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Improvisation - sexy, but maybe overrated?

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Seen by many as the ultimate goal, the main yardstick by which we measure ourselves. Yet so often we overlook the tune itself, and really learning how to deliver it with style, the correct language and with a little thought, sensitivity (if apt) and originality.
Music is a language, and you hold the position of storyteller. Perhaps this is the best reference - think of a poor storyteller, or orator - this could be you if you don't work on your tone, control, articulations and rhythmic placement within the beat.
I could develop the ability to sprout words equal to Shakespeare's sonnets but if my delivery is awful it's in vain, no listener will be transfixed. If this is the case with your delivery of the tune, then it will be similar (or worse) with your solos.
Good study of the tune will also help you to develop soloing. In fact, playing around with the tune is improvising, so you will improve your delivery as well as learn how to improvise. With the framework of the tune as a guide you won't be overwhelmed with the myriad of note choices either.
So, not everyone in the band needs to be a great improvisor, but everyone needs to be able to deliver a great verse, middle 8 or chorus of the tune.
 
GCinCT

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I completely agree with everything you say about being able to deliver and developing all the necessary skills to play a tune well but I think the title of your thread is misleading. Being able to improvise well is by no means overrated.

Having read your post, I see that you are talking about those who jump into improv without developing the essential skills. Improvisation is my favorite part of music. It’s where I get to tell MY story.
 
MikeMorrell

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I agree. Not so much with your title but with the the content. of your post.Any solo/improv should ideally a story which the audience can relate to the tune.
 
jbtsax

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Along these lines, I think tone quality, dynamic control, articulation, rhythmic accuracy, playing in time, phrasing, style, sensitivity to other parts, good ensemble playing can all be summed up in one word we don't hear a lot nowadays---musicianship.

The measure of how well a saxophonist plays all to often seems to be how fast he/she can improvise using double time bebop lines, licks, patterns, etc. I confess that hearing that impresses me as well, but at the same time so does the ability to play with good musicianship and creativity. There are a handful of players in my area I know personally who can do both, but there are also some who appear to go by the credo "whoever plays the most notes in a solo wins". I could go on and on, but Aubra says it more elegantly than I can with mere words.

 
MikeMorrell

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I'm so glad you posted this, @jbtsax! FWIW I agree (although I have a personal stake in this). I took up sax later in life and I know that I'm never going to achieve anywhere close to the technical fluency that sax players develop when they started out in their teens (or even earlier). I try to make up for what I lack in that department with some kind of 'musical sensitivity'. Like you, I've heard some great 'technical' sax players whose solos are impressive but leave me emotionally cold. There are also even better players who play really simple phrases but with such expression that it makes a 'heart-to heart' connection. Strangely enough, I've found that that more advanced, proficient and experienced players are (on all instruments), the more they tend to simplify things and focus on 'expression' and 'connection'.

Great video!

Mike

Along these lines, I think tone quality, dynamic control, articulation, rhythmic accuracy, playing in time, phrasing, style, sensitivity to other parts, good ensemble playing can all be summed up in one word we don't hear a lot nowadays---musicianship.

The measure of how well a saxophonist plays all to often seems to be how fast he/she can improvise using double time bebop lines, licks, patterns, etc. I confess that hearing that impresses me as well, but at the same time so does the ability to play with good musicianship and creativity. There are a handful of players in my area I know personally who can do both, but there are also some who appear to go by the credo "whoever plays the most notes in a solo wins". I could go on and on, but Aubra says it more elegantly than I can with mere words.

 
altissimo

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sexy, but maybe overrated? - I suppose that all depends how adventurous you are...
 
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I'm of the opinion that telling the story is the primary goal, but that the improvisation is your personal extension of the story. Sometimes the story lends itself to fast Coltrane-like flurries of notes, if placed with craft, just as an expression or word can be placed in a written story in a certain way, or placed in a way that actually distracts from the story. I think Trane inserted some brilliant little improvs right in the exposition of the melody. I'd cite All or Nothing at All as an example of this. Listen to the second verse of the melody.

Now that we can watch 100,000 saxophone players on YouTube, it seems there are two main currents in music where existing songs are played. The first is the fast notes in jazz standards, the wanna be Chris Potters or Michael Breckers of the world. The second is the opposite, where there's a pop tune played fairly straight with a nice tone and technique, and where an improvised solo would be, it's a repeat of the melody.

I'm in the same place as @MikeMorrell, except I'm older and have less years to get anywhere. I have the advantage of being able to practice many hours and a long history of music on stringed instruments. I can hear, but I can't sight read. It's frustrating not to be able to play what you hear, but then, in studying online with a world class musician, I saw yesterday that as far as the saxophone goes, I do NOT hear as much as I thought. There is still so much specific sax detail to master, even if we forget about playing fast. Every note has a 50 ways to start, end and vibrate. Note choice, rhythm, tonal centers, exploiting the mastery of these is certainly key, as I think @Pete Effamy intimates in different words in his post, as well as @jbtsax.
 
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Thanks for your thoughts guys. I'm not deriding improvisation, it's an amazing subject and a huge undertaking, one that that taps you on the shoulder and shows you another decade of work every time you think you might have arrived 'somewhere'. Over the years though, as an observer of students, amateurs and some fellow pros it has amazed me how little study has gone into the the sound of the notes vs note choices. Language IS everything.
As for personal favourites, it's very broad. From the fabulous clarinet and trombone playing of Bob Kaper and Dick Kaart of the Dutch Swing College, through Paul Desmond (what an absolute master of delivery), Getz, Art Pepper, Sam Butera and Plastic Johnson, through guys like Wilton Felder and Grover Washington to the later guys like Sanborn, Eddie Daniels, Brecker, Brandon Fields, Kirk Whalum, Eric Marienthal, Everette Harp, Chris Potter and Andy Snitzer.

View: https://youtu.be/gJoxPo_wvks
 
Halfers

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As someone with very limited experience (and talent) on the Saxophone, this is an interesting topic. In some ways, as a 'Green' player and not a fully committed, hard practicing obsessive, IMHO improvising (badly, or semi badly) is often the easier option than sticking to the melody, mainly because sticking to the melody requires discipline and real knowledge of the tune. So very often, for me, anyway, improvisation is a result of straying off the path accidentally and having to find my way back to the tune. Often, this can be quite an interesting and eye opening diversion, sometimes, there's a big stumble along the way.

Whilst I enjoy great musicians taking their instrument and their playing to the extreme, there is something very highly satisfying about hearing a highly accomplished player expressing themselves within the confines of the tune. (mainly because it gives a mere pretender some hope that one day, I could produce something along similar lines!)

To me, the Aubra Graves video above is somewhere in between. Beautifully crafted and expressed, but with lots of smokey late night jazz club extemporising. (pulls down hat, sips on a scotch on the rocks)

Tenuous link #107 - Elio Pace went to my School! A few Years above me..
 
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That would be Toynbee school, where I met Elio Pace...
 
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I hate auto-correct on text. I can't believe it has changed Plas Johnson to Plastic Johnson. My apologies to mr Pink Panther...
 
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And I'm not advocating sticking to an extemporised version of the tune rather than playing a solo, rather that many might improve their soloing by studying the delivery of the tune and its framework a little closer.
 
Colin the Bear

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It's all very well saying improvisation should stick to the melody. I sit in with bands who call tunes I've never even heard, let alone played. Follow the trumpet, twice through and off you go. You'd better have picked up the basic harmony and structure and got the key change for the middle eight before it's your go. It's a one off. Done and gone. Right or wrong.

It's all a matter of context. When you get prior notice of a set list or have the luxury of picking it a few weeks before and choose well known and very familiar numbers off the list, then we can express ourselves in melodic fashion. Because we know how it goes.

Different bands/venues. Different approaches. Different audiences. Both valid.
 
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Yes, 1978 - 83. Elio 1979 - 84.
An incredible music department for any school let alone a comprehensive. Led by the remarkable Mary Grainger and wonderfully supported Barbara Steadman-Allen. There were several notables who were produced during the '80's as well as a drama department under David Dalton that similar achievements. Not to mention playright and screenwriter David Nicholls who is possibly Toynbee's biggest claim to fame. (Apologies to any high-achiever sports persons that I'm completely unaware of).
 
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It's all very well saying improvisation should stick to the melody. I sit in with bands who call tunes I've never even heard, let alone played. Follow the trumpet, twice through and off you go. You'd better have picked up the basic harmony and structure and got the key change for the middle eight before it's your go. It's a one off. Done and gone. Right or wrong.

It's all a matter of context. When you get prior notice of a set list or have the luxury of picking it a few weeks before and choose well known and very familiar numbers off the list, then we can express ourselves in melodic fashion. Because we know how it goes.

Different bands/venues. Different approaches. Different audiences. Both valid.
If you re-read my posts you'll find that I haven't said that at all. My point is that people often embark upon a very vast subject when a little more time should be spent on the basics.
 
Colin the Bear

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Sometimes 32 bars is all the time you get.
 
Halfers

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An incredible music department for any school let alone a comprehensive. Led by the remarkable Mary Grainger and wonderfully supported Barbara Steadman-Allen. There were several notables who were produced during the '80's as well as a drama department under David Dalton that similar achievements. Not to mention playright and screenwriter David Nicholls who is possibly Toynbee's biggest claim to fame. (Apologies to any high-achiever sports persons that I'm completely unaware of).

Without taking this too far off your topic, just a quickie! I was there 84'-89. Mary Grainger was fantastic to me and my mates who decided to form a band in our 3rd or 4th Year. She really encouraged us and even allowed us to rehearse in the tiny practice rooms while She was Teaching and let us rehearse in the Music room after School. None of us were in her Music classes, but She went out of her way to help us. We're still playing together as mates now (although we had a break of 15 Years of so).

Have fond memories of the Daltons too as I was involved in a few School Drama performances.
 

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