Playing Colors, Imitating Movies, & Watching TV: Bizarre Jazz Improvisation 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. I thought about: what might my shirt sound like? Is it loud? Soft? Dark and mysterious, or obvious and extroverted? Is it happy, sad, angry, or scared? What does the shirt sound like?

This story sounds ridiculous, but it taught me something very valuable: Your inspiration can come from just about anywhere. It doesn’t even have to make logical sense. Playing a shirt makes little to no logical sense, yet if affected the outcome of what I played that day. I played my shirt.

Playing colors

After an outstanding Fred Hersch concert one evening, my father was so inspired by his music, he made it a point to find Fred after the show and tell him how beautiful his music was and how much he enjoyed it. My father engaged him in conversation, expressing that at some moments during the performance, it sounded like he was painting with various colors.

Fred Hersch

I was surprised to hear Fred respond by saying that he often just thinks of colors when he plays.

What does red sound like? Or blue? Or perhaps green? If amazing players like Fred Hersch have experimented hearing from this angle, it’s worth trying.

Transcribing movie characters

When Marlon Brando would do something I’d say, Wow, play that!-Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter

The medium of film can be a huge influence on your music. The way a character walks or talks. The interaction between two different characters. Or just the general vibe and feeling of the film. All this can conjure up emotions, attitudes, and thoughts that can give you a new outlook towards music.

Wayne says it best:

Musical influence for me came from movies, the way people acted on the screen or the stage. I would think, ‘I want to do something the way Humphrey Bogart did in that movie.’ When Marlon Brando would do something I’d say, ‘Wow, play that!’ Or a total movie that was done well and got into your life. I’d get so into the film I’d forgot I was in the theater. The idea is to transcend music. And also to transcend the academia of music. Something else manifests, something else takes place.

Practicing in different or altered environments

Several nights ago I was practicing and suddenly the power went out. Already being night, complete darkness ensued. Not a shred of light. No digital clocks, dvd players,  or computer lights. Absolute pitch black. My first thought: frantically search for a flashlight, but instead…I continued to play.

After twenty minutes, I started to hear my sound more than I’d ever heard it before. I focused on it more intently than I ever had, giving me the sensation that I could reach out and touch it. I started to hear the sound so deeply, it almost seemed like a tangible object. After an hour I locked into it even more. After two hours I felt like I was on another planet. I continued like this till the lights came back on several hours later.

Practicing in the pitch black gave me a new perspective on sound. Practicing in an altered environment like this could affect you as well.

Or rather than altering your current environment, you could try practicing in a completely new environment. When asked how his beautiful sound is able to permeate every corner of the room, Stan Getz talks about practicing outside and how that affected his sound.

You get it from playing outdoors a lot. I heartily endorse playing in the open air. -Stan Getz

Stan Getz

Or try a completely outlandish idea from The Inner Game Of Music: practice while watching television. Sounds absurd, right? You should be laser focused and not distracted when you practice. So why would anyone ever want to practice while watching television?

When you watch tv, your brain supposedly shuts off. If you think too much while you practice or perform, this could be the cure. The theory is that by watching tv while you practice, your mind will quiet down and you’ll absorb the material you’re working on subconsciously, while teaching your mind to stay quiet during the act of playing. Does it work?

I decided to give it a shot while watching The Thomas Crown Affair, and to my surprise, it did seem to help me absorb the language I was working on in a relaxed manner. Now, is this conclusive evidence that you should watch tv while you practice? Of course not, but it is something to try every once in a while to mix up your natural state and feed your brain information in new ways.

Bizarre technique-ing

Hopefully after reading this you’re inspired to shake things up by trying some of the bizarre techniques presented here, or to find some of your own to test-drive. I can say that they all seem fairly crazy at first, but to not overlook given them a chance.

Not only might you benefit from some of these obscure ideas, but you’ll have fun in the process. Playing colors. Imitating scenes from a movie on your instrument. Practicing while you watch you’re favorite episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. How could you not have a good time??!!

Now don’t think that all this is a substitute for everything we typically talk about. Transcribing. Language. Understanding the fundamentals. But instead, use bizarre techniques to enhance you’re already existing routine. Who knows… one of these bizarre practice techniques could be the thing that takes you to the next level.