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I notice that there are a lot of posts by people wanting to know "how to improvise", and whether they should ask their teacher, try to dope it out themselves and so on. They are often told to listen to great players' solos; that's too discouraging. And how can you possibly learn how to solo from that?
Here's a method that a lot of great musicians have employed down through the years. It solves several problems; learning how to solo, learning the chord structure of a tune, and developing an approach to soloing that will never let you down.

Select a simple jazz standard like Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love". Don't worry about the half-diminished chords - let them go for now. And do NOT use Aebersold's books; he writes in too many passing chords. Although there are some wrong chords in the Real Book, it's better than Aebersold's books for this particular method. Old-fashioned sheet music is best.

Sticking with dominants, minor, and tonic chords, write the chord symbols on a sheet of plain paper. First chord (for Bb instruments) is D7th. Look up the rest yourself. Make some kind of bar and four-beats-per-bar designation. I use a short vertical line for each beat and longer ones to enclose the beats of each bar. Scribble the song title on top.
Tapping your foot, play one of the 4 notes of the chord for the count of four (a whole note for each bar). If the chord lasts two bars, play a different chordal note for the second four beats (or the same note if it does the job for you). D7 notes are D, F#, A, and C. go through the whole tune this way, playing a whole-note "solo". Pretend you're on stage in a smoky night club in the Village. (IOW, really make music.) Play it through four times straight, using all the four notes of each chord.
After you've exhausted the possibilities playing whole notes, do it all over again playing 2 half-notes per 4-beat bar. Again, exhaust the musical possibilities. There are now a lot more notes, eh?
Starting to get the drift? Develop your half-note solo until you've played every combination. (Mathematics tells us that it could take you ten years - don't do it for that long!)
Do it with quarter notes, then eighth notes. By now you will be playing really good solos, AND YOU WILL KNOW THE CHORDS COLD without having to have memorized them. Also, you will have learned the "vertical" approach to soloing. And none of your notes will ever be a clinker.
Incidentally, I think Maynard Ferguson said, "If you get in trouble, play the melody. The melody is never wrong." I do not suggest that here. We are not learning the melody (although it's not a bad idea to play it plain and straight at the end of each practice session).
There really is no need to do sixteenth notes unless you're a glutton for punishment or you want to play like Coltrane. Try it after you've made a really good solo on eighth notes if you want.
I asked Lee Konitz one night at the Blue Note why he laid out for his solo on a tune the band played while all the others took one. (There were 3 horns. He only joined the ensemble in playing the head.)
He said, "Because that's a tune I never worked up using the method I taught you. Unless I learn a tune this way I don't perform it in public." Good enough endorsement of the method?
I venture to suggest that all the jazz greats did some such similar wood-shedding on every tune they played in public, instrumentalists and vocalists alike. Listen to their solos as time goes on. They keep polishing the same solo and they repeat it on every record date. Beyond their first development, there's very little that's extemporaneous about them, which, IMHO, only makes them better. Paul Desmond is the perfect example (These Foolish Things), as are Chet Baker (It's You Or No One), Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis.
Try this method yourself. Don't rush ahead to the next level too soon, and listen hard to what you're playing. If you come up with something beautiful, interesting, or surprising, repeat it next time. Develop every tune you play this way. You'll astonish yourself. In six months' time you'll know thirty standards.
If you like this method, highlight this post with your mouse, paste it into your word processor and print it out.
There's a movie, "Russia House". Sean Connery plays a couple of soprano sax solos of What Is This Thing. Beautiful! (It's Branford Marsalis.)

Allthatjazz
 

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can someone explain konitz?

Allthatjazz said:
I asked Lee Konitz one night at the Blue Note why he laid out for his solo on a tune the band played while all the others took one. (There were 3 horns. He only joined the ensemble in playing the head.)
He said, "Because that's a tune I never worked up using the method I taught you. Unless I learn a tune this way I don't perform it in public." Good enough endorsement of the method?
I guess I'm confused about what Konitz actually meant. In a Konitz interview he seems to say something that seems almost completely the opposite:

"The goal of having to unfold a completely new melody on the spot and appraise it as you go the closer you look at it, can be frightening! So I think that first and foremost you have to adhere to the song for a much, much longer period of time. You have to find out the meaning of embellishment before going on to try to create new melodies. I believe that the security of the song itself can relieve much of the anxiety of jumping into the unknown."

"I suggest the kinds of compositional devices that are available: a trill, a passing tone, an appoggiatura that can bridge one melody note to another The point is, you're still playing the melody, but you're doing something to it now. And there are many levels of this process before you get anywhere near creating new melody material."

http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/konitz.html

Just how does the idea of improvising over chord tones without much thinking of the melody (the method of the original post of this thread) fit with the idea in the Konitz interview I quoted, which seems to suggest starting by learning to play the melody and only gradually breaking away from it?

I'm not saying one way is better than the other, since I have no idea myself. I'm just trying to get clear on things.
 

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double post
 

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...also, unless I am missing the point of the original post, that IS one of the Aebersold/Coker et al methods of learning a tune and it's chords.

Also, knowing the chords to a tune do nothing for you if you don't know the style of the music and it's characteristic rhythms, phrases, articulations etc and that's why one needs to listen voraciously as well as playing along with recordings and, better, with experienced live musicians. I see learning to improvise as a multi-faceted pursuit.
 

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gary said:
...also, unless I am missing the point of the original post, that IS one of the Aebersold/Coker et al methods of learning a tune and it's chords.
It's pretty close, anyway. In the "How to Play Jazz and Improvise" playalong Aebersold recommends starting to improvise by working from whole notes to half notes to quarter notes, and so on, with a set of fixed exercises focusing on the scales and chords of the music. Then, after having become familiar with the scales and the harmony through these fixed exercises, you jump in and do some actual improvisation. He recommends starting improvisation with a simple fixed two measure rhythm, so you can concentrate on just the melody you're creating, and not on improvising a rhythm at the same time.
 

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gary said:
Also, knowing the chords to a tune do nothing for you if you don't know the style of the music and it's characteristic rhythms, phrases, articulations etc and that's why one needs to listen voraciously as well as playing along with recordings and, better, with experienced live musicians. I see learning to improvise as a multi-faceted pursuit.
gary --

As a newbie learning to improvise I'd say it goes too far to say that an exercise that only helps you know the chords does nothing if you don't know more.

There's so much to think about I feel like the methods that abstract away from everything except the single thing you want to focus on can be really helpful. It's hard enough for a beginner to learn to play the changes with just a series of quarter or half notes. Adding in rhythms, phrases, articulations is obviously going to have to come before you're playing good music -- probably even before anyone could even recognize the tune you're playing -- but for just the process of learning the changes seems to me like you actually want to filter those things out. Then once you've come up to speed on improvising over the chords you can slowly add them in. Or am I wrong in thinking that's the best way?
 

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First, everything a player does to learn the harmonic and melodic structures of a tune helps, and this approach is one such thing. But, nothing makes learning improvisation "proven and easy." I don't like to hear methodologies being promoted that way. That's the kind of hype you read about losing weight and bodybuilding on late night infomercials.

Allthatjazz said:
They are often told to listen to great players' solos; that's too discouraging. And how can you possibly learn how to solo from that?
That is exactly how those of my generation learned to improvise. It was all we had. Listening to and emulating good improvisers along with an understanding of basic musical theory is still the best way to learn.

Allthatjazz said:
Select a simple jazz standard like Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love"...First chord (for Bb instruments) is D7th.
The first chord for this tune in concert C on a Bb instrument in a jazz idiom is Am7. The first important lesson any jazz player learns about changes is that virtually every dom7 chord is preceded by the mi7 chord that resolves to it.

Allthatjazz said:
By now you will be playing really good solos...
No you won't. You'll be playing really boring solos because you will only be arpeggiating the chords in the tune. It's a good exercise for learning the harmonic context (although I prefer a scalar approach) but it is by no way a good way to construct a solo.
Allthatjazz said:
Also, you will have learned the "vertical" approach to soloing.
Which is only one approach and nowhere near the most important approach.
Allthatjazz said:
I asked Lee Konitz one night at the Blue Note why he laid out for his solo on a tune the band played while all the others took one. (There were 3 horns. He only joined the ensemble in playing the head.)
He said, "Because that's a tune I never worked up using the method I taught you. Unless I learn a tune this way I don't perform it in public." Good enough endorsement of the method?
I don't believe this story. I don't know how Konitz taught, but I am certain he did not apply this technique to learning every new tune. After you get past a certain level in improvisation, you don't need this kind of exercise. This is learning to crawl before you learn to walk.
Allthatjazz said:
I venture to suggest that all the jazz greats did some such similar wood-shedding on every tune they played in public, instrumentalists and vocalists alike.
I completely reject that suggestion.
Allthatjazz said:
Listen to their solos as time goes on. They keep polishing the same solo and they repeat it on every record date.
This is just not true. Some jazz greats did polish and reuse lines and even complete solos, but many more do not.
Allthatjazz said:
If you like this method, highlight this post with your mouse, paste it into your word processor and print it out.
If you like this method, or even if you don't, by all means give it a try. But don't think it is the "proven and easy" path to playing great solos. It is only one small part of a large set of exercises by which a player comes to understand how to improvise.
 

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Damn, why didn't I think of that earlyer! Thanks man! I'm gonna try it out of St Thomas and Yardbird Suite (lots of #'s)
But I don't agree to this:

Allthatjazz said:
They are often told to listen to great players' solos; that's too discouraging. And how can you possibly learn how to solo from that?
You can learn VERY MUCH about just listening to the great solists (maybe not the technical stuff) . Even if you don't know what notes they are playing, you can learn how to creat e.g. your own solo-theme, and use it further up in your solo. You learn how to build phrases. I think that learning to play one's solo is also very helpful. Not only do you learn the important notes for each progression, you also get a lot of inspiration for licks. Learning how to improvise, without listening to others is a big no-no IMHO.

Genres, albums and solos are ALWAYS based on it's predecent (I'm not saying completely, but there aren't any genres that are completely separated from any other music, there will always be a trace of something else) , and so you can build further upon what all those giants did. I'm not saying to start playing Trane's solo on So What, but you can try to think the same as him, mixed with your own thinking, and then you get pretty far and unique.

Also, the playing of the base tones are a good start, but in songs like "So What" you'll get out of notes very soon. What I do very often, is use the blues scale of the chord (So if I'm in D7, I'll implement some notes & licks of the blues scale of A, etc. Of Course, this depends on what feel a song has.)
Anyways, this is a good start, but as Al Stevens said, it's learning to crawl before you start walking (and eventually running, sprinting :p )
 

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I maintain that unless you can sing or hum a solo over the changes, you can't really improvise, other than in a mechanical, theoretical way. I think some of the posts above express some of that idea in slightly different ways. Above is one learning technique, but I always thought of improvisation as trying to realize an idea (play that melody that you hear in you head), rather than just a way to connect the chord change dots.
 

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Frank D said:
...but I always thought of improvisation as trying to realize an idea (play that melody that you hear in you head), rather than just a way to connect the chord change dots.
You are right. Improvising is composing in real time. These learning techniques only give you the tools to do that. They gradually teach you to realize in actual notes at your fingers what you heard in your head long before you ever knew how to play it.
 

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I agree with both sides of the argument. A mixture of the two methods is probably best. Allthatjazz's method is a way of really getting the sound of the chords (as opposed to having an abstract concept of which notes "work") deeply ingrained in your noggin, which is very very important.
Of course, transcribing others' solos is a great way of working on your ear and connecting your fingers with what you're hearing and is necessary for learning the nuance and all the stylistic things that go beyond what's in the chords.
 

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hsitz said:
gary - As a newbie learning to improvise I'd say it goes too far to say that an exercise that only helps you know the chords does nothing if you don't know more.
Is that what I said? Does nothing? :scratch:

hsitz, for a beginner I sympathise and understand that there are very many things to learn and that sometimes it seems insurmountable. But my comments are in the context of this statement: "They are often told to listen to great players' solos; that's too discouraging. And how can you possibly learn how to solo from that?" To disagree with this statement has nothing to do with whether or not you should practice the exercise he recommends. I didn't elaborate but maybe a few comments to you would be helpful.

First off, for me, listening to the greats was just the opposite of discouraging (and granted we're not all the same), but rather something I was very emotionally attached to. If anything, it gave me incentive to want to play like them.

Secondly, correct improvising is all about phrasing, articulations and rhythm and if you don't have this in your soul, you'll never accomplish anything as an improviser. ONe needs the other technical and theoretical aspects, as well. And an organised way of learning tunes is very helpful. But it all adds up to nothing if you can't play in the style and the only way one will ever do that is by total immersion in the style, and -like I said above- that means listening, playing along, transcribing, copying and all that stuff---and from the masterful players.

So that's the context in which I made my other statements above. I though it was clear but I guess beginners can just be so overwhelmed by so many different facets of improvisation that things can get a little muddled.

If you would like a completely different way of looking at tunes and learning them, take a look at (surprise!) Lee Konitz' "Back to Basics"; his Ten Step Method of learning a tune at :http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/konitz.html Actually, that's the way I learned (thank you Bugs Bowers ;)) more than anything having to do with cord/scales.
 

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Man, there are a few completely illigitamate comments in this thread. I will try not to point anyone out:) . First of all, if you want to learn jazz music you have to imerse yourself in it. Which means a lot of listening. IMHO abersolds are 100 times better than fake books. I'm not sure what you meant by too many passing chords. Fake books are a lot of the time in the wrong key, wrong notes, wrong chords. I use them when I have to, but anytime I want to learn a new tune the first thing I do is find a recording of it and learn it by ear, the melody and the changes. In my experience abersolds have been much more accurate than fake books.

How to learn to Improvise

1. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN.....

2. Know your instrument. Study and practice everything there is to know about playing your instrument. Tone, Technique, ect...

3. Study as much theory as possible. Scales, chords, progressions, patterns, ect... And practice them over tunes.
 

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Al Stevens said:
First, everything a player does to learn the harmonic and melodic structures of a tune helps, and this approach is one such thing. But, nothing makes learning improvisation "proven and easy." I don't like to hear methodologies being promoted that way. That's the kind of hype you read about losing weight and bodybuilding on late night infomercials.


That is exactly how those of my generation learned to improvise. It was all we had. Listening to and emulating good improvisers along with an understanding of basic musical theory is still the best way to learn.


The first chord for this tune in concert C on a Bb instrument in a jazz idiom is Am7. The first important lesson any jazz player learns about changes is that virtually every dom7 chord is preceded by the mi7 chord that resolves to it.


No you won't. You'll be playing really boring solos because you will only be arpeggiating the chords in the tune. It's a good exercise for learning the harmonic context (although I prefer a scalar approach) but it is by no way a good way to construct a solo.

Which is only one approach and nowhere near the most important approach.

I don't believe this story. I don't know how Konitz taught, but I am certain he did not apply this technique to learning every new tune. After you get past a certain level in improvisation, you don't need this kind of exercise. This is learning to crawl before you learn to walk.

I completely reject that suggestion.

This is just not true. Some jazz greats did polish and reuse lines and even complete solos, but many more do not.

If you like this method, or even if you don't, by all means give it a try. But don't think it is the "proven and easy" path to playing great solos. It is only one small part of a large set of exercises by which a player comes to understand how to improvise.
:salute: :headbang: :notworth:

Thanks, Al!!!

While there's certainly nothing wrong with the process that Allthatjazz suggests, and I'm sure it's helpful, I get really tired of teachers or players taking the "All ya hafta do is..." approach to jazz improvisation. The students asking for "the magic scale" or the teachers promoting the "easy" way to improvise drive me crazy.

The reality is that jazz improvisation is a complex, demanding pursuit. As one of my improvisation teachers used to say, "Music is hard and tricky." But that's one of the things that make jazz improvisation such a worthy and rewarding thing to pursue.

Absolutely, the skills necessary to learn improvisation can be broken down into manageable chunks, and exercises, drills, and various techniques can be quite helpful. But there are a LOT of manageable chunks that need to be addressed before one can sound like a convincing jazz improviser.

***WARNING: LANGUAGE ANALOGY AHEAD***

It's as if someone said: In order to write great French poetry, you don't have to read any great French poetry, or bother with any of the subtleties of the French language, and how it is formed by French culture or tradition. All ya hafta do to write great French poetry is: 1. Learn this list of French words, 2. Learn to conjugate these 8 verbs, 3. Make sure it rhymes.

Yeah, good luck with all that...
 

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Agreed on the allyahaftado issue, dukecity. I was thinking about that when I started reading the post. It's an easy proven way to learn a small portion of the skills needed to become a good improviser.
 

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Al's "quick and easy" approach to improvisation:

  1. Listen to jazz players all the time
  2. Emulate what you hear as well as you can
  3. Analyse what you learn to understand the theory that underpins it
  4. Iterate steps 1 - 3 every day for the rest of your life
  5. Gradually allow your own voice to evolve. Allow it, don't force it.
  6. Die without ever having gotten anywhere near as good as you always wanted to be
 

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Does someone have a proven easy way for a jazz artist to get paid even remotely close to what he/she deserves for the time that he/she has put in learning how to compose, improvise, and perform?

Now THAT would be a thread!

This is what works for me as far as learning to improvise goes.
1. Sound exercises; 2. Technique; 3. Transcribing solos; 4. Learning tunes.

Learning and memorizing, by ear, solos by great players that you love and want to emulate is, in my opinion, the most effective way to develop your own playing. I know this will spark a debate. Oh well. Learning an album of Cannonball solos takes forever, but man it sure helped me when I was starting to really learn to play. It's hard, it's time consuming, and it trains your ears, brain, and fingers so insanely well that there's no substitute. I don't transcribe so much any more, but I think it's a very important step.
 

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gary said:
Is that what I said? Does nothing? :scratch:
Hmmm. Well, yes. ;)

First off, for me, listening to the greats was just the opposite of discouraging (and granted we're not all the same), but rather something I was very emotionally attached to. If anything, it gave me incentive to want to play like them.
Yeah, that's a big part of what I'm trying to do now. I'm just starting to try to play along with some of the slower, more approachable recordings from the old masters.

Secondly, correct improvising is all about phrasing, articulations and rhythm and if you don't have this in your soul, you'll never accomplish anything as an improviser. ONe needs the other technical and theoretical aspects, as well. And an organised way of learning tunes is very helpful. But it all adds up to nothing if you can't play in the style . . .
That's certainly the goal. But approaching things as a total beginner, I know there's no way in hell I can just jump in and try to do everything at once. I try to do exercises that will isolate a particular thing. Once I've gained a little facility at doing something in isolation, I try to combine it with something else. If I try to have too many musical balls in the air at once they'll all fall to the ground. So I need to carefully build up. I expect it's like that for most beginners.

So that's the context in which I made my other statements above.
Yeah, I realize that. But I wanted to make sure that everyone else did. For what it's worth, I do think the exercise posted by allthatjazz was fine. It is helpful for those of us at very beginning stages. It gives us a chance to abstract out everything but the chords and the changes, at a point when we'd be overwhelmed if we tried to bring everything together to create beautiful music.

If you would like a completely different way of looking at tunes and learning them, take a look at (surprise!) Lee Konitz' "Back to Basics"; his Ten Step Method of learning a tune at :http://www.melmartin.com/html_pages/Interviews/konitz.html Actually, that's the way I learned (thank you Bugs Bowers ;)) more than anything having to do with cord/scales.
I've been on those pages many times, mostly because I like the idea of building off the melody as a base for the improvisation. I've been unable to find much information about Konitz' actual ten step process, though. Best I can find is this passage:

"Lee Konitz has developed an approach to improvisation based on a 10-level system. The first, and most important, level is the song itself . It then progresses incrementally through more sophisticated stages of embellishment, gradually displacing the original theme with new ones. The process culminates in the creation of an entirely new melodic structure. Konitz calls this final level 'an act of pure inspiration'. - D.K."

Is there somewhere that this ten step method is actually explained in more detail and/or published?
 
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