3 ways to better jazz improvisations

Studying and decoding jazz harmony is part and parcel of our efforts to produce meaningful improvisations. However, being solely concerned and obsessed with the harmonic validity of our notes is a trap to be avoided. Miles Davis said that good playing is 80% attitude while the actual notes we play is 20%. If playing and creating good improvisations is largely a mentality issue then two implications are raised. First, that great music can be made using simple melodic material, and second, that we should always make the most of what we have.

We can boost our playing if we take a few universal principles and their perceptual effects into account and then internally reorganise what we already know and can play. These principles seem to have their place in all fields of human activity and creation. They touch upon the nature of human perception and transmission of information, and can provide some useful answers to the fundamental question: what makes sense to the human ear?


Arnold Schoenberg said that “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition”. Repetitiveness seems to be inherent in musical meaning. Circularness in music and its relation to social rituals goes well back in time. Whole musical genres are based on the concept of hypnotic repetition in order to become inviting, arouse emotions and create a transcendent experience. Even the concept of variation in arts presupposes some kind of pattern or repetition.

By repeating a melody or musical statement when we improvise we help our listeners remember, relate and eventually participate in our music. Common experience and scientific research suggest that repetitiveness arouses a positive and time-varying psychological response that is evident on our brain activity. The most widespread song form of American popular music itself -the AABA form- asks us to repeat a melody 3 times in order to make it memorable and add weight to the composition. So why not do the same?


Claude Debussy has said that “music exists in the space between the notes”. Just like there is nothing worse than someone who never stops talking, improvisers often have the tendency to waffle a lot in an attempt to sound convincing. The artistic and communicational value of pauses has been discovered and documented in arts all around the world. It is so interesting that the actual pause used by stand up comedians to build tension is called “the beat”. A fair amount of pauses in the flow of any type of information is absolutely necessary as this seems to tally better with our natural rate of processing and evaluating incoming information.

By using space and silence creatively when we improvise we have much better chance of engaging our listeners and drawing their attention. Silence is the absolute expectation and tension builder. A pause is also the best way to underline and emphasize a musical statement as our brain needs time to internalise and process information. Moreover, by pausing while improvising on a progression we earn ourselves time to look ahead and generate new ideas. As a general rule i believe we should pull back and never exaust our improvisational resources. It is always better to be on the less side making listeners want more, instead of providing them with a tiring overflow of information.


I could find no quote that caught my eye on the importance of dynamics in music, so here is mine: “improvising with no dynamics shows ignorance for the nature of sound itself”. Sound is made of waves traveling in the air so it makes perfect sense to deliver our music in a similar manner. There is nothing more boring and tiring than a flat, robotic flow of sound information, something that can be really fatiguing especially over longer periods of time. Top sound engineers insist that setting volume levels alone is the first crucial step towards great mixes. It is therefore a good idea to fine tune our dynamics and go beyond that bulk way of playing either soft or loud or even worse, just loud.

By creating patterns of change in volume when we improvise we add emotional content and feeling to our music. Shaping the contour of our improvisations creates contrast and drama. In my experience musicians who handle dynamics with mastery are good listeners and exhibit a high level of musicianship. Intelligent use of dynamics can be responsible for some hair-raising interaction between musicians. If we visualise our playing like a waveform having crests and troughs then subtle and dramatic differences in our sound production can emerge. These will potentially make our improvisations more elegant and impressive.

Studying and decoding jazz harmony is a never ending pursuit and it should not keep us from advancing our skills in improvisation. Repetition, pauses and dynamics will instantly make our playing sound more structured, effortless and harmonically forgiving, because they are deeply intertwined with artistic creation and communication.

Busking is great

There is nothing more fun than playing music in a beautiful street corner with a few people around you enjoying themselves. There is actually no strong busking culture in Greece but good weather and the relaxed summer atmosphere -especially in tourist destinations- provide a great context for playing in the street. There is no clear legislation or policy on busking and nobody is really authorized to issue a busking permit. The course of your performance in practice depends on whether someone decides to call the police on the grounds of being disturbed by your music (or ‘noise’ as a nearby shopkeeper once said of our playing while we were busking last summer). However, I believe that the overall success and social acceptance of your performance mostly depends on the quality of your music and your overall social attitude.  
Busking on the island of Syros with good friends Manolis and George

Busking in Syros with Manolis, George and a few beers

Busking in Santorini with our quartet in Summer 2011

Busking in Santorini with Antonis, Kostas and Petros

              Bob Dylan, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane used to play in the street like so many other great unknown musicians around the world. Many of them have testified the huge benefits of this experience. Busking offers all the benefits of formal live performance and even more, without the typical anxiety or pressure musicians often experience before and during a formal gig. A nice spot away from car traffic and some basic repertoire is all you need to get started. Narrow streets are really appropriate since they offer good acoustics without the need of any amplification -which I don’t like anyway because it can be intrusive and unfriendly to the ear. Playing acoustically for a bunch of people is really a great scale for performing and listening. It is intimate, honest and encourages people to meet and interact in a healthy context. While busking you can attempt your most crazy improvisations, talk to a beautiful girl while your guitarist is soloing or quote a famous nursery song the moment a kid is passing by. Every busking experience is a new territory for fun, musical and social exploration. By definition your audience is comprised of socially and culturally diverse people unlike the typical audience in a jazz club or any live venue. Children, families, teenagers, elderly and homeless are all potential listeners, and most likely many of them have never been introduced to the music you might be playing. This element of surprise is one of the things that make busking so great. Childlike curiosity, genuine interest, parents ordering their kids to keep walking and even open discrediting of what is going on are images of human manifestations made possible when playing music in public space. When people turn around the corner and listen to you playing they are more likely to be sincere and spontaneous in their reactions. And I honestly believe that whether people appreciate your music or not, it definitely adds meaning to their evening walk just because people are simply desperate for stories. There they have a story and you are part of it. Another aspect I find interesting in the busking ritual is the fact that it tends to ignite social interaction and often encourages us to manifest ourselves in a variety of ways. imagesWatch this woman in the photo holding a lifestyle magazine while she is kicking a girl playing her accordion for a few euros. Apparently she did not like this girl being near her shop. (This photo was taken just under the Acropolis in Athens earlier this year by Associated Press photographer Dimitris Messinis). The scene is exasperating but it also stands as direct evidence of my point that just the image of a little girl playing music led this woman to manifest herself in a certain way, whereas otherwise she would pass as a good mannered middle class shopkeeper. The social value of busking lies exactly in this: It can touch upon issues of freedom, cultural appreciation and co-existence. Above all, when we busk we are building an example of unmediated social relations with our listeners. In the street you can be pretty sure that when people appear thankful and express their gratitude, they most likely mean it. By the same token, the reaction of the shopkeeper, who came up to us complaining for the noise we were making, rightfully belongs to the wide spectrum of possible feedback we should expect. I truly welcome these remarks not because I trust everyone’s musical criteria but because I feel that they help me stay in touch with a reality that -fairly or unfairly- often devalues artistic attempt and creation. Hiding in a jazz bar with jazz fans is not the real picture, although I certainly understand the need for it. I have described the ritual of busking as a healthy social context -and I believe it is definitely healthier than the sterilized streets people walk up and down every day going to work and all the other rituals we participate in, like job interviews or even concert hall performances. In my mind that’s why children feel so comfortable being around it, and that’s why they naturally end up being the best and most devoted listeners of all. Busking is just great for children. It is fun, lively and provides a world of visual and auditory stimuli just like the ones children are so thirsty for. Watch the excitement of this child while we were busking on the island of Antiparos last summer.   I have had a great time busking, I have met great people while doing it and I encourage all musicians to give it a try.

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