Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jazz Improv Masterclass #1

What does it take to play a good sounding jazz solo? A master's degree? 20 years experience? Super human powers?

I have great news for you. A good sounding jazz solo is not rocket science and anyone can learn to play one. I like to break jazz solos down into 5 principles that I'll outline today. I'll go more in depth into each one in future articles.

Principle 1: Tone
How to do this correctly is different to each instrument. Some don't even have to worry about it. However, for wind players, this is the first thing people hear when we play and people evaluate how good we are with in a few seconds. Fortunately, with proper guidance, tone can easily be learned. If tone is not one of your strengths, all you need to do is to get help from your band director or a private teacher who can show you the fundamentals of good sound.

Principle 2: Time
One of the biggest errors beginning improvisors make is to try to cram too many notes into their solos. As they do this, they have little or no regard to time. This is an easy fix. Just keep track of the beat (tap your foot if necessary) and make sure your rhythms lock in.

Principle 3: Style
This one does take a little time to learn. The first step, though, is to be aware of it and not just rattle off lots of notes. This entails being aware of articulation and rhythmic patterns. The best way to learn this is by listening to the jazz greats. Listen closely to what they do and then imitate it.

Principle 4: Energy
Another fairly simple fix, but is more difficult for some people than others. A lot of it has to do with personality. Shy people, like me, have a harder time getting in front of people and blowing out. Trust me, though, it is a lot less embarrassing to get up and play a bold solo than a wimpy one. And if you don't feel bold, fake it.

Principle 5: Notes
What is the number one fear people have when improvising? Playing wrong notes. The thing is, though, I've heard plenty of good sounding solos with tons of wrong notes (they did have good tone, good time and energy). I've also heard solos with perfect notes that sounded awful (because they lacked the other principles). The problem with notes is that it takes a long time to learn all the theory. You mainly have to get started by learning your major scales well.

But for now, don't stress about the notes, just get started and have fun.

Assignment: Find a blues play-along and the corresponding blues scale. Then play around with the scale in time with the play-along. If you need a blues play-along, contact me, and I can get you one.

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