Saturday, February 6, 2010

Jazz Improvisation - What's it All About?

By Elliot Steiner

Most of us have heard some form of musical improvisation without realizing what it was. So what is the big deal and why can't anybody do it?

Considered a uniquely jazz idiom, improvisation is something that can actually be found in many other types of music. Ever heard the guitar player do a lead riff in your favorite rock song? Do you think that he was playing something written down? No, of course not, he was improvising.

How about the saxophone player in the early 60's doo-op band, think he memorized some predetermined line orchestrated by someone else? Nope, he was also improvising.

Remember Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard? Both great musicians as well as masters of improvisation in the early days of rock. Yes, they sang the melodies to their tunes while they accompanied themselves on the piano, but they also let it rip and knew how to express themselves creatively with improvisation.

Moving over to jazz, even as far back as the 1920's, improvisation involved a different set of accepted rules just like the music it was played in. From swing, to bebop, to more progressive rhythm and blues, improvisation did take on different personas and sounds, but it was just as original.

Today, some might say that everything has been done before, so a player is merely stringing together various rhythms and patterns in a unique way, and to some extent this is partly true. But, if you study any of the great masters, living or deceased, you will find they all have or had a special way of playing in a way that's truly unique to them.

What exactly constitutes a great solo? Well, sometimes it can be a combination of different things, none of which are all that unusual except the way they are knitted together. A solo can partially echo the melody, it can use differing keys to take the listener to a distant land, or can utilize a matrix of syncopation and melodic elements to create something completely different from the original melody of the piece. Some masters of the art have even been known to integrate melodies of other tunes, usually considered "standards", into their work and embellish with a sprinkling of rests.

Some of the greatest jazz players began honing their craft playing "by the rules" of the day, and developed especially provocative voices on their respective instruments. John Coltrane comes to mind as one of the innovators of this genre, because he literally left no musical rock unturned with his sax.

Miles Davis will go down in history as the man who's gift was in playing the perfect wrong note in his improvisation. He skillfully picked and chose every note carefully, with many spaces in between, to get the perfect sound he was after. This was the culmination of playing trumpet a good four decades AFTER he had perfected his craft, meaning he had polished his playing ability to a level that few have or ever will reach.

Elliot Steiner has been involved in the music industry for several decades and in a staunch advocate of easy beginner piano lessons for anyone interested in entering the field of learning how to play the piano.

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