Have you ever wondered how the grandmasters of jazz are able to improvise effortlessly, for hours on end, without repeating themselves?
This may seem like obscure wizardry, but I was surprised to learn that at its core the ability is based on a rather simple method, which – once understood – can be actively trained and practiced!
In my understanding, the secret sauce to jazz improvisation is the
ability to work with simple musical themes, and to
transform the same “raw material” again and again into a plethora of
musical phrases and melodic lines.
Easier said than done, you may think. But let me assure you that this procedure does not have to be overly complicated. On the contrary, the best results are often achieved by keeping things simple.
Today, we shall discuss what I mean by “keeping things simple”, and I will give an example of how to develop an improvised solo based on only a handful of musical themes.
Musical vocabulary is the raw material from which a solo is crafted
If you have followed this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I miss no chance to state how important musical vocabulary is for jazz improvisation.
Musical vocabulary consists of musical sentences or phrases (a.k.a. licks) and musical words or syllables (a.k.a. musical themes). This stuff is the raw material from which improvised solos are built.
Here is an example of a lick, a musical phrase:
You can learn and use it "as is", if you wish.
In fact, it is entirely possible to simply pick a handful of licks like the one above and string them together, like the cars of a train, into a continuous piece of music. However, we have learned that using licks “out of the box” is a fool’s errand.
Not only does this have nothing to do with improvisation, but even if you somehow manage to shoehorn each lick into its place (which is rather difficult, actually), you could never hope to achieve anything beyond a mediocre collage of random licks, let alone a quality solo.
I have learned over time that there is a way to get far more mileage out of each and every lick.
The power of musical themes
Every lick you will ever hear or learn has at its core a simple melodic or rhythmic theme.
This central musical theme can be a little melody or a short rhythmic pattern, it can be as simple as one or two notes, or it could be a scale, or a call and response figure, you name it.
If you listen to the above lick again, you will find that it is based on a simple chromatic 4-note pattern. The notes may change but the rhythm is the same every time:
This is the piece of information you want to extract from every lick you learn. Think of it as the "essence" of a lick condensed into a short and simple musical theme.
Don't get me wrong, acquiring and learning as many licks as possible from a variety of sources, preferably by ear, is definitely a good way to expose yourself to musical ideas and to build up your musical vocabulary. It is also fun to the point where it can be addicting.
But at the end of the day, the goal is to internalize not the lick itself, but the musical theme at its core.
Learning to play 100 different licks is a laudable achievement, but it
is worth a whole lot more – and I can’t stress this enough – to pick a
single lick and learn to play it in 100 different ways.
If you learn to master musical themes rather than ready made "canned" licks, you are in a position to construct an endless stream of improvised music based on a single theme.
This is how you gain true leverage from learning licks!
How to turn a single musical theme into an endless stream of music
In practice, learning to play a lick in 100 different ways means to come up with variations on a theme.
This is the key skill I urge you to practice if you want to get from “what on Earth do I play over these changes” to “what else can I play over these changes?”.
The recipe to practice this skill is quite simple, too:
Pick a lick or come up with a short theme every day, and then
experiment with that theme.
Rearrange it, alter individual notes, change the rhythm, use the theme in different registers or keys, play it over different chord changes, play it upside down, play around with accents and dynamics. There are no limits to your creativity!
There are literally infinite ways to recycle a simple musical theme. The more you practice doing this, the better you will get at coming up with variations on a theme on the spot.
This is the art of improvisation!
To give you an example, here are three licks I came up with using the very same theme from above:
These three musical phrases also happen to fill an entire run through a 12-bar blues standard.
Indeed, a single lick or a single musical theme is all you will ever
need to populate a 12 or 16 bar run through any jazz standard.
This is what I mean by "keeping things simple"!
You may see where this is going.
Once you get comfortable creating variations on a musical theme, all you have to do is pick a fresh theme every now and then, say, every time you begin a new section, and then stick to it for a while.
This way you can improvise until the end of time and never run out of stuff to play over your changes!
Here is my attempt to do this in practice over a blues standard. Notice how I pick a fresh musical theme each time I play through the 12-bar form:
Hopefully this gave you an idea how you can leverage simple musical themes as raw materials for your solo.
I am not an experienced improviser by any means, and it took me a dozen attempts or so to come up with the above recording, but I am very happy with it nonetheless. If you compare it to my previous solo over the same blues form, which was crudely stitched together from “out of the box” licks, you will notice a world of a difference.
Let this be our lesson for today.
If you learn to work with simple musical themes, you are in a
position to create an endless array of interesting, natural, truly improvised solos that
actually “tell a story”.
If you need inspiration, you can find many licks in our collection here on the LickStack. But don't simply copy and paste them into your solos. Instead, select a handful of licks, find the underlying musical themes and use those as your raw material.
Work with the themes, experiment with them, come up with subtle variations, make them your own and transform them into a smooth and never ending musical narrative.