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.
In order to improvise on music of this complexity, however, the soloist must understand the HARMONY and THEORY behind its construction in order to simply get through it. As a result, most jazz improvisors tend to know music theory better than many of their fellow classical musicians.
In addition, a Jazz improvisor has to combine his knowledge of the instrument with the ability to COMPOSE…….and I don’t mean composition in the comfort of a little studio when the muse decides to speak……I mean composition on the fly. (Great fun when it works, a living hell when it doesn’t.)
Finally, and I think most would agree that this is the most important feature of good improvisors, soloists have to create MEANINGFUL music. I know I am wading into a shark filled pool here, but the meaning I am referring to is one I think is one we can all agree on.
One of the worst reviews an improviser can receive is that he “just plays notes” or he “just runs scales”. Because Jazz can be so technique/knowledge heavy, it can divert much of our energy and focus towards simply getting through the changes. It’s important to remember that playing music is the goal, first and foremost, and good playing requires a coherent narrative.
If we are paying attention, it is pretty clear when we are actually “playing” and not simply dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. In this state we feel as if we are standing in the light and we are able to spin the solo into one unbroken thread. It’s easy. The alternative – attempting to manufacture a whole from and infinite number of parts, is immensely stressful and unpleasant.
There are tricks to this trade and very few of them rely on “thinking” as we know it. And as it turns out, one of our biggest allies in this whole business ends up being our exquisite ability to vocalize. The advice “sing your solos” has been offered for generations. One of the clear reasons for this, however, has just been re-affirmed by some modern technology. Interested? See JAZZ IMPROVISATION: Music and Language.