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.

Our first response to this situation tends to be: “Well this simply won’t do!.  It’s time to get to work and whip off some licks for these folks!” – a thought inevitably followed with a frenzied casting about for some great licks that can be strung together.

Now licks are a vital part of improvising.  In fact, they are the meat and potatoes of every musical genre, often playing a major part in defining that genre.  Much more about that in Jazz Improvising – Transcribing Solos, Licks, And Making Music.   But they are part of a vocabulary – the jargon of the streets if you will.  If you string a bunch of them together you will sound like some airhead spouting valley gibberish.

Spinning a good, original tale takes a little thought.  Not much thought, because we haven’t got all day, but it does take a moment.  That moment is the split second you take to open your mind to the Grand Wazoo.

You can ask your mind to do many things.  You can ask it to retrieve an appropriate lick for the next chord change.  You can ask it to direct your hands to play faster or slower; where so and so notes are located on your instrument; what fingering you need for this and that, and it will (if you have practiced properly) do this efficiently and quickly.  These are left-brainish sorts of requests, however.  They are very “thinky”.

After studying an instrument for as long as it takes to play effectively, it’s hard to sidestep the habit of reaching into the left side of the brain for the details of your next action, especially if you are dealing in music as complex as Jazz.  When it comes to a request for something creative, however, the left side comes up short.  Regardless of how hard it tries to manufacture a whole from an infinite number of parts, the result always sounds like it has been cobbled together.

It is the right hemisphere of the brain that you need to ask for information that is creative in nature.  It is the right side that provides us with the intuition and insight necessary to play with imagination.  The right side thinks in 3D.  It thinks in wholes, not parts.  It comes up with complete creations, hands them over, and does it faster than the left hemisphere could ever hope to do.  It is, in fact, the Grand Wazoo.

But it has to be approached differently for its blessings.  While the demand, “I need fingering bucko, and I need it right freaking now”, works fine for the left brain, a request like “I would like a really good, fully formed idea, along with some brilliant suggestions for its development”, requires an approach much more like asking a girl to the dance. Then waiting patiently for her response.

Because the secret is in the WAITING.  When you allow that split second of time/space, the muse feels free to speak.  And she is a singer, that one.  Once she knows you’re listening, you are off to the races.

Of course, it takes courage to wait for the muse.  It is so much easier to jump in with a lick you know will work; follow craft rather than art; take the safe, if not inspirational trail, and simply charge ahead with your paint by numbers masterpiece.  In fact, that is probably the road more travelled.

But why is that?  Well, let’s see if we can come up some answers in JAZZ IMPROVISING:  Road Blocks, Trip Wires and Dead Fish on Docks