© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“After you initiate the solo, one phrase determines what the next is going to be. From the first note that you hear, you are responding to what you've just played: you just said this on your instrument, and now that's a constant. What follows from that? And then the next phrase is a constant. What follows from that? And so on and so forth. And finally, let's wrap it up so that everybody understands that that's what you're doing. It's like language: you're talking, you're speaking, you're responding to yourself. When I play, it's like having a conversation with myself.”
— Max Roach
In conversations about Jazz, the phrase “tell a story” is often used to describe a Jazz solo or what a Jazz soloist is doing in a solo.
But what does “tell a story” actually mean?
I found the following explanation in Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation and thought I’d share it with you so we could both have a better understanding of how the Jazz artist goes about “composing in the moment” - storytelling in Jazz.
“In part, the metaphor of storytelling suggests the dramatic molding of creations to include movement through successive events "transcending" particular repetitive, formal aspects of the composition and featuring distinct types of musical material. For early jazz players like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and for swing players like Lester Young, storytelling commonly involved such designs for multiple choruses as devoting an initial chorus to interpreting a piece's melody, devoting the next to expressive liberties varying it, and then returning to the melody or proceeding on to other events such as single-note riffing patterns.
For contemporary players, who may place less emphasis on the melody, the considerations of shaping remain just as essential. Typically, when it comes time for Buster Williams to solo, he "wants to tell a story, and the best way to tell a story is to set it up." If someone who is "very excited about something that just happened" comes running to Williams "saying, 'Buster, blah-blah-blah-blah,' the first thing I'm going to say is, 'Look, wait a minute. Calm down and start from the beginning.'" Williams's plan is the same for solo work. "Start from the beginning," he advises. "It's also like playing a game of chess. There's the beginning game, the middle game, and then there's the end game. Miles is a champion at doing that. So is Trane. To accomplish this, the use of space is very important—sparseness and simplicity—maybe playing just short, meaningful phrases at first and building up the solo from there."
Similarly, Kenny Barron tries "to start the solo in a way that's sparse or low key" so that he has "somewhere to go, so that the solo can build." From listening to Dizzy Gillespie when he performed in Gillespie's band, Barron learned how to "save" himself in his playing. "You don't have to play everything you know every minute," Barron says.
You can leave some spaces in the music. You're not going to start off a solo double-timing. You start off just playing very simply and, as much as possible, with lyrical ideas. And as the intensity builds, if it does, your ideas can become a little more complicated. They can become longer. The way I look at it is that you're going to start down so that you have somewhere to go. It can build to different points in different parts of the solo. It's hills and valleys. That's what it is anywhere. There are certain sections of the tune which build harmonically and suggest that the intensity should also build at that particular point. That's a very natural thing to happen, and what you play will always build there. Other times, it's a matter of wherever it occurs, wherever you feel it coming. It could happen in different spots within the tune at different times.
A related feature of storytelling involves matters of continuity and cohesion. Paul Wertico advises his students that in initiating a solo they should think in terms of developing specific "characters and a plot. . . . You introduce these little different [musical] things that can be brought back out later on; and the way you put them together makes a little story. That can be [on the scale of] a sentence or a paragraph. . . . The real great cats can write novels." Wertico expresses admiration for the intellectual prowess of these players. Throughout a performance, they creatively juxtapose ideas that they introduced in their initial "character line," and at just "the right time" in their story, they can "pull out" and develop ideas that they "only hinted at" earlier in the performance but have borne in mind all along. "That's what's really fantastic about a solo," Wertico maintains.
To develop the skills of expert storytellers, artists find it essential to devote some practice time to improvising under conditions that simulate formal music events, thereby imposing maximum constraints upon performances. Negotiating a composition's structure as "one cohesive string," with each chord leading to the next in strict rhythm, they formulate complete solos, pausing but momentarily to reflect on their inventions. "To learn to play a song better," Art Farmer would "work on its chords, chorus after chorus, trying to play whatever came to mind. Even if it didn't come out right, I'd keep playing," he says. "At certain times, it's not good to stop."
Musicians commit themselves to the rigors of developing the ideas that occur to them at the moment, cultivating powers of concentration upon which larger-scale invention depends. "After a lot of practice, you find that the phrases just begin to fall in the right place," Harold Ousley recalls. "You are able to play a whole chorus of phrases together, and you are ready for the next chorus. The more you do it, the smoother and the easier it gets. When you begin to feel proficient at this, you feel a certain sense of freedom, and you get the inspiration to really get into your horn and to try out different things. There's a great excitement about that."
As Ousley's remarks imply, the improviser's world of imagination considers more than musical abstractions. Emotion serves as a partner to intellect in the conception and expansion of ideas. Beyond emotional responses to their evolving creations, artists speak generally of "tapping an emotional reservoir," whose "energy" represents a distillation of their experiences with life . Roberta Baum considers emotion to be "the biggest part of singing. It has become an extension of how it is to be alive," she says. In this sense, performances can reflect the individual's characteristic scope of expression, including extreme fluctuations of feeling.
As alluded to earlier, artists can also draw upon the extra-musical associations of the compositions that serve as vehicles. They sometimes set up for performances by dwelling momentarily on a piece's moods and meanings, recalling, perhaps, the sense of personal identification with the theme of a standard piece that prompted its incorporation into their repertory, or envisioning the characters and incidents depicted in their own original compositions. At times, Dexter Gordon actually sang a few lines of a ballad's lyrics to invoke its meaning, before switching to saxophone improvisations.26 With song texts, or in their absence, the emotional sentiment and the imagery suggested by titles and musical features also offer direction.27
Overall, a piece's precise mood has a powerful tempering effect on improvisers, guiding their personal feelings to blend with those appropriate for the performance. For Arthur Rhames, " 'God Bless the Child' [evokes] one set of moods about the remorse of not being on your own or having to depend on others, while a tune like 'Giant Steps' may be about advancing yourself"; each provides "different perspectives, different feelings, different moods. And those moods govern a lot of what's going to come out in your interpretation of the chord changes in your improvising." Chuck Israels also routinely takes the mood of the piece into account when he prepares to solo. Over the course of an evening, "I'll play a tune like The Preacher' that has a certain gospel flavor; then a tune like Bill Evans' 'Peri's Scope,' which is an outgoing, dancing, lighthearted tune. [Next, I will] play something melancholy, like 'Nardis.'"
There is a constant spending and replenishment of a player's emotional reserves. [Bassist Chuck] Israels performs "tunes that have different emotional states" in order to give himself "different things to think about, different things to feel and to play" when he improvises. Each tune has "its own feelings, its own shapes and patterns that occupy me when I play it," he explains. "You just jump from one emotional mood to another because the moods change with each piece." Sometimes, Emily Remler says, "when I play a ballad like In a Sentimental Mood, I feel almost sick to my stomach because it is so heartrending and takes so much from me." A piece's emotional associations commonly influence an artist's rhythmic approach or selection of tonal materials, in the latter instance suggesting, perhaps, an emphasis upon blues-inflected melodies rather than brighter, uninflected melodies or upon tense rather than relaxed harmonies.
Throughout the piece, artists may prepare themselves to respond to each of its varied nuances, beyond its most general tenor. [Guitarist] Emily Remler, looking forward to "a gig tonight," knows "that there are sections where I'll feel a lot of different emotions. The [composition] breaks into a real happy part, and it makes me feel really happy. Then there are other parts where I'll just feel determined." In some instances, the elements of a piece combine to reinforce a particular emotional shape overall, suggesting that improvisers structure their own creations accordingly. In a blues, an artist may build toward peaks of intensity at the same point as the harmony and poetic text reach a dramatic climax.
Various aspects of the meanings of compositions are also tied to their performance histories, especially the ways in which earlier improvisers have handled their original compositions . When Jimmy Robinson prepares to solo, he "thinks about the things that have been done on the tune in the past" and what he would "like to do on it." Of course, he says, if he has "never heard the tune before" or is performing his own pieces, he "just strikes out" on his own. If it is a recent piece by someone like Dizzy Gillespie, however, he wants "to know what Dizzy did on it just to give me an idea to start with, so I won't be too far off with it." Robinson's intention is to be respectful to "the idea" of the composer. "That also shows that I've been influenced by Dizzy," he says, "since he did some very intricate things on it that I wish I had come up with [he laughs]. You try to play in relationship to that to learn what he's doing, and then you try to build and improve on it."
Renowned artists have sometimes improvised so effectively within the framework of other composers' works, bringing fresh interpretations to them, that they leave an indelible mark upon the works' performance traditions and on those of pieces with comparable styles. Walter Bishop Jr. learned the general principles for formulating solos within modal compositions by analyzing Miles Davis's solos. Another trumpeter admitted that after "Miles's playing on 'Sketches of Spain,' it is impossible to improvise on any Spanish-type piece without using some of Miles's inflections." A composition "like 'Nardis' also has a lot of connotation because Bill Evans played it so much," Fred Hersch observes. Along similar lines, even if Roberta Baum "were to give my own interpretation of a song by Cole Porter, there is no way that I could forget how Ella Fitzgerald had phrased something." A commemorative piece lends itself particularly to an interpretation imbued with the stylistic traits of the honored namesake. In rendering the ballad "I Remember Clifford," Lee Morgan integrates his own personal blues-oriented commentaries into the ballad's theme, at times adopting Clifford Brown's wide, singing vibrato, unique articulation devices, and characteristic embellishments.28 Sometimes, it is in the very act of improvising that players discover and pursue the deep connections that compositions and the individual styles of soloists reveal to them.29
For improvisers, the meaning of a piece incorporates layers of nuance derived from intimacy with its imagery, its rhythmic and tonal associations, its performance history, and its relatives within the wider repertory of pieces. Among the myriad resources that soloists filter through their imaginations, one of the most striking is the vibrancy of the human connections that inhabit the piece—myriad inflections, personalities, voices, fingerings, and stances, coursing through the mind and into the musical performance. Such varied imagery informs and deepens every story in the telling. In a sense, each solo is like a tale within a tale, a personal account with ties of varying strength to the formal composition.
While absorbing the conventions associated with idea formulation and storytelling in the jazz tradition, artists place different emphases upon the conventions. They apply them uniquely according to each individual's temperament, personal style of jazz oratory, emotional response to compositions, and specific goals for the solo under formulation. As expected, the differing emphases result in correspondingly varied transformations of jazz vocabulary and in different formal characteristics among the solos produced by improvisation.
Underlying their efforts to achieve such diversity of expression is rigorous practice on the part of jazz learners, as they develop flexibility in the use of initially limited stores of vocabulary, devise a systematic way of relating vocabulary patterns one to another, and absorb the aesthetic principles that guide vocabulary usage. Students with such comprehensive training are in a far better position as improvisers than are those among their counterparts who may have acquired a large store of vocabulary patterns, chords, scales, and the like, but yet fail to appreciate these other critical aspects of jazz knowledge. Ultimately, learning the tools and techniques of the art provides only the ground for the student's development. To build the foundation, aspiring musicians must commit endless hours to practicing improvisation—mentally simulating the conditions of live performance events—if they are to acquire the cumulative experience upon which effective storytelling rests. Among the challenges practicers confront in their earliest efforts are improvisation's capricious aspects, which can operate as powerful forces to influence a work's musical outcome.”