Improvising over chord changes can be daunting if you’re used to using blues and minor pentatonics over rock/blues progressions. But for jazz, country and for better outlining of chord changes, we can use chord tones and approach notes.
In the example sheet music/TAB at the bottom of the page I’ve used the first few chords from All The Things You Are, but this can be applied to any changes. These ones move in the cycle of fourths. First we target the minor 3rd of the chord then the root for the first two measures using half notes. Beats 1 and 3 are typically seen as the strong beats. According to Forward Motion theory by Hal Galper (affiliate link – I own the book too) these are actually end points rather than starting points. This changes how you hear a solo. So if these are the target points, we have 1 and a half beats with which to approach these strong beats, which gives us 3 eighth notes in this example (down the road we can use alternate rhythms and other approach techniques).
On the second line, we fill in the basic chord tones with approach notes, using arpeggios. Depending on how you look at it, these can be seen as major 7th arpeggios starting on the minor 3rd of the chord and ascending to the major 9th of the chord. For Fm7 that would be Ab ascending up to the G before landing on F, the target tone.
Note that the arpeggios are, and can be displaced by an octave to fit the range of your instrument or location on the neck. The arpeggios over the Fm7 have been displaced (after playing the target tone, the arpeggio is dropped down an octave), but over the Bbm7 the first arpeggio was not displaced. So note that Ab, C, Eb, G forms an Abmaj7 arpeggio with the last 3 notes displaced down an octave).
Another thing to note is that the two notes before the target tones (beats 1 and 3) encircle the chord tone (one note below and one above). This results in a strong resolution.
Also note the movement of the target tones themselves. We go from Ab down a minor 3rd to F, down a major 3rd to Db and up a major 6th to Bb. So using octave displacement, we descend a minor 3rd. Not using octave displacement we ascend a major 6th (the inverse of the original interval).
Later I will be discussing using other target tones including higher intervals (9ths, 11ths, 13ths and alterations) as well as voice leading (smooth movement between target tones). Also using different approach techniques, rhythmic variations and other techniques to enhance the improvisations.
Work this example through the entire progression or other tunes, styles you like. A great book I own that uses lots of different melodic cells is Building a Jazz Vocabulary (affiliate link)