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?

Repetition

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?

Pauses

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.

Dynamics

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.

Jazz solo appreciation: The importance of context

blue_note_jazzNotes are nothing on their own. They have no identity, no meaning. They cannot even be in tune on their own, as in order for a note to be in tune it has to be in reference to something else. Concert pitch A at 440Hz is the established reference frequency for tuning. However, there are people who think that music based on the 432Hz reference frequency sounds more humane and creates a more divine musical context. However there is no need to get into that heated debate. Let’s tune up and jump out of the frequency microcosm.

I would like to share a few thoughts on the importance of context and the way it shapes the validity, meaning and perception of musical statements during a jazz improvisation performance. I am going to use the analogy between language and a jazz solo to make my point. This is an analogy often brought up in jazz circles and for good reasons. Novels developed parallel with Classical European music, which provided the harmonic foundation of jazz. Both arts have used the same mechanism to generate meaning and drama for centuries: the interplay between order and disturbed order or between tension and release, as it is often found in jazz literature. It’s no wonder we often hear that a good jazz solo tells a good story.

Rhythmic context
We all had teachers in school who were really bad at delivering information. They spoke fast, without accenting key points. They jumped from one point to another, without pausing in between. Their overall pace was random and tiring. Since our brain’s capacity for information processing is limited, people only welcome well organised and well paced information. Random and fast musical information is perceived as bad music. It violates the natural limits of our brain capacity and remains unprocessed. Notes that are organised in strong rhythmic patterns and delivered at good pace attract our attention. The most ‘outside’ note can sound great when it belongs to a strong and interesting rhythmic pattern.

Structural context.
Comedians are aware of the importance of timing more than anyone else. There is a good moment and a bad moment to deliver your punch line. It is interesting that the pause comedians take in order to build up tension or give time to their listeners to react is called the ‘beat’. Likewise, not all points within a song structure or our solo structure are equally welcoming to a certain statement. In an AABA song form for example, the end of the B part carries a lot of inherent musical tension. It makes more sense to take your liberties at the end of the B section since the inherent tension at that point is high and naturally more forgiving to any ‘wrong’ notes you may hit. By the same token, it makes less sense to play your favorite ‘outside’ lick in the beginning of your solo where the tension is low. That’s the reason many people suggest playing a simple melodic or rhythmic idea at the beginning of a jazz solo. This strategy addresses the low tension area wisely and helps us build and develop our ideas more effectively.

Harmonic context.
Imagine watching a TV programme on flight safety while plane crushes are shown in a background video. The presenter would have no chance of passing on the message to the audience. The great challenge and beauty of jazz improvisation is that everything happens against a dynamic harmonic background. So not only do single notes gain their meaning among larger groups of notes, but they can even change their meaning when played in different harmonic contexts. Whoever provides the harmonic foundation for our solo is also responsible for the validity and quality of our statements. As the great teacher and fiddler Mat Glaser says in his Swing Violin video lesson when the guitar changes chord while he is holding a note: you take the credit!

Social context.
I don’t think using vulgar language is considered appropriate during a job interview anywhere in the world. There are words we only use when being in certain social contexts. We are being trained to constantly adjust our language style from an early age. The character of a jazz performance can vary from informal to really formal. Jazz can be performed in small bars where people are drinking and interacting with each other or concert halls where people are quietly listening. The nature of every music event encourages certain relationships among those who participate either as musicians or listeners. What seems or sounds cool in an underground jazz club may seem or sound inappropriate in a concert hall.

Psychological context.
We all appreciate someone’s confidence in speaking. We may also have fallen in love with the introversion and naiveness of a woman’s voice. When I listened to old recordings of myself with my gypsy swing band I noticed that some of what I thought were the most unsuccessful ideas sounded great. Played with an ‘I don’t really care attitude’ but with authority and intention, they somehow conveyed the feeling that I had things under control. Since then, I often try to repeat and emphasize what sounds like a wrong note. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. However, it is definitely a habit that builds our confidence while performing. However, excessive confidence can turn into repulsive egotism that might contaminate our music. Authority is great, but being esoteric and naïve while improvising is great too. Many people hate German just because they have associated it with Hitler’s talks. The question is: can we really escape our real selves when performing?

It goes beyond doubt that the necessity of building good and solid musical skills for dealing with any given situation should be top priority for musicians. By being aware of a few principles that govern communication and the delivery of information we can enhance our ability to come up with more interesting and meaningful improvisations. Sometimes instead of looking for right notes, we should ask ourselves: What really makes sense to the human ear?

On the other hand, we often think that we can carry our solid and rigid musical skills anywhere we go. However we all know that the same skilled person is capable of delivering a great performance one day and a mediocre performance the following day. This is natural, since there are many parameters interacting with each other that affect our performance in any given situation. Sam Sommers in his book ‘Situations matter’ mentions that we’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character.

Anyway, my point is this: When I listen to a musician who creates interesting rhythmic ideas, has a good pace using pauses, doesn’t want to convince me of anything, shows no egotism, plays in a really nice friendly atmosphere, has a good sound, and all that is happening at a friendly volume to the human ear, then I am more than willing to forgive anything!

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