For Advanced Improvisation Students: Some thoughts


By Saul Richardson,

So you have some chops, you can run through some chord changes, you can play in tune…you’ve got the basics pretty well under control. So, what next? Here are a few ideas to get you started. These are all things that I hear many of the more interesting jazz improvisers doing.

George Garzone
George Garzone. Photo by R Cifarelli.

1.       In each solo you play, ask yourself what are you doing differently in the second chorus to the first chorus? What are the second, and subsequent, choruses adding?

2.       Think about the balance between elements that stay the same and elements that change:

  •         High/low
  •         Fast/slow
  •         Short/long
  •         Close/distant
  •         Dissonant/consonant (inside/outside)
  •         Steps/leaps
  •         Loud/soft
  •         Repetition/variation
  •         Sound/silence
  •         Vertical/horizontal (changes/key centres)

3.       What different ways are there of interacting with the rhythm section? How might you use these and in what combinations?

4.       If we take a solo to be some kind of variation on the original theme of the tune (be it the head, the chords, or whatever), then which part/s of the theme are you going to vary, and in what ways? Why?

5.       What is the function of your solo in the piece and in the whole performance? What came right before your solo, and what is going to happen afterwards? Can your solo contribute to making the whole piece, or even the whole concert more interesting, more effective?

Bernie McGann
Australian alto master, Bernie McGann. Photographer unknown.

6.       What kinds of rhythm are you using, and why? Are you just playing endless runs of quavers? What else could you do?

7.       Explore new ways of adapting the harmony of the piece to your own ends. Investigate approaches such as chromatic-triadic (a la George Garzone), quartal or suspended (“third-less”) chords, diluting changes down to simple vamps and pedals (a la Horace Silver), finding the “blues bits” in unexpected places, adding changes where there are none (a la John Coltrane, Charlie Parker), goal-note methods.

8.       Does only one person have to solo at any time? What might happen if two or more people improvise melodies together?

9.       Are the chord changes of a tune more “sacred” than the melody? We always vary the melody in our improvisations, but why not the chords? Do they have to always be in the same order? For the same duration? Do we always need to play in neat multiples of one chorus?

10.   How might you use or manipulate time in your solo? Are you playing high on the beat or laying back? Why? Where are you placing ideas in time? Try using techniques of motivic development such as rhythmic displacement: shifting an idea, and its variations, around different parts of the bar. These all assume that there is a constant, steady pulse in the music. Does there always need to be? Many performers routinely use slowing down or speeding up as deliberate expressive techniques. Composers use sections of different tempo to add contrast to their pieces. Improvising musicians and ensembles can do the same in performance.

11.   What is it about the great players and the famous stylists that made them great and famous? If what you are doing is just the same kind of thing as everyone else, how could you add something new to music? How might you move beyond being a repertory player to being an innovator (if that is one of your goals)?

Horace Silver
Horace Silver, a unique voice in improvisation. Photographer unkown.


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