Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Theory of Jazz Improvisation


As both an avid jazz listener and player, I’m interested in the process involved in improvising a good jazz solo.  And like others, I’d prefer to “just play” – to practice improvising by playing tunes with friends, playing gigs, or practicing on my own.

But I’ve found that there are so many “ingredients” to a good jazz solo that I need some way to structure my thinking about all the elements that comprise one.   Expanding on that a bit, it’s useful to me to describe for myself a theory of jazz improvisation – meaning, a coherent description of exactly what we are trying to do when it’s our turn to solo on a few choruses of a tune.

Borrowing from my software background, and specifically programmer and author Kent Beck, I describe in this paper three elements – values, principles, and “patterns” - that for me help provide a structured way of thinking about the myriad concerns we have in practicing and performing jazz solos.  To summarize Beck:

“The patterns describe what to do.  The values provide motivation.  The principles help translate motive into action.”

The latter point is particularly important.  The values that interest me are broad in scope – “universal” Beck would say  – but hard to apply directly.  The “principles” are a way to “map” from the values down to specific patterns and techniques that I can actually practice.

Reflecting on the playing of jazz masters whose music I have listened to, transcribed, and enjoyed repeatedly over the years, as well as my own practice and playing, I’ve tried to distill down to a minimum set the things that, for me, “have to be there” in a really good jazz solo:

1.    Tone/Touch
2.    Time/Feel
3.    “Playing out your ideas”
4.    Harmonic Clarity
5.    “Active” Listening
6.    Innovation

Some of these choices are pretty “universal” – I would expect many others who play jazz to list “Tone” and “Time” for example.   Others are a little more personal; another jazz musician might choose, for example, “blues orientation” or “basic emotional quality” or something else, rather than some of my own choices.


At it’s most basic, this is about intonation, and sound quality.  Closely related is the actual way that you approach touching the instrument, an always present, heightened awareness of how you connect with the instrument each moment.  

Your ability to express a musical idea really starts with your touch.  More than anything, “tone” comes from your hands, less so from the quality of your instrument or any particular effect employed.  It’s the reason why Pat Metheny would sound fantastic on a K-Mart guitar.


Good time is “not optional.”  Time definitely separates the experienced players from the not so experienced.  John Scofield:  “If you groove enough, even when you’re blowing it, it sure helps, but if you’re playing great notes with no groove, the music just won’t happen.”  

Some  of us “rush” at times.  If you work with a metronome regularly, you can develop good time, but it’s good to understand how fundamental to jazz time and rhythm is, and that it must be really front and center in your consciousness when you are playing.

Related is the need to build a rhythmic vocabulary.  One of the reasons I love to play Charlie Parker’s compositions is because I learn new ways that syncopation can be applied to make a phrase sound interesting – how starting a phrase on a different part of the beat, or displacing a phrase can create rhythmic interest. 

I've found that I really need to work harder at extending my rhythmic vocabulary.  I plan to listen more closely to great drummers like Elvin Jones, and to all players who demonstrate a commanding grasp of rhythmic vocabulary.

“Feel” is related to time, and to “touch” as well.  Honestly, your body seems to be acutely aware of feel somehow; it tells you whether something is “in the pocket” or “swinging.” It also seems to know when something is a out of time, or rushed, or too “in” time.

Playing Out Your Ideas

At it’s most basic, this is about communicating something through your solo.  Many players and jazz educators describe this as “telling a story” -- but that didn’t really seem to get through to me somehow.  That is, just as it’s hard to directly express values, it’s also difficult to just say, “Just go out there and tell a story...” and do it.

A quote from an interview with jazz guitar player Joshua Breakstone really says it for me.  It helped me understand why I like some solos (of my own and others’) and other solos don’t do much for me:

“I hear some people play and they have this incredible vocabulary, they can play so many things but they’re not really doing it for me, they’re not really saying anything to me. For me, hearing people playing out their ideas, that’s doing it for me, that’s great music.

Music becomes thrilling because there are so many things that you can do, there’s so many places you can go with the music, there’s so many new things that you can play all the time if you just go for it, and not worry about what to play so much but play things that you can develop and let that thing lead you to the next idea or don’t let it lead you. Do something new and let that lead you on, that’s the thrill of improvisation to me."

In a really good jazz solo, I begin to hear what the player is actually thinking, as if they just said something to me, and they are continuing the conversation.  It draws me in, and suddenly I’m completely focused on what they are saying, as if I’m on the “journey of discovery” with them. 

In a truly great solo, there is usually an overall “shape” or “arc” to the entire thing, the choruses themselves somehow relate to each other and not just the individual ideas (motifs) and lines (which is hard to do as it is). There is “compositional craft” craft at work, instantaneously, in consciously developing that overall arc or shape, the stitching together of ideas or lines/phrases into a coherent solo. 

Wes Montgomery was a genius at playing solos that were coherent in this way.  I wonder sometimes if it didn’t come from his stint playing in Basie’s group, or from listening to Charlie Christian play with the Benny Goodman orchestra, where you couldn’t “get away” with less!  

In summary, I think that this inter-relatedness of phrases in chorus or solo comes from listening closely to yourself and others around you while you are playing, coupled with the ability to move through changes fluidly.  The only way to play melodically accurate and interesting notes over changing harmony is to practice a lot – it’s a core skill we work at constantly.  But you also have to commit to developing your ideas and not resort to “just playing stuff.”

Harmonic Clarity

When asked about his own jazz values in an interview, alto saxophonist Paul Desmond included this comment as one of his key interests:  “showing the form in a chorus, in a not too obvious way.”

This is well put.  Harmonic clarity at it’s most basic implies “melodic accuracy” in regard to chord agreement, but it is more than that.  An analysis of many great jazz solos turns up some consistent patterns in regard to the use of chord tones on downbeats, for example.  Other related patterns emerge as well, such as the use of guide tones for connecting chords.

In a class at the Berkeley Jazz School a few years ago, we were working on rhythm changes.  At one point our instructor, Steve Erqiuaga, stopped our ensemble playing and asked use each to take a chorus on our own without accompaniment.  Suffice it to say it was a “learning experience.”  You really could not hear the changes going by when a soloist took his or her turn – there was not much “form in a chorus.”  Even when interesting vocabulary was (occasionally) applied, it just sounded like someone “playing stuff.”

A great example of exceptional skill in regard to harmonic clarity are the recordings of Sonny Rollins playing trio with bass and drums (no piano/guitar) at the Village Vanguard.  Many other saxophone players since have followed suit and taken up the challenge of playing “piano-less” (Joshua Redman is an example).  When you listen to Sonny Rollins or Joshua Redman playing in a trio format without anyone playing chords, you can still hear all the chords –even ones that “aren’t there” (interesting harmonic substitutions that they imply) -- when they take chorus in a solo. 

Most good jazz solos demonstrate a similar clarity of form, regardless of whether or not there is actual someone actually comping at the time.

“Active” Listening

In a class taught by tenor saxophonist Anton Schwartz, we focused on a playing exercise that Anton described as “… being like the warm-up that baseball players do before they play, throwing the ball around the bases.” 

The exercises involved one individual playing a two- or four-bar phrase at a medium tempo in a specific harmonic context, and then repeating it.  Then as a group, all players attempted to repeat the phrase verbatim (usually twice).  We would do this time after time, moving around the “bases” (players), each of us taking a turn improvising a simple two or four-bar phrase in a given harmonic context, the other players repeating it (or at least a reasonable facsimile).

The listening was always intense. It involved listening for the interval relationship between the first note played and the second, any other key or “stand-out” interval relationships in the phrase, the root movement, the overall shape of the line, and rhythmic values involved.  

While this exercise was probably conceived mainly to help us learn how to “decode” and play phrases that we hear, in the moment – an essential skill for an improviser – it also emphasized to me how important it is to really involve yourself fully as a listener in an ensemble situation.  

It’s easy to get caught up in the challenges of your own playing, but at all times in a jazz performance, you are both “participant” and “observer.”  The same can be said for getting distracted by your own ideas while constructing a solo – you have to keep a “thread” running in the back of your mind, planning the overall shape and direction of the solo, and of course listening to your own ideas and the things that others who are accompanying you are playing at the same time.


What I mean by innovation is working towards a personal sound, and incorporating some “modern elements” in your playing.   For me, the “source” of innovation is primarily taken from influences outside of traditional jazz music, so I will indulge in a mercilessly detailed description of my own influences and background.

I grew up listening to the Beatles of course, and loved a lot of folk rock – Joni Mitchell, CSNY, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and even (yes! I admit it!) Dan Fogelberg.  In regard to my own playing style, my earliest significant influence was George Benson.  As Pat Metheny once said in a clinic, “If George Benson continued to make jazz records, a lot of us would sell fewer records.” As a kid I had a few Wes Montgomery albums, some Joe Pass, and my teachers Rick Chinisci and Bob Brown were very talented guitar players as well.   (Rick played bass when Howard Roberts came to town, and Bob counted Johnny Smith among his musical colleagues). 

In high school, my friend David McCreary (a very good bass player, formerly a jazz trombonist) plopped the needle down on a Pat Metheny cut from his first group album.   Metheny’s playing -- particularly in albums like “Offramp” -- was  an absolute revelation.  Guitar players could sound like horn players!

After a few semesters in the USC studio guitar program in LA in the early 90’s, and through the opportunity in LA to see many great jazz musicians like McCoy Tyner, Joe Henderson, and Jim Hall, and great “local” players like Rick Zunigar (a great guitar player still on the LA scene), Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden, I was completely hooked on “straight-ahead jazz.” 

During this period at USC, I really “shedded” – learning blues and rhythm changes heads from Charlie Parker’s “Omnibook,” copying solos by and listening a lot to Wes Montgomery.  By working on tunes at school and playing gigs, I acquired a jazz vocabulary while familiarizing myself with the “great canon” of jazz tunes.

Blues also became very important to me; blues vocabulary is so much a part of Bebop, of jazz, as anyone who listens to Bird or Miles or Trane or many other great jazz artists knows.  While I am proud to have worked hard enough to get a decent amount of jazz vocabulary into my playing, it has never been my goal to sound just like bebop players. 

Though I believe that it is important to incorporate “modern” elements of some form into your playing, and “honest” and natural to incorporate your influences, I struggle with how to do it in an “artful” way – a way that complements more traditional “straight-ahead” jazz playing.   There are three areas that appeal to me as “venues” for introducing modern elements into my playing:  “non-traditional” vocabulary, “folks songs for tags and endings,” and tone (effects).   These bear a bit of explanation.


A few important areas, which I’ve chosen to focus on for a “modern sound”, are pentatonics, lines (and chords) build from fourths, and triad pairs.   These “non-linear” improvisation areas are worthy of deep study for me.  

Modes of the pentatonic scale, and the use of quartal harmony of course were deeply explored in the 60’s by John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and others, and they remain a modern element, in particular in contract to more linear or melodic playing.  Using triad pair relationships is relatively new to me, though I have studied triad relationships while investigating polychords.

Tags and Endings

I’ve always been deeply influenced and moved by Keith Jarrett’s approach to jazz.   One of the unique elements of his music is his connection to “folk melodies” or “grooves” or “American heartland” sort of vibes – usually expressed in the form of introductions to standards, or “tags”—sometimes significant extensions, musical pieces in their own right – tagged onto the end of standard tunes.

This is a beautiful and artistic way to integrate the musical sensibilities of other genres into jazz, while remaining rooted in and focused on the standards repertoire.


This is an area I struggle with:  using guitar effects in jazz standards playing.   For me, a little goes a long way.   I’ve likened the way I would like to use effects to “salt and pepper” on food – just a touch to add taste.

Some of my favorite jazz guitar players refrained from the use of effects, particularly in their recordings.  This would include Wes Montgomery, George Benson, and Jim Hall.  The younger players who follow in this tradition include Peter Bernstein and Russell Malone.  These guys are all about the playing, the ideas and great music. 

More “modern” players like Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Bill Frisell are masterful and frequent employers of guitar effects, as are the “younger guys” like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg, and Adam Rogers.  (Effects aside, you can hear the influence of Pat Metheny and Pat Martino on the tone of both Kriesberg and Rogers). 

In summary, it is largely a matter of “taste” when and how to use effects.   It’s my conclusion that for certain types of standard tunes, and in certain situations, effects are appropriate and powerful.   But too often guitar players use effects “gratuitously” or in “set it and forget it” mode.  I can think of great albums that were ruined by an over-emphasis on effects (some of John Abercrombie’s earlier work comes to mind).  

It is also true that to use effects well, and that is probably the only way to use them if at all, takes a serious investment of time, and one has to learn how to use them while playing without getting distracted from the music.


Melodic Development

Focus on playing simple melodic ideas that you can develop, not big fancy licks.  Practice new lines in at least 5-6 different keys, or better – around the cycle of fifths – and at 2 or 3 different tempos.  Practice playing fewer ideas per chorus, and develop those ideas.

Balance melodic lines in a solo with “non-linear” ideas:  sequences, triad pairs, and scale fragments or patterns in cycles – cycle of fifths, whole steps (ascending and descending).  Practice “planning ahead” for ways to resolve a non-harmonic sequence or triad pattern into a primary chord tone on a downbeat.

Use compositional devices (see “Patterns”) to create and develop motifs.  Memorize some of the simple “scale cell” patterns from Dietel.


It’s been said that most players play a little behind the beat, and this is undoubtedly an important skill.  But you might play right on top of the beat, even a little ahead once in a while, as long as you are really aware of what you are doing at the time. 

In general, make sure upbeats are strong and even with downbeats, particularly in your eighth note “concept.”  You might choose to emphasize downbeats, “Ba-doo, Ba-doo, Ba-doo …”  which can really help with a swing feel, but the main thing is to be really conscious of what how you are “executing” your eighth note lines at all times. 

Make sure your lines do not “trail off” – pay attention to all of the notes, all the way through to the end of a phrase.

Pace yourself.  In general, I’ve found I need to rest more often.  Resting gives you a chance to actually listen to yourself and hook up with what others are playing.  It gives listeners a chance to take in the music, without getting bored. 

Focus at least as much on the rhythm of a phrase as it’s melodic content.  Employ rhythmic variety more often; vary phrase lengths (short to long), phrase contours (melodic verses angular, stepwise/scalar motion vs. leaps/skips) -- and start and end phrases on different parts of the beat and bar (there are those Bird heads again). 

Balance chord tones and guide tones with tensions, and resolve the tensions properly (typically to strong chord tones).   On occasion, use delayed resolution – place a tension tone on a downbeat, then resolve it by a half- or whole-note a beat or so later. 

Employ different articulation techniques for playing a line. Like Tuck Andress says, “you have to fight to give life to a phrase.” Similarly, use dynamics to shape a phrase, or even a section.

Look for ways to connect chords using the least movement possible (guide tones are an example).  “Conserve movement – and sing” (Rosenwinkel).  This helps you in committing to a musical idea, rather than abruptly ending the idea to adapt rapidly to a new change (by jumping to a chord root, for example).   Don’t let the chords “kick you around.”

Think about the overall, or larger form of your solo.   Try to think a bit about overall contour, peak points, and your solo’s length.   Occasionally, you might consider building the solo by switching from single lines to octaves, or to a chorus of chord soloing.  Think about using counterpoint to build (Mehldau), or some other “innovative” technique for building a solo.

Jazz Vocabulary

Practice hearing and instantly identifying melodic intervals – descending and ascending.   Apply the entire range of Coker’s “Elements of the Jazz Language.”

Work to extend your vocabulary with non-linear patterns using triad pairs, pentatonics, fourths, and other scale fragments in cycles, sequences. 

Prioritize the development of rhythmic vocabulary.  Study examples of “hemiolas” or poly-rhythms.  When you hear a rhythmic idea that you like, write it out, and learn to play it.  This is for me an area worthy of deep study.

Occasionally, use “parentheticals”:  phrases interjected within an otherwise coherent musical idea (Coker, Anton).  There are many examples in jazz (for instance, Sonny Rollin’s composition, “Tenor Madness”).

Harmonic Clarity

Target chord tones on downbeats.  Practice connecting chords by using the nearest chord tone of the next chord throughout a phrase (John Witala).  Work to hear and to use guide tones, and be able to identify guide tone outlines 1, 2, and 3 (Bert Ligon).

Substitute chord changes in a solo to create interest and tension.  This is especially useful for 16th note lines, or chords that last more than a measure (Anton).

When you hop off a note, the note sounds more “important.”  Try to leap off of chord tones (Anton). 

I.  Melodic Development
A.  Motif-based:
1. Improvising on the Melody (Paraphrasing) – Melodic and rhythmic embellishment, and ornamentation (like Miles)
2. Improvising on the Harmony
a. Generalization (e.g., Blues)
b. Specificity (harmonic clarity)

B.  Non-linear improvisation:  improvising “off” the harmony
1.  Using triad pairs
2.  Using cycles:  cycle of fifths, whole step movement, resolving to chord tones on downbeats, scales/patterns in cycles (e.g., pentatonics)
3.  Using Sequences in your solos

II.  Coker’s Elements (Jazz Vocabulary)

1.  Change running
2.  Digital patterns
3.  7-3, 3-b9, 5-b9 resolutions (guide tones)
4.  Bebop Scale and Bebop Lick
5.  Generalization
6.  Enclosures (and other Approaches)
7.  Sequence
8.  Parentheticals (Coker’s CESH)
9. Quoting
10. “Cry Me a River” Lick
11. “Gone But Not Forgotten” Lick
12. Tri-tone / Altered Dominant substitution
13. Back Door Progression (V7-I substitution:  (IV-7 to bVII7) instead of the V7
14. Side-slipping
15. Playing over the bar line

Add “Modern Vocabulary” idioms:
16.  Triad pairs
17.  Pentatonics and scale fragments in cycles – cycle of fifths, whole steps

III.  Compositional Devices

1.  Simple Repetition.  An idea has to recur in some form to hear it as a motif!
2. Adding:  add material before, within, or after. 
3.  Ornament/Embellish:  Add or modify the motif.  The motif is still discernable.
4. Displacement: place a pitch or pitches in different octaves than the original idea.
5.  Mode Change:  same motif, but in a different (scalar) mode.
6. Sequence:  repetition of motif at different pitch levels.
7. Transposition:  transposing the idea to other pitches entirely, or to another rhythm.
8. Augmentation:  repeat the idea with larger rhythmic values or larger intervals.
9. Diminution:  the idea with smaller rhythmic values / smaller intervals.
10. Fragmentation:  fragmenting the motif
11.  Inversion, Retrograde, Retrograde Inversion:  hard to apply instantaneously, less useful.

Another way to apply compositional ideas “in the moment” – vary a motif:
-    by rhythm
-    by contour
-    by note choice

IV.  Resources

1. “Elements of the Jazz Language For the Developing Improvisor,”, Jerry Coker.
2. “Building a Jazz Vocabulary,” Mike Steinel.
3. “Connecting Chords with Linear Harmony,” Bert Ligon.
4. “Patterns for Jazz,” Coker, Casale, Campbell, Greene.
5. “Implementation Patterns,” Kent Beck.

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