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Beginner Developing Your Improvisation

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I'm very new on the saxophone, but I have been listening to great music and improvising on other instruments for over half a century. I also had a lot of great influencers on several instruments, especially when I lived in L.A., where it's easy to play with other people. I began these thoughts for a reply on BOTM, but decided it was too long-winded for that. I invite you to add your constructive thoughts to make this a thread worth reading for players new to learning improvisation, just as @Wade Cornell has related such useful information in his posts. I've put the YouTube examples in links rather than fill the post with video players.

Overreaching is how a child learns to walk, then run. In fact, it's how they learn everything, always testing the boundaries. I'm very guilty of it myself. It's a necessary "evil" of learning to improvise. Cutting it out of recordings is also a good idea. :D I am positive every single revered jazz player started out by playing way more than they actually could, when practicing. You do this when you're just playing, not in the practice time when you're supposed to be aiming for accuracy, such as on scales or arpeggios.

Here are some observations that may be useful for beginning improvisers. They're suggestions. I try to pay close attention to any version of a song, starting from a simple vocal one, progressing to a laid back instrumental. I try to remember the sung melody and the words, especially in a ballad. Early on I was told that the best players think of the words when they play songs. This is different from, say, the Miles Davis stuff that moved the jazz paradigm away from standards and bop. On the other hand, here's a 1954 version of Old Devil Moon by Miles where his improvisation is characteristic of his early (Miles was 28) playing. In these instrumentals, I take note of some of the details used, such as where and how often slurs and ghost notes are used. In orchestral arrangements like Witchcraft (Sinatra) with Nelson Riddle, there are usually some interesting harmonic concepts to try to hear. In more advanced trio and quartet versions by Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins, they use some patterns, almost throw away phrases, which reveal their unique personality. When they are not doing that, their little turns of a phrase are fascinating.

Here is one solo in Just Friends by Kenny Dorham that knocked me out. The dynamics, the voice, the ideas, show clearly how he went around inside a II-V-I change. This is soulful playing with rhythmic sophistication. You can find stuff like that at any level of good jazz on any instrument. Another trick is to understand the rhythm, ignoring the notes for moment. If you listen to Bill Evans play piano, eliminate the notes and he's playing the drums. Now listen to the note placement, which from the beginning of the tune is already improvising a lot rhythmically, and adding notes to go up and down to melody notes.

Remember the legacy: "It's all rhythm!" You'll want to consider note lengths, volumes and attack; everything that makes up articulation. Where a singer might stay on one note, a saxophone voice might use that note as a base, making a few jumps between it and other notes, in the scale/harmony or intentionally out of it.

Finally, always retain the wisdom of Progress Hornsby, the fictitious jazz leader on Sid Caesars Comedy Hour:
Interviewer; "What instruments are in your band?"
Hornsby: "Tenor sax, bass, drums, and a radar player."
Interviewer: "Radar player? I don't..."
Hornsby: "Yeah, to make sure we don't get too close to the melody!"

Ba da boom.
 
Excellent thoughts and examples from randulo. It's wonderful to have good examples, yet it's not just about trying to sound like these fine musicians. The idea is to understand how they conceived of the music "differently" and made it their own. It's up to each of us to bring our musical personalities with us and make the music our own. If you are forever in "copy" mode then the music never moves forward, and THAT is what made those musicians special.
 
I couldn't agree more, what I suggest is listening to how they turn the phrase, the density, articulation, rhythms and then make up your own, break that up and make it you, or as they say these days, own it!
I think in that light it's useful to listen to other instruments, because you're not going to imitatie, only think about what makes it good.
 
Excellent thoughts and examples from randulo. It's wonderful to have good examples, yet it's not just about trying to sound like these fine musicians. The idea is to understand how they conceived of the music "differently" and made it their own. It's up to each of us to bring our musical personalities with us and make the music our own. If you are forever in "copy" mode then the music never moves forward, and THAT is what made those musicians special.

I agree completely. It’s one thing to learn an instrument well but it’s an entirely different thing to have your own unique , signature style. It’s not usually a perfect performance we are seeking. Most listeners are looking for unique and original. All great musicians have a unique, signature style and in my humble opinion, it comes with experience.
 
But you can definitely reflect and analyze what makes what had already been done unique. It's easy to hear the three notes that make an Albert King guitar riff a signature. Sonny Rollins has an unmistakable rhythmic signature style. What makes these things so? They can both be examined and recognized.
 
I agree completely. It’s one thing to learn an instrument well but it’s an entirely different thing to have your own unique , signature style. It’s not usually a perfect performance we are seeking. Most listeners are looking for unique and original. All great musicians have a unique, signature style and in my humble opinion, it comes with experience.

The tricky bit is in the learning phase. In all of the arts you need to learn the tools and how to use them. Being inspired by great artists/musicians can often lead to just wanting to copy them. That's OK if that's all you desire. If you wish to be a creative artist then you need to keep your own spark burning bright. This sounds easy enough, yet can be totally subsumed when learning in a very academic atmosphere.

If you have devoted your life to an academic pursuit in the arts please stop reading NOW as there is no intention of offending. We continually see the best and brightest artists/musicians being given scholarships and encouraged to continue their studies in the arts. I'm sure that many of those individuals were very creative and had great prospects. However, try and name all the great artists or musicians who have a PhD. The arts are about creativity while earning advanced degrees is about jumping through hoops chasing a piece of paper. We are the accumulation of what we do. If your formative years are spent conforming to a prescriptive approach to art, then that's what you become. If your goal is to become a historian or teacher then that's fine...just please recognize that those who come to you and wish to become creators in their field need to be encouraged to walk their own path and pushed out of that deeply feathered nest at some point.

Bringing this home to sax players: IMHO too many have followed an academic path in which they are tutored and encouraged to sound like (insert name of famous player) . They exhibit little or no creativity and have become technical players each with a "fastest gun in the west" mentality. As artists/musicians we are in the communication and entertainment business. If all we are doing is trying to impress and TAKE praise for our technical abilities, that's not the same as GIVING your audience emotions, stories, or an aesthetic experience.

The best art has multiple levels of appreciation/understanding. This can (and should?) include technical expertise, yet technical expertise on it's own is seldom seen as art.
 
I think we'd all agree it comes down to a voice and the sound of that voice. The voice is a spring that wells up from us as humans. We try to learn to craft it, control it, polish it and in my case stop the squeaks -- a little comic relief -- and if we succeed, that voice will be heard, by a few or by many, but it will be heard. And the listeners may go on to sing and play with their own voices, inspired by ours. May we all keep moving in that direction!
 
I am well on my way to being the slowest gun on the West Coast......

My arranging teacher and for one year combo leader when I was doing my jazz degree repeatedly emphasized that one needed to b able to hear the melody, in one's solo …regardless of what notes/rhythm one was playing.

One of my fave musicians, Jerry Douglas..... told me to let the song lead the way
 
That's definitely a sane and healthy approach @Jazzaferri. Some take it further and want to just play over changes. It's all good if you get the results you want.

I don't suggest copying, except if it helps you understand what is being played and why. It's just another form of transcription.
Let me give an example of what I mean when I say observe. A very simple example from Kenny Dorham's solo in Just Friends, which I mentioned in my initial post above.

The first lyric line in Just Friends is
"Friends... Lovers no more..." - that's over four bars, which go by quickly at this tempo (233)

In the melodic expo by Dorham, "Friends" is one note on the major 7th that lasts 6 beats, then four sixteenths tied to another long note on "more". "Dahhhh di di di dahhhh" Pretty much how the song is sung, although vocal versions are usually slower.

Listen to that line once or twice. Friends... Lovers no more...


Now listen to what he plays over the first two chords in his solo.


He went from five notes (two main ones), over two chords, spread over four bars to about sixteen much shorter notes in the same space. Attention-getting way to start the story he's about to tell.

The solo begins before the 1st bar with a lead in, G, Bb, C || D Bb Bb |
In that initial phrase note the silences, which occupy the most room in the measures.

Note the it's almost the same phrase twice, with the note changed to minor in the second and a couple of added notes in the second phrase.
Compare these ideas with the two main long notes in the original melody.

Four bars, a simple melody, two chords, a lot of food for thought.

Subjectively : I think this solo is one of the best developed. It starts simple. Lots of phrase and variant question, response), it builds in density (notes per beat) and dynamics. It offers a lot of ideas about how to play over changes at medium tempos. The song Friends isn't a bad start to learning to improvise over a lot of changes. You might start working on it as a ballad and maybe work up to this tempo. (Or not.)

There's an improviser's galaxy to study in this improvisation example, and it's applicable to any style of music with an instrument improvising.
There's a huge lesson in improvisation if you listen to the whole recording. Cecil Taylor didn't care much for melody, but his aggressive use of rhythm is interesting.
 
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