As outlined previously, picking up musical vocabulary by ear is one of the most effective and rewarding activities you can do to increase your improvisation skills on your instrument.
While there are various sources of musical vocabulary, you will likely get most of the raw material for your solos from recordings.
The obvious place to start searching for musical vocabulary is with the best jazz piano players you can think of. Today, I have chosen to learn from the legendary Michel Petrucciani.
In my opinion, Michel is one of the most inspiring musicians who has ever lived. He has become one of the most influential jazz piano players in recent history, despite constant pain due to severe disability. In anything but the literal sense, the man was a giant in jazz piano performance, and his unique and beautiful style resonates with me like nothing else.
Below is an excerpt of Michel Petrucciani’s solo performance at the 1993 Stuttgarter Jazztage in Germany. The standard he plays is “in a sentimental mood” by Duke Ellington:
My goal for today is to extract and learn to use 3 licks from this performance.
Here is how I go about it:
Step 1: Identify the structure of the piece and figure out where the improvised solo begins and ends
“In a sentimental mood” is a classic 32-bar jazz standard with four 8-bar sections in the form of AABA. I admit I cheated and looked this up in the real book.
However, make it a goal to try and recognize the form in the recording. If you listen closely and focus on the melody of the tune, you will recognize the following basic structure of this performance:
- The first run through the 32-bar form is played in the laid-back
ballad style and lasts up until about the 2:40 mark.
- Next come 32 bars of improvised solo, up until about 4:30. This part
is played in a more upbeat blues feel.
- For the last 32 bars Michel reverts back to the ballad style.
Listen to the performance again and try to find the boundaries between the 3 sections around 2:40 and 4:30:
You may have noticed that this is only a rough outline of the solo performance. If you listen closely, you will also recognize a short intro sequence before the melody begins, as well as a short “bridge” sequence after the improvised solo.
Why do this analysis? We could have just jumped right in and searched for interesting licks.
There are two reasons why I like to start with this quick “overview”:
Firstly, being able to keep track of “where in the standard we currently are” is a crucial listening skill that is often overlooked. It is particularly important if you play in a group with other soloists.
When it is someone else’s turn to solo, you need to be able to recognize if they are in part A or part B, for instance. And once they arrive at the last A section in the form, get ready to take the next solo. You don’t want to miss your cue!
Once it is your turn to solo, it is all the more important to stick to the form of the standard. It happens all too often that you miss a section and play something like ABA instead of AABA. This will generally confuse your bandmates and can lead to chaos.
Thus, I welcome any opportunity to get better at identifying the structure and form of jazz standard, and I challenge myself every time I listen to a performance.
The second reason why I like to start with a quick overview of a performance is to identify the section(s) with improvised solos.
The improvised solo is the main course on the menu and usually has the
highest density of musical vocabulary for us to enjoy.
In our example, the second run through the 32 bar form consists of an improvised solo. It is worth listening to this section more closely. We are learning to improvise after all, and naturally, you can learn the most from the improvised solo.
Step 2: Find interesting licks and identify musical themes
In this step, I listen to the performance, in particular the improvised solo, and I try to identify any sections that sound interesting and worthwhile to me.
Once I find some interesting candidates, I listen closely to the sections and learn to play them by ear using my step by step procedure.
Good candidates for licks are self-contained musical phrases 1-4
measures in length that have a clear beginning and end and that are
characterized by a single melodic theme or rhythmic pattern.
This is best explained with a few examples. Below are 3 licks taken from the solo. I will show the excerpt from the live performance followed by my own recording of each lick.
Do you recognize the rhythmic and melodic theme this lick is built on? Michel repeats the same pattern 3 times in a row and ends the phrase with a neat blues figure which is also built on the same pattern.
Michel uses a similar technique here. Listen to the rhythmic pattern and you will find that it is repeated several times in a row while moving up the scale.
This example is characterized by a groovy rhythmic theme on notes taken from the blues scale. What a gem!
These are three examples of excellent licks that I have decided to “harvest” from this concert performance.
There are more, of course, but I have chosen to focus on some of the easier sections for now.
I am very much impressed by the mind blowing runs over scales. Maybe I will come back later to analyze some of them, but they are way out of my league for now.
The take home message here is that the best lines of improvised music are built from simple melodic or rhythmic themes.
The fundamental themes from which the licks are built are the pieces
of musical vocabulary you want to learn.
Think of the licks as musical phrases or sentences and of the underlying themes as the words from which the sentences are built.
Step 3: Use the musical vocabulary to build your own licks
I have identified three licks from Michel Petrucciani’s solo. What now?
I could practice them and use them “out of the box” in my next piano solo.
It is ok to do this occasionally, but it is a widespread misconception that licks are static constructs that should be played note for note the same way every time.
In fact, there is a way to get way more mileage out of every lick you learn.
The key is to internalize and use not the licks, but the underlying
musical themes, the musical vocabulary from which the licks are built.
To make use of the language analogy again, the ultimate goal is to learn how to build nice sentences and phrases from simple words. This is how improvised music is created.
My method of choice to train this skill is to come up with variations.
I routinely try to experiment and create variations of every lick I encounter. This is not as difficult as it sounds. All you have to do is play around with the musical themes within each lick.
This is a form of creative learning. By experimenting with musical themes, you will not only memorize them much better, but you will actually learn how to use them in your own solos.
To give you some examples, here are variations on each of the three licks above:
Compare them to the "originals" above. I made sure to create new licks that are similar but not identical to the licks I started with, while sticking to the original musical themes. Do you recognize the musical themes again?
Listen and learn from the masters
To reiterate, these are the three steps to pick up musical vocabulary from recordings:
- Identify sections with improvised solos. This is where you will find
the best pieces of musical vocabulary, and as a bonus you will learn
to identify structure and form of a standard.
- Identify interesting licks. Find self-contained phrases of music
that are built from unique melodic and/or rhythmic themes. Learn
these sequences by ear and record yourself playing. This is a
way to systematically collect examples of musical vocabulary. You
may create an account here on the LickStack and upload your
recordings to keep them safe.
- Internalize the musical themes by experimenting with them and coming
up with variations. This way you will train actual real-world
improvisation skills. It is a good practice to record your variations
too for future reference.
There is a virtually endless supply of musical themes out there waiting to be discovered by you.
The more musical vocabulary you pick up, and the better you get at building musical sentences and phrases from them, the more fun you will have during improvisation.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, like Michel Petrucciani.
Our job is to listen to the grand masters, and to learn as much as we can from them. We honor their legacy by taking their ideas and turning them into something new in creative ways.
This is what it means to improvise.