7 BS Facts about Learning Jazz Improvisation Everyone Thinks Are True (and 3 things to practice to instantly sound better)
How do I learn jazz improvisation? The perpetual question on everyone’s mind from jazz enthusiast to student to professional musician. If you’re an avid learner like me, you’ve probably spent the main bulk of your time trying to find the most effective way to learn jazz improvisation. And sooner or later, you would have come across a variety of instructions, ranging from practicing rigid jazz exercises to other abstract and absurd techniques such as vocalizing your cat’s sleeping habits. Whatever the case, here is a list of the 7 most common methods you’ve probably been told about learning jazz improvisation and why they don’t always work.
1. Memorizing “ii-V-I” Licks
The almighty “ii-V-I” progression. The chord progression that jazzers all around the world have placed on a pedestal and worshipped to the tune of “1 2 b3 4 2 b7 1”. Um, so what happens if we get a song like “So What” (pun intended) for example, which stays on 2 chords for the ENTIRE track? Or if you encounter tunes by the Brecker Brother such as “Some Skunk Funk” and “Spherical”? And don’t even get me started on the harmonic intricacies of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Kenny Wheeler.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t practice “ii-V-I” licks AT ALL. As with any music style, you need the relevant musical vocabulary to make sure you sound like you actually know what you’re doing. But there’s more to jazz than just “ii-V-I” patterns. Have you checked out melodic paraphrasing? Motivic development? Modal improvisation unique to specific chord types?
ii-V-I’s licks are just a small part of a whole spectrum of improvisatory ideas you can experiment with. And it’s high time we stop placing so much emphasis on it.
2. Transcribing hundreds of Jazz Solos
In an era where digital recordings are so readily accessible, more and more people are churning out transcriptions like a weekly newsletter. You can find note for note sheet music of famous jazz solos on YouTube, Scribd, Sheet Music Plus and many other online platforms. We’re all in awe of that person with the golden ear who’s transcribed the likes of Art Tatum, Chic Corea, Herbie Hancock and other jazz piano masters.
However, we tend to forget that transcriptions do not equate to improvisation. Transcriptions are merely a written out documentation of another person’s improvisatory thought process at that specific moment of time. We often overlook the other subtle nuances such as dynamics, phrasing, articulation, etc and end up concentrating on getting the correct notes. Notes don’t mean anything if you’re just rehashing someone else’s musical ideas in your own solo. It can come across as forced and contrived and may be the only thing you know how to do whenever that particular jazz standard is called.
Challenge: Transcribe just ONE solo you really enjoy listening to and MILK. EVERY. DETAIL. The melodic contours, harmonic substitutions and rhythmic juxtapositions. Even down to the idiosyncratic sitting postures and hand positions. (i.e. Monk, Nat King Cole, Bill Evans, etc.) Switch it up and apply it to your own playing via a different song, a different key, a different tempo. Play upside down if you have to. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results you get within a week or even a few days.
3. Learning Jazz Scales and Modes in all 12 keys
If I had a dime for every time someone asked me what jazz scales they should use when improvising, I would be on a beach in Hawaii sipping Mai-Tais. Ok I don’t drink, but you get the picture. A lot of the time, so much effort is spent working out the fingerings for bebop scales, lydian dominant scales, double chromatic hexatonic octaquadruped snails; whatever they are called; that we abandon all musicality when it comes to soloing over the changes.
Jazz Improvisation is so much MORE than just playing mechanical linear exercises on a series of chord progressions. It’s an amalgamation of swing rhythms, simple to complex harmonies and sometimes even derived from a fusion of instrumental textures. So stop using the infamous D Dorian mode on Dm7 or G Mixolydian on G7 approach and start thinking about the bigger picture.
Sometimes a good old fashioned blues solo will suffice. And seriously, how many times in a gig will you actually have to play in the key of F# or B?
4. Practicing 8 or more hours a day
Name me one person who has the time to practice 8 hours a day and I’ll name you 50 more that would be grateful for just 1 solid hour of free time a week. It’s said that the great alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker used to practice 11-15 hours every day. It’s also said that he was addicted to heroin and that he played to cows. Maybe he was a genius, maybe he was extremely hardworking, maybe he was an avian humanoid sent to earth to conduct social experiments. We’ll never really know. What we do know is that we have 24 hours a day, and each one of them should count.
There have been times I’ve sat down at the piano for 3 hours and “jammed” to songs I already knew or just went through the motions of improvising on a blues. And one of the major reasons why I didn’t see any improvement in my playing is because I didn’t have a practice plan. Which is why it’s VITAL that you HAVE one carved out daily.
Take professional tennis players for instance. They start with warmups, then work on serving the ball, backhand hits, forehand hits and then perhaps some rallying with their coach afterward. Likewise, music practice should be the same. 10 mins of major scales, 10 mins of working on chord changes, 10 mins of ear training, however you want to structure it. The bottom line is make a PLAN. If it doesn’t work switch to another. You’ll eventually find a practice schedule that doesn’t involve HOURS of wasted time staring into space or mindlessly rambling on Autumn Leaves.
5. Playing “Free Jazz”
Hey I play free jazz too. I hardly get paid anything for a jazz gig. Alright jokes aside, this one’s always a hot topic amongst traditional and avant-garde jazzers. While standard jazz provides a basic framework in which the soloist can navigate relatively easily through a tune when improvising, free jazz has been known for it’s direction away from typical song forms and chord changes altogether. So much so that when younger cats start playing “free jazz”, the slightest sign of departure from formal musical structures is taken as gospel.
Somehow this idea has been translated over the decades into the misconception that “free jazz” means “playing anything you feel”; thus resulting in hoards of uninformed laymen having the notion that free jazz improvisation = playing anything randomly and that anyone can do it. Even babies.
But if you listen to the recordings of free jazz artistes such as Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus or John Coltrane, and really ANALYZE them carefully, you’ll realize that they all had their roots in the blues, had a vast knowledge of the jazz language and swung hard. You could tell that even though they “played how they felt”, a lot of their jazz vocabulary was based off their predecessors. They knew the language. And so should you.
Even the adorable yellow minions from “Despicable Me” derive their seemingly gibberish phrases from strains of French, English, Spanish and Italian. Free jazz is no different. It’s another form of jazz expression where the basic jazz vernacular is required in order to innovate something new thereafter.
6. Relying heavily on Music Theory to improvise
Ok firstly, how many jazz greats do you know go, “Oh, I used a double diminished scale on the G7b9 chord, then resolved on the 3rd mode of the melodic minor on the tonic of the final bar.”, when you ask them how they crafted their solo? Probably only George Russell, but that’s another story.
When you rely too heavily on music theory to improvise, you’re forgetting the one thing that makes jazz improvisation, jazz improvisation. Spontaneity. Too much emphasis on music theory makes us neglect the other factors which affect jazz improvisation. Factors such as audience responses, the exchange of melodic and rhythmic ideas between the band members or even the deliberate use of dissonances over diatonic harmony.
Take for example, Oscar Peterson whose blues influence dominates everything he plays, even in ballads. Or Monk, whose percussive technique is likened to that of a conga player rather than the harmonic role of a pianist. Or Keith Jarrett who is known to defy the conventions of jazz standard chord progressions with sporadic flourishes of melody. These are real life experiences that don’t jump off a page in a “jazz textbook.” Life is like jazz, it’s a lot more fun when you don’t follow the rules. (You didn’t hear it from me. *Hides from the jazz police*)
7. Deeming “Jam Sessions” as “Improv Practice”
Let me say this now so I don’t get misunderstood. I love going for jam sessions. I love the impromptu vibe of trying new tunes. I love experiencing the melting pot of musical ideas and experimentations that originate from jazzers; who come from all over town to show what they got. However, I don’t go to a jam session to hone my skills. I go there to have a good time.
Yea sure, jam sessions are a great place to meet other musicians and gauge where you’re at in terms of your own musical knowledge and mastery, but they can never replace the effectiveness of serious individual practice at home. Think about it. How many “new” harmonic concepts would you remember after you’ve heard 3 horn players blow on Giant Steps for 7 choruses each? I’d probably only recall something random like eating an overdone cheeseburger for dinner.
Environments like these don’t help with developing your improv unless you’re actively making mental notes of what to work on WHEN you get back home. So the next time you go for a jam session, write down what you stumbled over. It could be trouble keeping up with fast tempos, memorizing the bridge section to “Body and Soul” or transposing songs to Db and Gb major to cater to the range of various singers. Take that list to the woodshed and focus on correcting your weaknesses, and THEN prepare to wow everyone at the next jam. But here's how to really go about doing it...
No-Nonsense EFFECTIVE PRACTICE
Ok so now that we’ve listed all the common methods for learning jazz improvisation and discussed their drawbacks, how do we effectively learn the skill if all the aforementioned techniques don’t necessarily work for everyone?
Well, the main problem with practicing jazz improv, is that students often attempt to tackle everything at once. I’m talking about trying to derive a coherent melody off the chord changes; whilst attempting to retain variations of a basic swing rhythm in a jazz solo. It’s a lot of information to process especially if you’re just starting out. But if we approach jazz improvisation in the same way we approach learning any kind of music, you would find that the fundamental musical elements simply boil down to melody, harmony and rhythm. So let’s break them down one by one.
1. Rhythmic Improvisation
Rhythm is an essential part of jazz improvisation, which is why we’re examining it 1st. Without jazz’s inherent “swing feel”, all you’re going to have is a bunch of notes which sound like they were generated from a DAW (digital audio workstation). To help you out, here’s a list of some CREATIVE and SIMPLE ways you can consciously work on getting your RHYTHM up to speed.
Task 1: One Note Rhythmic Variation
Choose just ONE note to solo on and vary the rhythm of that note so that the rhythm keeps evolving throughout the song. Let’s pick the note “A” for example, over a simple standard like “Take the A Train”. You could start with quavers, have some dotted crotchets in the next 4 bars and if you’re more adventurous, even try triplets for the subsequent sections. The main aim is to ensure you’re not repeating the same rhythmic pattern over and over again or getting distracted by working out the harmonies.
Task 2: Motivic Anticipation and Delay
Deliberately anticipate or delay a “3 to 4 note" melodic motif to fit across various upbeats and downbeats. For instance, let’s take the notes “C D E G” and play them as 4 quavers. On the 1st bar, play the “4 quaver motif” on beat 1. On the 2nd bar, start the motif on beat 2. On the 3rd bar, play it on beat 3. Challenge yourself as you progress. Upbeat of Beat 2. Downbeat of 3 and upbeat of 1 after that. So on and so forth. This forces your ears to open up to new ways of phrasing melodic motifs that you’re already accustomed to.
Task 3: Odd Bar Phrasing
Solo over 3 bars, then rest for 2 bars. Solo over 4 bars then rest for 1. Take a phone number if you have to and write 6254-2842. (not an actual phone number, I hope) Solo over 6, rest for 2, solo for 5, rest for 4, etc. The possibilities are endless. Very often, people tend to play in 4 or 8 bar phrases and this exercise pushes you out of that zone.
Be imaginative. Grab a book and start matching your musical phrasing to sentence structures. Work on half time, double time, polyrhythmic grooves. There’s so much more you can practice to make your playing sound better instantly. And we haven’t even touched melody or harmony yet.
2. Harmonic Improvisation
Jazz harmony is the meat which defines the tonality or modality of the genre and a lot of jazz books have been written extensively on the subject. Which is why we’ll just deal with the essentials.
Task 1: Practising Chord Tones and Chromaticism
This one is a no-brainer. If you want to have a good grasp of the jazz language, you have to dissect each chord and make sure it’s second nature when you improvise. When you practice chord tones, don’t even bother about changing the rhythms initially. Just start with an endless string of quavers and weave in and out of the chord changes at a comfortable pace. Remember, we’re focusing on internalizing the notes, not the rhythmic variations. Don’t forget to use chromatic passing tones too!
Task 2: Practising Different Voicings on Songs
There are plenty of ways to voice a chord. Namely, Tertian, Quartal/Modal, Suspensions, and Non-Functional Harmony. There’s already loads of info out there on voicings which you can refer to, but the most effective way to practice; would be to go through a song and work out all the possible options for the chords it utilizes. (i.e. instead of C, E, G, B for Cmaj7, you could play C, E, A, D, etc). Make sure you practice songs written in the tougher keys as well!
Task 3: Substituting Chords and Superimposing Harmonies
If you notice a common thread amongst the top jazz giants, it’s that they hardly stick to the set chord changes in the bulk of their solo. Sometimes you’ll hear a ii-V-I movement a tritone away from the original progression; or a sequence of superimposed pentatonic riffs played on a turnaround. So if you want to sound like the greats, practice substituting diatonic harmonies for more non-conventional ones; like playing an Abm7-Db7 arpeggio over an Fm7-Bb7 progression then resolving it, or treating dominant 7ths as major 7 chords. Keep it fresh but don’t go overboard.
3. Melodic Improvisation
The simplest of things is usually the hardest to do well. A lot of the time jazzers focus on the harmonic building blocks of a solo rather than creating linear melodies; and this makes their playing sound like a Jamey Aebersold exercise. Yes I said it. Somehow or another, in the piles of academia written about jazz improv, we’ve forgotten that melody is the only musical element which contains all other aspects of music. Pitch, rhythm, dynamics, articulation, harmony, tempo, etc. You won’t find that in rhythm alone. You won’t find that in harmony alone. Melodies can stand on their own and that’s why it’s so powerful when a jazz solo incorporates a good one.
Task 1: Paraphrase the melody
There are 2 ways to paraphrase a melody. Rhythmic Variation and Melodic Repetition. Rhythmic Variation for example, in a song like “Fly me to the moon”, could be done anticipating or delaying the melody by any time value: quaver, dotted quaver, triplet, etc. (Refer to Rhythmic Improvisation Task 2). Melodic repetition on the other hand, could be done by playing a certain note of the melody twice or more. i.e.. “Fly fly me me me to the moon moon”. So if the melody was in C major, it would go something like “C C B B B A G F F” instead of “C B A G F”.
Task 2: Modal approaches
Listen to any jazz solo, be it from a professional or amateur and you’ll find that the bulk of their improvisation relies heavily on chord tones. In order to steer away from this convention, start isolating the different modes that can be used on a particular chord. For instance, on a G7, instead of the usual G Mixolydian mode that everyone employs, you could use a G Phrygian, G altered scale, the 2nd mode of F melodic minor or even an Ab whole-half diminished scale. When you practice improvising in this way, you’re breaking free from the confines of ii-V-I melodic patterns that don’t always work when you get a standalone chord for 16 bars. Like John Coltrane’s “Impressions”.
Task 3: Generalizing one key centre over a series of chords.
Sometimes we get too caught up with the technicalities of nailing all the harmonically correct notes in a solo that we tend to miss the effectiveness of using simpler broad-brush techniques. Take a look at “All the things you are”, which goes Fm7, Bbm7, Eb7, Abmaj7, Dbmaj7, Dm7b5, G7, Cmaj7 in the 1st 8 bars. You could use Ab major over the 1st 5 bars, then C major for the last 3. Or you could even use Ab major for the 1st 7 bars and then resolve to C! How about the B section? Easy. G major for the 1st 4 bars, then E major for the 2nd 4 bars. Now as much as I’m aware that this method can sometimes induce a lacklustre attitude in practising improvisation, an approach like this does help when you’re learning a tune for the 1st time. So practice getting the main key centres of a song internalized 1st, before moving on to the finer details. (Like why baby shark goes through 6 choruses of unresolved pseudo-syncopated melodies before transposing up a semi-tone; when the chord change to the 1st subdominant chord is already enough to drive you nuts.)
So there you have it. The top 7 BS facts about learning jazz improvisation everyone thinks are true and 3 things to practice to sound better instantly. Which points hit home for you the most? Do you agree? What other myths about learning jazz improvisation would you include? Or what would you do differently? I’d like to know! Leave your comments below.
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