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 allof you who wrote me with such positive feedback. This article isdedicated to any saxophonist who is interested in improvising.Beginners will find some helpful ideas here about how to construct aninteresting solo. Advanced players will probably know everything inthis article, but sometimes being reminded of good ideas can freshenup our playing.
We all know that animprovising jazz musician is telling a musical story... The sameconventions that apply to a good novel also apply to a good jazz solo.You need an interesting premise (motif), or opening chapter. Thereshould be character development (development of motif) as well as aninteresting or satisfying conclusion. Other elements of a real pageturner of a book or a captivating solo are conflict and resolution ortension and release. The intensity of a good book or a solo will havepeaks and valleys. In music these exciting and calm moments can beachieved through the use of dynamics, space/rests, speed/length ofnotes, and the range of pitch (low/high notes).
The firstthree tips in this article are so simple and common sense that you maythink that you don't need to pay much attention to them. I believethat the players who diligently practice the first three tips will berewarded for their efforts with more applause from the audience at theend of their solos and more respect from their fellowmusicians.
Ideas 4-6, fallunder the tricks and licks category. These may take more time andpractice before you'll be able to use them in a solo, but the way achef uses spices to give food flavor, these tricks can liven up yoursoloing.
Important note: These tricksand licks will not make you a better player. If used effectively, theymay make you a more interesting or entertaining player. Fancytricks and licks can't replace replace solid fundamentals like goodtone, intonation, time/swing feel, phrasing and good technique.Therefore, my recommendation is to stay with your normal practiceroutine and add one of these tricks at a time.
1. Space is the place - Play less notes and put space inbetween your ideas. This may seem like a cheap trick but it's not.This simple and easy to do suggestion will immediately make you soundbetter. Almost all of us including me would have more success with oursolos if we would economize on notes and give the listener time todigest our ideas. A great way to practice this is to imagine thatyou're trading one or two bar riffs with an imaginary player. Playsomething then leave the space while you imagine what the other playerwould play. Don't worry about there being dead space. Most rhythmsections will jump all over those spaces and before you know ityou'll be in a real dialogue with the rhythm section. John Coltraneasked Miles Davis's advice on how to end a solo because Trane washaving difficulty finding a place to end. Miles answered in his raspywhisper, "Take the horn out your mouth." Space is the place - Takethe horn out your mouth.
2. Go long .... and high - Another simple but veryeffective trick is to play a high note for about as long as you canhold it. Used at the right moment in your solo, this is almostguaranteed to get the crowd on your side. The shape of a solo isimportant. Jamey Abersold explains this very well in Volume 1. of hisplay along series. For example, you can start a solo in the low ormedium range of the horn and as you develop your ideas, start to playhigher and higher and perhaps faster and more notes, building to awell timed very long high note.
3. Could you repeat that please? - What's worth playing onceis probably worth playing at least four times. Using exactrepetitions or slight variations allows your listener to follow yourtrain of thought better. In other words, when you play a nice lick,don't just abandon that little gold nugget. Let us see/hear itagain. 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 ifthere are any cases of motif and development, which usually contains ahealthy dose of repetition.
Stop Right There!
The tips mentioned so far are enough to change your playingdramatically. On your next solo, try and do these four simple things.Or better yet, record yourself playing a solo with a play-along or alive band. Don't use any of my ideas. Just play as you normallywould. Then record yourself while you consciously use the four idesbelow.
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 greatplayers who have used the growl to great effect. Growling conveys intensity and soul. It seems impossible to play without convictionwhile 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 friendSteve 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 thehorn. 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 himvery 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 toactually produce a pitch or growl with his or her voice while simultaneously playing notes on the saxophone. The note from the saxand 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 thewindpipe (where the bend is), there's lots of stuff that tends tovibrate: the soft palate, the uvula, and a bunch of other tissue thatI can't name. This stuff will all get into a sympathetic vibration ifthe player produces the growl too high up in the throat. The resultwill 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 mythroat so they can see where I am producing the growl. Of course themost common problem with beginners is that they use too much of thegrowl effect. I have the student play long tones and learn togradually introduce the growl into the note, and then to graduallyreduce it. This gives them a broader palette of sounds to use. It isnot uncommon for the beginner to experience some irritation in thethroat while learning this technique. I suggest a gargle with JackDaniels." (Authors note: The Jack Daniels falls under the categoryof definitely don't try this at home. By the way, when I listened toSteve'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 thegrowl 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 thebell facing directly into an electric fan. That's the sound. Ifyou're unable to get the flutter I guess you could bring a powerfulfan 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 inSpanish which begins with R. To do this, place the tip of your tongueon the roof of your mouth right where the ridge is. To find the ridgestart with the tip of your tongue where your teeth and the roof ofyour mouth meet. Keeping the tongue against the roof go away from theteeth 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 getsome air moving out of your mouth until the tongue starts rolling.Then, do that while you're blowing the sax. If you don't succeedright away, try to remember what it was like learning to whistle. Itmay have taken quite a while, but you kept trying and you kept havingdifferent people demonstrate it to you. Keep trying!
For some reason I like to use the flutter tongue inconjunction with the harmonic minor scale, getting a snake charmerkind of sound. For example: Let's say you're playing over an F#minor Funk groove, (your key) and normally you would play a DorianScale. That's like an F# major scale with the 3rd and the 7th noteflatted by a 1/2 step. You can usually fit in the Harmonic Minor Scaleover the same minor funk* groove place for the "snake charmer"type of sound and with the flutter tongue, it can be funny andeffective. The Harmonic Minor Scale is like a major scale with the 3rdand 6th degree flatted by a half step. Goof around and have fun withthis one, but like all tricks, don't overuse it. (* I use the termfunk very loosely. It could be almost any minor one keygroove.)
6. Cannonball lick.
This lick is taken from Cannonball's solo on Love for Sale,from the CD, Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly (Blue NoteBST 81595). The All Music Guide calls this CD, (which alsofeatures Miles Davis on it) "Absolutely essential". For thetranscription I recommend getting this excellent book of transcribedsolos: The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, compiled andedited by Tim Price (Hal Leonard HL006763244). Besides the little lickthat I'm pointing out here, pay special attention to thearticulations in this solo. Tim did a great job including thisextremely important aspect of Cannonball's sound. Bear in mind thatit's difficult for most mere mortals to play as fast and clean asthe great Mr. Adderly. Don't be discouraged. Play the lines as slowas you need to, but do the articulations. Articulations or the lack ofarticulations are one of the main reasons why many inexperiencedimprovisers just don't sound as popping as the Jazz greats. Before Iget to the lick and while I'm on the subject of articulation, let mesay this: Saxophonists - please don't only transcribe and copy othersax players. Trumpet and trombone players are usually better atarticulation then we are. Listen to some Freddie Hubbard and FrankRosolino and copy some of their articulations. Now you'repopping.
Well, without further ado, here's the lick: It occurs in the 19thbar 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 thatyou play your side Bb, put your index finger up to the top key ofthose three side keys. By the way, keep your thumb under the thumbrest where it's supposed to be. You will play the high B and let itsound before you start the trill. Most people who try this for thefirst time do not trill fast enough and that's why it doesn'tsound right. Trill as fast as you can and like everything else; if youneed 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 youhave to practice new ideas and techniques before they can sound andfeel natural. But, I believe at the gig you should play from yourheart. Play what you're hearing at that moment. There's nothingworse than hearing a saxophonist practice on the gig. To me it'sinsulting to the audience and the other musicians in the band, and itdoesn't show you in your best light. There's room for debate onthis issue and there is definitely something to be said forstretching, taking chances and trying things that you've never donebefore. These are all responsibilities that an artist has. But I alsobelieve that as an artist, you have a responsibility to the audienceto show them what's in you heart, not only what's in your head. Ipersonally try and play every solo like it might be the last one thatI ever get to play. If I know that it's my last chance to play, Iwant to go out giving one hundred percent and playing notes that Iwill literally die for. That may be a melodramatic thought, but Ithink that everything in life should be approached with that sincerityand intensity.
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:
- Jamey Abersold Play-AlongVolume 1.
This is the one that started it all. Take the time to read the information in the firstpart of the book. There is an encyclopedia of Jazz improv ideas and concepts contained in this gem.
The Julian Cannonball Adderly Collection, Compiled and Editedby Tim Price. (Hal Leonard HL006763244)
One of the great transcription books with an excellent interview with Nat Adderly. Even if the solosare too difficult to play at this time, it would be great to buy allof the CDs and follow along looking at the transcriptions whileCannonball plays. Pay attention to his note selection and how eachnote fits with the chords.
CD recommendations for this article:
Somethin' Else - Cannonball Adderly (BlueNoteBST81595)http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00000I41J/saxontheweb-21
Kind Of Blue - Miles Davis (SonyB000002ADT)
The biggest selling Jazz Record of all time and rightly so. If youdon't have it, get it. Miles, Coltrane, Adderly, Evans, Kelly,Chambers, Cobb - no need to say anything else.http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000024F6G/saxontheweb-21https://www.saxontheweb.net/Espina/Improvising.html