Using Bach’s “Melodic Shapes” for New Improv Material

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach has long been admired by jazz musicians. John Lewis, Jacques Loussier, Ethan Iverson and many more have all interpreted his music in some way. This may be because there is so much structure and logic that can be applied to the way we improvise. Many know that the baroque musicians were the greatest improvisers in western music before the 20th century, and though we can never really know how they sounded when they played, we can appropriate some of their basic materials. Bach is loaded with beautiful melodic “shapes” that can be great interval practice for the saxophonist, and a useful source of improvisational material.

Take for example, this sequence from the Second Violin Sonata:

First, there is an obvious technical challenge here, making large interval jumps on the saxophone is always tricky. Putting your interval practice into a melodic exercise like this can make it easier to approach, and strengthen your ability to imagine the note you are jumping to. This can be great for altissimo work as well, making sure you don’t squeeze to ascend but instead maintain a “steady state.” Transposing this into different keys will help work on your ear training and also provide you with some difficult fingering combinations to work on.

After working on these sequences for a while, I started applying them to jazz chord progressions. Sometimes they have to be altered slightly to follow the harmony, but having them in mind as a motivic idea can result in some lovely lines. Here is that same sequence adapted to the first 8 bars of “Gone with the Wind.”

Note how in the first measure, the sequence hits the 3rd, root, 5th, then 7th of the Dm7, afterwards the 7th neatly resolving to the 3rd of the G7. Here you end up with proper voice leading and a great line. In the second measure the 7th resolves to the root of the A7 and then in the 3rd measure I adapted the sequence to maintain the 7-3 resolution before rounding out the phrase with different material. Changing the sequence and mixing up your materials is key, and will keep it from being too dry and predictable.

Check out this full etude as a free download from my upcoming book, out May 25, and I hope that you will find some inspiration in Bach too!

Pre-order Jon’s new book of sequences for saxophone, Bach Shapes, now at
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