Jazz Improvisation 8: Where’s the Zowie?

“Well, I can’t say I did much yesterday.  I had a few tasks to do around the house, then I went down to the grocery store  and picked up a few things.  The weather wasn’t very good, so I didn’t bother to take a walk or anything, I just watched T.V. for a while and eventually, waddled off to bed.”

Nobody wants to hear a story like that.  Its only redeeming feature is the image of the writer ‘waddling’.  This story needs way more features, way more waddling, if it is to fly as any sort of tale at all. The fact is, it is reasonably well put together.  The problem is, it doesn’t have any Zowie.  

Yes it’s possible to create a well constructed solo that has all of the essential elements:  a good idea, development, inventiveness etc., and still have it fall flat on its face – have it come across like one of those early computer voices directing you to the Godzilla exhibit at ComiCon.  

One element that is essential to zowie is inflection.  Communicating in an uninflected, flat tone is a guaranteed way to lose your audience.  Just think of the interplay that takes place when you and your pals are buried in a good conversation  – the energy, the dynamics, the humour – they are all part of the language.  In fact, inflection and accent can often be more important than content.  There are many parts of the world where it’s possible to insult somebody’s mother because you slapped the wrong inflection on some word or other. 

“You scurvy dog.  My mother is NOT the spawn of Satan.  I will slit you from stem to stern!” 

“Jeez buddy, I was just looking for the bathroom.”   

Accents are vital, dynamics are indispensable and articulation is crucial if our solos are to come alive.  Without them, all those carefully crafted phrases end up lying like so many dead fish on a dock (well remembered?) … stinking in the afternoon sun, (too far?).

Still, that’s only the beginning.  Over the years, each of us has developed a huge bag of tricks that we use day in and day out in an effort to make what we say more interesting, funnier, more insightful, and sexier … and these can be transferred directly to improvisation.

Think of all the techniques you unconsciously use to connect, bind, refer, develop, foreshadow and so on in normal conversation.  And those brilliant turns of phrase we use day in and day out to dazzle our friends, our bosses, our lovers … the double entendres, the synonyms and homonyms, the onomatopoeia, humor and alliteration that makes our language pretty, witty, and wise.  It’s all there for us to use as part of our musical language.  And it changes everything.

When you play a good phrase – one with both style and content, it gives you breathing room.  A poor phrase, badly executed, does exactly the opposite – it causes you to cast about looking for something good to undo the damage done.  And it feels awful! 

A great way to force yourself to focus on phrasing is to take a good lick and experiment with different accents, attacks and dynamics on each note, then try combinations of these elements on various notes in the phrase.  Try sliding into notes, sliding off notes, changing the volume and tone envelopes.  Milk as much as you can out of it.  The results will knock you out.

Accents in particular, give you a huge bang for the buck. Ralph Towner told me about a guitarist who played a simple seven note scale for him. The zowie was that he put a different dynamic value on  each note – no small task. The results, predictably, were spectacular.  

Here is a line built around a G13(b9):

Not bad.  But when accents are applied, it really comes to life:

But don’t limit yourself to accents.  Note length and tone colour are also major players in creating a phrase that lives.

Next up:   TIME AND SPACE:  The undisputed champions of good phrasing.