Jazz Improvisation: The Trouble With Jazz

Becoming a good Jazz improviser takes awhile, and there are some very good reasons for that.  The main one, perhaps, is that there is just a lot you need to know if you are going to be successful.

Jazz started combining Blues and traditional elements with European harmony very early on, creating the possibility of huge complexity.  And it was voracious in its expansion, managing to assimilate the content of the entire history of classical music in a span of 50 or 60 years.  Of course, it had the advantage of a damn good template and it had some great role models: Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky, Schoenberg….endless beacons for direction.

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Jazz Improvisation: Music & Language

Picture this:  Your college professor is lecturing on the immutable qualities of light…a subject fascinating to some, and infinitely dreary to others.   Regardless, there you are at 8am on a Monday morning casting the favor of your attention towards the lectern.

Something has gone dreadfully wrong this morning, however.  This learned encapsulation of all you respect in education is spouting gibberish.  Well, not entirely. The phrases and some of the sentences seem largely intact, but the connections, oh Martha, the connections!  They make no sense.  In fact, many phrases appear to have come from different lectures entirely.  And the mode of delivery is all over the map.  The student body, smelling trouble, becomes increasingly restless and uneasy.  Where are the ambulance people?  Surely somebody has called them by now…

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Jazz Improvisation: Something To Say

Ahh yes.  Now we come to the crux of the matter.  There you are.  On that stage, instrument in hand.  Expectant eyes gaze upon you.  Expectant ears perk to your sonic presence.  That spotlight seems brighter than physically possible.  They are ready for you.  And you don’t have a damn thing to say.  The horror!  The horror!

We’ve all been there.  I am not talking about stage fright here, which is something else entirely, but simply that moment where you find yourself standing on stage and absolutely nothing is happening.

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Jazz Improvisation: Road Blocks, Trip Wires and Dead Fish On Docks

We all know that golden kid – the one who is absolutely fearless; the one who is so sure of his footing that he just forges ahead, trusting completely in his instincts and carelessly relying on his “mind” to take care of the details.

We know that kid because we were that kid before the world got hold of us and instilled the necessity of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”.  Growing up, more often than not, involves putting the clamps on much of our creativity in favor of fitting in, doing a good job and the like.  Oddly enough, the more advanced we become in most fields, the more difficult it is to step aside from the intellect and trust instinct.  It feels far too much like relinquishing control.  And control is what it is all about.

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Jazz Improvisation: Transcribing Solos, Licks, and Making Music

One of the BEST things you can do is transcribe solos.
One of the WORST things you can do is transcribe solos.

While both of these can be true, no one can tell me that transcribing solos is a poor way of learning to improvise.  We are imitators at heart and the best advice I could find was to find a musical mentor, available in the flesh or not, then listen to, transcribe, and learn as much as I could about the music and the man that I could. The second statement is a warning though, and an important one.

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Jazz Improvisation: Sing For Your Supper

So what does it mean, “sing your solos?”.  Should we be grunting and wheezing along with ourselves as we play?  Well, many players have actually done that with great results. Apart from the fact that wind players would need some sort of exotic surgery to accomplish this, though, there are many reasons why this is not practical – one of which is that a stage full of grunting close mic’d musicians sounds like a herd of stampeding elephants.  Another is that it is not reasonable to think you can sing with the range and at the tempo you are capable of on your instrument.

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Learning the Whole Guitar Neck

The guitar is a strange and wonderful instrument. It comes in all shapes, sizes and configurations, and is played with a variety of techniques in many different styles. More often than not, guitarists learn the instrument with the requirements of one of these styles as their guide. In fact, I would be willing to bet that most guitar players have gathered their entire understanding of music, and how the guitar is organized, through the lens of the style they play.

This often causes problems when we attempt to annex another style or get to the next level in our playing. It’s at this point that most guitarists realize that they don’t know the guitar neck well enough.

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Swing Chording

I didn’t really ‘learn’ to play swing, I more or less ‘grokked’ it. For most of my early youth, my father was a working stride piano player. He played every swing standard known to man and he swung his butt off. Our house (and my head) was filled with the sound of that piano every day of my life. Needless to say, I had an advantage when I got calls to do traditional swing or dixieland gigs, as I felt I already knew a lot of the tunes, whether I had played them before or not. All I had to do was ‘remember’ the changes.

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