On Being a More Interesting Improviser
by Jody Espina
My last article
for Sax On The Web
, was dedicated to the adult amateur saxophonist. Thanks to all
of you who wrote me with such positive feedback. This article is
dedicated to any saxophonist who is interested in improvising.
Beginners will find some helpful ideas here about how to construct an
interesting solo. Advanced players will probably know everything in
this article, but sometimes being reminded of good ideas can freshen
up our playing.
We all know that an
improvising jazz musician is telling a musical story... The same
conventions that apply to a good novel also apply to a good jazz solo.
You need an interesting premise (motif), or opening chapter. There
should be character development (development of motif) as well as an
interesting or satisfying conclusion. Other elements of a real page
turner of a book or a captivating solo are conflict and resolution or
tension and release. The intensity of a good book or a solo will have
peaks and valleys. In music these exciting and calm moments can be
achieved through the use of dynamics, space/rests, speed/length of
notes, and the range of pitch (low/high notes).
three tips in this article are so simple and common sense that you may
think that you don't need to pay much attention to them. I believe
that the players who diligently practice the first three tips will be
rewarded for their efforts with more applause from the audience at the
end of their solos and more respect from their fellow
Ideas 4-6, fall
under the tricks and licks category. These may take more time and
practice before you'll be able to use them in a solo, but the way a
chef uses spices to give food flavor, these tricks can liven up your
Important note: These tricks
and licks will not make you a better player. If used effectively, they
may make you a more interesting or entertaining player. Fancy
tricks and licks can't replace replace solid fundamentals like good
tone, intonation, time/swing feel, phrasing and good technique.
Therefore, my recommendation is to stay with your normal practice
routine and add one of these tricks at a time.
1. Space is the place -
Play less notes and put space in
between your ideas. This may seem like a cheap trick but it's not.
This simple and easy to do suggestion will immediately make you sound
better. Almost all of us including me would have more success with our
solos if we would economize on notes and give the listener time to
digest our ideas. A great way to practice this is to imagine that
you're trading one or two bar riffs with an imaginary player. Play
something then leave the space while you imagine what the other player
would play. Don't worry about there being dead space. Most rhythm
sections will jump all over those spaces and before you know it
you'll be in a real dialogue with the rhythm section. John Coltrane
asked Miles Davis's advice on how to end a solo because Trane was
having difficulty finding a place to end. Miles answered in his raspy
whisper, "Take the horn out your mouth." Space is the place - Take
the horn out your mouth.
2. Go long .... and high
- Another simple but very
effective trick is to play a high note for about as long as you can
hold it. Used at the right moment in your solo, this is almost
guaranteed to get the crowd on your side. The shape of a solo is
important. Jamey Abersold explains this very well in Volume 1. of his
play along series. For example, you can start a solo in the low or
medium range of the horn and as you develop your ideas, start to play
higher and higher and perhaps faster and more notes, building to a
well timed very long high note.
3. Could you repeat that please? - What's worth playing once
is probably worth playing at least four times. Using exact
repetitions or slight variations allows your listener to follow your
train of thought better. In other words, when you play a nice lick,
don't just abandon that little gold nugget. Let us see/hear it
again. Turn it around for us, so that we can get a good look/listen.
Go back and listen to some of your favorite improvisers and see if
there are any cases of motif and development, which usually contains a
healthy dose of repetition.
Stop Right There!
The tips mentioned so far are enough to change your playing
dramatically. On your next solo, try and do these four simple things.
Or better yet, record yourself playing a solo with a play-along or a
live band. Don't use any of my ideas. Just play as you normally
would. Then record yourself while you consciously use the four ides
1. Play less notes
2. Put space in between your ideas.
3. Repeat and make variations on the good ideas.
4. Build to a climax with a long high note.
Now try and listen to both recordings as an impartial listener would.
Which one is more interesting?
4. Growl - Ben Webster,
Earl Bostic, John Coltrane, Phil Woods, Clarence Clemens, Boots Randolph, Gato Barbieri, and King Curtis are just a few of the great
players who have used the growl to great effect. Growling conveys intensity and soul. It seems impossible to play without conviction
while growling. I don't think that I'm the best growler in the world so I wanted to get an experts advice. I asked my good friend
Steve Goodson, if he would elucidate us on how he teaches someone to growl. Steve is an expert on most things regarding the saxophone whether it be playing, teaching or the mechanics of the
horn. I think that as a player Steve would describe himself as a honker and a wailer, a rock and roller, and a growler, which makes him
very qualified to give us this lesson. Let me say this before we go to Steve's advice: In order to make the growl effect, the player has to
actually produce a pitch or growl with his or her voice while simultaneously playing notes on the saxophone. The note from the sax
and the sound from the voice mix combine to make the growl.
Steve Goodson on Growling: "When I teach growling, I give the student a lesson in physiology: at the junction of the mouth and the
windpipe (where the bend is), there's lots of stuff that tends to
vibrate: the soft palate, the uvula, and a bunch of other tissue that
I can't name. This stuff will all get into a sympathetic vibration if
the player produces the growl too high up in the throat. The result
will be an uneven growl and a potential blockage of the air stream.
I have the student listen to me by placing their ear very close to my
throat so they can see where I am producing the growl. Of course the
most common problem with beginners is that they use too much of the
growl effect. I have the student play long tones and learn to
gradually introduce the growl into the note, and then to gradually
reduce it. This gives them a broader palette of sounds to use. It is
not uncommon for the beginner to experience some irritation in the
throat while learning this technique. I suggest a gargle with Jack
Daniels." (Authors note: The Jack Daniels falls under the category
of definitely don't try this at home. By the way, when I listened to
Steve's throat he was growling at a low B concert. J.E.)
5. Flutter Tongue.
The resulting sound of the flutter tongue is somewhat similar to the
growl so that if you can't do one, hopefully you can do the other.
To hear what the flutter should sound like, play your horn with the
bell facing directly into an electric fan. That's the sound. If
you're unable to get the flutter I guess you could bring a powerful
fan to the gig and blow into it. (Authors note: Unlike the growl,
I'm very good at the flutter tongue.)
Step 1. Roll your R's the way you would if you were saying a word in
Spanish which begins with R. To do this, place the tip of your tongue
on the roof of your mouth right where the ridge is. To find the ridge
start with the tip of your tongue where your teeth and the roof of
your mouth meet. Keeping the tongue against the roof go away from the
teeth until you feel the ridge that leads back to the soft pallet.
Lightly place the tip of the tongue at the edge of this ridge and get
some air moving out of your mouth until the tongue starts rolling.
Then, do that while you're blowing the sax. If you don't succeed
right away, try to remember what it was like learning to whistle. It
may have taken quite a while, but you kept trying and you kept having
different people demonstrate it to you. Keep trying!
For some reason I like to use the flutter tongue in
conjunction with the harmonic minor scale, getting a snake charmer
kind of sound. For example: Let's say you're playing over an F#
minor Funk groove, (your key) and normally you would play a Dorian
Scale. That's like an F# major scale with the 3rd and the 7th note
flatted by a 1/2 step. You can usually fit in the Harmonic Minor Scale
over the same minor funk* groove place for the "snake charmer"
type of sound and with the flutter tongue, it can be funny and
effective. The Harmonic Minor Scale is like a major scale with the 3rd
and 6th degree flatted by a half step. Goof around and have fun with
this one, but like all tricks, don't overuse it. (* I use the term
funk very loosely. It could be almost any minor one key
6. Cannonball lick.
This lick is taken from Cannonball's solo on Love for Sale,
from the CD, Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly (Blue Note
BST 81595). The All Music Guide calls this CD, (which also
features Miles Davis on it) "Absolutely essential". For the
transcription I recommend getting this excellent book of transcribed
solos: The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, compiled and
edited by Tim Price (Hal Leonard HL006763244). Besides the little lick
that I'm pointing out here, pay special attention to the
articulations in this solo. Tim did a great job including this
extremely important aspect of Cannonball's sound. Bear in mind that
it's difficult for most mere mortals to play as fast and clean as
the great Mr. Adderly. Don't be discouraged. Play the lines as slow
as you need to, but do the articulations. Articulations or the lack of
articulations are one of the main reasons why many inexperienced
improvisers just don't sound as popping as the Jazz greats. Before I
get to the lick and while I'm on the subject of articulation, let me
say this: Saxophonists - please don't only transcribe and copy other
sax players. Trumpet and trombone players are usually better at
articulation then we are. Listen to some Freddie Hubbard and Frank
Rosolino and copy some of their articulations. Now you're
Well, without further ado, here's the lick: It occurs in the 19th
bar of Cannonball's third chorus. These trills on high B, C, and C#
are achieved with the right hand index finger. In the same way that
you play your side Bb, put your index finger up to the top key of
those three side keys. By the way, keep your thumb under the thumb
rest where it's supposed to be. You will play the high B and let it
sound before you start the trill. Most people who try this for the
first time do not trill fast enough and that's why it doesn't
sound right. Trill as fast as you can and like everything else; if you
need to, by all means start practicing it slowly. For alto players,
this lick works great over the Blues in Bb concert. For tenor players,
the same lick will work nicely over an F concert Blues.
7. One more thing.
Practice at home, perform on the gig. To be a good improviser you
have to practice new ideas and techniques before they can sound and
feel natural. But, I believe at the gig you should play from your
heart. Play what you're hearing at that moment. There's nothing
worse than hearing a saxophonist practice on the gig. To me it's
insulting to the audience and the other musicians in the band, and it
doesn't show you in your best light. There's room for debate on
this issue and there is definitely something to be said for
stretching, taking chances and trying things that you've never done
before. These are all responsibilities that an artist has. But I also
believe that as an artist, you have a responsibility to the audience
to show them what's in you heart, not only what's in your head. I
personally try and play every solo like it might be the last one that
I ever get to play. If I know that it's my last chance to play, I
want to go out giving one hundred percent and playing notes that I
will literally die for. That may be a melodramatic thought, but I
think that everything in life should be approached with that sincerity
I hope this article helps make us all more interesting soloists.
Practice with intensity, Play with intensity,
e-mail for comments, questions or suggestions.
Book recommendations for this article:
"Top Tones for the Saxophone" by Sigurd Rascher.
In a future article I'll give some harmonics and altissimo
ideas, so in preparation for that, I'd like to recommend this book.
I get many questions at JodyJazz.com about the altissimo range of the
saxophone. My answer is yes, a mouthpiece can make a very big
difference in your ability to play high notes. The reed that you use
can also make it easier to play the high notes, ie. harder reed =
better altissimo. But, the most important thing to know is that your
ability to play altissimo is directly related to your ability to
control the harmonics. That means learn how to play the harmonics off
of the fundamental pitches: Low Bb, B, C and C#. In Top Tones for
Saxophone, you don't play any altissimo notes until the back of
the book. In the first sections of the book you work on tone
consistency, steadiness, control of dynamics and tone imagination.
Tone imagination is hearing in your head the note that you are about
to play before you play it. This is essential for harmonics, altissimo
and actually, all playing. In the next section of the book, there are
many harmonic exercises. My advice is to go very slowly through the
book and your reward will be altissimo heaven when you arrive at the
final section of the book which gives you actual altissimo fingerings
A New Approach To Jazz Improvisation
- Jamey Abersold Play-Along
This is the one that started it all. Take the time to read the information in the first
part of the book. There is an encyclopedia of Jazz improv ideas and concepts contained in this gem.
The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, Compiled and Edited
by Tim Price. (Hal Leonard HL006763244)
One of the great transcription books with an excellent interview with Nat Adderly. Even if the solos
are too difficult to play at this time, it would be great to buy all
of the CDs and follow along looking at the transcriptions while
Cannonball plays. Pay attention to his note selection and how each
note fits with the chords.
CD recommendations for this article:
Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly (Blue Note BST 81595)
Kind Of Blue - Miles Davis (Sony B000002ADT)
The biggest selling Jazz Record of all time and rightly so. If you
don't have it, get it. Miles, Coltrane, Adderly, Evans, Kelly,
Chambers, Cobb - no need to say anything else.