3 Entry Points for Jazz Improvisation

The late, great trumpeter Clark Terry (a featured soloist in both the Basie and Ellington bands) said the most important elements of a jazz solo are:

  • Sound
  • Rhythm
  • Ideas

Technique and theory are important, but they are not prerequisites for improvisation.



Courtesy of Flickr/GigNRoll.com

1. Play Music by Ear

Many world class musicians learn to play music before learning about abstract theoretical concepts. This is a sound before symbol approach. One of my favorite jazz musicians, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, learned to play by jamming a long with Beatles records.

Put away all of your sheet music and simply play melodies. Figure out songs you know, play along with recordings you like, experiment, and explore.

My post, Getting off the Page: Play Music By Ear in 5 Steps will guide you through the process of learning music without notation.

We all can strive to develop a deep connection between our ears, voice, instrument, and mind.

2. Rhythmic Improvisation

The most important elements of jazz are groove, time, rhythm, and swing! Having a great time-feel is by far more important than playing the “right notes” (see my demonstration here). In my experience, a rhythm-first approach to teaching jazz is the most effective and engaging.

  • Engage with and internalize the time. Feel it in your body. Clap, stomp, tap, drum, and/or dance along with your favorite jazz records. Buy a pair of drum sticks and a cheap cymbal (or a practice pad).
  • Choose a one- or two-measure rhythm from a tune you are working on. Loop the rhythm repeatedly but improvise your own pitches. You have to be resourceful with your range, dynamics, tone color, articulation, and the shape of your lines to keep it interesting. Repeat the process with several rhythms.
  • Play along with one of your favorite recordings, and try to copy the groove and time-feel. Listen to all of the sonic and rhythmic nuance. Don’t worry about the pitches for now, just the rhythm. Turn off the recording and continue playing with the same rhythmic feel.
  • Jam with one of the 17 drum groove tracks from my book, which you can download for free. Without a harmonic context, there are no “wrong notes.”

3. Theme and Variations

Once you have a mastered a melody, feel free to change it. Change the rhythm, add notes, omit notes, change the notes. Tin Pan Alley composers like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter typically wrote simple rhythms in their songs because they expected performers to freely interpret the written melodies. Read more and listen to examples in my post, How to Improvise Variations on a Theme.

Experiment, explore, follow your ears, follow your intuition, groove, collaborate with friends, take risks, let yourself fail. It’s all part of the process.

I will share a powerful fourth entry point later this week: The Power of Limits.

– ST

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