A. How to improvise in jazz or other genres?


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The title of this post, it’s a question often asked. Sometimes it’s from those who want to improvise. Sometimes it’s a curiosity query about the generalities of process:

How do you do that? Improvise, that is?

One answer:

It’s a skill that has much to do with acquiring domain-specific experience.

Domain-specific is a fancy way to say something exists in a particular context. It’s context —that’s the key.

Why is context key?

Context is key because knowledge of what jazz sounds like leads to familiarity with ins and outs of the jazz tradition. Moreover, if we don’t know what something sounds like, well, we’ll encounter problems when we play it.

Hanging out on Youtube, searching for classic performances, using streaming services to learn about diferent musical personalities, going to concerts for live music—Listening is the road that leads to context.

Here, for example, is an exhuberant performance by Monty Alexander and his trio.

Here’s a recording of Larry Young, the organist, playing Softly as in a morning sunrise with Elvin Jones, Joe Henderson, and Woody Shaw. The interplay between them is extraordinary. Listen, for example, to Larry Young accompany Joe Henderson’s solos.

Here’s a fabulous clip of McCoy Tyner on Youtube. It, the clip, is called—what a great title: Those 7 times McCoy Tyner went beast mode!

Here’s Ahmad Jamal with his trio. He and and unidentified someone are quoted in a few sentences that go along with the clip:

Ahmad Jamal is an improviser. But he is always personally opposed to the concept of improvisation as a differentiating jazz from the others musics: “All musicians improvise – Mozart improvised. It is a fundamental error ( that’s a misconception ) to believe that improvisation is specific to jazz.“

Learning, improvising, and stories?

Harold Danko, one the great jazz pianists and the former head of the jazz department at the Eastman School of Music said, in an interview, that

You don’t learn to improvise. You improvise to learn.

THAT, I think is thoughtful and profound—it’s a schema in which the learning process itself is the firmament. Therefore, there’s no great secret underlying as regards how we learn to improvise.

It’s just: improvise and learn.

Another pianist whom I interviewed was Joey Alexander, a young but extremely accomplished and precociously talented jazz pianist from Indonesia. He was 10 years old at the time. Four or five years since that interview, his gifts at the piano have matured enormously and that’s understating things.

When I asked Joey if he had advice about how to improvise what he said, more or less, was:

Tell your story. If you don’t have a story, make one up.

The role of truth

To paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, as did Tommy Lee Jones in the Coen brothers film No Country For Old Men

It’s true it’s a story. Whether or not it’s a true story I can’t say.

Again, as Joey said:

Tell your story. If you don’t have a story, make one up.

Books == problem or solution?

There are many well-written books that explain how to improvise. Or, rather, they explain the theoretical components one might or can use to improvise. Those theoretical components usually include which scales go with which chords and vice versa.

But those books, well-meaning and well-written as they are, create—indeed, they reinforce—a problem almost every prospective improviser comes to sooner or later.

The problem is something along the lines of:

If only I knew the right notes to play …

It’s a issue that comes up even while reading books with theory about which notes go where. That issue surfaces because there’s a difference between playing chords and scales, on the one hand, and on the other hand, making music from those same scales and chords.

So … those statements from Harold and Joey—we can rephrase them as questions.

How do you learn how to tell a story?

How do you improvise to learn?

The experience of A + B

What I’ve found, and it comes from what I call a sooner-or-later-learning is it’s really helpful if (A) a practitioner with experience can help (B) a learner with less experience.

Experience is the crucial word.

Perhaps the short version of all above is

Find a guide! Gain experience. Learn from the your experience and the experience offered by a guide.

What’s next?

In the next post we’ll consider a starting point. Somewhere to begin. In the meantime, those those Youtube clips above …. they establish context. And, if that context comes with questions, that’s even better.