Jazz improvisation is similar to many skills that benefit from starting off with good habits and the right foundation. Here are three activities you can do to begin improvising with greater skill and more confidence.
1. Train your ear
The foundational skill of a jazz player is to play his or her instrument with the same ease as singing. Notice that you can easily sing in the most difficult keys (B, F#, C#) without thinking. Start on B and sing a major scale. No problem. But play B on your instrument followed by the major scale and it may not be that easy. What’s that tell you?
A similar test is to hear a note played on piano or other instrument and then sing that same pitch. You can probably do that quite easily. But hear a pitch and then immediately play it on your instrument and it probably won’t be nearly that easy. But this is the skill you must develop. Hear a note then play it on your instrument. One exercise you can easily do on your own is to sing a note then play that note on your instrument. Once you can find single notes then try it with two notes. Nothing fast, just two notes.
You are strengthening the connection between your ear and your instrument. As you do these exercises you may find yourself thinking about the notes and intervals. The best way to do this exercise is to suspend your thinking. If you hear yourself second-guessing where you think the note lies on your instrument, stop. Focus instead on the sound of your voice singing the note. Just focus on that. If your analytical mind starts to calculate where it thinks the note is, stop. Again, focus instead on the sound of you singing that target note. Listening is always the solution to thinking while you improvise or do exercises like this.
You may discover that your musical instincts are actually pretty good when you trust them. Remember that you are doing this exercise privately. There is no need to prove anything to anyone. Often when we try to prove ourselves, we overthink and end up going in the wrong direction.
A free tool you can download that will build your mind/instrument connection is my Jazz Patterns for Ear. Download it here. Read the book’s introduction in order to understand how best to play with the tool.
Connecting mind to instrument is a life-long endeavor but by doing the things I’ve described above, you will more quickly build a foundation for improvisation that reflects your authentic musical voice.
2. Listen to great jazz musicians
No great jazz musician ever developed their art in a vacuum. From Charlie Parker to John Coltrane to Miles Davis, they all started out emulating their hero.
Listening to great artists is an important activity for becoming a good jazz musician. There is a language to jazz and a rhythm to jazz that you must know. It must be in your bones. I encourage you to find your musical voice but only after you’ve internalized the essential jazz language.
What should you listen to? Listen to the greats on your instrument in order to understand how others have used that instrument to play great jazz. But also listen to the great piano players. The piano creates the body of jazz harmony. You must listen to Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and others. You’re likely to hear greats on your instrument playing on some of their records as well.
A good guide that Richie and I recently wrote for learning about the essential piano players is entitled, The Lineage of Modern Jazz Piano. You can download your free copy here.
For each pianist, Richie recommends what he believes to be each of their best three albums. Start listening to those great albums.
3. Transcribe great solos
The next stage of developing your ear for jazz is to transcribe solos from the recordings of great players. Once you write down the notes and rhythms of these players, you then play them as close to the original phrasing and feel as possible. As Dave Liebman says, know them so well you can tell what the player had for breakfast that morning!
Find solos that are at your playing level. Don’t choose a solo that is beyond your technical ability since you won’t be able to emulate it well and won’t learn nearly as much. You will work your way up to more difficult solos but start with those you can play perfectly.
No need to exclusively transcribe solos of your own instrument. Find solos of other instruments that you like and can play. I used to transcribe short portions of Michael Brecker solos. To play those on trombone is certainly not easy but that is why I transcribed only phrases and small portions of his solos that I could play. I did the same with Bill Evans solos although that brings us to another type of transcribing.
If I were to insert a number four in this list of these activities, I would add playing the piano if that is not your main instrument. I mention it here because I recommend transcribing the changes to tunes you hear on recordings. I used to transcribe changes from those Bill Evans Vanguard recordings. I wanted to have lead sheets to those tunes containing his remarkable harmonies and I wanted to understand what he was doing.
I also highly recommend transcribing singers. Regardless of your instrument, learn the phrasing of great singers like Billie Holiday, Ela Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, and of course, Frank Sinatra. A singer I used to play along with was Rickie Lee Jones. She had such a great sense of rhythm and emotion. I think, in the end, we’re all singing through our instrument. Let’s learn from the real singers.
These three activities are things you do in the practice room. Of course, all the while you are working on these things, you should be out playing with others. Remember, Jazz is social music. Unless your improvisation is a solo performance you are playing with others, so get with your friends and develop your ability to communicate through the music.
Do a little bit of the things listed above each day. Do as much as you wish, but do your best to keep consistent and not miss a day. This simple habit will turn you into the best possible jazz player you can be. I promise!