symbols to guide an improvising soloist and still accurately represent the written figure, traditional chord symbols, extended chord symbols and modal symbols are used.

In the first bar the chord symbol Dmin6,9 is simply taken from the notes present. It could have a modal name, i.e., D dor or D mel min, but either (and many other harmonies) contain the chord tones yet add different colors. So in this case you may want to leave the modal and/or linear choice to the soloists. In other cases you may want to be more specific in terms of the whole modal color.

The next bar has a modal symbol, C lyd#9. Generally this means that even though all seven notes of the mode are not present in the figure, they are implied and are important to the over-all color. Comping (improvising an ac-comp-animent other than the written figure) can consist of any voicings derived from the mode itself.

C lyd#9 – C Lydian with the second/ninth raised a half step, the sixth mode of the Harmonic Minor System – consists of a Cmaj7 chord with #9, #11 and 13. Voicings from this mode have a distinctive color. The improviser can certainly play outside this mode, but it is always in relation to this specific heptatonic color.

The atmosphere of Ralph Towner’s piece Distant Hills is elegantly conveyed by the arpeggiated Ebmaj7#9 chord. Clearly there are moods, atmospheres, emotions more multi-faceted than major/happy – minor/sad.


Most improvisers are aware that there are several symbols for each type of chord that are commonly used. The combinations can be confusing; Cm7b5, C-7-5 and Cø7 all represent the same 4-note chord with root, flat 3rd, flat 5th and flat 7th. You will find all of them in charts and it is crucial to be familiar with all of them.

The chord symbols that are most commonly used, however, are the ones used in The Real Book and taught at Berklee. These where the ones I originally learned beyond what I encountered at various gigs and a huge fake book that I got from my uncle early on.

In that huge, ancient fake book there were cases like Bye Bye Blackbird, where Eb6 accounted for the first seven bars of the tune. Well, where did Wynton Kelly get the rest of those chords he played on that tune with Miles? I came to realize that even a single chord symbol implied a mutiverse of possibilities.  The additional challenge is brought about by the need for composers to define a harmonic context that transcends conventional jazz harmony if necessary.

Here are some questions that come to mind:

  • What about triads with added notes?
  • Why does Gsus mean G7sus4 when we may need to present a triad with a suspended fourth or even a suspended second?
  • Should a composer assume that an improviser is aware of modal systems beyond major, melodic minor and harmonic minor?
  • And how do you indicate the full seven tones of a specific mode when the notated figure is C, Db and G?

The following charts will give a fairly comprehensive account of the logic that I suggest using in naming chords and/or implied harmonies. These charts are far from exhaustive, especially since there are an immense amount of harmonic possibilities available to the composer and improviser. There are in fact 31 Heptatonic Systems with no scalar interval more than a minor third/augmented second alone. This produces 217 modes of seven tones each. If the composer creates with what Messiaen called Modes of Limited Transposition or with the kind of sequences from Slominsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns the possibilities are limitless.

As we journey along here we will see the entire listing of chords, extended harmonies, heptatonic scales and their modes and symmetrical scale designations. Today we will start with triads.


Any chord tone can be placed in the bass to show bass movement or emphasize a particular color. Ex.: C/E.

The letter on the left of the forward slash represents a C major triad (the abbreviation maj isn’t added as it always refers to the seventh). The letter to the right of the forward slash always indicates a single bass note. As a whole, the symbol C/E means a first inversion C major triad. The placement of root and third are left to the discretion of the accompanist unless there is a notated figure to be played.

Ambiguity is common when using slash chords depending on context, melody and possible additional voices added on. Though the traditional notion of function may appear to be lost to the preference of dynamic harmonic color, the ear can easily perceive a C/E as an Em with a b6 added, the underlying function will not necessarily be lost but the color will enrich the composition while the perceived ambiguity will challenge the improviser.

The following Triad designations are listed in this order:

Scale position (ex., R35)
Symbol (ex., C, Cm, etc.)
Inversions (ex., C/E, etc.)

C/E, C/G

Cm/Eb, Cm/G

When the intervals are equi-distant any of the tones can function as root.
E+, G#+

Ebo, Gbo


C(b5)/E, C(b5)/Gb

C(b5) and its inversions are good examples of how certain triads (particularly ones with tritones in them) can sound like pieces of bigger chords. The notes C, E and Gb together, depending on context, could easily sound like Ab+7 sans root or Gb7sus#4 (which can also be written Gb7#11no3).

Triads with Suspensions

My views on suspensions (sus chords) and added-note chords are informed by Vincent Persichetti’s seminal Twentieth Century Harmony. His chapters on chords by seconds, thirds and fourths clarify the idea, put forth by George Russell (The Lydian Chromatic Concept) and others that chords and modes are essentially the same thing.

Most improvisers when seeing the chord symbol Gsus or G7sus would be safe to assume the composer meant a chord built in fourths from G or a G7 chord with the major third raised to the fourth. But why not be specific and indicate the fourth? If we write G7sus4 then that allows for sus2 chords.

If a third can be suspended up, why not down? And why not up to a #4 or down to a b2? These are real sonorities with distinct colors. Below are triad with suspensions, their symbols and an alternative way of looking at them with a different chord tone as the root.

They will be list as such:
Triad with Suspension (ex., R25)
Symbol (ex., Csus2)
Alternative Name if another chord tone is root (ex., D7sus4(no5), Gsus4

Triads with Suspensions

D7sus4(no5), Gsus4

Fsus2, G7sus4(no5)

Csus b2
Db lyd/C

F#sus b2, #4(no5)

Csus b2(b5)

Fsus b2

For more than one suspension, separate the suspensions with a comma.
Ex.: Csus2,#4. If more clarity necessary, separate parenthetically,
Ex.: C(sus2)#4.

Added-Note Chords and their Resultant Slash-Chords

An added-note chord quite simply is a triad with the second or fourth added to it. This does not include 6th or 7th chords since added-notes to these chords become upper-voices,e.g., 9th and 11th.

Triads with an added-note have distinctive colors. Depending on context you may have the impression of suspensions and resolution simultaneously. The sound of a major second added to a major triad is a common sonority in bluegrass music which was carried over to the Appalachians from Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Scots-Irish.

A major triad with a raised second voiced with the #2 in the bass (C/D# or C/Eb) was a favorite chord of Bartok. He used this sonority in an effort to turn the parallel functions of major and minor into one.

Listing added-note triads also gives us the opportunity to show important slash-chords (triad/bass note) that result from voicing the added-note in the bass.

In the chord symbol I use parentheses to avoid visual confusion. The added-note chords are listed as:
Added-Note chord (ex., Rb235, R235, etc.)
Symbol (ex., C(add b2), C(add2), etc.)
Triad inversions with added-note (ex., C(add b2)/E)
Added-Note in bass Slash Chord (ex., C/Db, C/D, etc.)

C(add b2)
C(add b2)/E, C(add b2)/G

C(add2)/E, C(add2)/G

C(add#2)/E, C(add#2)/G
C/D# or C/Eb

C(add4)/E, C(add4)/G

C(add#4)/E, C(add#4)/G







Cº (addb2)

Cº (add2)

Cº (add4)

For more than one added-note separate the added note with a comma.
Ex.: C(add2,#4).

Though context and the harmonic world that the composer is conveying will determine the ideal naming of a particular triad with two added notes. What this means that, especially in voicings other than root position, these chords take on the nature of seventh chords with upper voices.
C(addb2,4) could easily be heard as Dbma7 #9,#11/C from Db Lydian #9, a mode we will encounter later. It would also be easier for the improviser to glean its modal source.

There are, however, instances where naming a chord, for example, C(add2,#4) in root position makes sense.

Don’t miss the fact that the tones in each triad with two added notes produce an arpeggio that is a tight pentatonic scale ending at the fifth.

Ex.: Cm(addb2,#4) = pentatonic scale of C Db Eb F# G

Sixth Chords

Is there really such a thing as a sixth chord? Isn’t it really just a first inversion minor seventh? A C6, for example, is indeed an Am7/C. In western classical music theory, deriving from figured-bass terminology, what is called sixth chord is a chord in first inversion with the root voiced a major sixth above the bass note. If this is done with an Am triad the result will be a C6.

In the standard jazz repertoire a 6th chord is often used as the tonic chord of the composition because it appears to sound more static or resolved than a maj7. Play a II-V-I with the I being C6 (Dm7 / G7 / C6) and you can clearly hear that C is the root of the C6 chord and it does not appear to resolve to the A note (which would make it sound like an Am7/C).

Also a triad with a b6 added contains the identical notes as a first inversion maj7 chord with b6 that was added to the triad as root, i.e., Cm(add b6) = Abmaj7/C. Again, it is context that determines the root. If the sound of a minor triad is established, adding a b6 sounds like a m(add b6). A good example of this is Gary Peacock’s composition Vignette, which is both on Peacock’s album Tales of Another and on the Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s recording January. Both recordings are on the ECM Records label. There is a figure, repeated in different keys, with a minor triad with an added 2nd, m(add 2),  alternating with a m(add b6).

For clarity, if the 6th is flatted, I separate its root name from the flat symbol both parenthetically and with the term “add” as in C(add b6). Otherwise, if written Cb6, the improviser reading your chart may wonder, “Is it a C with a flatted sixth or a Cb with an added sixth?”

The listing below of sixth chords are arranged in the following manner:
Sixth chords (R356, etc.)
Symbol (C6, etc.)
Alternative Name depending on context (Am7/C, etc.)

Sixth Chords


C(add b6)

Cm(add b6)


C(add b6)b5
Ab+7/C, Ab7(b13)/C

Cº7 – adding a 6th to a diminished triad is enharmonically identical to adding the diminished or bb7.
Aº7, Ebº7, F#º7

Cº(add b6)

With sixth chords, as with sevenths, 2 and 4 added are considered upper voices, Ex.: Cm6,9. Separate with a comma and if needed and again, use parentheses and the term “added” before a b6.

Seventh Chords, Seventh Chords with Suspensions and the Harmonic Continuum

In the experience of listening in the moment, any combination of notes/tones is a sonority unto itself. When composing for improvisors, however, one must be aware of the harmonic continuum implied by each sonority. Like everything else in 3-dimensional existence, there is the seen and the unseen. For improvisers it is the heard and the unheard made manifest.

For the advanced improviser (soloist and accompanists) this means being aware that there are infinite possibilities of melodic and harmonic expression implied in each sonority. This may then be framed by one’s aesthetic sensibility and the interpretation of the composer’s intensions.

There is no irony in the fact that the manuscript musicians are given to read, play and interpret are called charts. Charts are literally maps and composers are cartographers.

Seventh Chords

The way these seventh chords are listed is:

Seventh Chords (R357, etc.)
Symbol (Cmaj7, etc.)

Except in the case of Cºmaj7), slash-chord inversions are not listed as they are easy enough to extrapolate from the following method:
For R357 (Cmaj7) first inversion use Cmaj7/E, second inversion use Cmaj7/G and and third inversion use C/B. The only inversions that are list are for Cº(maj7) as they are not as obvious. There are some alternative names (depending on context) listed as well.





Cº (maj7) Inversions: B/C, B(add b2)/D#, B(add b2)/F#, B(add b2)

Cm7b5 Alternative Name (depending on context): Ebm6

Cº7 Inversions: Ebº7, Gbº7, Aº7

Cmaj7#5 Alternative name: E/C

C+7 Alternative name: C7(b13)

Cm(maj7)#5 Alternative names: Cm(maj7)b13, Abº (add b6)

There are additional possibilities, i.e., Rbb3b57, from far less commonly used modes and scales and we will look at them when we investigate these modes and scales.

Seventh Chords with Suspensions

In most cases clarity is served and context generally agrees that seventh chords with suspensions be view with alternative names. The important exception to this is R45b7 (C7sus4) and perhaps the far less common R457 (Cmaj7sus4). Otherwise, because when a 7th is present 2, 4 and 6 become 9, 11 and 13 we will use the term (no3) meaning the 3rd is not present in the voicing with a 3rd being implied by the context.

The symbol for the voicing R#457 with C as root would be Cmaj7#11(no3). In the case of R257 we could follow the same method and use the symbol Cmaj9(no3), but in root position it gives us a G major triad with a C in the bass so we will use the symbol G/C. In other inversions it would be written G(add4).

To add upper voices to seventh chords, an unaltered upper voice can be written where the 7th would be, Ex.: Cmaj9, C13, Cm11, etc. If the upper voice is altered it is added after the 7th in the symbol, Ex.: C7#9, Cmaj7#11, Cm7b13. If several upper voices are in the chord the same method is used, though with the additional upper voices separated by a comma if needed for clarity, Ex.: C9#11, Cm11,b13, C7b9,#9, Cmaj13#11.

Next we will look at upper voices, 9, 11 and 13 (and their alterations) as emerging from the harmonic continuum implied by the chord.

Upper Voices and the First Four Heptatonic Systems from the Harmonic Continuum

We spoke earlier of the Harmonic Continuum. In its purest form the Harmonic Continuum is the overtone series. Without repeating notes in higher octaves and adjusting for equal temperament, the first seven tones from the overtone series gives us this arpeggio:

R,3,5,b7,9,#11 and 13.

This is also the arpeggio derived from the fourth mode of the Melodic Minor scale, if arranged in a series of ascending thirds.

Fourth Mode of Melodic Minor scale: R,2,3,#4,5,6,b7
Same mode in ascending thirds (Extended arpeggio): R,3,5,b7,9,#11,13

Seven note scales and modes, when placed in a ascending thirds, mirror the trajectory of the overtone series, even if their intervallic patterns vary from it. If we take a mode, using Dorian for example here, and look at it and listen to it in a series of ascending thirds we see where the upper voices come from. 2, 4 and 6 become 9, 11 and 13.

Dorian mode: R,2,b3,4,5,6,b7

Looking at it in thirds we see the first three notes create a minor arpeggio. If they are played simultaneously they are a minor triad.

The first four notes give us a minor seventh (m7) arpeggio/chord.

Five notes in thirds from the root is a minor ninth (m9) arpeggio/chord.

Six notes, minor eleventh (m11).

All seven give us a minor thirteenth (m13).

Because the improvising accompanist often will voice a chord sparsely to imply certain harmonies it’s possible that, for example, a Dm13 may be voiced, in ascending order, C,F,B, which is b7,b3,13. If it’s necessary to have the entire harmony played, the full symbol Dm9,11,13 should be used, keeping in mind that certain instruments, including guitar and vibes, will have to arpeggiate the chord to some extent to effectively sound all seven tones.

Heptatonic Systems

When defining a harmony that may appear obscure to an improviser in the midst of moving chord changes, i.e., Csus b2, or simply wanting to imply a seven-tone tertian harmony, it is an option to use modal symbols. In the chart below the first four systems of seven tones (heptatonic) with their respective seven modes each are illustrated. This provides 28 modal symbols.

Bars 2, 3 and 4 of Ex. 1 and 1a (bottom of blog page) demonstrates this with the notated figures on the lower staves.

Rather than apply C as the root of each modal naming, each mode below has the tone of its root in the context of its Heptatonic System as its modal root so the structure of each system and mode is clearly shown.

Modal Symbols

We will start with the first four Heptatonic Systems – Major, Melodic Minor, Harmonic Minor and Harmonic Major.

For each system we will list the modal and modal symbol like this:

Mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, etc.)
Modal Symbol (major, dor, phryg, etc.)

Major System

C major

D dor

E phryg

F lyd

G mixo

A aeol

B locr

Melodic Minor System

Melodic Minor
C mel min

D dor b9

Lydian Augmented
Eb lyd #5

F lyd b7

Harmonic Mixolydian
G mixo b13

Aeolian b5
A aeol b5

Super Locrian
B sup locr

Harmonic Minor System

Harmonic Minor
C harm min

D locr nat13

Major Augmented Eb maj #5

F dor #11

Spanish Gypsy
G span gyp

Lydian #9
Ab lyd #9

Super Locrian Diminished
B sup locr dim

Harmonic Major System

Harmonic Major
C harm maj

Dorian b5
D dor b5

Super Phrygian
E sup phryg

Lydian Melodic Minor
F mel min #11

Mixolydian b9
G mixo b9

Lydian Augmented #9
Ab lyd #5, #9

Phrygian Diminished
B phryg dim

Since, at this time, most improvisors only have a familiarity with the first three Heptatonic Systems, I would suggest having an explanation of any additional modes from any system beyond the first three accompanying any charts of your compositions that contain melodies and harmonies from these systems.

Copyright © 1993-2010 Jack DeSalvo

December 14, 2010: Structure of Heptatonic Systems, The Altered Scale and Symmetrical Scales

The most important feature of Heptatonic Systems is the interval pattern that is present in each mode and the triad, seventh chord and upper voices that are present.

The structure of the Ionian mode (also called major) is R,2,3,4,5,6,7. In C the triad is major, C, the seventh chord is Cmaj7 and the upper voices are 9,11&13. The Harmonic Major mode’s structure is R,2,3,4,5,b6,7. The triad and seventh chord remain the same as in Ionian but the b6 gives us a b13 in the upper voices and the interval of an augmented second/minor third between the sixth and seventh degrees of the mode. This produces a profoundly different color and effects the entire character of a composition.

Juxtaposing Ionian and Lydian modes from the same root reveals a subtle yet distinct color difference. Let’s stretch these modes into extended arpeggios by placing the notes in ascending thirds:
Ionian: R,3,5,7,9,11,13
Lydian: R,3,5,7,9,#11,13

The Altered Scale

In an effort to have linear sources that provided even more upper voice coloration, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and their followers used heptatonic modes enharmonically to provide more than one altered ninth on a dominant seventh chord. Let’s look at one of these possibilities first.

The extended arpeggio for the Super Locrian mode looks like this:


If viewed enharmonically the b3 becomes #9, the b11 becomes 3, b5 can be #11 or b5 and the b13 can be either #5 or b13.

The result is often referred to as the Altered Scale with the symbol B7alt use if taken from the C Melodic Minor system.

R,3,b5(or #11),#5(or b13),b7,b9 and #9

Symmetrical Scales

Evidence of symmetrical scales and patterns in improvisation began appearing with the infusion of the mixture of intellect and passion that is referred to as BeBop. These same improvisors found that the symmetrical scales used by some early 20th century European classical composers, including Bartok, Ravel and Debussy, provided even more variation on upper voices over certain chords.

A symmetrical scale with intervals of alternating half-steps and whole steps adds not only additional colors, but the resolving tendency of this intervalic pattern pushes the melodic possibilities in non-heptatonic directions.

Here we see how the Half Step/Whole Step Symmetrical Diminished mode affects a dominant seventh chord with G as root:

Mode: R,b2,#2,3,#4,5,6 and b7

As an extended arpeggio: R,3,5,7,b9,#9,#11,13 (G13b9,#9,#11)

So this would apply to any variations of a G7 with those specific voices: G7, G7b9, G7#9, G7#11, G13, etc.

For the very same reason that heptatonic modal names are used, other scalar designations can be applied to define moving harmonies. Below we have Symmetrical Scales and their Modal Symbols.

These are listed as:
Mode (Half Step/Whole Step)
Modal Symbol (C w/h symº)

Symmetrical Diminished Scale

Half Step/Whole Step
C h/w symº

Whole step/Half Step
Db w/h symº

Whole Tone Scale

Whole Tone
C w/t

Symmetrical Augmented Scale

Minor Third/Half Step Symmetrical Augmented
C sym aug

Half Step/Minor Third Symmetrical Augmented
Eb h/min3 sym aug

Copyright © 1993-2010 Jack DeSalvo

December 15, 2010: Chords and Slash-Chords Derived From The Symmetrical Diminished Scale and an Application of Bartok’s Pole Theory

Generally the two modes of the Symmetrical Diminished Scale are regarded by improvisors as producing a series of dominant seventh and diminished seventh chords.

With C Symmetrical Diminished, from the first mode which is C Half Step/Whole Step, we get:


From the second mode, Whole step/Half Step:


In all cases with the dominant seventh chords (C7, etc.) the upper voices are b9,#9,#11(or b5) and 13. The upper voices for the diminished seventh chords (Dbº7, etc.) are 9,b11(or natural 3),11,b13(or#5) and a maj7.

This is excellent material for improvising over the standard jazz repertoire but for new compositions there is a wealth of harmonic possibilities inherent in the patterns that emerge. A source for these possibilities is the same source that master improvisor John Coltrane was directed to by his teacher John Sandole, Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns.

In the chapter that Slomonsky calls Sesquitone Progression/ Equal Division of One Octave into Four Parts, he shows via melodic patterns that we can have, among other things, multiple chord qualities from the same root.

From C Half Step/Whole Step the triads are:

C,Cm,Cº,Dbº,Eb,Ebm,Ebº,Eº,F#,F#m,F#º,Gº,A,Am,Aº and Bbº

Besides added notes, sevenths and upper voices, each triad can have any note from the scale as a bass note, creating a slash chord.

C/Db,C/Eb(or C/D#),C/E,C/F#(or C/Gb),C/G,C/A,C/Bb

Dbº/Eb, etc., etc.

An Application of Bartok’s Pole Theory

“Every art has a right to strike it’s roots in the art of a previous age; it not only has a right but must stem from it.” – Bela Bartok

Erno Lendvai, in his book Bela Bartok – An Anaysis of His Music, describes Bartok’s Axis System. We will look at this in detail in relation to composing for improvisors in the future in this blog, but for now will look at the part that puts the symmetrical diminished scale in perspective so that its possibilities don’t seem so unwieldy. This is the Pole Theory.

According to Bartok, the Tonic Axis creates two poles that cross each other at a 90º angle. Imagine this as a clock face. The root of the scale or chord resides at 12:00, we will use C. At its polar opposite, 6:00, is F#. This is the primary pole. The secondary pole goes from 9:00 to 3:00 and vice versa. At 3:00 is Eb and at 9:00 is A.

What this means is that at equidistant points in the scale we have parallel identical chord types. Tritone substitutions are common for improvisors which is the primary pole but now we see that the addition of the secondary pole gives us a circle of chords a distance of a minor third, a tritone and a major sixth from each other that are substitutable for each other.

This also explains why there are only two modes from an eight-tone scale. The exact pattern repeats every minor third.

This is why all tones in the symmetrical diminished scale can be seen as aspects of the root. If the root is C, then an A major triad is the 13th,b9 and 5 of C. An F# triad is #11,b7 and b9 of C and an Eb triad is #9(or b3),5 and b7 of C and so on.

So when a more traditional C7 chord may be used it is possible, depending on context, to instead use A/D# or F#/A, etc.

Copyright © 1993-2010 Jack DeSalvo

December 16, 2010: Deeper Into The Symmetrical Augmented Scale, Giant Steps and The Whole Tone Scale

Symmetrical Augmented Scale

The symmetrical augmented scale is a hexatonic scales, meaning it has six tones. Like the symmetrical diminished scale, it only has two modes, which are repeated at equidistant points. Here is the structure of the first mode and the triads it produces with C as root:

R,#2(or b3),3,5,#5(or b6)and 7

Extended arpeggio:

R,3,#5,7,#9 and a natural 5


C+,C,Cm,Eb+(or D#+),E+,E,Em,G+,Ab+,Ab,Abm and B+

What makes the symmetrical scale eccentric is that for seventh chords it colors three distinctive chord qualities from the same root and repeats it at equidistant intervals of a major third:

Cmaj7#5, Cmaj7 and Cm(maj7)

Emaj7#5, Emaj7 and Em(maj7)

Abmaj7#5, Abmaj7 and Abm(maj7)

If, as Slonimsky tells us, the symmetrical diminished scale separates the octave into four equal parts as represented by Bartok’s Pole Theory, the symmetrical augmented scale divides the octave into three equal sections. The three interchangeable points can be imagined as three points of a triangle. If C is the initial root then C is at the top point of the triangle, E is at the bottom left and Ab(G#) is at the bottom right.

It then becomes clear that this was the model for Coltrane’s Giant Steps where the three equidistant points are B, Eb and G. In fact, the same symmetrical diminished scale can be player over the Bmaj7, Ebmaj7 and Gmaj7 in that composition, though that is not what Coltrane does on his recording of the same name.

Whole Tone Scale

With the exception of the chromatic scale, the remaining symmetrical scale with no interval larger than a minor third and that repeats every octave is the whole tone scale. This scale was perhaps the first symmetrical scale to find its way into the ears of European listeners via the works of some of the Impressionist composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Again, it was taken up by the innovators of the BeBop period in jazz.

This structure of the whole tone scale is:

R,2,3,#4(or b5), #5(orb6) and b7

Extended arpeggio:


The whole tone scale divides the octave into six equal parts, so the chord qualities repeat at every chord tone.

Copyright © 1993-2010 Jack DeSalvo

December 18: Modal Inexactitude and Overarching Specificity

Certainly not every measure of every piece written with the expectation that improvisers will elaborate on the material should adhere to some kind of modal exactitude. Let’s imagine a scenario where in a measure the harmony spells out a Dº triad with the tone G, the 4th, added. The melody, however, contains both a b7 and an enharmonically spelled major 7th (Db), neither being in passing. This really suggests the simultaneous superimposition of different harmonies. This kind of superimposition occurs spontaneously in advanced improvisation as well.

There are occasions where no chord or modal symbols are present at all. The possibilities for improvised solos include freely improvising over the pedal tone that’s implied throughout.

Sometimes it’s preferable to use  the modal name in addition to chord symbols, especially  if you envision the chords coming from the same modal source and they could easily imply more commonly used modes. If we have repeated alternating measures of Ebsus2/A and F(add2), a knowledgeable improvisor may assume Eb Lydian over the Ebsus2/A and F Lydian over F(add2)/A. The composer may want to project a specific harmonic atmosphere and sees these two sonorities as being derived from A locrian. Yes, A locrian is identical to Eb lydian (as it would be with F mixolydian), but in this case the A bass note is the unifying factor between these two chords and it give a single reference point to the improvisor.

Even in those rare instances where a composer gets to write music for improvisors that he/she knows well, where it may be possible to indicate less in a chart to that individual, written music should be created for any future performances that clearly shows what the composer has in mind for the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic atmosphere of a piece of music.

December 20, 2010: Finding Your Own Voice

It’s an ancient premise that you can’t actually teach someone to truly compose music or write poetry or create in any of the arts. The reason being that humans already have the access to this knowledge. This brings to mind Plato’s story of Socrates coaxing a young boy to give correct answers to complex mathematical questions.

Why then should anyone bother to write about composing music and especially music for improvisers? First there’s the aforementioned coaxing, and for thousands of years we have been acculturated to view only things occurring in three dimensional space as real or valuable and to see things that occur, or at least originate, in the other dimensions as fantasy. A treatise on the process of artistic creation can show that it is indeed possible to bring information from unseen sources and what some of the possibilities are.

The quest, then, is to find the essential area of ourselves where this knowledge is. Clearly, it doesn’t exist in the ego or personality where we have easy access. It is rarer than rare when it reveals itself full blown as with Mozart. It can appear in snippets when one works in earnest. It then becomes crucial to recognize when this happens. When you recognize your true voice it appears more often.

This is the alchemist translating mediaeval Arab texts and encountering a moment of illumination. This is Bach coming upon the exquisite architecture of his ideas, later to be notated, while improvising on the organ. This is John Coltrane finding a spiral of infinite melodic shapes through his relentless search.

The improvising musician, composer or serious listener who is following an improvised solo through its contours can distinguish what is coming from the player’s own voice and what are patterns, however well crafted, taken from recorded or transcribed performances of other musicians.

After monumental artists like Charlie Parker or John Coltrane opened doors to worlds of possibilities, untold numbers of players mimicked the results without inhabiting those worlds in a way that the music could enfold through their own voices. This results is a degradation of apparent possibilities.

Transcribing or studying transcriptions or studying by ear alone need not lead to new performances filled with constant quotes from famous solos. The player who uses fragments of other players’ solos to construct his or her own “style” is contributing to a more and more limited future for improvised music, no matter how well executed the mimicry may be.

The composer/improviser cultivates something as natural and a part of us as our skin or our hair.

We must use cunning and a passionate search for consciousness to provide a vessel for the music and all its aspects to emanate from deep within ourselves rather than from the surface of our intellect or from imitating an outside source.

Copyright © 1993-2010 Jack DeSalvo

December 22, 2010: The Heritage of Artist Revelation

Our heritage of artistic revelation stems at least tens of thousands of years to the cave paintings of places like Dordogne and Southern Africa and beyond and to more advanced pre-historic civilizations of which archeologists are just now finding the most remote, ephemeral traces.

There is a phenomenon related in a historical sense to the development of human culture and in a transcendental sense to consciousness itself. Coltrane referred to this as a reservoir. This reservoir supplies shapes and possibilities for composers and improvisors. It’s important to add that when all composers are improvisers and vice versa, the level of artistic expression will be at an unprecedented level.

The consciousness of certain individuals in a particular temporal period affects the possibilities that emerge from this reservoir in a certain time and place. There must have been very high consciousness in the time of Bach.

At times a certain musician will draw something from this reservoir that refreshes generations of musicians. Sometimes, though, ideas can petrify and become pale imitations devoid of inner life. This occurs when musicians simply imitate innovative artists without drinking at the source themselves.

The ancient concept of the Akashic Field is a good analogue for the reservoir locus. It would be floating above the Earth, maybe just above the atmosphere. At a slightly higher level would be the repository of possibilities from the entire future and past of humanity. Like Jung’s collective unconscious, it can be accessed in dreams, visions and by the cultivated artist.

An explanation of an artist’s so-called “style” could be that the wine from this reservoir will take on the shape of the vessel that it is poured into.

This phenomenon is far from a Western conceit, though the concept of a temporal period may well be. In Bengal today there are still wandering holy men called Bauls that improvise songs based on sacred texts or their own spontaneous poetry. West African Griots are more well known, not to mention the master improvisers of the various Arabic, Iranian and North and South Indian traditions.

Ever since the Cartesian phrase Cogito Ergo Sum was first put into print, the belief that humanity is discreetly separate from the natural world has infected culture. On the contrary, the composing of music, on paper or extemporaneously in performance, is as natural to humans as speech or walking upright. We learn to speak from listening to others but we learn what we want to say by listening to something deeper.

Copyright © 1993-2010 Jack DeSalvo

Content, Meaning and Form, Part One

A Meditation on Robert Bly’s Form That is Neither In Nor Out While Thinking of Composing For Improvisors

Part One: Content

Content can sometimes be your materials, a piece based on the interval of a fourth, for example. Content is also the story you are telling, the personal details. Robert Bly says that content is what is closest to us, even closest to our bodies, perhaps nearest the chest.

Content can be what we often mistake for meaning or form. It can be a short chord progression from a pop song, an old standard or even from a baroque piece that always moves us a little, tugs at an emotion. It has a taste of nostalgia. That is not meaning, that is content.

A blues is a blues because of its content. It’s form is maybe harder to detect. A song’s content is easy to detect when there are lyrics. Lyrics are words you recite accompanied by the lyre. In ancient times and even in some societies that still exist, poetry was never conceived of as a separate art from music.

The content of a real blues can, even without words, seem inescapable. Bly also said, “I associate content with the griefs we have experienced since birth, that is, the so-called accidents of our genetic inheritance, our relationship to our mother and father, the sorrows of friends and lovers, the knowledge that we are mortal”.

Robert Bly’s Form That is Neither In nor Out, An Essay can be found in Of Solitude and Silence, writings on Robert Bly, edited by Richard Jones and Kate Daniels, Beacon Press.

Copyright ©1995-2011 Jack DeSalvo

Content, Meaning and Form, Part Two

A Meditation on Robert Bly’s Form That is Neither In Nor Out While Thinking of Composing For Improvisors

Part Two: Meaning

There is an occult flavor to the word meaning. Truth and meaning come from a mysterious source. It may come through a teacher or intuited or maybe from a master you’ve only met through the medium of recording or the printed page.

Meaning is what is handed down through a lineage. Not the tricks of the trade, rather let’s say Pythagoras did pass down technical information relating to where the nodes on the monochord are, but to his most intimate students he passed on something more. This something more is meaning.

To approach meaning is to begin the journey inward and downward. Jungian analyst James Hillman says we need to grow down.

Antonio Machado said,

Mankind owns four things
That are no good at sea
Rudder, anchor, oars
And the fear of going down

To do this we need much patience. The alchemists said that haste is the devil. In his sonnets to that primordial musician Orpheus, Rilke wrote this:

All that is hurrying
Soon will be over with
Only what lasts can bring
Us to the truth

It is clear that ancient works of art were constructed or written with layer upon layer of metaphor. This is most evident in myths and fairy stories, but it is there, analogous to the chakra system, in the ancient writing from the Vedas through Shakespeare.  We won’t even touch number symbolism that runs through these writings as well as through music, particularly Bach’s.

What this all means is that in a work of art there is the surface level which simply tells the story in a literal way, but as you delve deeper into the work more and more subtle  meanings appear. Gurdjieff, in speaking of his three volume masterwork All and Everything, suggested that it should be read at least three times. First, as one would read any book. Second, aloud, as if reading to someone else and third for real understanding.

So we are associating with content words like grief, mortal, friends and with meaning we see words likes truth, master, patience. Form is perhaps the harder of the three aspects to understand.

Copyright ©1995 – 2011 Jack DeSalvo


A Meditation on RobBlyert Bly’s “Form that is neither In Nor Out” While Thinking of Composing For Improvisors Part Three: Form



Form is likely even more mysterious than meaning and content. The mind can visualize the 12 bars of a blues. How many bars for the I chord, how many bars for the IV chord, etc. – but this is not form. The number of bars in a particular blues is simply the fact that the forest is populated by a certain amount of trees; poplars, old oaks, clearings are mapped.

The overall shape of the forest is harder to see. Especially if you’re in it. Form not only includes the shape of the animal but the magnetic field around it, the aura. Some people claim to be able to see the aura, but that is rare and it doesn’t make things less mysterious.

So form includes shapes we can see and also what is invisible. And inaudible.

Copyright 1995 – 2011 Jack DeSalvo

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"Using both acoustic and electric instruments, DeSalvo demonstrates technique, intelligence and imagination with a broad streak of lyricism and passion in what amounts to one of the better guitar voices to be heard in improvised music these days." – Cadence