Target-tone improvisation is a method of soloing in which chord tones that make up the harmony that is sounding within the measure or part of the measure are targeted or emphasized, usually by their rhythmic placement on strong beats. These chord tones can be any member of the chord (root, third, fifth, seventh etc.). For our examples we will concentrate on the third and seventh of the chord since these are the two most important tones in defining the quality of the chord. For example, if we are soloing over a CMaj7 chord we would want to target the E (third) and the B (seventh). If the harmony is C7 we will target the E and the Bb and for Cm7 the Eb and Bb. With this method it is possible to set up a framework or skeletal line for a solo that will strongly imply the underlying chord progression.
For our examples we will use the familiar iii-V/ii-ii-V-I progression in C major (Em7-A7-Dm7-G7). The first example simply states the third and seventh of each chord using quarter notes. Notice how the seventh of each chord resolves by step to the third of the following chord. This step-wise connection of chord tones in different harmonies will give the line a smooth flowing quality. This will be the framework for the following lines. I like to use a simple eighth note rhythmic pattern (four notes per chord in this case) since this allows us to concentrate strictly on note choice. Now it is just a matter of finding two more notes per chord to add to the framework to complete the line as shown in the examples. We can insert scale steps that pass between chord tones or other chord tones using arpeggio patterns. The lines are constructed in the style of traditional jazz to give a feel for this style of playing.
The importance of this method is to get us thinking about the tones that make up the harmony so that we can zero in on a particular harmonic sound with our lines. With target-tone improvising we can “play through the changes” effectively rather than simply playing a scale through multiple chord changes without concern for the individual chords. This approach is much better than the modal or scalar approach for soloing through complex chord changes that move quickly and involve altered chords. The solos of great players like Charlie Parker and Joe Pass are so well conceived in this regard that it is possible to determine the underlying harmonic structure of the tune by the single note lines they play. This is very similar to the way J.S. Bach’s single line compositions for solo instruments will very clearly imply the harmonic structure without ever actually stating a chord.
This would also be a good time to introduce another important concept in constructing an interesting melodic line. The concept involves the introduction of chromatic passing tones or chromatic neighbor notes where the chord tones are approached by half-step from above or below. This is very desirable in a jazz line. The idea is to try to introduce non-diatonic tones to add color to the solo just as it is desirable to extend and alter the harmony. In my examples any note with an accidental that is not a chord tone is approaching a chord tone by half-step. If we consider how these notes relate to the harmony we will discover that the notes with accidentals that occur over the dominant seventh chords are one of the four altered tones of the altered dominant harmony (b5, #5, b9, #9).
Play through the examples below to get the idea and then create your own variations. Remember that you do not have to target only thirds and sevenths; any chord tone will work including ninths, elevenths, thirteenths and altered dominant tones. This will open up lots of possibilities. I would also recommend you examine solos by your favorite jazz artists and notice how they are thinking in terms of the chord tones when soloing. Better yet, transcribe some solos by ear. There is no better way to learn the language of jazz.