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by Greg Lyons
A popular misconception that I often come across is that jazz improvisation is somehow an
intellectual process. The primary damaging outcome of this belief is that the music attracts a
lot of people for the wrong reasons, and a lot of garbage gets played, recorded and bought.
Many potential players or listeners find themselves drawn to - or repelled by - jazz because
they see it as some kind of convoluted mental game.
Good jazz, like any good art, is an emotional communication of the artist’s sense of beauty to
his audience, in the expectation of the audience's joy at witnessing such beauty. Anything else
No worthwhile music is created through conscious adherence to some kind of formula.
Whether we're a Mozart or Chick Corea or BB King, the creation of music is an intuitive
expression of what we consider to be beautiful. Of course in music, as in literature, dance, or
the visual arts, we've developed a whole academic library of theories governing the structure
and development of "art". The raw artists are burdened with a mountain of structural theory,
and those who become more fascinated by the process than the purpose can really lose the
plot. We will ideally emerge from this study with a more sophisticated means of expression,
the great joy in this process being when we are once again able to create with our instincts
though in an infinitely more articulate way.
The truth is, we humans love to complicate our lives. What started out in New Orleans at the
beginning of the 20th century with a bunch of marching-band musicians getting together after
hours to jam, evolved with the recording industry into a popular sound produced by more
arranged and sophisticated bands, and grew quickly into an art form as the improvisation
became the focus and players developed the ability to play over increasingly complex
rhythmic and harmonic structures. We can’t escape the desire to develop.
It is necessary, if we are to be able to effectively negotiate the curves of a difficult progression,
that we are completely familiar with the progression. When BB King or Eric Clapton plays
over a blues, they are in such familiar territory that they can create beautiful lines without being
in any way limited by the form with which they are playing. Likewise when a jazz player
manages to express themselves fluently over a difficult progression it’s because they have
sound of the structure with which they are playing.
Where the jazz player differs then is in the complexity of the form or structure, which means
that to arrive at the same level of freedom of expression as with a blues progression, a certain
amount of academic process is required but an awesome amount of Ear Training must also
There are some of us who will internalize these sounds faster than others. There are those
who know relatively little about the structure or relationships of the chord progression
intellectually, but with an incredible aural facility, they can still build a familiarity with the piece
and manage to really know the progression. For most people - for physical or psychological
reasons - there are hurdles to overcome, and a lot of hard work involved.
Ok – so down to practicalities. How to approach internalizing a harmonic progression so that
we can improvise freely over it:
The best way to start is to hear the thing being played by someone who can really make it
happen, so we need to find a recording of the piece played by someone we like – this is
usually pre-empted as the piece was probably introduced to us in such a way – this gives us
a sonic picture of where we're going. This should be a saturation experience if we really want
to make it happen for ourselves – meaning repeated listening (ad nauseum). The next step is
to learn to play the solo – play it on your instrument and write it down – then memorise it in it’s
entirety – then listen some more. Then if we want to ever evolve our own way of playing the
piece we should of studying the relationships of the chords in the progression, isolating
phrases from our transcription to help in connecting the chords melodically, and then practise
creating our own melodic lines that connect one chord to the next.
Transcribe and internalize every solo or piece of music you like. It’s a vital part of our
formation as it teaches us about how the language is spoken. Study the structure of what you’
re hearing and build an intellectual understanding of the logic underlying the structure. There is
no getting around the need to work through all the relevant existing language of music before
we can start to create anything more personal. It's exactly like learning to speak. The
dictionary will not teach you to communicate any more than scales will, all languages are built
through simple repetition of phrases that will eventually form the foundation of our expression.
The more clear and precise our repetition in the early stages, the faster we can move on, and
the more articulate we can become.
This is the beauty of jazz improvisation. No true lover of music wants to hear a player limited
to reading or consciously following a progression. There's no expression involved. The
music comes when the player can freely fly over a progression, expressing their joy at being
so liberated. Improvisation should be like a gut reaction. As intellectual as sex. In fact it's
probably the closest you can get with your clothes on!