Jazz Improvisation: Some Assembly Required

Last Monday night, on my way home from a rehearsal with Big Band Nouveau, I got to thinking about how different jazz improvisers sound from each other. In our sax section alone, we have three solo voices, each of them distinct. Mike Doyle,  our lead tenor man and band leader, is an eclectic mix of influences, though I would say that his roots are in hard bop. Isaac Norris, our other tenor player, is working his way into increasing complexity, but he clearly comes out of the smooth jazz tradition. As for me, the lead alto guy, I'm steeped in bebop and hard bop tempered with some of the contemporary concepts of Michael Brecker. All three of us play the saxophone, but each of us plays it differently. And this is true throughout the world of jazz. Hand five seasoned trumpet players the same set of chord changes set to the same groove and backed by the same rhythm section, and each trumpeter will handle those changes in a personal way, using a vocabulary that includes many of the same ideas as the other players, but in an individualized manner; and also incorporating other ideas that are utterly unique to the musician. I used to think there was a "right" way to play jazz, a sort of standardized approach that separated the real deals from the neophytes and the outliers. I don't know where that notion came from. Probably my own black-and-white thinking as a young man, due partly to my need to define things in order to learn them and partly to my tremendous insecurity. Now I realize that jazz improvisation is like a vast arboretum filled with all kinds of trees and plants, with trails that wind across terraces and hillsides, through emerald woodlands, and over sun-gilded meadows. All kinds of beautiful living things grow there, and somewhere in that magnificent landscape is a plot of land you can call your own and grow what you choose to grow. You get the same gardening implements and essentials as everyone else: your instrument, the structural elements of music theory, the legacy of great jazz soloists to learn from, the water of practice, and the rich soil of your own ever-increasing experience. But what you grow with these things is up to you. You start out by learning how to play your instrument. You expand by exploring music theory and how other musicians have applied it to their art. And ultimately, you find your own voice. Your instrument is not your voice. Music theory is not your voice. Technique is not your voice. The styles of other players are not your voice. YOU are your voice. Your voice resides within you, and everything else is just the tools for discovering it, releasing it, and continuing to cultivate it. Jazz does not come pre-assembled. In fact, it is anything but prefab. The best you can say is that all the tools and materials are at your disposal. But the assembly is entirely up to you. Just know this: whatever you come up with--whatever work of art you create, whatever tree you grow in your part of the arboretum--will be exactly the right way for you to play jazz if you work at it with diligence and integrity. Remember, it takes time to grow a tree. Enjoy that tree, that living thing God has entrusted to you, in all its stages. There is no rush, no place to arrive at, only a life experience to invest yourself in. Work hard, but breathe easy--and enjoy yourself.

Practicing “Giant Steps”: Static and Chord Tone Sequences

Here are some more exercises on the Giant Steps cycle. (Click on the image to enlarge it.) While it might not be immediately apparent, the linear patterns shown here are actually a continuation from my previous post on isolating V7s in the cycle. Note that the V7 chords are still spotlighted by emphasizing them with quarter notes, which are led into by the preceding grouping of eighth notes. Think of the dominant harmonies as target tones preceded by a walk-up. In these exercises, I've elected to focus on the treadmill-like cycle of Coltrane changes rather than the full eight-bar A section of "Giant Steps." As is typical of so much of the practice material in my posts, what you're getting here comes straight from my own current explorations and discoveries in the woodshed Don't be cowed by this post's heady subtitle, "Static and Chord Tone Sequences." I'm just not sure how else to describe this material. The goal I'm after is to work with linear sequences that will drill the shifting tone centers of Coltrane changes into my fingers. (Geeze, that still sounds murky as all get-out. Oh, well. Deal with it.) Since I'm an alto sax player, I've written these exercises in the Eb transposition. If you play a Bb or a C instrument, you'll need to transpose accordingly. Exercise one proceeds through the entire Giant Steps cycle in three bars. The first three-bar cycle starts on Ab; the second, on E; and the third, on C. In each series, I've kept the first note of each measure as static as possible, shifting it by just a half-step in the third measure to accommodate the change in key. In exercise two, the harmony continues to repeat itself (i.e. AbM7 to B7, back and forth) while the starting tone for the eighth-note groupings shifts, progressively, from the root to the third to the fifth. In both exercises, pay attention to which target tones you arrive at in the dominant seventh chords. And that's enough of me talking. Dig in, engage your analytical thinking along with your fingers--and, as always, have fun! Oh, yeah--if you enjoyed this post, please check out my many other articles, practice exercises, solo transcriptions, and video tutorials for improvising musicians.