Getting the Most Out of Jazz Improvisation Articles

We receive countless emails expressing gratitude for Jazzadvice.com and we greatly appreciate the thousands of people that visit each and every week. It’s because of you (our awesome readers) that we continue to write and find new ways to communicate things, striving to be clearer and clearer. To our readers, a sincere thank you.

But as a reader, it’s not easy. There’s so much here and it’s growing all the time. On top of that, you have many resources that you draw from for your daily practice as well, including books, dvds, teachers, and friends.

With all this direction, how can you get the most out of an article, while staying focused, and not feeling overwhelmed?

Understand the core thesis and where it comes from

Any article, jazz or not, has a main point or central objective. In general, this can be gleamed from the title. While you read any article about jazz improvisation, constantly ask yourself how each section connects to this core thesis.

Once you grasp the concept the article is discussing, determine what kind of article it is. Is it about ear training? Is it a harmonic concept? Or is it just some thoughts to think about?

Why classify an article like this? By classifying everything you read about learning jazz improvisation into categories, you’ll soon realize that most of what you learn fits into only a handful of topics. Consequently, you’ll feel less overwhelmed because with every new thing you read, you’ll understand that it’s just another part of something you’re already working on.

Intellectually understanding how to do something is not doing it

I love to read about jazz improvisation and how to play it. This can be a common problem because when we read something and understand it intellectually, we feel like we naturally acquire the skill that the author is talking about; somehow we believe that we just absorb the skills through pure osmosis. And then we move on…

Why is this?

An excellent TED talk about goal setting may help shed some light on to why this is. In his presentation, Derek Sivers explains how studies have shown why it’s beneficial to keep your goals to yourself rather than telling a bunch of people. The studies show that when you share your goals with people, your mind is tricked into thinking that the goal is already done, and you get a feeling of satisfaction without accomplishing the goal. Check it out:

Similarly, in my experience, after we understand the information from any article in a theoretical fashion, we then have this feeling that we now have a workable knowledge of the information discussed. Sadly, this is far from the truth.

Understanding something in theory is a far cry from being able to do it on your instrument. When I was twelve years old, I could blab on and on about the altered scale and tritone substitution, but could I effectively apply either concept in my improvisation? Not even close.

It may sound dumb, but reading about how to do something is not doing it. The next time you’re done reading something see what happens. Do you take that information into the practice room and work through it for several weeks, or do you casually move on to something else? Take what you read to the practice room. That’s where the real change happens.

Explore the examples and go beyond

In every jazz improvisation article, there are usually quite a few examples either written out on a staff, or presented in a conceptual fashion, explained in mere words.

Print out the article and highlight all the examples, or even re-write the examples out separately.

In addition, write out any key points or excerpts you especially enjoyed from the article with the examples so you can fully understand what’s going on.

Once you’ve spent time with the given examples and understand how they work, the next step is to search for examples in the recordings of your heroes. If for instance you just read about Using Polyrhythms, after deeply exploring the written examples in the article, listen closely to some of your favorite recordings and find instances where the soloist uses polyrhythms. Slow things down if you have to in a program like Transcribe to hear what’s going on, and transcribe the example from the recording.

Often you’ll find examples of the concept that’s new to you in music that you’ve listened to for years because you simply weren’t aware of what was going on before. With your new understanding, you can then see the same material in a different light. This happens to me frequently.

I’ll have listened to a particular recording for ten years. Then, after I start to really understand a specific concept, I’ll be listening to that same recording and hear the soloist doing it. Or sometimes, I’ll hear something that I always wondered about and transcribe it, only to realize that it’s the exact concept I just worked on. Funny how that works…

Make your own exercises

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a book that had all the exercises you needed to practice to become great at jazz improvisation? Despite what many jazz books offer, this cannot exist for many reasons: we all want to sound different, you cannot accurately convey the sound of jazz on a written page, we all hear differently, we all have a different definition about what “great at jazz improvisation” means…

I remember being at a jazz camp when I was 17 and hearing saxophonist Sam Rivers express that the only way he could eventually get into his “own-thing” was to create his own exercise book. That’s the key.

Take anything you gleam from an article and once you get the gist of it’s content, create your own exercises. This is the fun part, yet most people miss out on it completely! We’re all so busy looking to others for how to go about things that we forget to use our own creativity. There’s only one of you. Use your uniqueness to your advantage by coming up with exercises that you alone create.

Getting the most from your new knowledge

Take what you learn from an article and apply it to everything you’ve been working. Most importantly, integrate it into your playing by applying it to tunes as described in Concept Application. This is where the new ideas you’ve been working on really have a chance to come to life.

So, the process starts with thoroughly grasping the core idea of a jazz article, followed by spending ample time with the examples, both musically notated and conceptual (written in text). Then, strengthen your understanding by finding instances of how the masters use the concept. Finally develop your own take on the concept by creating your very own exercises and applying them to tunes.

In closing, any time you’ve worked on something new, evaluate your progress by observing how your new knowledge surfaces itself throughout your improvisation. Sometimes it takes more time than others; some things will come natural to you, only taking a few days, while other things may take you years to improve at.

Legendary saxophonist Michael Brecker claimed that it often took him a period of several months to work in new material. Be patient and keep working on something using the process described until you’ve truly mastered it. Only then will it arise as part of your unique voice.