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Solving the Puzzle of Chromaticism in Jazz

One of the main defining characteristics of all great bebop solos is their use of chromaticism. But for those unfamiliar with chromatic concepts, the idea of using chromaticism in your playing can be really difficult to understand. After all, it’s not enough to just wander around the chromatic scale, you have to know where you are and where you want to go, as well as how to land there on a strong beat.

Jazz music solo targeting chord tones on strong beats
Targeting chord tones on strong beats

It can also be confusing when you realize that not every chromatic configuration sounds good.

Jazz chromatic passage that sounds bad
Not all chromatic passages sound good!

To make things worse, because most common scales have an asymmetrical interval pattern, you can’t always apply the exact formula to every area of the scale.

Breaking down the asymmetry in a dorian scale in jazz
Breaking down the asymmetry in a dorian scale

With all these choices over all 12 keys, this can all be very overwhelming. But there is good news! The 15 Approach Note and Enclosure Exercises PDF resource from can give you practice and help acquaint you with some of the tricks that can make you more comfortable with chromaticism.

Each of the exercises in this resource chromatically targets all seven scale tones of the major scale in a creative and melodic way to solve the asymmetry issues. Plus, all of the exercises sound good, too—so they’re not just the repeating drudgery of some exercise routines.

We’re going to jump in on one of the exercises and see what we can learn from it. But before we get going, make sure to check out the full PDF package here, as well as our accompanying YouTube video, “Solving the puzzle of chromaticism in jazz,” which features Nathan walking you through these concepts.

Now let’s get playing!


Selecting an exercise

Chromatic exercise analysis

Getting technical

Selecting an exercise

The best way to find an exercise that you like is to trust your ear. When Nathan is looking for one to work on, he sight reads the exercises several times and chooses one to dive deeply into. This helps keep your ears as the main boss.

Once you found one that sounds good to your ears, it’s good to focus deeply on this exercise for a few weeks. From Nathan’s experience, it’s more helpful to digest one exercise permanently, rather than just scratching the surface of 10 of them and forgetting them forever.

Chromatic exercise analysis

In each exercise in this book, you’ll notice that there’s an intentional pattern going, which will make it easier to understand. In this exercise, you’ll notice that if you split the bar in two, the first four notes are your enclosure and the second four notes are strictly diatonic. This scheme carries through the whole exercise, even descending.

Jazz chromatic enclosure exercise ascending

To note, the second half of the measure is a 1, 2, 3, 5 shape, which carries up every single step of the scale.

Jazz chromatic enclosure exercise descending

When we descend, we have the same thing—but instead of going 1, 2, 3, 5, we’re going to go back to the note we started on, so 1, 2, 3, 1.

Analyzing jazz enclosure exercise ascending

Taking a look at the first half of the bar, that’s where we have a four-note enclosure happening. But as you can see, they’re not strictly the same set of intervals. Looking at the first measure, those first two notes are a whole step apart, while the next measure they are a half step apart. Same is true for the next measure, then the next measure is a whole step. So how does this sound so good? Yes, there are some slight differences going on, but there’s a clue in the underlying line.

Underlying scale line in jazz exercise
Notice how the first notes move up the scale

If you look at the first note of each of the measures, it’s going up in a scale—the first note starts on the third of C and just goes up diatonic steps.

Jazz exercise analysis ascending thirds
Ascending thirds integrated into the line

Looking again, you’ll see that beats one and three are forming an ascending third pattern, starting on the upper note first.

Jazz enclosure examples in C major modes
Enclosure examples

Then if we look at the next three notes, we actually have a pretty uniform pattern here—we stick to the same interval set in each enclosure within this exercise; it’s a purely chromatic enclosure, two steps above and one step below.

Jazz enclosure exercise line movement ascending
Ascending movement

Checking out the second half of each measure, we do a 1, 2, 3, 5 and then go down one scale step, whereas when we descend we do 1, 2, 3, 1 and go up one scale step.

Jazz enclosure exercise descending movement
Descending movement

We have a lot of things happening harmoniously at the same time, which is probably why it all sounds so good to our ear.

The extra benefit is that when we work on exercises like this, if we encounter anything like this in the future, we’ll already know what it is, which will be helpful if you hear something you like and want to transcribe it.

Getting technical

As with all exercises, you can have all the theory knowledge in the world, but none of it is ever going to come out if you can’t actually play it on your horn. Something we can do is treat this as a purely technical exercise—forgetting about harmony, application, improvisation—none of that yet.

This time we want to look at it and ask, are my fingers even? Am I getting some good dexterity? Is everything relatively in tune? Are my tongue and fingers aligned?

Now let’s grind this out and play 16th notes at 80 bpm in C, and we’ll follow it in a few more difficult keys.

Check out our accompanying YouTube video to see how Nathan tackles this exercise in C, Ab, Eb, and F#. To bring it all home, he also sings along as a way to really work it into his memory and internalize the content.

It’s important to remember that you probably won’t master this in one day, so keep revisiting this exercise until you have it fully internalized in all 12 keys, so you can play it from memory. But until then, remember to practice from the book so that you don’t misremember and practice anything incorrectly.

That’s all for today—if you liked working on this concept, you’ll definitely want to see the full PDF package 15 approach note and enclosure exercises. It’s got plenty of other exercises to build your chromatic vocabulary and get you comfortable with navigating this tricky concept.

We’ll see you next time!

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