In this column I’ll be contributing a monthly tip or thought for readers of the Sussex Jazz magazine. This is something I actually started doing way back in 2006 when I started the Jazz in Brighton newsletter. The tips section faded out after a while as I wasn’t sure who was benefiting from it. The newsletter continued to run for another 7 years mainly as a listings service for Jazz in the Sussex area.
So what I’d like to do here is present to offer players and non-players some things to do and think about to enhance the appreciation of jazz as players listeners.
Jazz is quite an open activity with an incredible history and one of the ingredients would seem to be improvisation (though not necessarily always). So what is improvisation? Well “you literally make it up as you go along” is the stock answer and while that’s a pretty good description it’s definitely not the whole story.
Improvisation is actually a big component of music from all over the world with the notable exception of European classical music. Although many classical composers go through an improvisatory process to create a composition there is no real culture of including it in performance. As Wynton Marsalis has said about Bach being a renowned improviser, he still wasn’t likely to have lean across to the first violinist to suggest a bit of a “jam” on the piece in hand. This is what a jazz musician can do even if they meet another jazz musician from the other side of the world who they have never played with before. There is in some sense a common language which has developed to enable this to happen. It is an interactive activity and when it’s really good it is very interactive with musicians playing off each other and sounding unified (really swinging or grooving). It is much like a game or a conversation.
In fact verbal communication via conversation is an almost identical process because it is improvised. And every human being does it naturally nearly all the time. Sentences are “made up as you go along” and mostly come out making sense with good grammar and syntax because we know all the rules and vocabulary intuitively. And it is very interactive. There is no original vocabulary or grammar but every conversation is unique and therefore creative, Similarly with jazz improvisation – the musical nuts and bolts have to be learned (in various ways) but every improvised solo is unique.
So here is a simple piece I wrote many years ago for my students to start improvising on. It’s called Latino because of the cha cha cha like rhythm of the backing. The tune is only 8 bars and based on 5 notes (concert DEFGA) with 6 mini phrases. You can download the song from this link on terryseabrookmusic.com and learn it by ear – it is very simple and catchy – try singing it (make up some words and send to me) firstname.lastname@example.org. The track has 2 verses of the 8-bar tune followed by many “empty” choruses of the same 8-bar chord sequence without any tune. This is where you improvise – start with the same five notes but keep in time with the music. There is a rest bar every chorus on the eighth bar to mark the cycle. At the end the tune returns twice and then the very last phrase gets played 2 more times to make an ending. If you can’t do it by ear then here is the tune in C concert in the treble clef (remember to transpose if you play something weird like a saxophone).