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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
Hi, everyone. This is my first thread for SOTW. Questions and comments are welcome and encouraged. Such an all encompassing and massive subject as improvisation is impossible to fully explore in volumes of text much less one post but I will open with my ideas and hopefully open a dialogue between of SOTW members.

In the years that I have been obsessed with all aspects of this organized sound we call music, I have rarely spoken or written down any of my thoughts or feelings on the subject. This is as much for me (or perhaps more so) as it is for you whoever you may be. Seeing previously unspoken thoughts collected together somehow galvanizes them in my mind.

Whenever I have given lessons or masterclasses on the subject of improvisation I find the most often asked question is: Where do I begin? Indeed looking at the vast amount of music available can be daunting for even experienced players. Also each subsequent generation adds another ring to trunk of music to study. So, with such a massive amount of material, where to begin?

I want to start by breaking down this seemingly abstract idea of improvisation into easier to digest pieces. I believe creating art, and for the purposes of this post, playing music of any kind, whether it be improvised or written can be broken down, at its essence, into two things: Imagination and Execution. Imagination is the fundamental facility by which we understand the world. It is the ability to form mental images or, in the case of music, sound. Execution is the physical manifestation of these mental images through your instrument. To be most fluid in improvisation, you must have facility in both.

Let's examine imagination for the moment as it is the more difficult of the two in which to achieve total fluidity. Scales, chords and the near infinite combination of each are the colors of improvisation. The more material (harmonic knowledge) you have at your disposal, the larger breadth of music you can imagine just as a the wider a palette of colors the painter has, the greater degree of accuracy and subtley he can portray in his work. Improvisation is not just notes however. It is rhythm and inflection. Volume and tone. Call and response. Each of these elements is mixed in various degrees in an alchemy of sorts to create a solo.

So after all this pontification how do you "build" your
imagination? I will start by saying that, ultimately, each person must and, out of necessity, will find their own path but I can talk about what has worked for me. If you are reading this far into my post you must be interested in improvisation on some level which means at some point you heard someone play something that intrigued you. Whether it was the motivic development in Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" solo or Michael Brecker's tone, something grabbed you. As an improviser it YOUR job to find out what that something was, examine it, internalize it, and in the end, make it your own.

When I was starting out playing jazz I did what most everyone else has done throughout the history of this music. Listen to the same solo for hours until I could sing the solo note for note. Then figuring out on my horn what those notes were and playing along with the record until I could play every inflections as accurately as possible. After doing this many times for many solos over the years you develop of a sense of what's going on behind and in between the notes.

Although I still transcribe often, I now use another method I developed as well. It's a meditation of sorts. I listen for days only to a specific player that I want to incorporate some facet of their playing into my own. While I'm listening I try to put myself inside the players head. Not listening for notes or technical aspects but try to understand aesthetically where the player is coming from. When I practice after listening, I try take on the persona of that player or the aspect of the player I want to learn from. In this method it's more about the "vibe" than it is about notes and and patterns.

Onto Execution. By comparison, gaining technical facility is much less abstract of a goal. I have studied under some amazing musicians, and on the subject of establishing good technique, they all have said in their own way the same method: "Don't play faster than you can play cleanly." (This particular version of the phrase I must give credit to Harvey Pittel) Whenever practicing any technical passage, practice slow and gradually build up speed over time. The other note I will add is that playing every day, will help tie your technical facility to your ability to imagine faster and more intricate lines. So remember: 1) Never play faster than you can play cleanly. 2) Practice every day.

Over time, studying harmony, transcribing, "persona meditation" (I realize its a cumbersome term...), slow, methodical, technical practice, and playing live with as many people as you can on a consistent basis help you greatly in forming your unique musical identity. Even if I were to list every solo I've transcribed, your playing would be yours because those solos and the meaning they hold would be filtered through your life experiences, which are exclusive to you. So keep on listening and practicing and if you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me. Hope this post was helpful or insightful to someone.

Justin Vasquez
 

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Your webpage is very good. Your playing needs no comment. Agree with your entire post. The challenge is in the doing. K
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Thanks for the kind words. No doubt any alto player should check out what amazing things Kenny has done with the instrument but I hope there's more that comes across than that... There alot of other saxophonists that have had huge influences on my sound. Especially tenor players like Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon (check out his tone on "Body and Soul" Ballads album) and Mike Brecker to a few. I've always tried to imagine a tenor sound coming out of my alto.
 

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First of all Justin welcome to SOTW. Glad to know things are going well since you left Austin.

Everyone should check out Justin's website. He's a great player. When he was in Austin he was one of the young players from UT that I always enjoyed listening to. Always felt inspired when I heard him play.

You're sounding great man. Keep it up.
 

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I met Justin a few times when I was an undergrad. Dude knows his *****.

As for the Kenny Garrett influence, I don't hear it. :D j/k

Justin, I was on your site last night. Freddie Mendoza had told me about "skipping record" thing but I never got a chance to hear it. I'm glad you put a clip of that up.
 

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Hi Justin

You have some good ideas and I listened a little to your tracks and they are good! Kenny Garret is obviously the biggest influence in your playing like others mentioned. I agree with a lot of what you say about imagination and excecution but here is where I have a problem:

Justin Vasquez said:
Scales, chords and the near infinite combination of each are the colors of improvisation. The more material (harmonic knowledge) you have at your disposal, the larger breadth of music you can imagine
This is your description of "imagination". To me this sounds like a very small part of imagination. This is referring only to music that relies on harmony in some way, and more specifically on chords and scales. In my opinion "imagination" is first about an "idea". This idea is much more basic than harmony, scales, etc. and it is basically the "core" of the improvisation (or composition, which is the same thing really). The "idea" step is IMO possibly the most important. It is something specific that you (i.e. anyone) is doing.

Do you also play music with different ideas than what I hear on your MySpace page? I'm asking because, what you write and your ideas are absolutely great for the specific music that you play, but they are more specific and there is other music that is different but still has the same basic principles of having a core idea, just based on something else.

Thanks for writing this post Justin :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 · (Edited)
Justin Vasquez said:
Improvisation is not just notes however. It is rhythm and inflection. Volume and tone. Call and response.
Hi Clarnibass. I didn't mean to imply that harmonic knowledge is all there is to imagination. If you finish my paragraph you'll see that I listed a few other aspects of improvisation that are in the sphere of imagination as I'm referring to it for this thread. My website www.justinvasquez.com has more tunes that aren't on my MySpace page. The great thing about music is that there are innumerable ways to approach composing or improvising. I have always strived to have as many avenues at my disposal to write or improvise music with. Over the years I've had the good fortune to be involved in many different styles of music. When composing, sometimes it's about a feeling or emotion I want to evoke. "Fields" was one of those tunes. I had just moved to California after living in Texas for 22 years and wanted to write something would remind of home when I would play or listen to it. Sometimes it's a more analytical approach such as my arrangement of "I Loves You Porgy" (you can hear it on my website) where I really wanted to pay homage to a hero of mine, Billy Childs. When improvising, I rarely "think" about anything. I am mainly listening. I try to step outside of myself and ask, as a listener, "What would I like to hear?" The rest, hopefully, takes care of itself by way of what I've listened to and practiced up until that point. Of the material I have posted, it's just a window into the work I'm currently involved in and not a total picture of what I can do. Thanks for the interest!
 

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Justin, great advise. I worry way too much about what "they" want to hear and think alot about scales, licks , everything but being in the moment. I really like how you "step outside and ask your self what you'd like to hear". Way cool, K
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 · (Edited)
Being relaxed and open physically and mentally allows you to make music on the highest level.

"You've got to learn how to remain unblocked....Don't be afraid of getting stuck, or of sounding stupid, or of not knowing where you're going. You don't play your best if you are thinking about your insecurities. "
- Chris Potter

" I don't like to hear people trying, I want to just hear the music, which I've found is when you're real loose."
- Pat Metheny

This holds true on stage and in the practice room. Its a difficult topic address because it is such a personal one. How does one person tell another how to relax mentally? It's something I think you have to find out for yourself. Though I think just being aware of the concept of relaxing when you are playing can have a positive effect subconciously.
 

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This is all great info you're sharing with us Justin. Very good food for the mind and soul.

When I check out the greats it's inspiring . I know I can never do THAT but what I want to think about is the ENERGY and SPIRIT. I can think about that and grab some.

It's good for me to not try TOO HARD. Playing within our ears so to speak.
We have attained techical and harmonic knowledge and now we can use that to say something on our level. Don't play above your head is the best advice I can give myself as my own teacher right now.
 

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I too hear Garrett in your playing Justin, but so much more as well. I think it's a good thing, and I don't think you are a Garrett clone. :) I was told I sounded like Cannonball before I had actually heard one of his recordings, then I went out and bought a bunch of his albums (this was before CDs were popular). Ten years later I was told I sounded like Gerald Albright before I had ever heard him play. I think we all go through phases where we sound like certain players but not intentionally. I think when you are subjected to various musical influences you can easily come to the same musical conclusions that other players have.
 

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Justin Vasquez said:
Being relaxed and open physically and mentally allows you to make music on the highest level.

This holds true on stage and in the practice room. Its a difficult topic address because it is such a personal one. How does one person tell another how to relax mentally? It's something I think you have to find out for yourself. Though I think just being aware of the concept of relaxing when you are playing can have a positive effect subconciously.
I find that when it comes to improvisation it is difficult if not impossible to relax if you haven't spent the requisite time shedding. Shedding is a process of realizing what you can and can't do. If you don't learn what you can do, then how would you know what you're capable of on the bandstand, and in turn how will you be comfortable?
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 · (Edited)
From Bird, to little ol' me, we've all struggled with the beast (as Wynton Marsalis calls it) that is shedding. The good thing about it though is the more effort you put in, the more results you get out. So keep on shedding guys! All those nights staying home when your friends are going out having a few drinks WILL eventually pay off.
 

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Yeah man, great stuff on the myspace and website. And congratulations with getting such a killer band for your album, I'll be sure to get a copy when it comes out. You must have gotten hooked up quickly in NYC, good for you.

As far as your topic goes.....

I have always approached improvisation as organically as possible, probably because I grew up playing bass and guitar in rock bands before taking saxophone seriously. I agree that broadening your understanding of scales, chords, intervals, time, rhythm, and polyrhythm can give you more freedom to improvise how you want to, so I've always practiced a lot of technique (Kenny Werner mentions this in his book, too). But I think the impetus has to come from you, and that's something you can't really practice I don't think. I think that to be really improvising, to really be channeling your own personality into music, you have to clear your head of restrictive thoughts and preconceptions and try to reach that zone where your ears, your brain, and your physical ability to play your instrument are virtually the same entity. I think that's why people like Coltrane, John McLaughlin, Kenny Werner, Wayne Shorter, and others have gotten into Buddhist meditation over the years.

By the way, I don't hear that much Kenny in your playing, just some really great modern alto. Keep it up, can't wait to hear what you do in the future.
 

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Discussion Starter · #18 ·
HeavyWeather77 said:
I think that to be really improvising, to really be channeling your own personality into music, you have to clear your head of restrictive thoughts and preconceptions and try to reach that zone where your ears, your brain, and your physical ability to play your instrument are virtually the same entity.
Improvisation is such a personal experience that it is difficult to give a qualitative analysis of what actually happens when you're doing it. While its not something you can practice on a daily basis like scales, the ability to reach that "zone" HeavyWeather77 is talking about is something that can be developed, at least in my experiece. I'm going to delve into some real esoteric territory here so bear with me.

I still remember the first time I "woke up" after a solo and had to realize that I was a human being on Earth holding a contraption made of brass and plastic. It was one of those defining, clarifying moments in my life. Its one of the main reasons I decided to make music my life. As time has passed, the ability for me to reach that point has become increasingly easier than it used to be. When I've discussed this "zone" in the past this is the analogy I use to describe it:

Have you ever had bright light shined somewhere in your peripheral vision and when closing your eyes afterward, a spot appears where the light used to be? If you try to move your eye in the direction of the spot, the spot moves along with your eye, not allowing you to look directly at it. The only way to observe the spot is to not look at it.

The same is true of this creative mindset we are talking about. You have to be in a frame of mind where you are not thinking about this "zone" for the "zone" to take place. This is what HeavyWeather77 is talking about in the quote I listed. Its a very difficult subject to discuss and I thank you guys for allowing me to share my thoughts with you.

On a side note, you guys should check out HeavyWeather77's band Snarky Puppy if you haven't already. It's some killin ****.
 

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Hi Justin

Welcome to the forum. Not familiar with you before the post but your music sounds great so let us know if you ever make it here!

Isn't your post essentially saying 'play what you feel'? I think it can be reduced to a sentence. YMMV of course.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
Hi docformat,
I'm glad you enjoy the music. As I stated in the beginning of the first post, this thread is meant to be a tangible sounding board for me to see my own thoughts organzied into hopefully coherent passages as well as an insight, for those who are interested, into something I've spent almost every waking hour of my life examining. I haven't had much time to teach lately, but I do have a yearning of sorts to share my thoughts and experiences with others using dialogue and not just my horn. As for what my post is really saying, I think "play what you feel" misses the point somewhat. In the end, if you have your craft together, you can't help but play what you feel. It's the only possible result. I just wanted to explore the creative mindset that fosters the most natural and uninhibited expression of those feelings.

I hope to play overseas again in the near future. Most of my efforts are being put into making my album happen at the moment. If I do make it London, I will be sure to let you and all the other UK SOTW alumni know.
 
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