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.

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!

Tips on how to approach musical improvisation


I would like to offer a few tips on how to approach musical improvisation.  They will hopefully point you in the direction of simplifying your approach in improvisation and encourage your musical freedom. Good improvisers are not smarter than everybody else. And they are certainly not geniuses. (more…)

An interview with Prof. Frank Millward on improvisation

I met Frank Millward in 2003 in London. Frank is a Multimedia Artist, Composer and jazz performer. He is a Professor in the School of Fine Art at Kingston University, London. Over the years he has taught Music Composition, Jazz Theory, Improvisation, Jazz History and Jazz Arranging, Composing for Film and Television. Frank’s ideas immediately caught my attention so I managed to organise a short session with him in order to ask him a few questions on how he understands improvising and learning. He talks about the mentality of improvisation and he comments on the chord-scale relationships and the fact that they are so embedded in jazz teaching.

Stergios: How would you define musical improvisation?
Frank: As self-expression through sound.

Stergios: What is the greater benefit from your involvement in musical practice?
Frank: There are many. The greatest one should be in some way humanitarian, social and (although a cliché) love of life or an appreciation of the concept of joy but also a concept of all things that I would equate with being in that kind of realm. Joy and sadness.
Stergios: What particular styles are you mostly involved with?
Frank: The main thing I like is rhythm. African, Latin jazz rhythms. I have been into R&B for some time, and I also like New Orleans piano style.

Stergios: What about your criteria for appraising music? Are they only musical?
Frank: I always appraise how it makes me feel. Only. Nothing else. How it makes me feel and how I connect with it. Spiritually.

Stergios: Do you sometimes think about the music’s background for example?
Frank: I do, but I try not to. Cause otherwise I just get into that. I never disappear intellectually into a piece. Not on the first hearing. I only allow myself to have this kind of thoughts when I repeatedly listen to something. I think the other thing that I am aware of is what it looks like as well. I think I’m very aware of what it looks like. What I mean by that is quite often if I am watching a film what the sound looks like, if I am watching a performance, if I’m in the theatre. Images are a big issue with me. It has certainly been a big issue with what I write. I am always concerned with what it looks like.

Stergios: Have you ever appraised someone’s personality only by watching him playing music?
Frank: Yes, all the time.

Stergios: Can you give me an example?
Frank: I never liked Bill Evans, as a person. I used to go and watch him play every second Monday in 1978. He never looked up, he had his head about 6 inches away from the piano and he was obviously stoned off his face. I thought…’who is this guy?’ And I had never talked to him. But I used to close my eyes and listen. I hate watching Keith Jarrett too. Cause I find him to be sometimes completely pretentious. But I love what he plays.

Stergios: How did you develop your skills in musical improvisation?
Frank: When I was little I used to sit at the piano and just playing the piano imagining a scenario. And I’d be making up usually a show. I would make up a scene, a fantasy about something…I used to do that for hours. I did formal piano lessons but then I dropped them and I played the trumpet. I played the guitar and bass. I stopped formal music education. I was in bands. Then when I was 22 I left what I was doing in order to do music. When I did that all the people I have been working with said ‘don’t go and learn at the conservatoire. You’ll loose your feel’. They said that I would become intellectually involved with whatever you are doing and you have no explanation for now and I will become analytical and loose the feel I have for it. I didn’t want to learn rubbish. I wanted to play music when I would become old. I was imagined that by the time I would be fifty I would become a good piano player. I could have done more practice but if I had done more practice I’d stop myself from doing all other things in music.

Stergios: Do you think that one should listen to many different musical styles in order to develop his skills in improvising?
Frank: There are two ways of doing it: Listen to many or just one. And once you’ve listened to one, learn one really well, then brunch out into others. I am not sure about this because I think of the things about pedagogical approaches to musical improvisation has messed up a lot of people about how to improvise because what ends up happening is that people sound all the same, because the have the same pedagogical approach. They transcribe a solo…so in a way other ways of teaching it are much more important. Visualisation for example and the whole idea of free expression. Making sounds that are meaningful to the person who is making the sound.

Stergios: How can the practice of other arts have an effect on our musical creativity?
Frank: Well, this is my whole current fascination. I have been in education for ten years but what I was doing before for 15 years, I was a live artist. I was composing, performing and presenting in a variety of ways. So I really think that the role of the modern composer is to be involved in the audio-visual-digital-media experience.

Stergios: Why do you think self-taught musicians can achieve high levels of musical proficiency without any formal instruction?
Frank: Because they develop their ears. They listen. They learn the intimacy of the listening experience. They really understand what that is. You can teach that though. A lot of people learn it.

Stergios: How would you teach improvisation?
Frank: I think to teach improvisation is to actually people trying to discover the child in themselves and the fascination with sound. The whole way of teaching jazz improvisation is not applicable any more. It is too dangerous to teach with a new pedagogy that involves for example image, transformations or the manipulation of other ideas that have to do with feelings, or briefings that don’t have to do with chord-scale relationships. Chord-scale relationships are so embedded in the pedagogical academy of teaching jazz that is hard to get away from. We should be experimenting more but we are not because politically that is not possible. All education should be concerned with intellectual well-being, and being able to evaluate critically anything, and the next thing is to evaluate critically in a way, for and against any particular issue which is being discussed. Education should put in place within students a facility of enabling students to develop arguments, analytical theory and the ability to analyze in an informed way.

Stergios: I remember you once said that society confines our child-like self. Is this what you mean?
Frank: It stops us from being like that. It does not allow us to be child-like. If we create environments where you are allowed to be then true self-expression of the improvised kind will be allowed to happen. For example we allow it with stand-up comedians, improvising actors and dancers. We allow it in other kind of improvised artistic expression. In certain kinds of music we do allow it. But it is still embedded in a language that is ‘expected’. When a child discovers what it’s like to hit that note and then again, and then discovers another one… To be able to do that as an adult to rediscover how to express the difference between these two things is really the key to teaching improvisation. It is about listening, memory, philosophy, ‘leting go’ being a child, but being in control of being a child. Naïve is fantastic, beautiful, because it is completely free of anything other than perhaps the dangers of being hurt.

Stergios: Thanks Frank!

Purism in Jazz: Purism as the end of jazz history

The endPurism in jazz represents the idea of returning to the aesthetic, harmonic and melodic principles of the jazz period that starts with Ellington, Armstrong and ends with the emergence of free jazz in the late 1950s or early 1960s. This suggests the marking of this musical period of jazz as ‘the Golden Era’ and its consequent election as a new form of ‘Classical Music’. Ultimately purism represents a set of values with further political, historical and philosophical implications.

To purists the ‘free jazz’ or the ‘avant-garde’ scene reflects at best the musical saturation of jazz or at worse nihilists trying to destroy the music that gave them birth. (John A. Tynan, quoted in Walser, Robert (ed.) (1999) Keeping time: Readings in Jazz History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 255). It is a fact that the free jazz movement put forward the request for social changes. The tendency to overcome musical conventions implied the questioning of social conventions. Free jazz used freedom of musical style as a direct analogue for freedom of personal expression mostly during the 1960s. The early 1960’s signaled the birth of ‘free jazz’ and for purists the end of ‘real jazz’. It was also at that time when a scientific crusade against the individual started to take place. This prepared the ideological ground for several self-appointed social prophets to formulate the future theories of the ‘end’.

Levi-Strauss declares that structuralism will displace humanism and Altuser that history is a process without a subject. Foucault declares that humans are nothing but dust in the wind and Lacan that anyone who seeks a radical vision, in reality needs a master. J. Lyotard declares the end of modernism and Horkhaimer the end of speech. Heidigger supports that philosophy has ended and Foukouyama declares the end of political history. All these views suggest a thoughtless worship of objectivity and reality. This is very obvious in jazz, where the reduction of certain people and compositions to historic and aesthetic reference points is very common. By the end of the 20th century all ideologies of the ‘end’ had been formulated. Music could not escape.

‘ Chaos often breeds life when order breeds habit’
Henry Adams

Wynton Marsalis is a widely acclaimed musician and artistic director of the Lincoln Centre, which is devoted to the formal education of what its members consider as ‘real jazz’. Wynton Marsalis has said that chaos is always out there. Check the interview here: He is implying that there is a danger which we should always be aware of. Feeling musically insecure is really in our interest. Isn’t this pretty much what’s happening in a broader social level? where a group of people in power declare the existence of a threat and then the same group guarantees our safety? As Martin writes radical innovators, however talented, are likely at first to be marginalized or condemned as incompetent, and almost inevitably attract the hostility of those whose sense of security –musical, psychological or economic- is derived from their acceptance of the aesthetic status quo. (Martin, J., Peter (2002) ‘Spontaneity and organisation’ in Cooke, Mervyn and David Horn (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Jazz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 138).

Writer and social critic Albert Murray Murray is the co-founder of the program and institution known as Jazz at Lincoln. He uses the word ‘chaos’ himself: art has to do with security against chaos. He further suggests that art is a movement against entropy. Its ends are sanity, purpose and delight. (Check Simon Weil’s article on the Lincoln Centre) Murray reveals the strong idea of musical determinism of the purists. Thus, music is something that happens ‘in order to…’ I tend to agree with Christopher Small who believes that there is no such thing in nature as a ‘purposeful’ sound. In his book Musicking Small writes: The idea of purpose is a human construct, and the idea of a purposeful sound, one that creates expectations in a listener….depends on the acceptance by those playing and those listening of a number of conventions…

Talking about these conventions is basically taking our stands on the broader political debate. In Murray’s mind music exists for a reason. This kind of causality is a fundamental element in the thought of jazz purists. Eventually purist musical communities take on a national role and duty and we end up dealing with the identification of the need to preserve and promote ‘real jazz’ with the need to preserve American social order. In a formal event in the White House in 1998 (you can read the whole speech here) Marsalis said: now, in our democratic way of living, our central concern is how to balance what we want to do with what needs to be done, and that’s a big concern. Of course what ‘needs to be done’ is certainly for someone else to decide.

Marsalis added: (…) in other words, ‘I’ versus ‘we’. Jazz musicians on bandstands around the world struggle with this nightly, and believe me, it’s a great struggle. Because you want to play loud and you want to play long solos. So does everybody else on the bandstand. Ironically, the individual-society battle is brought up again as a major constituent of the jazz purist thought. Marsalis refers to ‘I’ (individual) and ‘we’ (society) like they are in a perpetual battle. What is meant by ‘we’ is the American Nation obviously, and this is a clear political angle. Marsalis’ approach introduces an ethnocentricity, obviously related with the aversion of the purists to free jazz that is supposed to have been contaminated by elements of Eurocentricism. The declaration of jazz as ‘America’s classical music’ is now self-explanatory.

The average jazz listener as consumer of a ‘quality’ product, is contributing to the reproduction of the ‘genius’ concept. As Ake says: (…) these listeners marveled at the ability of jazz musicians to vary, embellish and invent melodic lines, seemingly effortlessly and out of thin air. Those same milieus had also come to view select painters, poets, writers and especially musicians as artists, separate from and seemingly above the rest of humanity. (Ake, David (2002) ‘Learning jazz, teaching jazz’ in Cooke, Mervyn and David Horn (eds.) The Cambridge Companion to Jazz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 255). Perfectionism is the genuine by-product of the musical canon and the reflection of idealising gifted personalities and musical masterpieces.

Ellington’s manager advised his clients to sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. Sell his orchestra as a class attraction. (Cooke, Mervyn (2002) ‘Jazz among the classics’ in The Cambridge Companion to Jazz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 172). Although purists are deeply suspicious of the commercial potential of fusion, their intentions depend on the market laws because of their will to promote jazz as serious and prestigious music. It seems that they are not keen on the idea that jazz could be approached like pop music, which is of course what happened with the more successful 1970’s albums of people like Miles Davis and Weather Report. Marsalis is clear about that in one of his interviews when asked about Miles Davis (you can read it here) saying I was especially inspired by his earlier music, before 1969.

It is also worth noting that during the past years a new type of purist commentator on jazz has emerged, insisting that jazz has to be all about spontaneity and African-American influences, and has nothing to do with classical structure (pre-composition). The neo-purist perception actually detests what the old purists value. It puts forward aspects of origin and authenticity, instead of structure and classical criteria. Both views represent opposite poles of jazz appreciation, but they share an element of narrow and restricted outlook, both suggesting a different set of ideas about ‘what jazz is’.

The canonisation of compositions and performances brings up important implications. Ellington’s music for example has been the easiest type of jazz to canonize, since it close to classical music in its techniques and aesthetic. Those who seek to canonize it tend not to recognize that the Ellington band never played their music the same way twice, so someone cannot say that a particular recording or score of an Ellington composition is ‘definitive’ or ‘authentic’.

Conversely, the new Afro-centric purists are no doubt perplexed because arguably, the great Duke Ellington produced a kind of music, which by their definition is not really ‘jazz’ at all! The whole question of the status of the jazz recording as an artefact is worth considering about, especially where recordings preserve live spontaneous performances, which were never intended to be listened to more than once. It follows that someone cannot make something canonic without listening to it more than once.

Finally, the purist views that regard some idioms musically inferior, eventually manage to justify the equivalent elitism of classical music circles that declare the decadence of jazz as a musical genre. As Derek Scott says the argument over high and low art, a familiar component of elitist and mass-culture views, is ironically repeated within the very areas of music which are so often attacked as being low. (Scott, Derek (2000) ‘Introduction. Music, Culture and Society: Changes in Perspective’ in Scott, Derek (ed.) Music, Culture and Society. A Reader, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 2).

Jazz has always been a hybrid music and there is no reason why it can’t continue to be.


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