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.

So, no.  The idea is to phrase AS IF you were singing.  This causes you to do a couple of things:

First of all it forces you to pay attention to the length of the breath.  Obviously this is not an issue for wind players, but for us pickers, sawers and hammerers it is a lesson hard learned.  Long phrases can build tension, but one of the reasons they do is because it causes the listener to hold his breath.  TOO MANY long phrases without a breath and we are in survival mode.

An issue related to breath is the construction of an intelligible statement – a statement that has shape – a beginning, a middle and an end – a statement that has content much like the spoken or sung phrases we use in language.  A good initial phrase can be answered, continued, repeated, modified or whatever.  It spawns a coherent narrative just as it does in language.

Here is one:  “All dogs should be put in kennels.”   Regardless of your position on dogs, kennels or the nature of canines generally, we have a mighty fine basis for a solo.

“Should all dogs be put in kennels?”  “I just don’t believe dogs should be treated that way.”  “Well, except for one dog – Billy – the mutt that lives next door.  I would take him to the kennel myself if I had the chance.”  “And what about cats?   If any animal deserves to be…..”

Well, you get the idea.  These ideas connect.  They keep the listener,  and the soloist for that matter, interested in the outcome.

That all being said, we need to refine the idea of using language as a model for soloing.  Bernstein’s position was that music related to language alright, but it was the heightened language of poetry that was the actual analog to, in this case, improvisation.  All of the composition, and thus improvisation, techniques that created good music are present in poetry:  repetition, augmentation, elision, permutation, conjoining and so on.

So generally speaking, think more like a poet, or a really good songwriter when you pour forth those pithy gems of yours.  Perhaps the dog in this case could be a metaphorical dog being threatened by the imprisonment of his perceptions.  Too far?

“So where am I going to find these pithy gems?” you say.  Well, take a look at JAZZ IMPROVISING – Something To Say