Improvising Mona Lisa

Print of Mona Lisa from
Mona Lisa, c.1507
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Playing Jazz – More tricks of the trade

Improvisation is like composing, except that it is done spontaneously. So, improvisers have to contend with the same musical problems that face composers. There must be enough variety in what is produced to keep things interesting; at the same time, there has to be a unified feeling, so that the music holds together.

Then, there are different structural layers that should be kept in mind:  small scale issues involve what notes to choose or what rhythm to play in any particular moment; but there are also large-scale aspects to consider, like how one phrase relates to another.

Suppose we were improvising a solo using the song, Mona Lisa. The opening chord is Eb.  Here are the notes in that chord: Eb, , G and Bb

If we take those notes as our “melody” or basic material to embellish, we might add notes between the chord tones, or above them, or below them:

Above – Eb, Ab, G
Between – G, A, Bb
Below – G, F, Bb
Combination – Eb, F, Ab, G, C, A, Bb

But we want some kind of form to emerge – a musical gesture that makes sense, that gives direction, and that satisfies. One such gesture can be constructed by repeating an idea: Bb, A , C, Bb… Bb, A, C, Bb.

If we take this idea and repeat it starting on diffeent pitches, the result is called “sequence” :

Eb / Ab, G, Bb, Ab, F, Eb, Gb, Ab

Ab / Eb, Db, Fb, Eb, C, Bb, Db, C

The improvisor who comes up with a spontaneous melodic idea can use the technique of sequence to extend that idea, and create a cohesive form within the solo.

Chords to Mona Lisa
Words and Music by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
Arranged by Marty Gold

Played in the Key of Eb, slowly.


Nat King Cole, singing this lovely song on YouTube:

Words & Music by Jay Livingston & Ray Evans
Recorded by Nat "King" Cole, 1950 (#1) (Academy award winner, 1950)

(G7+)  C              F        C
Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa men have named you;

                    C/B  Am7     Am7/G    Dm7    G7
You're so like the lady with the mystic smile.

      Dm                 Dm7            G7sus4   G7
Is it only 'cause you're lonely men have blamed you

        G    G/A   G/B        G        C
For the Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?

        C6       C      C6      C   F  C
Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Li-sa,

                         C7            F
Or is this the way you hide a broken heart?

       Fm                             C
Many dreams have been left upon your doorstep;

           G7        G7+          C
They just lie there,    and they die there.

C7       F             Fm         C
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa,

          Dm7       G7     Dm7    G7       C
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art.

       Fm   G7  Fm-C
Mona Lisa, Mona Li-sa.

You may be interested in, Jazz Intensive Training Center
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"Jazz washes away the dust of every day life." -- Art Blakey
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