Learning jazz language is vital to your success as an improvisor. Without it you’re truly lost. You may know a scale, a chord, a concept…but without the fundamental ideas of what to do with these tools, you’ll aimlessly wander through the harmony. These fundamental ideas are gleaned from learning and studying language.
A reader recently wrote in, “I’ve been transcribing and learning language from my favorite players, but now I feel like I’m just repeating the same stuff over and over. How do I get beyond this?”
For starters, make sure you’re learning language not licks, and that you’ve spent ample time making lines your own. If you’re doing those two things, you should already feel like you’re not playing the same stuff all the time.
But, how do you set yourself up from the get-go feeling like when you learn a piece language, you’re going to open many doors, not just one door to one line, in one particular situation? The answer lies in how you understand the line, and what you do with that information once you know it.
The inner workings of jazz language
Whenever you study a piece of jazz language, whether it’s a line you just transcribed, or it’s something you learned months ago, always ask yourself, “What makes this specific line special?” Really dwell on it and ponder the answer. In some cases it’s immediately obvious and in others, it may taking some more thinking.
The point is, you need to realize early on what makes the particular line you’re working on unique. What makes it work? What is the essence of the line?
Some examples of what makes a line special:
- The way a chord tone is enclosed
- The way a structure, like a triad or a four-note grouping is used
- The way a chord tone is gotten to
Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a line from Dexter Gordon: