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.
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