© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
I think the first time I was ever aware of improvising to music was when I noticed an Uncle who whistled stuff that was vaguely familiar, but at the same time was not. I mean, I could hear elements of a familiar melody in his whistling, but I couldn’t hear the melody itself.
He was a tinkerer and a putterer and he whistled all the time while making something in his workshop, working on his car out on the driveway or doing some chore around the house.
I was around him frequently because he was the father of my favorite cousin and they lived within walking distance of our house.
One day while sitting on the steps to their house waiting for my cousin, I watched as my Uncle washed his car in the driveway. He was whistling a tune I recognized. It was Honeysuckle Rose. He repeated the melody a few times, but each time he did so, he altered slightly.
When I went over and asked him about it, he said that he was just “improvising.” It was the first time I ever heard that word.
I’ve been involved with and fascinated by the process of improvising ever since.
As the following excerpt from Paul Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz explains, there are many different approaches to learning Jazz improvisation.
Conversing with the Piece
Applying Improvisation Approaches to Form
“Soloists elaborate upon what the structure of the piece has to say; what it tells them to do.”
— Tommy Flanagan
“Keeping the melody in mind, you always know where you are, even when you play intricate things.”
— Lou Donaldson
“The language of music is sort of a motivic language. It's a developmental language in a sense, and there is just so many subtle ways that it's used in relationship to the form or the phrase or the period or whatever.”
- Bill Evans
“I keep thinking that it doesn't matter what tunes you play. The process is the same, and if it works then it's like a new piece, you know. And it is a fact that the better you know the song the more chances you might dare take. And so that's why Bird played a dozen tunes all his life, basically, and most of the people that were improvising—Tristano played the same dozen tunes all his life. And you know, it's amazing what depth he got. He wouldn't have gotten that otherwise, I don't think, in that particular way.
I think it's something similar to Monet painting the lily pond at all times of the day, catching the reflection of the light. I just feel with each situation I'm in, different rhythm sections or whatever, that "I'll Remember April" becomes just something else. And it is a very preferable point — that's the main thing. Everybody who knows that material knows that material pretty well — the listeners and the musicians. So they know, you can just nakedly reveal if anything's happening or not; there's no subterfuge. And that aspect of it is appealing to me, I think”.
- Lee Konitz
“The routines by which artists absorb different approaches to improvisation and learn to create phrases based on their materials are but preliminary exercises during practice sessions. Performers go on to consider the applications of their materials within such formal musical contexts as tune and solo renditions. Pianists and guitarists have the instrumental capacity to reproduce harmony while simultaneously performing tunes or inventing melodic tunes. Others practice along with records. As they sense the progression from the rhythm section's accompaniment of soloists, they superimpose their own improvisations over those of the recording artists, "weaving in and out of what they're doing" . In fact, artists like Henry "Red" Allen learned to improvise "in all keys in New Orleans by playing along with records set at every different speed. Each speed would put the music in a new key." For Billie Holiday, singing publicly with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong recordings formed part of her early teenage apprenticeship.
Performing with music on the radio provides supplementary practice opportunities, introducing the increased challenge of grasping the forms of new compositions during a single hearing or over the course of unpredictable re-plays. Adopting alternative methods, some artists use playalong records, in which the rhythm section performs in a spare supportive mode. Performers of chording instruments may record their own versions of progressions and drill with them. As often as not, improvisers also practice formulating solos without accompaniment by reading lead sheets or envisioning their personalized representational maps of pieces.
As a prelude to extensive melodic invention, some artists routinely warm up by practicing a piece's melody. Its rendition, typically the first event in a formal jazz presentation, assists musicians in making a transition from their normal world of verbal thought and visual imagery to the precomposed world of sounds, effectively stimulating thought in thé language of jazz and awakening the musical imagination.
Before their performance, artists also commonly consider the meanings of compositions. Song texts often provide a key to a piece's meaning. "The oldtimers always used to tell horn players to learn the lyrics just like a singer does, so that they know the meaning of the piece," Max Roach recalls. This enabled them "to get underneath the piece to really sing with their instruments and play with more feeling."
In practicing the melody, artists experiment with the various transformational activities discussed earlier, along a scale from interpretation to improvisation. In negotiating a song's features, for example, they need not leap directly over a wide interval. Rather, they might travel its distance via sonic paths selected from their tonal models — ascending chords, scale fragments, or vocabulary patterns of appropriate dimension — arriving at the same place through routes of distinctive interest.
Having worked on the rendition of a piece's melody, students prepare for creating original solos. Toward such ends, preliminary exercises emphasize technical mastery over the application of various musical models within each composition's progression. The point is to perform unfalteringly and without harmonic error. To accomplish this, musicians sometimes alter the formal constraints they place upon themselves. Initially, to lessen the pressures associated with thinking in time, they perform in free rhythm. More confident, they perform to a steady beat. Artists also begin and end their drills at whim, isolating discrete portions of a progression for practice, methodically addressing its features.
Eventually, they advance through the piece’s form. "I’d set the chords in front of me and play the melody, watching where the chords fall in relation to the melody," Gary Bartz remembers. "Then I’d start to solo on it, playing through it one section at a time, the first eight bars, the first ten bars, the first twelve bars, the first half a chorus, and so on, up to the bridge. Then I’d just play the bridge. Once I could do that, I’d play through thé whole chorus." Performers do not necessarily make an effort to remember the products of their early drills. Successes simply assure them that each section will present minimal difficulty during formal solos. When problems arise in the course of their trials, however, musicians stop to study the piece's structure again.
Of the many conventions for creating solos, learners commonly begin with an approach known as "playing off the melody." That is, after performing a piece's melody at the opening of an arrangement, artists can continue to bear the tune in mind as a constant reference for the solo improvisation. Percussionist Alan Dawson cultivates this orientation in students by having them sing jazz tunes while practicing intricate technical exercises and, ultimately, while practicing the formulation of drum solos. They soon become used to hearing the exercises and improvisations in relation to the piece, and vice versa. In performances, pianists, bass players, and guitarists sometimes vocalize the tune softly to themselves as they improvise, thereby supplying a subtle counterpoint to their instrumentalization.
Through this approach, the melody can also provide the conceptual basis for solos, prompting artists to pursue various options described earlier for its treatment. During some renditions of ballads and blues, soloists preserve the melody's characteristic shape throughout by limiting themselves to minor embellishments and periodic improvised commentaries. Such performances blur the distinction between the melody's presentation and the improvised solo.
On the other hand, soloists may treat the melody of a composition allusively. In Art Farmer's early efforts to improvise, he avoided strict imitation of the melody, striving instead to fashion phrases in each piece's "general style" so that solos were "like an extension of the melody." As Curtis Fuller observes, others make only slight reference to the composition by "flirting" intermittently with its specific tonal, harmonic, or rhythmic features, creating variations on them. Deriving more substantial guidelines from the composition, improvisers may adopt its rhythmic phrasing as the entire underpinning of a solo's design. "Pres could really feel a song," Lou Donaldson says. "He could make you hear the song just from his phrasing." Common examples are found in blues choruses in which players improvise three four-bar phrases modeled upon the classic AA'B structure of many blues melodies and song texts: introducing a phrase, repeating it (perhaps with slight variation), then following it with a contrasting phrase or punch line. This procedure typically occurs in initial solo choruses that serve as a transition to more adventurous improvisations.
Soloists can also quote partial or complete passages from the piece, combining them with their own in different ways. Sometimes, the performer plays part of the melody and then he improvises something," Lonnie Hillyer says; "then he plays something else from the melody and then improvises some more … [as if] answering or accompanying himself." Hillyer views such excursions as commentaries inspired by the play of the music upon the mind. They represent a kind of conversation between the improviser and the composition. References to the melody provide a useful connective tissue between a solo and its respective vehicle, reaffirming the identity of the latter and imbuing the former with special characteristics. This approach contributes significantly to "what makes your improvisations on different tunes different," Lee Konitz offers, especially when pieces share comparable harmonic structures. Of course, artists may decide to pursue a radical course and ignore the melody of the piece altogether, in effect, says Konitz, "composing their own songs from wholly new melodies."
Besides using the melody as the conceptual basis of solos, practicers adopt another fundamental approach in which they conceive ideas largely in terms of the component shapes of formerly mastered vocabulary patterns. When musicians abandon the melody as a model for invention — whether temporarily in the context of its rendition or during their solos — they depend on the progression's salient features as signposts for the improvisation's "progress." Moreover, the syntactic implications of harmonic structures assist artists in their endeavor. Once they cultivate a "feeling for form, the form will guide you; it will almost play itself.” For many students, the early effort to speak jazz, that is, to use the vocabulary, begins with imitating the precise placement of phrases within the structure of a piece where an idol originally performed them. Listening to "the way guys like Bird played" taught Lonnie Hillyer about appropriate usage, about "where a phrase fit and where it wouldn't."
Jimmy Robinson similarly took "the best things" from different solos and "worked it out" so that he could put each phrase into "a certain part of the tune" each time he played it. Harold Ousley elaborates upon the process: "You practice using a phrase when you play along with records and when you go to sessions. After a while, you begin to hear and feel where a phrase goes, and, suddenly, you are able to play the phrase in the right place. Eventually, it becomes ingrained in you because you practice it so much. It becomes a natural habit when you improvise."
In the meantime, learners observe that their mentors use vocabulary flexibly, maximizing its potential for creating different solos. Analyses of jazz masters' performances reveal important information to aspiring artists, leading the way for their own trials. After hearing "Bird take things he used at one particular point in a tune and play them in other places," Lonnie Hillyer "figured that he must have been trying to make them come out differently. That's all it's about, just trying to make things come out differently every time you play them." Probing more deeply, Hillyer and his friends gradually discovered the principles that ensured that Parker's phrases would "come out" correctly as well as "differently" in each instance.
One essential "secret" is that performers can potentially introduce a particular phrase in their solos wherever its complementary chords occur. This realization immediately creates new possibilities for vocabulary usage within the structures of compositions that had served as initial vehicles for students. Once Bobby Rogovin and his peers had, as he says, "taken a certain amount of licks off records, we would take two that were about the same and switch them around in different parts of the solo." The same principle applies throughout the jazz repertory. "There may be a certain set of chord progressions that you find in different places in different tunes. If you know a crip [phrase] that fits that chord progression, you can use it on different tunes. You can prove that if you listen to any record by Bird. He'd play crips all the time. He'd play a crip to a set of progressions on 'Night and Day' and then use it again on another tune like 'Embraceable You.” Practicers expand their options further by transposing phrases to fit different chords of the same quality arising in different progressions.
Moreover, many phrases are compatible with different kinds of chords. Combined with various harmonic settings, the figures produce diverse timbral colors, differing degrees of harmonic tension, and differing schemes of tension and release. Thus, although they apply figures consistently in many instances, artists like James Moody also "practice trying to play something that you like and being able to put it anywhere you want in a tune." Harold Ousley's experience is similar: "The same phrase will sound different in different places in a progression; it works on different chords. It's like having a red shirt on or having a blue shirt on — the same style made by the same company, but each with a different hue. Or, if you play the phrase on a certain chord, it will sound more flavored. It's like using Accent [a spice product] to flavor food, bringing out the taste more." As Josh Schneider learned from Barry Harris, this process entails not only exploring "how far on top of [compatible] chords or away from their roots" a player can perform a pattern, but how effectively a player can resolve the pattern within the context of the progression to different adjacent chords or key centers.
Adding further interest to their creations, improvisers cull the skills of rhythmic displacement, which enables them to vary the positions of their phrases within compatible harmonic territory. "Bird had an uncanny sense of rhythm, and he was always unique with the way he would play the same passage," Tommy Turrentine says. "In one tune, he might take that passage and bring it on the first beat of the measure of a progression. Then, on another tune, he might take the same crip and start it on the 'and' of the third beat of the measure so that it would come out in a different place." Through comparable practice routines, artists gain technical mastery over their vocabulary's flexible applications.
Improvisation drills emphasizing tunes and vocabulary patterns provide fully formed shapes, that is, detailed melodies, long or short, for the artist's consideration. Furthermore, within formal musical contexts, musicians methodically practice applying rhythmic and theoretical approaches whose emphasis is on models not yet formed into phrases. One, in particular, cultivates "rhythmic inventiveness." Ken Mclntyre encourages aspiring players to begin by restricting themselves to the roots of a piece's successive chords or even to the piece's tonic pitch alone. By severely limiting tonal options, students focus their efforts on creating rhythmic phrases varied in substance and length and spanning different portions of the progression. Similarly, at times, Barry Harris encourages students to improvise rhythmic patterns by chanting them in a monotone within the framework of compositions.
Alternatively, artists practice performing a composition's chords, initially "spelling out" their elements and eventually going on to explore their varied permutations. Benny Bailey typically sees "the changes in front of me when I play and try to image what to do with them — different kinds of ways to approach them." For James Moody as well, "what's hip about it is that you can take a set of chords and play different inversions of them." He continues:
Maybe, one time through the tune, you play all the first inversions of the chords, just for their sound; then you play all the second inversions for a different sound. Starting on a certain note and going to another note within the same chords gives a different texture to the solo. You listen to what it sounds like one way, and then you say, "I wonder what it would sound like if I switch it around." There are so many different ways to switch chords around.
Some musicians routinely alternate approaches to acquaint themselves with a composition, formulating their first solo chorus around the piece's melody, their second around its chords, and their third around its related chord-scales. In addition to practicing these approaches with their principal instruments, horn players commonly experiment with them vocally or at the keyboard, where they can invent patterns in relation to an audible harmonic accompaniment. Subsequently, they learn them on their other instruments.
As artists explore different approaches to improvisation — whether vocally or instrumentally, or conceptually improvising away from an instrument without vocalizing their creations — their ideas can assume different forms of representation. Improvisers sometimes emphasize aural thinking. At other times, they emphasize theoretical thinking. Additionally, their rich field of imagination can feature abstract visual displays. Curtis Fuller "tries to paint little pictures" when he improvises. Fred Hersch, too, "sees things very graphically that way." He visualizes what he plays as "a kind of big playground with things jumping around on it, usually in terms of melodic movement: things going up this way, balanced by something going down that way." Or he will see "large masses of things moving along: one string of notes jumping up and down, stopping, twitching around. Music has a feeling of space around it; it exists in space, these little mobiles of things. I like to think of music visually like that," Hersch explains.
Numerous other impressions can come into play as well. At times, Emily Remler visualizes the music's beat as a regular sine wave in relation to which she varies the phrasing of her melodies. One saxophonist speaks of visualizing precise linear figures in staff notation the instant before performing them. Several pianists mention that, having learned versions of a piece's structure and distinct melodic routes through them as alternative configurations of black and white keys, they can subsequently envision the designs as a matrix of superimposed patterns on their keyboards— a composite tablature-like image whose reading can suggest different pathways for invention.
Additionally, as elaborated in this work, an artist's intermittent internal verbalizations cut across these varied aural and visual designs to evaluate and direct performances. Depending on the nature and demands of a particular improvisation, the soloist might also move mentally between musical and extramusical matters, dwelling on memories or engaging in free association to the music's impulses. The images soloists receive during performances influence the improvisation in various ways. Beyond simply reinforcing its current musical content, they can generate a spontaneous elaboration of mood or melody. Sometimes, this involves experiences that artists associate with the titles or the key lyrics of songs, prompting the use of musical quotations. Roy Haynes fondly recalls an occasion when Charlie Parker improvised a "burning" solo in which he quoted "The Last Time I Saw Paris" repeatedly "in different keys." Unable to contain his curiosity afterwards, Haynes asked Parker what actually had happened "the last time" Parker saw Paris.” [!]