December 30th, 2011

4 Ways to Spark the Creativity and Freedom in Your Improvising

Written by Eric

How creative are you each time you play your instrument?

Think about it for a second…are you truly free when you improvise?

As creative improvising musicians, these are questions that we should all ask ourselves from time to time. We all know that hours of repetition, memorization, and imitation are the groundwork for learning improvisation, but there is a catch here. This essential process that we stoically endure each day in the practice room doesn’t naturally lend itself to free, spontaneous thinking.

In fact, it’s quite easy to get boxed into the safe confines of our daily routine; the same tunes, the same language, even the same practice schedule.

In our improvised solos, supposedly our most free and creative moment as musicians, we rely all too often on the “musical crutches” of playing within a group. The drummer will keep the time, the pianist will play the changes, the horn player has the melody, and someone else will keep track of the form, right?

We get away with not using our ears, with not counting or knowing the form of the tune, with “kind of” knowing the changes, and with relying on our good old licks to get us through a solo. Sounds like someone who’s trying to survive a performance instead of someone that’s aiming for creativity.

Rarely do we hold ourselves responsible for each and every aspect of the music. This all too common fact, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t change things.

Here are four exercises to … Read More

December 28th, 2011

Never Be Overwhelmed Again

Written by Forrest

In today’s world, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. We live in a time of excess information and much of it is misleading. But supposing you’ve separated the good stuff from the stack, it still feels like there’s so much to learn.

Take this site for instance. I’d like to think that we have a ton of excellent information here, and receiving daily notes of thanks from readers affirms my assumption. But, meandering through the pages, it’s quite easy to get overwhelmed. Just as you thought you had a handle on everything, you realize, wait…I need to learn that…and that…and that…and…eventually, you feel so overwhelmed that instead of choosing action, you choose inaction. You do nothing.

That’s what happens when we feel overwhelmed. We shut down. Nothing is possible and we stop progressing.

But, it’s quite easy to rid yourself of this madness. Feeling overwhelmed is nothing but an inability to see the big picture. When you see how information is logically grouped together and how these groups are inter-related, your brain can understand on a conceptual and emotional level that the subject at hand is approachable in a structured and simple fashion.

The power of logical groupings

Depending on who you ask, there are roughly 640 muscles in the human body. Imagine if a body builder had to focus on each one of these muscles each time he went to the gym. In about two minutes, he’d get frustrated, overwhelmed, and leave.

Of course no body builder would ever think … Read More

December 26th, 2011

Developing Musicality: Applying Scales vs. Applying Language

Written by Eric

A recurring theme on this site seems to be language – acquiring, practicing, and applying the jazz language.There is a reason behind all the repetition, however. Language is a very powerful concept when it comes to improvisation and it’s an idea that can drastically change your mentality about the music.

But, even before you get to the idea of acquiring, applying, and transforming pieces of language, there is a much more basic issue at hand here: Why should you even learn language in the first place?

When you get down to it, no one is requiring you to learn lines from the records or to imitate the style of a famous musician. There is no mandatory rule that you have to improvise in a certain way and you can easily create solos with the “right notes” using memorized scales. So why bother spending that extra time to learn someone else’s solos and language?

It all boils down to musicality. What is it that defines the musicality in your playing? Where do you learn musicality without imitation or listening? Musicality is the reason you play music in the first place. Without emotion, style, and shape those chords and scales would be, well, just chords and scales.

If I had to name the one thing that improved my playing more than anything else, the thing that made me finally “get it” when it came to improvising, it would have to be language. Before I began to transcribe solos and study … Read More

December 15th, 2011

Playing Colors, Imitating Movies, & Watching TV: Bizarre Jazz Improvisation Techniques

Written by Forrest

Bizarre Techniques

What if you could approach something in a completely new way than you’ve ever done before? What would happen? Perhaps an entire world of possibility exists from this new angle, but how do you get there?

Trying completely outlandish, almost silly techniques can spawn immense creativity and improvement in one’s ability. In all art-forms, it’s those who were willing to try something new and go against the grain that defined a new level, pushing the art-form to new heights. Not only in art, but also in sports, entertainment, and even in science this holds true.

The only way to make these new discoveries is to take on a new perspective. Implementing techniques that seem slightly bizarre is one way to remove your current filters, and give a 180 to your entire concept.

Being influenced by objects

I remember one afternoon in a combo rehearsal, Cecil Bridgewater suddenly stopped the entire group, starkly looked at me and said, “Forrest. Play your shirt.” I gazed back in confusion. Play my shirt? What the heck does that mean? Seriously, what does he want me to play??!!

Cecil Bridgewater

I looked down at my shirt. It displayed two silhouetted figures in the night. A dark yet vibrant magenta light emanated from the edge of each outline.

I looked back up at Cecil and the band, counted them off, and began to play. I didn’t think about chords, although I knew perfectly where I was in the form. I didn’t focus on any sort of harmonic concept. … Read More

December 14th, 2011

Playing the Music of Now

Written by Eric

Oftentimes, we get pushed down a very narrow, prescribed path when it comes to learning and performing jazz. Without question, we get complacent with the established rules of others whether it’s the guidelines of an educational program, the expectations of the people around us, or the limits of a label for the music.

We get sucked into a mindset that is not particularly true and one that’s not our own. After years of this, it can be eye opening just to remember that you can determine what it is that you want to get out of this music.

“What are my goals with improvisation?” Do you want to sound good at the local jam session, to play like Charlie Parker, to express yourself creatively, to develop your own voice in this music, to simply play music with others?

The possibilities are endless and we all have our reasons and goals when it comes to learning improvisation. Some of us have very high ambitions and work diligently everyday to improve, while some of us pursue improvisation as a hobby, simply for the fun of it.

If you look very closely, however, the true reason that we’re all drawn to this form of expression is not merely an external one. From the professional to the layman, there is an inherent satisfaction in creating in the moment; creating your own sound, expressing your personal view, and playing the sound of your time.

The music that is created in the moment. This is … Read More

December 11th, 2011

Harmonic Anticipation: A simple technique to break free

Written by Forrest

Harmonic Anticipation

Many times when we’re soloing we get boxed in so to speak. We think that when we’re on a particular chord, we must play that chord and that chord only. We have tunnel vision and there exists little possibility.

One technique that dramatically relieves this boxed in sound and mindset is harmonic anticipation.

Anticipating a chord is quite easy: you simply anticipate the chord that you’re moving to by playing it before you arrive at it:


Anticipation is such a powerful technique because it achieves so much with so little. Just by playing the chord that you’re going to a little earlier, you’ll create a sense of forward motion, over the bar-line phrasing, and a feeling of excitement in your lines

How anticipation can help you

Like I was saying, we often feel boxed in by the chord changes. For example, here’s a sample of how someone playing over a Bird Blues may solo.

Bird Blues Boring

Pretty boring, huh? It sounds unnatural and boxy. Now, let’s take that same example and throw in some anticipation:

Bird Blues Anticipation

This is the same example except for the slightly modified resolution at the end of the line from G7 to C major. Now it’s a bit extreme to anticipate every chord, but you should hear and understand right away how much more exciting this line became from simply anticipating each chord by a beat.

Utilizing anticipation within your lines yields a more natural feel that can be heard and felt right away. And it’s easy to start … Read More

December 9th, 2011

The Hidden Trap on the Road to Improvement

Written by Eric

In talking, practicing, and performing with many musicians over the years, it seems that a number of players are having trouble getting started with improvisation. Even more have a hard time moving forward, but can’t seem to figure out why.

Time is spent in the practice room day after day, yet no results.

There seems to be a hidden trap that many musicians unconsciously enter each day they step into the practice room. It’s something that we’re all susceptible to and a trap that we enter willingly time after time.

We can’t see it because it’s disguised as ambition. It develops as a result of our attempts to uphold an image as a serious improviser and even though we know better, we fall victim to the lure of this pitfall again and again.

Start simple, stay simple

So what is this trap? Why, it’s so simple that it doesn’t even seem like that big of a deal: skipping over the basics.

The main reason that so many players have trouble learning or progressing with improvisation year after year is that they continue to skip over the fundamentals. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t have anything to do with talent or a willingness to get into the practice room, the problem lies with the actual content the practice session itself.

Go to any practice room in any music school and you’ll hear players trying to play as fast as they can on the hardest tunes that they can find. … Read More

December 2nd, 2011

Listening to the Words of the Wise

Written by Eric

Learning improvisation can be a curious process. Every now and then as we endeavor to educate ourselves musically, we hear bits of advice and pick up words of wisdom from master classes, videos, books, and conversations. Yet, we don’t really listen to these directions or take them to heart.

The truth is that we can’t accept these words of wisdom. Well, at least not until we discover their validity for ourselves. We need to be hit in the gut emotionally and we need to see the light with our own two eyes.

This is the funny thing about human nature. People can tell you repeatedly how to do things, whether it’s how to eat right, how to exercise, or how to play jazz, until they are blue in the face. But, until you change your diet, hit the gym, and start transcribing solos, experiencing these tangible results for yourself, this information has no impact on you.

You have to have that light bulb moment where you realize “Oh yeah, this stuff actually does work…” You need to realize that you’re not some exception to the rules that everyone else is following, these words apply to you and they can help you. You simply need to listen.

For me, this moment came after I moved to New York. All of a sudden I was in a musical environment where the level was extremely high. From seeing my heroes play nightly in clubs to seeing unknown players tearing it up at jam … Read More

November 29th, 2011

Jazz Is The Moment

Written by Forrest

“Jazz is about being in the moment”Herbie Hancock

Herbie Being in The Moment

If jazz is all about being in the moment, but all our practice time is dedicated to figuring out what we want to play when we perform, then how are we supposed to be in the moment when we perform?

There’s this strange dichotomy…

On one side, jazz improvisation is very rehearsed. And on the other, it’s very spontaneous. In between these two sides is a ginormous gray area. It’s this gray area in the middle where people get lost.

Trust the process

Jazz is about being in the moment. Like Herbie says, it’s not about playing what you’ve practiced, it’s about here. Now. This moment. That’s what jazz is.

But, why are our efforts in the practice room so thought out, so calculated, so uninspired, when we’re trying to achieve something on stage that sounds as though it were created in the moment?

It seems counter-intuitive: rehearse concepts and language over and over with the goal of improvising in the moment when you perform. Because this sounds so counter-intuitive, most people do not practice this way. They assume that because they are trying to conjure up a purely improvised performance, they should practice this way as well.

This could not be further from the truth. The process of achieving successful results in jazz improvisation is thought-out, repetitive, and slow. As you will read later, there are infinite ways to instill plenty of creativity and spontaneity into this seemingly dry process, … Read More

November 28th, 2011

The “Idea” vs. the “Technique” in the Mind of the Artist

Written by Eric

Imagine that you’re strolling through an art museum on a lazy afternoon. Leisurely, you walk past magnificent paintings, weave between rows of sculpture, and meander through various galleries, each showcasing a bygone era of human artistic accomplishment. By chance, a particular painting catches your eye from across the room.

You’re immediately struck by the realistic landscape, the beckoning expression on the subject’s face, and the story depicted on that weathered canvas. The work triggers emotion, forgotten memories, and a peculiar sense of nostalgia. On some unconscious level you feel a mysterious connection to this work. This is your first impression, that visceral experience of the entire work as a whole felt from the first contact.

For some reason, you are compelled to take a few steps forward to get closer to the painting. As you inch toward the canvas, a subtle shift suddenly occurs. Your eyes open to another plane of visual awareness and a completely different side of the painting becomes the focus. Brush strokes become visible, an expressive palette of natural, earthy colors reveals itself, and curiously, imperfections become readily apparent.

At this level, the ideas and emotions portrayed in the work can not be separated from the artistic technique required to produce it – an actual person painstakingly created this! You can see the specific techniques that were used to create those intriguing visual effects that you experienced from afar. Questions begin to surface in your mind about the technical aspects of the painting: “How did the … Read More

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