Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 2

Terry Seabrook's Jazz Tip No. 2

Improvisation – Playing It Like You Mean It

    In my previous article I suggested that improvisation is perhaps something quite familiar to all of us in so far as it is something we do in verbal conversation. The difference with improvisation in music, and in jazz in particular, is that we don’t do it from a very young age, as we do with language. But it is quite likely that regular exposure to music at a very early stage enables the grammar, vocabulary and syntax of music and the different genres (dialects, if you like) to enter our consciousness early on. 

    If the vocabulary etc is in our “hearing” then it should be possible to harness this into developing an ability to participate in the creative musical process. Well, that is a big task. First there is the work of learning the technique of playing an instrument. It has been said that a professional standard of performance requires 20,000 hours of practise. That’s not surprising as we probably didn’t evolve to play the instruments we have created throughout musical history. The one exception to this is, of course, the human voice. If the voice is the most obvious “instrument” then it could be said that instrumentalists are to some extent trying to mimic their voice and “sing” with a different sound. I think this is very true especially in jazz where an improvised melody is an immediate expression of an inner musical thought.

    But maybe it’s not always like that because too often jazz education focuses on the theory of what you can use to “sound good” rather than emphasising that musical ideas have to be there in the first place. Just knowing the theory is a bit like painting by numbers – a bit of green here and a bit of D dorian there. But equally just playing by ear can sound aimless. That depends on how good your “ear” is and there are many  great players in the history of jazz who reputedly couldn’t read music and probably had a minimal theoretical approach but who produced some or its greatest music. 

    “Playing by ear” is in any case a misnomer. It is really the brain that directs the musical process, not the ear. Beethoven should be testimony to that. But then if ear training was called brain training, even fewer people would do it for fear that it sounds a bit like brainwashing.

    Anyway, the point I’m coming to is that when improvising it is important to seek the inner musical voice and play or sing from the huge store of ideas that you have probably been accumulating for as long as you have been listening to jazz music. This might not be an easy process and needs work, ie: practice that enables strong musical ideas to take shape and “come out” in your playing. So try this: put a play-along track on with a medium tempo (Jamey Aebersold or irealb) and start with something obvious – a blues or a simple modal tune like So What. Then sing some 2-bar phrases. When you feel comfortable with this (it could take a few days or weeks) try singing a short phrase (1 bar at first then 2) and try playing it back on your instrument. You might need to do each phrase a few times to find the notes you sang. If you can’t keep in time try using a metronome. 

    You could then also try all this with another player and trade phrases back and forth. Gradually, you will be improving your ability to control the pitches and rhythms you create and this is a very important part of jazz improvisation. Having control like this is what makes a good improviser because you are trying to sound aloud all your musical ideas correctly. It is what we have to be able to do when we speak – conversation is after all verbal improvisation. 

    Saxophonist Dave Liebman has said that the developing improviser is engaged in a long process of trying to increase the percentage of being able to play what he or she “hears” (or rather what he or she thinks of). It might be 5-20% at first and by the time you are a Dave Liebman ( he played with Miles) it might be 95-99%. That’s an immensely liberating concept and a lifetime’s work. But get cracking – even a small improvement can feel rewarding.

    Of course not all parameters of music are melodic and vocal-like. Harmony and rhythm aren’t so easily sung and Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” does not lend itself well to a song-like approach. But the same mental processes apply which again mimic human conversation. That is, you really need to hear or possess  the musical idea (be it a chord or rhythm or melody or even all three) before you play it (even a split second before) if it  is going to “sound like you really mean it”.