Thematic improvisation is the process of embellishing, developing, changing, and/or deconstructing a musical theme. These themes can come from the composition itself or improvised on the spot.
This approach to improvisation is a hallmark of some of the greatest jazz soloists, and practicing the process will help you generate and endless flow of ideas on any tune, in any style.
Let’s dive into great examples of variations on a theme and motivic development.
Spontaneous embellishments of blues, folk, spiritual, and march melodies marked the birth of jazz improvisation in the early 20th century. In fact, the early days of jazz, musicians didn’t play solos, they collectively improvised variations and accompaniment.
One of my favorite examples is Louis Armstrong singing and playing several variations of “When The Saints Go Marching In with his All-Stars in 1955 (be sure to check out the ending):
Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is a master of thematic improvisation (see Gunther Schuller’s article “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation”). His 1957 solo on “Blues for Philly Joe” from Newk’s Time, shapes a dynamic solo, which is always anchored to the melody.
Thelonious Monk’s 1958 solo on “Nutty” features sparse and playful variations variations of the melody. This provides a stark contrast to Johnny Griffin’s saxophone solo, which touches on the theme and then spins off into a cascade of virtuosic double-time lines.
The 1967 recording of “Nefertiti” by Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet features repetitions of the theme with subtle melodic variations and dynamic improvised accompaniment. The only improvised solo in the eight-minute piece is Tony Williams’s short drum solo at the end of the track.
To play your own improvised and composed variations, experiment with the “Theme and Variations Menu” from my book Creativity Triggers for Musicians (which you can download for free).
Motivic development is developing and expanding a short musical fragment. Here’s a short excerpt from my book, The Living Jazz Tradition: A Creative Guide to Improvisation and Harmony.
Oliver Nelson’s tenor saxophone solo on his piece “Stolen Moments” from The Blues and the Abstract Truth shapes three fragments from the melody into a beautifully crafted solo (4:14)
During his 1977 interview/performance on Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program on NPR, Bill Evans gives a stunning demonstration of motivic development paired with dizzying rhythmic displacement (4:18).
Throughout “Acknowledgement,” the the first movement of John Coltrane’s masterpiece A Love Supreme, Coltrane relentlessly develops the four-note “A Love Supreme” motif (first introduced by the bass, and later chanted by the musicians) particularly 1:58-3:09, 4:12-4:33, 4:53-6:05.
Avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor crafts freely improvised pieces by spontaneously creating and developing of themes and motifs. “Improvisation #3” comes from a 1981 documentary Imagine the Sound.
Post your favorite thematic jazz solos in the comments.
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