Improvisation is a scary proposition for many music students and teachers. But the word “improvisation” is fairly misleading, as much of what an improviser uses to create a solo is actually preconceived, and therefore can be learned and developed.
Preconceived concepts regarding form, rhythm, melody, harmony and importantly, solo construction, are some of the elements that are tirelessly practiced and perfected by great improvisers (e.g. masters). This creates a foundation for what will be played. Furthermore, masters have preconceived concepts regarding how they will play. Tone, technique, time feel, articulation, phrasing and vibrato style are often the thing that most identifies a master, being carefully formulated and developed, then repeated over and over again.
What separates an improvisation master from everyone else is (1) the quality and quantity of what’s preconceived, (2) art and, (3) taste. The good news is that (1) can be studied and practiced to the point that you can gain control over a massive amount of preconceived concepts. The bad news is that not everyone can create a work of art, and not everyone has exquisite taste.
Masters strike a balance between preconceived concepts and going with the moment, letting their “spirit,” for lack of a better term, lead them to very human expression. This creates a kind of inspired flow. And this sense of balance between essentially “knowing and not knowing,” to quote Chick Corea from a 1976 Keyboard Player magazine article, is informed by incredible taste and yes, talent. But here’s the thing: it’s very tough to create (2) and (3) without (1)! And (1) is something that most definitely can learned.
There’s a little secret that masters know regarding preconceived vocabulary. To quote Chick again from the same article:
“The myth is that you always have to play something different to be spontaneous. But that’s not true. What’s important is how “there” you are when you’re playing: that’s really the point. Good music is just good music whether it’s composed, improvised or whatever.”
No matter how many times you play an idea, if you are “in the moment,” it is spontaneous and can never actually be played the exact same way again, as no one ever experiences a moment exactly the same way. Charlie Parker played some of his signature ideas thousands of times, but they never sounded exactly alike. The same can be said about virtually every master. So preconceived vocabulary is crucial to the creative process.
Transcribing a solo is the best way to build vocabulary, but quality books are also a good source. For example, the new edition of the Jazz Conception series contains a section on improvisation, extracting over 100 ideas from 21 etudes over various common chord progressions. Vocabulary and context!
Once ideas are committed to memory, you then have material to develop both timing and balance. If one idea is active, dense with notes or rhythms, perhaps the next idea could be static, using just a couple of notes or rhythms. If the contour of an idea ascends, perhaps the next idea might descend, creating a peak. This helps you to develop a sense of balance, maybe even taste.
These instincts then allow you to assemble ideas in a logical and musical manner, often helping to “say” something when improvising. The more material, the more you can say. Eventually, your instincts will allow you to play new things that you hear spontaneously in a musical, logical manner, or react to what your bandmates are playing. You will then be able to balance improvisation between “knowing and not knowing.” It’s powerful stuff, not to mention a whole lot of fun!
Jim Snidero is an alto saxophonist, author and educator living in New York City. He is a Savant recording artist, author of the Jazz Conception series and president of The Jazz Conception Company.
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