• Unlock the secrets of the jazz
melodic minor scale.
• Develop phrases that highlight
the diatonic and altered extensions
found in dominant chords.
• Create lines over major, minor,
and half-diminished chords.
Click here to download the accompanying mp3 audio examples.
The jazz melodic minor scale is a very
important improvisational tool. You
may have heard of this scale before but
without the word “jazz” associated with
it, and perhaps you’re wondering what
makes a melodic minor scale “jazz.” The
formula for this scale is 1–2–b3–4–5–6–7.
In classical music circles, this form of the
melodic minor is only used when the scale
ascends, with the natural minor (off the
same root) used for descending phrases.
Most modern musicians, especially in jazz,
stick to using the melodic minor scale
both for ascending and descending. I first
saw this scale referred to as a jazz melodic
minor scale in George Russell’s groundbreaking
book The Lydian Chromatic
Concept. Since then, I have always used
this as my reference point.
In understanding how to use the jazz
melodic minor scale, we must first take a
look at the diatonic chords that are generated
from the scale. Fig. 1 shows us the
diatonic 7th chords for the C jazz melodic
minor scale. These are important chords
to put to memory.
I want to draw your attention to the
chords built off of the 7th degree. You’ll
see first that I have a Bm7b5 chord built
off the 7. That’s a legit chord, but there’s
a much more useful way of using the 7th
degree to generate a diatonic chord that
opens up our improvisational possibilities.
Notice in the scale we also have Eb, which
is enharmonic to D#. Next to that original
chord I have a B7b5, which uses the D# as
its 3rd degree. By making the VII chord a
dominant chord (as opposed to a m7b5),
we open up the improvisational options
that are found in this scale.
If you look at Fig. 2, you’ll notice I
have placed the diatonic extensions on
top of five of the diatonic chords of this
melodic minor scale (CmMaj7, F7, G7,
Am7b5, B7alt). By understanding the diatonic
extensions generated on top of these
chords, we can better understand how to
use the melodic minor scale in improvisation.
Each of the following examples will
demonstrate the basic rules for starting
to improvise with this scale over minor,
dominant, and half-diminished chords.
We try out this scale over a minor 7th
chord in Fig. 3. This is likely the easiest
way to dip your toe in the water. Simply
play the scale based off the chord root—in
this case, the chord is Cm7—and it not
only brings out the leading tone (B), but
also the 9th (D), 11th (F), and 13th (A)
of the chord.
On dominant chords, we want to change
our thinking a bit and base the scale off
the 5th of the chord. In Fig. 4, we want
to highlight the sound of an F7 chord, but
also hit some cool extensions such as the 9
and #11. The 5th of F7 is C, so the C jazz
melodic minor works great here.
Another choice for dominant chords
is to play off the 4th degree of the scale.
We have a G7 chord in Fig. 5, and when
we use our C jazz melodic minor scale it
highlights the b13 of the chord, giving it
a more tense, altered sound. Mental note:
Try this application out over the V chord
in a minor II-V7 progression.
We are now going to progress into full
altered-chord mode. Over the B7alt chord
in Fig. 6, we’ll play a jazz melodic minor
scale that starts a half-step above the root.
We hit all the extensions here (b9, #9, #11, b13) making the resolution note (Eb or D#,
the 3rd of the chord) even more important.
Finally, we don’t want to leave out
the half-diminished—or m7b5—chords.
When faced with one of these, start your
scale on the b3rd. We keep our C jazz
melodic minor scale going over the Am7b5
chord in Fig. 7. Again, a great scale choice
for the IIm chord in a minor II-V.
You may also be familiar with the
modes of the melodic minor scale or
have heard about them in passing. They
are definitely worth investigating, but
beyond the scope of this lesson. However,
if you want to begin to improvise with
the sound of the jazz melodic minor scale,
start to experiment with the rules we’ve
just covered. Apply the examples I have
shown here to your own improvisations,
and you’ll start to notice your jazz vocabulary
expanding by leaps and bounds!
Tom Dempsey is a freelance jazz guitarist
in New York City who has worked with such
luminaries as Jack McDuff, Dave Brubeck,
and Bobby McFerrin. A committed educator,
Dempsey is on the faculty of Jazz at Lincoln
Center, National Guitar Workshop, and the
New York Jazz Academy. Learn more at tomdempseymusic.com