Music, the key of life
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A Personal Look Into Improvisation
You don't have to sound like Charlie Parker, but every serious jazz musician needs to be able to improvise. I have just begun to seriously practice improvising and my goal here is to share tips that have helped me. I do not plan to go in depth on the theory involved. You can find plenty on the internet. These are tip that helped me and I would like to share.
I can't stress this enough. Go out and buy/copy all the jazz music you can and really listen to it.
Sing instrumental parts along with recorded music and absorb the different patterns into your memory. Sing a phrase you hear or of your own and then try to play it on your horn.
Make It Groovy
You can play all the "right" notes and not sound good. Or, you can play "wrong" notes and sound great. It isn't about the notes. It is about making whatever notes you play groovy. What makes your playing groovy. I can't tell you. You have to find it for yourself because it is whatever works for you. To quote a popular cliche, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it". Experiment till you find your grooviness. Hopefully some of the ideas on this page will help you to find it.
Familiarize Yourself With Theory
You don't have to become a professor of theory to sound good, but it might help. At least memorize basic chords and the blues scales for popular keys. But remember, theory doesn't tell you what will sound right or wrong. It only attempts to explain why it sounds right or wrong. So, use theory as a foundation to build upon with your own ideas.
The 1/2 Step Rule
A general rule of thumb is that you are always 1/2 step away from the "right" note. If you don't like the note, lower or raise it a half step quickly and it sounds great because you are creating suspense then resolving it.
The Dorian Mode
Another rule of thumb is that whenever you see a mi7 chord you can usually play the Dorian mode of that chord's root. Let's use the Dmi7 chord for an example. To find the D Dorian mode, lower the root a whole step and use that note's major scale key. So, whenever you see a Dmi7 chord you can play any note of the C major scale and every note will sound right.
Break the Rules
Once you know the rules, break them. You'll be called a genius. However, there are few rules if any that have remained unbroken thanks to previous geniuses so you better hurry.
Safe and Colorful Notes
First things first, there are NO wrong notes. There are "colorful notes". These notes go against the rules of improv theory and are often avoided. On the other hand, it's your solo and you make the rules. Bravely play outside the chord changes when you want to (though you may want to do so in moderation). It adds personality to your solo, gives you a larger selection of notes, and can sound good. If you don't believe me, find some solo transcriptions by some popular jazz musicians. You'll find plenty of colorful notes. And yet another rule of thumb, the fourth note of a major scale is usually extremely colorful/nasty. That is because it is a half step away from the third.
A lot of times I hear people solo and it sounds like they are trying to fill up every measure with as many notes as they can get in. The best solos, though, often contain a lot of rests. State what you want to state, rest a beat or two, then go on. It gives the audience time to absorb what you just played, tells the audience that what was just played was important, leaves them listening for more, and gives you a moment to breathe and think about what you want to play next.
By sustaining a note you get to show off your tone, have fun with it (using vibrato, growling, ect.), and give your mind a break. You can play a suspense creating note (either a "colorful" note or the 7th note of the chord), a resolving note (the 1th, 3rd, or 5th of the chord), or one after the other.
Musically quoting another song in the middle of your solo can be a real crowd pleaser if you don't over do it. Play a couple bars from "Pop Goes the Weasel", "Mary Had a Little Lamb", "The Pink Panther Theme", or any other catchy tune.
Restate the Melody
Go ahead and play a familiar lick from the head (melody) of the song. Then, play it again with a different rhythm or change a few notes. For instance, take the highest note and raise it by a half step.
If you are stuck on a few notes and don't know what to do with them, have fun with rhythm. Play eight note or quarter note triplets. Play different rhythms containing sixteenth notes.
Contrast notes by tonguing them differently. Tongue some notes hard and barely tongue others.
Too many beginners play all their solos the same dynamic - fff. Playing soft will actually grab an audience's attention. Try adding shape to your phrases by playing louder as you play upward runs and softer as you play lower.
Before you start playing your solo, decide what feeling you want to express. In practice, brainstorm a list of feelings and adjectives and try to play each one. For starters, try playing gloomy, excited, nervous, gentle, and cautious.
By learning how to growl, bend notes, play altissimo, and play multiphonics, you expand the tools you can use to express yourself. Go ahead and use anything you can. However, use it with a purpose (not just to use it) and use it sparingly or else everyone may get tired of it and it no longer seems like something special.
Tell a Story
Always have a beginning, middle, an end and some sort of transition between them.
Favorite beginnings of mine are playing loud falls, quiet eighth notes with a slow crescendo, or a two eighth note "doo daht" with a rest afterwards.
Coltrane is known for his long solos (like 10 minutes!). The reason for this was because he could never feel an ending. However, playing a ten minute solo at a jam session is dangerous when there are a lot of people waiting for their turn to solo. Often, "beginnings" can be turned into endings just by turning them around. Play a loud fall, play an eighth note pattern with a decrescendo till you fade out, or play a rest then a two eighth note "doo daht". Or, sustain the root of the chord for resolution. A favorite of mine, though, has always been sustaining the seventh note of the chord or another note that creates suspense leading up to the next soloist.
The Limited Expression Exercise
The following exercise improved my improv abilities 300% the day I learned it. Start with a chord progression like the 12 bar blues (it may help if you write it out). The first time you play through it limit what you play to only the root of each chord (or the 3rd, 5th, ect.). The second time, add another note. For example, now you can play the root and the seventh. Meanwhile, you can play it any octave with any rhythms you choose and with any effects you want such as growling, vibrato, bending, etc. The third time, add another note and so on. By doing this, you familiarize yourself with the notes in each chord, hear how each note in a chord sounds, and you learn to listen to and recognize the chord changes. Another version of this exercise deals with rhythms. Start by limiting yourself to playing only whole notes but play any notes you choose. The next time through, play only quarter notes (no rests, that's cheating). Afterwards, move on to eighth and more advanced rhythms.
Forget about the crowd and just play for yourself. You don't owe them anything. Don't dwell on whether or not you could have done better. In music there is no such thing as perfect so don't freak out if your last solo wasn't.
JAZZ STARTER KIT
1. Miles Davis - Kind of Blue
2. John Coltrane - A Love Supreme
3. Keith Jarrett - The Koln Concert
4. Miles Davis - In a Silent Way
5. Bill Evans - Everybody Digs Bill Evans
6. Miles Davis - Round About Midnight
7. Miles Davis - Milestones
8. Cannonball Adderley - Somethin' Else
9. Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage
10.Abdullah Ibrahim - Water From An Ancient Well
…and as we're now allowed 20…
11. Miles Davis - Miles Ahead
12. John Coltrane - Coltrane's Sound
13. Miles Davis - Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
14. Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers - Moanin'
15. Miles Davis - Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
16. Miles Davis - Miles Smiles
17. Lee Morgan - Search For the New Land
18. Freddie Hubbard - Open Sesame
19. Horace Silver - Song For My Father
20. Charles Mingus - Mingus Ah Um