Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Brief Introduction to Jazz Improvisation - Part 1

By Olly Wedgwood

Many talented musicians seem to go pale when someone asks them to leave the music for a few moments and fill in those 4 bars with a bit of jazz improvisation. Some see it as a strange and uncharted land, full of weird things like Modes and Tritonal Substitutions. Don't Panic! Although jazz theory can get become 'involved', a great deal of 'good sounding stuff' can be played or sung with understanding of just a few basic starting points.

I have tried to distil some of these for you in this brief 'Impro-Info-Pack', which I hope you will find useful and enjoyable. After all, jazz improvisation should be satisfying and fun for all involved (that includes the audience!).

Encyclopaedia definition of Jazz:

"Jazz is an original American musical art form originating around the start of the 20th century in New Orleans, rooted in Western music technique and theory and marked by the profound cultural contributions of African Americans. It is characterized by blue notes, syncopation, swing, call and response, polyrhythms, and improvisation. Jazz has been described as "America's Classical Music," and started in saloons throughout the nation."

1. Have confidence!

Standing up to 'do a solo' can be daunting to say the least, especially when there's an audience in front of you! However, standing up, not flinching on 'duff' notes and projecting your solo to the listener will give them a sense that you are playing for them - a musical 'gift' if you like. It adds to your enjoyment and confidence. If you make a mistake - maybe a wrong note - use it! Slide confidently up to a 'right' note, for example! Don't be afraid of making mistakes, as they are a very good way to learn new ideas.

2. Know What You Want to Play

I once attended a jazz class held by an ace pianist. The problem was that all the improvisations he did seemed to be 'pre-programmed' in his fingers. There were set arpeggios, runs, twiddles ... and it was nice but all rather mechanistic. Improvising should be having an idea and then expressing it - communicating it - in the 'language of music'. But, we need to have the idea before even beginning to try and make it into music! We need to have an input of ideas that sound good to us.


... to music ... all types of music from Bach to Beatles, Van Halen to Van Morrison! Most of all, listen to the jazz/blues 'Greats' - folk like:

Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Art Farmer, Freddy Hubbard, Stan Kenton, Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley, Art Tatum, Billy Holiday, Monte Alexander, Louis Jordan, Glen Miller, Errol Garner, Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson, Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Stephane Grappelli, Zoot Sims, Charles Mingus, Count Basie, Ray Ellington, ... to name but a few!!!

Sing Along

Whether in your room, in the shower or walking down the street (careful - not too loud!), sing the melody line that you've heard and copy the player's/ singer's phrasing. Whistle it, tap the rhythm, go to sleep with it going round your head and wake up with it still going round in the morning (although this can get annoying!).

The more you can 'hear' and reproduce others' ideas, the more you'll be able to use them in your jazz solos, tailoring them to what you personally would like to hear. This process happens at a subconscious level too - an effective way to learn a language is by copying others.

So, Know what you want to play by listening to loads of varied music - not only jazz, it could be any genre!!

This series is continued in Part 2 ...

Olly J Wedgwood, jazz pianist and singer, leads The Jazz Soul Boogie Band - a professional UK function band performing live jazz, soul and dance music entertainment for wedding receptions, corporate events and parties. See for more information, audio and video.

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