Here’s the definition I found on the word spontaneous: performed or occurring as a result of a sudden inner impulse or inclination and without premeditation or external stimulus. I have been saying for decades that there is no such thing as pure spontaneity in music. In music, Improvising is probably the closest thing to spontaneity we get. However, by the definition above, I still hold my opinion to be true. Well….I’ll give spontaneity a little kudos…maybe .5 % (5/1000).
When you improvise on a tune, you have chord changes that should be known and adhered to. You have the rhythm section responding and inciting your ideas. External stimuli? Of course! When you hear a solo that you enjoy, you’re not hearing a group of non-related notes just spewing out of someone’s horn. That would be not very enjoyable, I can assure you. We don’t improvise notes, we improvise lines, melodies. We think of a group of notes forming a line as one entity. How we put those lines together is where the improvisation occurs, but comes from language and phrasing we’ve heard in the past from the greats. Those lines have been worked out beforehand in the shed. Searching for melodies that “speak to us”, and internalizing them is the goal of all improvisers, so that we can perform them in a solo, “speaking” to the audience. Premeditated? Hell yes! I would not call an Obama speech spontaneous, but I certainly would call a Trump speech. (A parody of palsy and mental retardation in a speech? Really?) Who’s do you think is better?
Ok, there’s an indication of where I stand politically, so back to the subject at hand. When you practice your lines (patterns, melodies, scales, arpeggios, ect.), you begin to see them as one thing. This line, not these notes. This scale, not 7 separate pitches. By using these premeditated ideas, you begin to see how you can put them together in your phrasing. THAT’S where the improvisation is.
A young player, new to improvisation, is playing in jazz band. This person gets a solo in their part. That solo is pre-written for them to read. Chord changes are provided for a more experienced soloist. Obviously, the person reading the written solo is not improvising, but can get an idea of what lines can work on a particular tune, and begin to use those lines as a basis for changing things up, playing them differently, maybe using a flip, or changing the rhythm. That solo starts to become something that’s theirs. They start to own it. That’s a good feeling!
I remember my very first solo in middle school. Note for note. I came up with it, memorized it, and played it every time we played it. “Fire and Brimstone” was the name of the chart, based on the changes of “When the Saints Go Marching in”. I remember my Mom took me to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band around that time, and they played “Saints” of course. I got my ideas from the solos I heard that night, and came up with a premeditated solo for the middle school chart. Hell, I didn’t want to sound bad, I wanted to sound good! Therefore, why not compose and memorize a solo! I had no solo experience and no theory knowledge, but I had a desire to go up there and kill it. The result was, for a middle school player, I killed it!
As a beginner, do not be afraid to premeditate what you’re going to play on a solo. Come up with something that sounds good to you, memorize it, and go up at kill it! These are the beginnings of improvisation. The more you do this, you will get an understanding of what I’m talking about. A lot of improvising practice is trial and error, mostly error. The reason great improvisers are better than you is because they’ve made a zillion more mistakes than you have. Those mistakes have led them to know what works, and what doesn’t. Don’t be discouraged by mistakes, they are your teacher.
Try plug and play: As you learn more tunes and listen to your jazz favorites, you start learn and hear theory, and start to see patterns in common chord movements: ii-V-I, iii-VI-ii-V-I, for example. Try working out (or premeditating) lines that sound good over them, and plug them in often. Find good lines from your heroes in jazz, figure out what the chord progression is that the lines are played over, and let them seep into your own playing through practice. I let a lot of my favorites rent an apartment in my head for a while. My lines come from people like Sonny, Trane, Miles, Clifford, Wayne, Joe, Bill, Chick, Pat, whoever I love listening to. I want to sound like them, and as a result, I sound like myself. But it all started as plug and play. In other words, Premeditated, not spontaneous! After years and years of building a vocabulary, it might sound spontaneous to some, and maybe .5% of the time it is. A certain voicing by a piano player, or a feel change by the drums and bass might change the direction in my solo, but it is still an external stimulus, thereby making it planned before It’s played.
If you want more details on this subject, I’m available.
When I write about the journey, I’m not talking about the Journey of Life, but the journey you’re on in the moment! I’m typing words on my computer right now, but I’m constantly looking ahead (and behind) in order to put the sentences together with good grammer and pulse, while telling my story and attempting to make it engaging, like a good solo.
Great soloists/improvisers, composers need to know where the music is going while they are engaged in their craft. (it also helps to know where they were so that they can elaborate on and idea for the purposes of developing and crafting a meaningful story.) They are always looking ahead to the next thing (chord, melody, rhythm) while playing what they are playing RIGHT NOW.
It’s like driving a car (stay with me here…). You get in, start the engine, and map out the route to your destination in your head. You can choose many routes to get to the grocery store from home, and each one will get you there, albeit at different times, but the destination is still the same. A good friend of mine once said, “Don’t look at the car ahead of you, look many cars ahead of you!” This is great advice!
When you look 5 feet ahead of you while driving, it stifles your ability to stay in the center of your lane. You would find that your car is drifting to the left side because the driver’s seat is on the left. You also lose the ability to anticipate something that you might have to react to up ahead. Warning: if you try this while driving, make sure there are NO cars around you!
If you look 200 feet ahead, you can now see the world around you, and everything that you’re not looking at directly is still in your peripheral vision, and therefore you can react to it much sooner.
This brings me to improvising (composing). It goes without saying that driving a car is stupid easy compared to playing an instrument, but the analogy holds up.
When asked “What is going through your mind when you are soloing?” Maynard’s reply was “absulotely nothing!” How did he get to that point? PRACTICE! When it comes time to play a gig, I want to be able to play the lines I’ve worked on in the shed. If they don’t come out on the gig, I haven’t internalized them yet, and that just means more practice, knowing that eventually they will, given enough time. A great improviser has the ability, through practice, to see what the next line is going to be while playing what they’re playing RIGHT NOW! The line of the moment is so together, they don’t have to think about it. That frees up the mind to think ahead, think of nothing, think “I’m hungry, what’s for dinner?”, whatever…
Try this: on a particular chord, see how many lines you can play from any note. Start with chord tones, then tensions, then all 12 notes. If you have solid language from any starting point, you then can use those lines as a means of approaching a target from behind, or looking ahead. This is how you can start building longer lines, by connecting one idea to another by approaching a target note and using it as a pivot (a pivot note is a note that ends a line and can start another) Ask yourself this: “How many notes does it take to get to there, and when will it get there?” When I practice this, I always feel a need to slow things down for a while. It gives me more time to figure out where and when the destination occurs, so that I can pivot to the new line and make the connection.
Somebody: “Let’s play Green Dolphin Street”
Me: “Sure, I know that tune!”
Somebody: “Ok, tell me the changes”
If I can’t recite the changes, I don’t know the tune! How could I possibly play the lines that I’ve worked out in the shed if I don’t know what chords are coming up? Well, I could try, but it wouldn’t sound very good, I can tell you that! Having the changes memorized gives you the ability to see what chords are coming up, and therefore, permission to play a solo on that tune, and not before. On Green Dolphin Street, that “C” section is the one that gave me trouble for a while……but not anymore. Turns out that’s the best part of the tune!
Students often ask me “How do you know what scale to play on a dominant chord (C7)? There are so many!” My answer is always “depends on where it came from and where it’s going.”
Ok, here’s a joke I came up with that only the select few who have made it this far in this blog will get. BTW I love telling this to my non musician friends and watching the blank stares…Ok here it goes:
Q: What did the ii-7 say to the V7
A: “Are we there yet?”
When I was in high school, my best friends and I were listening to jazz all the time. One thing we loved to do was listen to a poly-rhythmic drum solo and try to keep our spot. We would all slap our hands on beat one of each 2, then 4, then 8 measure segments. We would laugh when we would hear each other slap at different times, then go back and try it again. It was a lot of fun. Very nerdy, but there you go.
One album that comes to mind is “Chick Corea Three Quartets”, still one of my absolute favorites. In Quartet No. 2, Part 2, Steve Gadd’s solo at the end is exquisite! I’ve always been enamored by the ability to “float” over the time and still keep your spot. That last lick he plays that sets up the head out makes me always want to yell “Yeah!” It’s so uplifting.
When a student at Berklee I was playing with the Rob Scheps Sextet in Boston and the drummer was Ian Froman. I was so taken by the way he would float over the time and never lose his spot. I asked him how he does that and he said something like “I just think in larger phrases”. What an eye opener for me at that age!
All my musical life, I have paid serious attention to how drummers play, for no other reason than I just loved it! The art of jazz drumming requires that you look way ahead to what’s coming and how long to get there. The “set-up” shows this very clearly. If the band is going to hit on the “and” of 4, what’s the drummer doing 2-4 measures earlier? What makes a clear, comfortable set-up relies on looking ahead.
Ok, my brain is tired, hope you enjoy this blog. More to come……..
As Halloween approaches, this might be a good time to talk about the modes of the major scale. Why you ask? Here’s why:
Years ago, Maria Schneider gave a clinic at a school I teach at. I couldn’t be there because of a conflict, but a student of mine told me that she talked about the modes of the major scale from bright to dark. I was already familiar with this idea from my jazz composition class at University of Miami, taught by the great Ron Miller. I had many mind blowing experiences in that class, and it gave me a newfound approach to how I think about music.
I already knew my modes with a fixed parent scale (C Ionian, D Dorian, E Phrygian, ect.), and had a pretty good idea of their relative brightness/darkness, but I never put them in order of brightest to darkest until that class. I knew that certain modes are clearly darker/brighter than others. Lydian is very bright compared to Phrygian, for example.
Side note: when developing your ear, consider using words to describe chords, like happy (major), sad (minor), questioning (dominant), floaty (sus), birds (Lydian), Detective movie, (Minor major 7), film noir (Aeolian), ect….try to use any connection that works for you. Some people see color, others (like me) see shape. Use your ability of association with your senses (sight, smell, feel, taste) to identify chords.
Here are the modes of the major scale with a fixed root, where the parent scale changes with each new mode, in order of brightest to darkest:
C Lydian-parent G major
C Ionian-parent C major
C Mixolydian-parent F major
C Dorian-parent Bb major
C Aeolian-parent Eb major
C Phrygian-parent Ab major
C Locrian-parent Db major
See a pattern? When I made this discovery, it blew my mind! The parent scales are moving around the cycle of 4th’s as we get darker. The same applies as we go dark to bright (cycle of 5th’s). Moreover, as we get darker, we add one flat or take away one sharp, and the opposite happens in the other direction.
Yeah, but what does this have to do with Halloween? Well, let me ask you this. If you were to compose a piece of music and wanted to convey something with Monsters and cobwebs and spiders, which mode would you choose. I certainly wouldn’t choose Lydian, would I?
There is much more to this, but how much do you want to read here? For more info, or if you have any questions, I’m available.
Patterns are a great tool to increase your language in improvisation. I've heard people say "This guy is just a pattern player". If you listen to any music, player, composition from Bach to today, you will hear melodic development through patterns. Was Bach just a pattern guy? Well, you know the answer to that.
Young players tend to think they have their major scales together just by practicing them in scale-wise fashion. I like to teach my students to play the "C major sound" rather than "scale". Many jazz players including me have delved into playing scales in 3rds, 4th's, 5th's, 6th's 7th's, 10th's and more. Here are some other ideas:
-Play in alternating cell direction (for more on this, you can contact me) Now you have 4 ways to play a scale in just 3rd's! Add to that 4th's (x4), 5th's (x4), ect, and you can see how the many ways add up.
-Play in triads. There are 3 inversions of the triad. Add to that alternating cells, and you have 12 ways.
-Play in 7th chords. With 4 inversions, alternating cells, Now we have 16 more ways
-Play in consecutive intervals, like 4th's. I like this sound. It's very modern sounding. Example: C, F, B, D, G, C, E, A, D, ect.
-Add chromatic approaches, diatonic approaches, ect.
You can see that it is very easy to conceive of 10,000 ways to play the "C Major sound". What I've mentioned here is just the tip of the iceberg. Add to that all of the other scales (12 in all, modes of the major, melodic minor, whole tone, pentatonic, diminished, ect.) and you have a lifetime of practice.
This may seem daunting for most, so keep this in mind: I have only so much time in my life to practice, and since the things to practice are endless (which is why the journey is so enjoyable with new discoveries), I will try something new, and if I don't like the sound of it, I throw it away. Only practice the patterns that are musically solid to your ears, and don't bother with the others. The ones you pick to practice will eventually creep into your playing (provided you've given it enough time in the shed) and will become YOUR VOICE!
Good luck with this, and if you have any questions, I'm available!