Improvisation is a key ingredient of jazz that sets it apart from other genres, and often intimidates beginners into thinking they don’t have what it takes to be a great jazz musician. But remember that improvisation, even in jazz, is a skill that can be learned.
In the series so far we’ve covered the basics of improvisation, tips and tricks for getting started, and what characterises rock improvisation. Now we’ll build on this to look at a more sophisticated form of improvisation, as used in jazz.
Jazz improvisation requires you to really listen and feel the music. The fact that it uses numerous chords and modes means there is a bit more to learn, but the payback is you enjoy more freedom and can push your creativity to the limit.
I’ll share some tips below to help you explore jazz improvisation. For more advanced guidance I recommend you head over to JazzAdvice.com. But before all that, there’s something important to put in place.
To become a great jazz improviser doesn’t just mean having a vast knowledge of theory and technique. In fact what’s more important is that you need to have the right mindset too.
Mindset: There are no mistakes on the bandstand
In this inspiring and instructive TED talk Stefon Harris talks about how there are no mistakes in jazz, and every note “outside the color palate” is an opportunity for the band members to accept the change and react in a positive way:
“Don’t micromanage in jazz” says Harris, “this limits the artistic possibilities”.
He describes improvising in jazz as “a science of listening”. He advises musicians to “be patient, listen to what is going on around you. When you do that, you engage and inspire the other musicians and they give you more and gradually it builds.”
He describes jazz improvisation as “Being here in the moment, accepting one another and allowing creativity to flow.”
Thanks Stefon, that’s put us in the right frame of mind for getting started with jazz improvisation. But what specific skills do we need?
Learn more music theory – the right way
As we covered in part one of this series, knowing the fundamentals of music theory is what empowers you to start improvising good-sounding solos. When it comes to jazz improvisation you will find you need a deeper knowledge of music theory than other genres. You need to understand scales and chord theory and how they relate to your instrument and the notes you choose when improvising.
The way to learn a lot of theory without getting confused or bored is to apply it. So try to find ways to learn new theory based on the music you’re playing and then apply that newly-learned theory when it comes time to improvise. Any time you practice scales, practice improvising using them. Any time you learn a new number, take the time to analyse the key and scales used, particularly if they change during it.
Stick to one key and see how far you can take it
One challenge with jazz improvisation is that the variety of scales and chords used in even just one performance can be overwhelming. Fortunately, for the beginner improvisor there is a solution! In this video tutorial Denis DiBlasio describes the options when improvising jazz as a “buffet” – there is just too much choice! In order to get started with jazz improvisations you need to build small fences around different ideas so you don’t get lost. Or if we are continuing the food metaphor – focus on eating your potatoes instead of getting distracted by dessert options!
- Stick to one scale – find a backing track in a key you are comfortable playing in.
- Think about key words to inspire your improvisation. For example – ascending, triplets, spiral. Wait, what does “spiral” mean? Denis answers – “I don’t know, just go with what it means to you”.
- Use a known rhythm, for example “Happy Birthday” to phrase your improvisation.
Focus on rhythm not melodies
With rock improvisation we talked about keeping rhythms simple and straight. In jazz, it’s almost the complete opposite.
If you feel like your solos are sounding dull, here’s a simple tip: focus on the rhythm and not the melody. Rhythm drives jazz. It’s what gives the music an enticing feeling when you listen. When improvising jazz, constantly focus on developing fresh new rhythms within your solos.
You can learn a lot from jazz drummers in this regard.
Go slow and don’t be afraid of space
When learning it is always good to go slower than you think you can. Put your metronome at a speed that you feel is correct then subtract 10 BPM. Going slowly enhances learning in jazz improvisation. You’ll probably find it’s actually harder to play a compelling solo at a slower tempo! This is exactly what will push your skills to the next level.
Whether you are playing with a backing track or a band, do not let yourself dominate the music, always remember it’s a group performance. Learn to leave space in your rhythms. Remember that absence makes the heart grow fonder!
When you leave space in a jazz solo, you build up the value of everything you play before and after that space.
Listen to the masters
Perhaps more than any other genre, jazz is an improvised art based on vocabulary and influence. Which jazz greats inspire you? Take the time to listen to your favorite improvisers and transcribe their solos or play them by ear.. You can even use those as the basis for developing your own new solos. It is said that by absorbing yourself in the music you love, you get closer and closer to finding your own unique sound.
Improvising Rock and Jazz
Hopefully between this article and the previous one you now have a keen appreciation of the difference between rock and jazz improvisation. You are armed with some guidelines and techniques you can use to steer your own improvisational development towards one genre or the other.
Just as with music genres themselves, improvisation in different genres has no true “rules”. For every “law” you could define for music improvisation you can find a successful artist who has broken it – or if not, perhaps that’s your own pathway to greatness. The beauty of music lies in its flexibility to adapt to your own creativity. So use these techniques and rules of thumb to guide you, but ultimately let your own improvisation run free, inspired by your inner musician.
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