As with all components of creative playing, melodic embellishment is a technique that comes rather naturally with experience. If you are just beginning to acquaint yourself in this area, you can be a step above the crowd of beginners by keeping one simple idea in mind and use it as a guide: always maintain respect for your melody.
Don’t Fall Into The Same Trap
Truly, this is where the average beginner misses the mark. With the intention of sounding “pro,” efforts are aimed to perform impressive, dazzling improvisational lines. It’s pretty easy to spot these players because their playing comes across as a bit unbalanced. The melody is adhered to throughout the form of the piece and then, suddenly, the listener is subject to a flair of scales, patterns, and arpeggios that generally fall short of being lyrical or coherent.
There is nothing wrong with playing elaborate lines. However, even the professional stylist who is capable of performing them tastefully has a genuine appreciation for the melody first and foremost. I once had a harmony teacher in college who happened to be an awesome trumpet player. His improvisations were, indeed, dazzling. He was an awesome bebop player. While conducting one of the classes, the topic at hand was improvisation. He stated without hesitation that he never learned to improvise via the use of scales, patterns, or the like. Rather, he always kept the melody in mind and he simply embellished it by playing around it.
Notice, in the video below, how piano legends Oscar Peterson and Count Basie convey to the listener that less can, indeed, be more:
Keep It Simple And Tasteful
I’ll say it here. If you aspire to truly be a tasteful player, you will train yourself to allow the melody to be your guide. Yes, deviate from it by playing neighboring scale tones or notes that are a half step away. Then come back to the melody. Of course, you won’t limit yourself to half steps and whole steps but it’s a nice start for developing confidence in this area of melodic embellishment. The One Improvisation Secret You Must Know is nice little online video/guidebook combo that can help you in this area.
Again, keep it simple. You see, the more confident you become with subtle embellishments, the easier and more natural it will eventually be for you to take it to another level. The tasteful, seasoned improvisers know this from experience. Jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and singer Dizzy Gillespie once said, “It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play.” Any aspiring improviser can truly learn from those wise words.