Swing Mandolin 3 - Improvisational Styles

by Seth Rosen - Lesson III in a series

Adobe Acrobat File PDF jazz chart

Seth Rosen has played mandolin for nearly 30 years. A multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass and violin too) he has performed with a wide range of performers including: Blues legend Howard Armstrong, Swing greats Bross Townsend and Rusty Mason, Songwriter Si Kahn and Western musicians Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn. He currently plays in two northeast Ohio Bands: Crazy Rhythm playing swing and western swing, and The Suspenders! playing jump blues & roots rock. He has been on the staff of the Augusta Heritage Center's "Swing Week" for six of the past eight years as both a dance musician and a swing mandolin instructor.


In our first two lessons we have focussed on chords and chord theory. Chords are a useful way to think about improvisation. Though some musicians use an approach based on scales and modes, I find thinking in terms of chords--playing the changes--a more useful way to understand what works in improvised solos.

In order to get a look at jazz improvisational styles we are going to use the tune Pennies from Heaven, an old standard. In the first chart I have the melody and some customary chord changes. I have also transcribed two solos from tenor sax player Rusty Mason, one in a swing style the other in bebop. Rusty is a great jazz musician well versed in many styles. Rusty played with Tiny Bradshaw's Band in the 1940s and with many other great musicians. Rusty is also an instructor at Augusta Heritage Center's Swing week. These two solos were transcribed from an improvisation workshop he did several years ago at Augusta. We can learn alot about swing and bebop improvisation by examining these two solos.

However, first learn the tune. I've put it in C in order that the accidentals are easy to find in the transcribed solos, but its not a bad key for mandolin players. You shouldn't have much trouble with the chords and the melody is pretty straight forward too, with a few examples of swing triplets that will be good practice for the solos to follow. Note the form of the song, a 32 bar tune like in I got Rhythm, but instead of having a form AABA, it is more like ABAC...this form is sometimes called a "double turnaround". It is always good to get comfortable with the chords and melody before improvising.

Let's take a look at Rusty's swing solo that I have labeled "Pennies from Swing". The first two bars are a great example of swing rhythmic feel using only three notes. The three notes sound like more because the same note is a different sound when the chord changes. A useful exercise is to go through the transcription, noting which scale degree the note is relative to the chord above it. The C in the first measure is the root of C and the b7 of Dm7; the D is the root of Dm7 and the b7 of Em7 etc. Note the extension tones: a high E over a G7 chord (measure 4) is a 13th in this context (a 6th above the 7th), or #5 in measure16 (Eb aka D# over G7) that becomes a #9 in measure 17 (Eb aka D# over C). Just by figuring out the role of each note in each chord you can learn alot from this solo.

There are a few other lessons we can learn here as well. Check out measure 14 for example, he starts on the b7th (Bb) and runs chromatically up to the 13th (A) before coming to rest on the 5 (G) this chromatic movement between chord tones is what I like to call "Connect the dots". Find other examples in this solo. This is a very easy move if you know your arpeggios. Note that the substitutions of a 13th chord for a 7th ie the solo makes it sound very hip. This is why we have spent so much of the first two lessons learning about chords and chord substitutions.

Another valuable lesson throughout the solo is the rhythmic feel. Notice how many measures start with an 8th note rest and come in on the "and". Note also measure 8, with 4 beats of silence...not someting you'd see in the transcription of a bluegrass solo. Leaving spaces is an important part of the swing style. If you want your solos to sound like a horn player, the spaces are as important as the notes.

While there are more things to learn from this solo I will let you find them on your own. Let's turn to the next transcription: Pennies from Bebop.

First note that I have changed the chords. While I actually chose the substitutions to harmonize with the solo, these could be chords a bebop player would chose. Note in particular the use of more discordant passing chords (Ab, Db or even the Ebm in measure 2 instead of the Ebdim). Again, your first task is to go through the notes and determine the scale degrees relative to the chord above. Notice the many b5 notes, a big part of the bebop sound. Notice also the major 7th over a minor 7th (Gb over Gm7 in measure 9 for example) another bebop move. You can find these throughout the solo.

As in the Swing solo we see chromatic runs connecting the dots. However the bebopers connect the dots with 16th notes and use unusual chord tones. See measure 18 where we go from a b6 (C over Em7) up and down and up again ending on a #11 (aka a b5 high A over Ebm7) whew!!!

Also note the use of open space. The quarter note rest in measures 9 and 13 give a classic bebop rhythmic feel.

I have spent several years playing through these solos and I don't think I've discovered all of the lessons, so I'll stop here and you can try and discover them yourselves. As usual, post any questions on the board here and I'll do my best to answer them. Finally, if you want a chance to study from the master himself, Rusty Mason will be at Augusta Swing week this year along with many other fine musicians. And these is still room in my swing mandolin class. Check out the Augusta link or email me for additional information.

Good luck... and feel free to post any questions on the discussion board under jazz, swing etc.