How to Improvise Like Kenny Barron

In this post, I will examine the song, "Autumn Leaves" by Kenny Barron. I transcribed this song in April 2017 for a musician who needed a custom transcription of this song. (see link above). The information on this shows three tips that I would like to share with you

3 Improvisation Secrets for the Intermediate musician

  • use simple major triads in your runs for variety
  • use the melodic minor scale
  • use as few notes as possible in your left hand while soloing
Use simple major triads in your runs for variety

Every time some musician does some crazy run someone will ask?

What scale is that?

You're asking the wrong question

See my video on "why practicing scales is important" and you will notice that most of the melodic runs that sound really good are not simply scales. I prefer we call them melodic lines. We are not playing scales, we are creating a melody with the right hand. We can use scales to form that melody, but we can also use arpeggiated chords, we can use chromaticism, or we can simply imply a chord that we want to hear.

We are not playing scales, we are creating a melody...

This was one of the most difficult concepts to learn in the past, but while I was transcribing this piece I found that Kenny Barron frequently uses the major triad as a tool for improvisation. Check out this line from his version of Autumn Leaves:

Listen to the line by pressing play below

Where are the triads? Do you see any?

If I had asked him, "What scale are you using?" it would have been the Wrong Question...

He is using major triads, descending a whole step apart. And while this seems simple enough, it is important to practice the lick with the track to understand his sense of timing and rhythm of the notes

**please note that the notes are quantized in order to aide visually so the timing of the notes may not be perfectly accurate. In addition on the record there is an 'E' after the F on the second measure

Use the melodic minor scale

The melodic minor scale is an important scale for musicians to learn but this especially applies to musicians who want to improvise. 

I particularly like the way that Kenny Barron uses the melodic minor scale. Take a listen below​

In this context Barron is using the G melodic minor scale but he is starting on the fifth note. His left hand is holding a F-A-Bb, bottom to top, which are forming the upper part of a G minor chord as shown in the picture below

another interesting point to make is that he descends on a C melodic minor scale at the same time that his left hand changes to a C7sus4

While all of these points are interesting it is still only a minor point. Pun intended. My primary observation is that he is using the melodic minor scale as a "PATH" to get to the C7Sus4, to literally CONNECT the Gmin to the C7sus. Amazing!!

Use as few notes as possible in your left hand

Its not necessary to play FULL chords in your left hand when soloing. You've got too many things going on, and its easier to focus on one hand for complex improv. You could probably get away with playing just 2 notes in your left hand while soloing with the right.

Which two notes?

Well, most basic chords have three notes. Omit the root note (or the one that your hand has trouble reaching) and you have the two notes that determine the quality of the chord. Those are the only two notes that you need, you have permission to throw the rest away.​

The reason you would do this is to make improvisation with the RIGHT HAND easier

Why play this?

When you could play this?

Notice the same line above with his left hand chords added

  • Chidi says:

    Aweson Doc!!!
    Hands down awesome. I so love this.

  • sean says:

    Thanks doc!

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