Double Time Jazz Improv with 16th Notes
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Have you ever listened to your favorite jazz pianists play burning fast improv licks and wondered how you might ever get to that level? Well, in today’s Quick Tip, Double Time Jazz Improv with 16th Notes, John Proulx breaks down this elusive improv goal into actionable steps. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Double Time Jazz Improv
- Comparing Swung 8th Notes & Straight 16th Notes in Jazz Improv
- Practicing Double Time Jazz Improv
Perhaps you’ve thought that you could never play double time jazz licks. However, it might just be time to think again!
Before we endeavor to define what we mean by “double time” in jazz music, let’s first examine a sample improv line that employs this technique.
As you can see from the example above, the 16th notes in measure 2 move twice as fast as the 8th notes in measures 1 and 3. This is the essence of what it means to improvise in “double time.”
Double time playing in jazz is an advanced improvisation technique that occurs when a soloist plays lines that are based on a tempo that is twice as fast as the actual tempo. Therefore, double time playing commonly occurs on medium tempo tunes and is accomplished by playing 16th notes instead of 8th notes. However, the 16th notes are played “straight” rather than “swung”—even on swing tunes.
Often times, a distinction is made between soloing with a “double time feel” verses playing in actual double time. For example, the latter approach literally doubles the tempo of all aspects of the tune throughout the entire ensemble such that the melody and the chords move at twice the rate of the original tempo. However, typically, when we speak of improvising with “double time licks” or “double time lines”, we are talking about a double time feel. In this case, the speed of the actual chord changes remains unaffected by the faster durations that a soloist plays.
To get an even better sense of what double time playing sounds like and how it can be integrated into the story arc of an improvised solo, let’s listen to some excerpts from legendary jazz pianists Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly and Oscar Peterson.
“Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” (1959)
“All of Me” (1959)
Did you notice that in each example, the soloist includes a mixture of 8th note ideas and 16th note ideas? In fact, the excerpt by Wynton Kelly is particularly interesting in that he plays an 8th note line, followed by a triplet line, followed by a 16th note line. For an example of a present-day pianist with impeccable double time proficiency, check out Japanese pianist Hiromi Uehara.
In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at how to shift from 8th note subdivisions to 16th note subdivisions.
Improvising double time lines is challenging on at least two levels. First, there is the technical aspect. Playing continuous 16th notes for one or more measures demands that a pianist has considerably honed their technique. Secondly, the cognitive aspect of shifting subdivisions between swung 8th notes and straight 16th adds another layer of complexity.
The example below shows the juxtaposition of swung 8th notes and straight sixteenth notes in a single measure. In order to play effective double time lines, a soloist must be able to maintain a consistent tempo when shifting between these different subdivisions of the beat.
The following examples use the Metronome Pro app to model what each subdivision sounds like at 75 BPM. These examples have been recorded with accents on beats 2 and 4 to simulate the feel of the drummer’s “hi hat” in a typical swing groove.
Swung 8th Notes
Straight 16th Notes
Now, try setting your metronome to sound quarter notes at 75 BPM. Are you able to mentally reproduced the 8th note and 16th note subdivisions in your mind? Moreover, can you alternate between them? The example below models the sound of switching subdivisions while maintain a steady tempo.
Double Time Jazz Scale Exercise
Once you are comfortable making this shift in your mind, the next step is to begin putting it into your hands. For example, try alternating between 8th notes and 16th notes while playing familiar scales. In doing so, you’ll quickly discover why jazz musicians gravitate toward 8-note scales such as the dominant diminished scale or the various bebop scale forms.
Here is one example of how you might practice switching between 8th notes and 16th notes over G7 using the G dominant diminished scale.
G Dominant Diminished Double Time Exercise
Line Building With 4-Note Cells
In addition to employing 8-note scales, jazz musicians also frequently approach improvisation in terms of 4-note cells. This is particularly useful when improvising in double time. In fact, many double time licks can be broken down into chains of identifiable 4-note cells.
Some of the most obvious 4-note cells are 7th chords and their inversions. However, 3-note cells can also be converted into a 4-note cell by simply repeating one note. The following diagram shows four common cell structures used in jazz improvisation: triadic cells, 7th chord cells, 1231 cells and 1235 cells. As this diagram illustrates, each basic cell can be manipulated to create similar, but distinct variations. Some common ways to manipulate a melodic cell are to reverse the tones, reorder the tones and to employ octave displacement.
When first looking at this diagram, you may immediately envision playing these cells over Dm7. However, it isn’t necessary to play these melodic shapes from the root only. You can also build lines with these shapes beginning on other chord tones such as the 3rd, 5th or 7th. For example, these exact cells also work on Bø7 and G7 without the need for any modification or transposition. They will simply highlight different chord tones and chord extensions on those chords. As we explore double time licks in the next section, keep an open eye for how several of these 4-note cells are used to form longer 16th note lines.
Now that you have a strong understanding of what double time jazz improv is and how these lines are formed, we’re ready to play the double time licks featured in today’s Quick Tip lesson. Today’s lesson sheet contains double time licks that are arranged in three difficultly levels:
All of the licks in this section are presented C major and come from today’s lesson sheet. If you’re a PWJ member, be sure to log in to download the PDF lesson sheet from the bottom of this page. In fact, you’ll also find 8 included backing tracks for honing your double-time skills!
All of the double time licks in today’s lesson are played in the context of a 2-5-1 progression. However, John Proulx is careful to distinguish between different types of 2-5-1 progressions that you may encounter. For example, some 2-5-1 progressions only span 2 measures while others span 4 measures. We refer to the former as short 2-5-1’s and the latter as long 2-5-1’s. In addition, each 2-5-1 progression in this lesson contains an additional A7 chord which resolves back to the Dm7 on the repeat. Therefore, the complete chord progression is Ⅱm7→Ⅴ7→Ⅰ▵7→Ⅵ7. (Note: Ⅵ7 is equivalent to the secondary dominant Ⅴ7/II, pronounced “five-seven of two.”) This is sometimes called a 2-5-1 with a “turnback.” The illustrations below demonstrate the difference between a short 2-5-1 and the long 2-5-1.
Now that you understand the harmonic context for today’s lesson, let’s jump into the first level of double time licks.
The beginner licks in this section use only the diatonic tones of C major. In other words, we aren’t employing any chromaticism in this level. Let’s listen to our first beginner lick, which is played over a short 2-5-1. Afterward, we discuss its architecture.
Beginner Double Time Lick – Short 2-5-1
That’s a nice sounding lick. As the annotations indicate, the internal structure of this lick places chord tones on the strong beats—beats 1 and 3. This practice is foundational for creating lines with linguistic syntax.
Now, let’s consider another diatonic double time lick. This one is played over a long 2-5-1.
Beginner Double Time Lick – Long 2-5-1
Ironically, the first measure of this lick is identical to the previous lick, even though the G7 chord arrives two beats later. This works because there is a special relationship between the Ⅱm7 and the Ⅴ7 chords. In fact, a Ⅱm7→Ⅴ7 progression is really just a prolonged or expanded V7 chord. For this reason, many players simply think of one improv scale over a Ⅱm7→Ⅴ7 rather than two. In other words, rather than thinking D Dorian (D–E–F–G–A–B–C) followed by G Mixolydian (G–A–B–C–D–E–F), they think G Mixolydian for the entire duration of the Ⅱm7→Ⅴ7 progression.
As you can see, this progression includes chord tone targets on beat 1 of each measure. However, in this example, the notes on beat 3 are chord extensions. For example, the note G on beat 3 of measure 1 is the 11th of Dm7. (Keep in mind that this note is also the root of G7.) Then, the note E on beat 3 of measure 2 is the 13th of G7. This illustrates that available chord extensions can also make effective target tones.
It’s also significant to point out that the last 4-note cell in measure 2 (B–A–G–F) descends from the 3rd of G7 (the note B) and lands on the 3rd of C7 (the note E). In fact, when moving from Ⅴ7 to Ⅰ▵7, a descending scalar line that starts on a chord tone of the Ⅴ7 will always end on the same chord tone of the Ⅰ▵7 chord. Therefore, jazz musicians often practice resolving from Ⅴ7 to Ⅰ▵7 by descending with stepwise motion from root to root, 3rd to 3rd, 5th to 5th and 7th to 7th.
For a deep dive on soloing with target tones, check out our course on 2-5-1 Soloing with Chord Tone Targets (Int).
In this intermediate level section, we’ll explore two additional double time licks. However, these licks will now include the use of various chromatic approach tones.
Our first lick is played over a short 2-5-1. Let’s take a listen.
Intermediate Short 2-5-1
Just like our beginner level licks, this intermediate level lick also includes target tones. However, you’ll notice that the target tones are not all placed exclusively on strong beats. For example, the target note for Dm7 is the note D which occurs on the “and of 1.” Likewise, the target note for G7 is the note G which occurs on the “and of 3.” It’s important to realize that this metric shifting of the target tones is not arbitrary. In fact, John Proulx is using very specific melodic devices to lead into these target notes.
Let’s consider the first two notes, E and C♯, which precede the target note D from above and below. Jazz musicians call this melodic figure an enclosure. Other names for this shape include encircling tones, rotations and surround notes. Enclosures creates a certain amount of melodic tension which resolves when the target note arrives. Sometimes the target note will be directly on the beat. However, at other times, as in our example here, the enclosure occurs on the beat and the target tone is delayed. This creates an even stronger sense of melodic tension.
Now let’s consider the target note B for the G7 in measure 1. This is similar to what we’ve discussed in the paragraph above. However, here John uses a different type of chromatic device. Instead of an enclosure, John uses an ascending chromatic approach. An ascending chromatic approach occurs when a target note is preceded from below by its diatonic lower neighbor and its chromatic lower neighbor. This type of melodic movement is particularly common when targeting the 3rd, as in this example.
Next, let’s examine how John modifies this lick to accommodate a long 2-5-1 progression.
Intermediate Long 2-5-1
Here, John is able to elongate his phrase over Dm7 by repeating the exact same 8-note lick up an octave on beats 3 and 4 of measure 1. Afterward, John creates new material to extend his phrase over the G7. For example, on beats 2 and 3 of measure 2, John draws on the G Dominant Bebop scale. Then, on beat 4, John outlines a descending G+ chord (G–B–D♯).
To learn more about the melodic devices we’ve discussed in this section, check out the following PWJ courses:
In this section, we’ll explore two advanced double time licks. These licks also use chromatic approach tones like we explored in the previous section. In addition, John has incorporated some chord substitutions which add another level of harmonic tension. Take a moment to examine below the difference between a standard 2-5-1 in C Major and the chord substitutions that John has employed in this section. Can you determine which harmonic techniques he is using here?
Standard 2-5-1 in C Major
2-5-1 in C Major with Chord Substitution
If you said tritone substitution, you’re correct! That’s the main thrust behind this substitution. However, there’s a bit more going on here. Technically, the tritone substitution would only replace the G7 with D♭7 so that you’d have Dm7→D♭7→C▵7. Afterward, this D♭7 has been expanded to included its own Ⅱm7 chord—the A♭m7. In functional analysis, we can call the A♭m7 a “sub Ⅱm7” and the D♭7 a “sub Ⅴ7.” You may recognize the sound of this progression (A♭m7→D♭7→C▵7) from the classic Duke Ellington standard “Satin Doll.”
Now, let’s listen to John’s advanced double time lick over this short 2-5-1 progression with chord substitutions.
Advanced Short 2-5-1
In analyzing this lick, we see that John’s approach over the Dm7 chord is identical to how he approached this chord on the intermediate level. However, once the A♭m7→D♭7 arrives, John has come up with new material. This 8-note scalar lick draws on the D♭ Lydian Dominant scale (D♭–E♭–F–G–A♭–B♭–C♭) and targets the 3rd of C▵7.
To learn more about Lydian Dominants, check out our Quick Tip on Lydian Dominant Scale—The Complete Guide (Ind).
Lastly, let’s check out a long 2-5-1 progression with the same chord substitutions.
Advanced Long 2-5-1
As you can see from the annotations, this long 2-5-1 employs the same essential techniques as the previous example, albeit over the extended chord durations.
Congratulations, you completed today’s lesson on Double Time Jazz Improv with 16th Notes. In doing so, you’ve gained important insights into how jazz musicians approach improvising fast double time lines at medium tempos. Moreover, you’ve identified several ways in which you too can begin to develop this ability.
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
Course Series: 2-5-1 Soloing with…
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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