Memorization for jazz solos?

A sax player eager to improve his improvisation skills reached out to me yesterday.

He’s frustrated. He’s unsure of how to continue his learning. He really wants to play like his peers but fears that he might lack something fundamental that they seem to naturally possess. Sound familiar?

He sent me a description from a course he found on memorization, and asked for my opinion. I read through the course and saw that it had some good ideas to offer about memorizing music. But as I told this musician, the course was geared toward classical music, not jazz.

Classical music performance demands a high level of memory. Playing thought the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto demands a special type of skill.

Outside of memorizing the head and the changes, or at least the key centers of a tune, memorization is not all that critical for jazz musicians. And many of the old-school greats didn’t even think about the chords. They knew the melody and improvised the rest.

The belief that memorization could be the key to improvising well relates to a common theme in my writing and teaching: “I just need to be shown the right notes to play over changes.”

Schools and most online jazz education have brainwashed musicians into believing that the mystery to improvisation is unlocked through a storehouse of learned chord tones, scales, patterns, licks, and fragments of other solos and melodies.

That works really well if your goal is to sound like an improviser, but not if you want to truly spontaneously compose on your instrument as an integrated whole within a jazz band.

Your objective is not to learn the right notes. Your objective is to connect your musical mind and instincts to your instrument. From there, the right notes flow out of you like a spontaneous conversation with your friends.

Here’s the problem with the objective of connecting your musical mind to your instrument: it’s much harder than memorizing some cool patterns in 12 keys.

Why not just cut to the chase and write out your solo, memorize it, and play it note for note? If you wrote out a really cool and complicated solo, you’ll sound very impressive. Your listeners will think you are a jazz musician and you can forget about all the difficult work of connecting your mind to your instrument. I could name that method, ‘Solo Manufacturing Savvy’! I bet I could sell millions!

But no. I’ll continue to fight the good fight with tools like my course Improvisation Savvy and my books like Jazz Ear Savvy, Jazz Patters for Ear, and others here.

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