Here is a little advice recently given to a saxophone player struggling with approach notes and II-7 V7 Imaj’s:
“I’m trying to get all of my 251s down with chromatic surrounds, but from the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th. I’ve been practicing a lot but it doesn’t seem to be getting easier for me. Any suggestions?”
If a progression is too difficult then break it down into something manageable. V7 -> I or just V7. Start by approaching the flat7 of the V chord with a rhythmic / syncopated idea.
Make music, not boring exercises.
When the 7th gets a bit easier then add an approach to the 3rd of the I chord. This is voice leading and is melodically strong.
Approach the 7th and then the 3rd of the V chord (or the 3rd and 7th) and then resolve to what sounds and feels right. If you touch the 3rd and 7th of the V7 chord anywhere in your line your ear will help you resolve. Everything will sound right.
Keep your “improvisations” within the range of a 5th or in just one area of the horn, this way you learn to play through the chords and not “up and down” the harmony.
It helps to sing a (syncopated and therefore musical) line and visualize the fingerings – even slightly move the fingers – in all keys. Sometimes play the notes to see if you are right in what you imagine and hear.
Sing (scat) a simple syncopated rhythmic idea and then add a few approach notes to the syncopations. If you don’t know any rhythmic ideas then listen to the older Basie recordings, they are full of great riffs. You can also check out the trombone parts in New Orleans marching bands, often referred to as the 2nd line. Steal the syncopations and add a few nice approach notes and chord tones.
Change keys every three minutes. Remember – you are practicing “the changes” – so start stringing chords together, practice changing. Follow the cycle C7 -> F7 -> Bb7 etc.
Use a simple set of changes – the A section of an easy standard – and spend 3 minutes in each key making music and finding the voice leading, the nice notes. Don’t worry if the first few times through the changes, especially in distant and unfamiliar keys, you don’t play anything cool. The nice voice leading notes will eventually come to you, usually when they are ready, after the 3rd or 4th time through the sequence. Be patient with the musician in you.
The tendency is to try and play all of the approach notes while practicing. Don’t. It isn’t musical and you would never actually solo that way. Simplify your playing. Practice ideas for shorter periods spaced over a longer time. It is better to come back to an idea three or four times in a practice session than obsess on it for thirty minutes in one shot.
Keep a log of what it is you are working on.
Now go practice – even though it’s Christmas.