Jazz Phrasing: phrase length

Control Phrase length for better jazz

Phrasing is one of the aspects of music that you can use as a jazz improviser to really enhance the interest and musicality of your solos. It can encompass ways of making your playing expressive, stylish, fluent, and personal. In the video lesson linked below, I focus on phrase length and a technique for controlling phrase length.

Phrase length in solos refers to how you group your notes and lines into something like musical sentences. Phrases can be long, short, regular, random, predictable, or unexpected. You can use phrasing to make your playing both coherent and varied.

Here’s a video lesson that takes you through a really effective way to practice adding variety to your phrasing and, crucially, training yourself or your students to control phrase length and purposefully manipulate it for musical effect in real time.

You could apply this practice drill to any chord progression and on any instrument. The examples in the video use a concert Bb Dorian mode for the sake of simplicity and keeping the focus on phrase length instead of complex chord changes.

Bb Dorian mode
Bb Dorian, treble clef & guitar TAB. Scale degree numbers are shown above the notes.

Focus on the skill to improve faster

Like so many skills in jazz improvising, it is useful to isolate the technique of phrasing and get used to manipulating it in various ways – purposefully and in real-time. Obviously, when jazz musicians improvise, they combine many techniques and musical elements all at once, but this is an exercise that just zooms in on phrasing. It’s usually a mistake to always try to do everything all at once.

Controlling Phrase Length

The video takes you through the steps and gives guide, structured, and scaffolded opportunities to practice along with a backing track. Here’s a quick summary of the steps:

Step 1: play one bar, rest one bar

Step 2: Play two bars, rest for two

Step 3: Play three bars, rest for one

Step 4, Mixed & uneven phrasing: (a) Play for one bar, rest for two; (b) Play for two bars, rest for one; and (c) REST for two bars, PLAY for three bars.

If you or your students need more practice, just repeat the exercises. Also, it would be really helpful for you to try this with different scales or chord progressions – just find your favourite backing tracks on YouTube. Don’t worry about anything much except focusing on phrase length for this exercise – that’s the skill we’re focusing on here.

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