Jazz Improvisation 1: 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 2: 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 3: 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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Jazz Improvisation 4: 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 5: 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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