How to Practice the Giant Steps Cycle: Video Tutorial and Supplementary Material

My preoccupation with John Coltrane's tune "Giant Steps" now ebbs, now flows, but always continues. I'm not the most fabulous alto sax man who has ever played the changes, certainly not in the league of Kenny Garrett, but I have my own approach, which I strive to make less digital and more lyrical. I've even had the temerity to write a book of licks and patterns on "Giant Steps" titled The Giant Steps Scratch Pad, available for instruments of every key. In the following video tutorial, I share a couple approaches to practicing the Giant Steps cycle that I have found profitable in my own practice sessions. The video begins with a bit of theory; however, the theory behind "Giant Steps" is more than adequately covered elsewhere in greater depth, as in this excellent article by Dan Adler, and it isn't the thrust of the tutorial. Rather, I address a more pragmatic concern: How do you wrap your fingers around the Giant Steps cycle? The tips I share in the tutorial certainly aren't the only way you can or should tackle the cycle, but I think you'll find them helpful. Briefly, I explain how to run both a one-bar pattern and a more extensive two-bar lick through the cycle. The two patterns used in the video were taken from The Giant Steps Scratch Pad. For your convenience, I'm supplying them for you here. Note that these excerpts are from the Eb edition, suitable for alto and baritone saxophonists; if you play a C, Bb, or bass clef instrument, you'll need to transpose (though editions of my book are available in your key). Click on the images to enlarge them. One-bar pattern: 002     One-bar pattern through the cycle: 003     Two-bar lick: 004     Two-bar lick through all three keys of the cycle: GS 1-Bar Pattern       And now, here is the video. It's obviously a homespun effort, so please bear with its flaws. I haven't figured out how to read from my PowerPoint notes and still look directly at the camera, and as for that stupid deer fly that lands on my forehead while I'm signing off and roams around like an astronaut exploring the lunar surface, I wasn't aware of it till I got home and viewed the clip. You think I'm going to do a redo just for that? It's part of filming outdoors: mosquitoes setting up drilling operations on my nice, pink flesh, deer flies exploring my noggin—I deal with it and you can too. Go ahead and chuckle. But if you're a jazz improviser who's tackling "Giant Steps," then I think you'll nevertheless find this tutorial worth your while.  

Diminished Whole-Tone Lick around the Cycle of Fifths

Tonight's post is low on text but high in content. Click on the image to enlarge it, then print it out and take it with you to your next practice session and start adding a nice new lick to your diminished whole-tone collection. Not much to say about this little gem that you can't figure out for yourself, but here are a few points of interest:
    ♦  The lick begins and ends on the flat seventh of the V+7(#9) chord.
    ♦  Beats two and three highlight the major triad that's formed off of the raised fifth of the parent chord. For example, if you're playing a D+7(#9), the raised fifth is A#--or Bb, enharmonically--and beats two and three will accentuate an A# (Bb) major triad. You can look at it as chord superimposition. ♦  The last beat emphasizes the two "identity tones" of the dominant chord, leaping a tritone from its third to its lowered seventh.
That's all. Have fun with it! And if you enjoyed this post, check out my large and ever-growing library of jazz theory, technique, and solo transcriptions.

Saying Good-Bye to July

Looks like I almost let July slip by without making a single post. Almost. I just haven't felt inspired to write in this blog lately. Weatherwise, what's to say? Right--the drought. Frankly, I haven't felt like writing about the drought. We all know how horrible it has been: day after day and week after week of relentless, rainless heat. No doubt that's newsworthy, but I'll let the news media tackle it. From my perspective, it discomforts me, it annoys me, it inconveniences me, and certainly it concerns me, as it should anyone living in the continental United States. To say it has been disastrous is putting it accurately. But while I suppose this drought is severe weather in its own way, it doesn't interest me the way that a thunderstorm does. Mostly, it's something I wish would go away, a sentiment shared by millions of Americans roasting in the Midwestern heat. Fortunately, it won't be here forever, and lately the pattern around the Great Lakes has seemed to be nudging slowly but progressively toward a stormier one. As I write, the radar screen for Michigan looks like this (click on image to enlarge it). I like that: a cold front dropping out of the northwest bringing a nice line of storms and a good dousing of much-needed rain. Shifting gears to music, there's not much to say on that topic either. Of course I've been staying on top of my instrument, but that's par for the course. My woodshedding on "Giant Steps" and "Confirmation" continues, along with "Ornithology," and I'm getting to where I'm starting to shred the bejeebers out of those tunes. But, mmm, yeah, okay, so what. Where do I go from here? The studio, I think. It's about time I finally recorded my efforts, put something down for ears besides mine to listen to. Otherwise, why am I bothering with all this practicing of tunes that no one is ever going to call for on a gig? Folks want "Satin Doll," not Coltrane changes. Still, somewhere out there I think there are people who will take an interest. So I need to get with my buddy Ed Englerth in his Blueside Down Studios and make some noise. 'Scuze me if I sound a bit cranky. At 56 years of age, I'm rapidly approaching full curmudgeonhood and I am getting in practice for it. The lack of heavy convection and lack of gigs combined is assisting the effort. But a shift in either aspect of that equation will restore my humor and give me something to write about. No, that's not right--there's always something to write about. What I need is something I feel like writing about. Maybe later tonight will do the trick, when that storm line which is presently 50 miles to my north moves in. Hmmm ... the cell that is just making landfall near Pentwater is packing straighline winds of nearly 70 knots. That'll create some interest for folks south of town. Now to close up shop and see what kind of action we get around here a few hours hence. If it's nothing more than a good dumping of rain, I'll be more than happy. But I'm betting it'll come with a spark and a growl.

Technique-Builder: Intervals within a Perfect Fifth

Here's a little exercise that can help you get handy with the basic intervals between the root and perfect fifth of a triad. Click on the image to enlarge it. I normally run the pattern over major-quality chords, but it should work fine over minor as well. For that reason, I've shown only chord roots over each bar without getting more specific about chord quality. Other than that, I don't think the exercise needs much explaining. It's a nice way to build your chops, and it'll also open your ears, particularly if you play it slowly enough to clearly hear the different intervals. If you find this exercise helpful, you'll find many more like it on my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions page.

Fourth Patterns with Altered Dominants

This post builds upon a jazz improvisation post I wrote a month ago titled Fourth Patterns: Three Exercises to Build Your Technique. That post gave you some quartal patterns to practice that took you around the cycle of fifths. While I pointed at the harmonic possibilities, I left you to sort them out for yourself. In this post, I'm providing a specific application by applying fourth groupings to altered dominant chords (V+7#9). Click on the image to your left to enlarge it. The first thing you'll encounter is a brief exercise that takes you through a fourth pattern moving by whole steps, first down, then back up. It's a simple exercise. Once you've got it down, practice it starting on the note F instead of Eb; you'll be using the same notes you've already practiced, but you'll reverse the direction of the patterns. From there, play the same exercise starting on the note E. You'll now have a different set of notes. Finally, start on the note F#. Once you've worked that into your fingers, you'll have covered all the possibilities.

Moving On to Application

The material you've just practiced is designed to help you develop technique specific to the application that follows. Now we'll move on to that application, as indicated by the chords. For each chord, you'll find two groupings of the fourth pattern spaced a major second apart. Together, the two patterns contain the following chord tones: #9, b9, b7, +5, +4*. The patterns are arranged in eighth notes that resolve to a consonant chord tone, thus:
    •  In the first two bars, the b9 resolves to a whole note on the chord root. •  In the second two bars, the #9 resolves to a whole note on the major third of the chord.
I've written down the applications for six keys. I'm sure you can figure out the remaining six on your own, and you should. Don't be lazy! You need to become familiar with all twelve chords. Moreover, I encourage you to experiment with variations on these patterns. This exercise will open up your technique for altered dominants--and other harmonic applications--but you should view it as a springboard for further exploration. As is so often the case, the material I'm sharing comes to you fresh from my own practice sessions. It's a chronicle of my personal learning curve, and I hope it assists you in yours. If you found this article helpful, you'll find many more like it on my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions sub-page. Practice hard, practice with focus--and, as always, have fun! -------------------------------- * If you add two more tones--the chord root and the major third--you'll get a complete diminished whole tone scale. In this application exercise, the whole notes use those two missing tones as resolutions.

Diminished Whole Tone Scale Exercise with Pentatonic

The diminished whole tone scale (aka super locrian or Pomeroy scale) has been around for a long time, but it's still a foreign sound to ears that are steeped in basic major and minor scales. For as many years as I've been playing it, it's still not something I find myself idly humming. Nevertheless, it's an extremely useful scale, full of colors and possibilities for chord superimpositions. Think of the diminished whole tone scale as a mode built upon the seventh degree of the ascending melodic minor scale. For instance, a C melodic minor scale contains these notes: C, D, Eb, F, G, A, B, C. Start on B as the scale root rather than C and you've got a B diminished whole tone scale. The scale's primary use is with the altered dominant seventh chord, which it fits like a glove. The diminished whole tone scale contains virtually every common alteration of the dominant chord you can conceive of: b9, #9, +5, and +11. So when you see, for instance, an A+7#9, the A diminished whole tone is a scale option that should come instantly to mind. Like any scale, you can conceive of it as simply a linear repository of tones, all of which relate perfectly to the altered dominant chord. The exercise on this page explores three of the many harmonic possibilities contained within the diminished whole tone scale. Click on the image to enlarge it. Each four-bar line sets a given scale against its respective altered dominant chord.
  • The first two bars use four-note cells to outline the seventh, raised fifth, third, and root of the chord. The chord tone is the last note of each cluster.
  • The third bar is a mode four pentatonic scale built on the b9 of the chord.
  • The last bar concludes with a simple lick that expresses the major quality of the chord, then hits two of its tension tone (#9 and b9) before resolving to the root.
  • . The purpose of this exercise isn't so much to give you a great lick as to help you dig inside the diminished whole tone scale to see what it has to offer. There's plenty more to discover, so consider this a springboard to further exploration. You'd do well to use some kind of harmonic accompaniment as you play this exercise, so you're training not just your fingers but also your ears. Practice hard and have fun! And be sure to visit my jazz page for a large selection of other informative articles, exercises, and solo transcriptions that can help you develop as a jazz improviser. They're all free, so dig in, learn, and grow with me musically.

    The Augmented Scale: A New Pattern to Whet Your Fingers On

    Here is an augmented scale pattern that I started tinkering with yesterday. It's similar to one I've practiced fairly often, but inserting an extra note into each four-note grouping--resulting in quintuplets--adds both harmonic and rhythmic color. The exercise uses the Bb augmented scale. Since it is a symmetrical scale, it also functions as D and F# augmented scales. For the theory behind it, see my first post on the augmented scale and view my page on jazz theory, technique, and solo transcriptions for a number of other articles. The image to your right (click on it to enlarge) contains three rhythmic variations of the pattern. The topmost is the pattern as I originally conceived it in five-note groupings. The line below it shows how the pattern lays out in a standard eighth-note flow. Last of all you'll find the pattern set to triplets. These latter two exercises introduce a polymetric element, displacing accents in ways that pack added interest. During the last few months my focus has shifted to pentatonic scales, and my augmented scale work has consequently suffered. The simple truth is, I just don't have time to cover all the bases. (I wish I did, but no one is paying me to practice eight hours a day!) Lately, though, now that I've gotten the preliminary muscle-memory curve behind me with my pentatonic work, I've begun to return to the augmented scale. It is a fascinating, hauntingly colorful scale at which I want to become increasingly adept. The augmented and pentatonic scales both now fit into my practice regimen, along with the diminished whole tone scale. By the time I'm finished working all these weird scales into my fingers, I just hope I'll remember how to play my major scales. It goes without saying--it does, doesn't it?--that you'll practice this pattern in all four of its tonal iterations (I don't know how else to say it; you can't rightly call them "keys"). Remember to keep application in mind. It's not enough to get this pattern under your fingers; how are you going to use it? Again, see my initial post on the augmented scale. Other than that, there's nothing left to say except, as always, practice diligently and enjoy the journey.