My reason for getting out of bed every morning to write books, create courses, and produce videos centers around that very question and how your answer to that question directly impacts your jazz playing and the satisfaction you enjoy playing your instrument.
I love jazz because it showcases the expression of the individual. Sure, we play in groups and communicate with each other as we play, and at its finest, the group is the sum of the individual members creating something special from the mix of each of their unique artistic souls. Think steaming delicious stew.
But I am asking the question, ‘who are you?’ in the context of improvisation-your real-time expression of your individual musical self told through your instrument while playing with others.
This question is important because when you improvise, who is this musical personality that is amplified through your instrument?
- Is it a faint echo of your favorite player?
- Is it the stitching together of licks you’ve worked hard to memorize?
- Is it your best guess as to the playing that will be acceptable to your audience and bandmates?
- Is it a muddled remnant of your musical personality scrubbed through the filter of self-doubt or cynicism?
- Is it the collection of notes you’ve always played because they’re comfy and safe?
I’m not discounting the almost irresistible pull we all feel from artistic and cultural norms. A powerful consensus exists as to what jazz should sound like and what YOU should sound like. From time to time a few giants escape those norms set by the players before them, and by doing so, set a completely new standard of how jazz ‘should’ sound. Now we follow them.
But you need not be the musical genius of Bird, Miles, Trane, Ornette, Bill Evans, etc. in order to improvise a musical statement that reflects YOU.
Without simply copying them, there is something we can all learn from the great masters. They were driven to pursue what they heard inside, and I’m encouraging you to do the same. But only you know exactly what that sounds like. So, back to my question, Who are you? Musically?
Not that easy is it?
No. It takes lots of dedicated practice and playing in order to build the technical proficiency that will enable YOUR musical voice to flow through your instrument (your particular machine).
But as I wrote here, for many players, lack of technical proficiency is not the problem. These days, more than ever, young players can fly all over their axe.
We spend so much time and energy learning to play our machine (instrument), when it comes to improvising, we instinctively think first of instrument fingerings, scales, and licks built from muscle memory instead of what we, as musicians, hear and feel inside.
The next time you are practicing on your own, improvising over recorded tracks, get yourself into the mindset of being on stage. You’re in front of an audience and a group of your fellow players.
Next, play over a rhythm track of a tune you know well. Here’s why it’s best to do this alone. I want you to improvise, and the moment a thought bubbles up about the mechanics of your playing STOP and write down that thought.
The thoughts to be aware of are things like, What scale should I play here? or I never play in B major very well. or I should play fast here. or What can I play coming up that will sound impressive?
After you make a quick note of a thought, jump back into playing. Stop and make another quick note once the next thought comes up.
You probably won’t need to do this for very long before you’ll discover how much of this non-musical mechanical thinking is distracting you from hearing musical YOU. Just being clear and aware of that distraction is the point of this exercise.
You can listen. Deeply listen.
Put your focus on the rhythm track and on listening to your playing as if you were listening to someone else without judgment. Just listen to this person. Next, apply this same focused attention and listening when you perform with others and in front of an audience.
Well, I’m the devil on your other shoulder telling you that there are no wrong notes as long as you’re listening to the voice inside and playing with conviction and intention within a certain context.
You CAN play a string of wrong notes, however, the moment you calculate the placement of, say, ‘that cool pattern starting on D in G minor’.
It’s the compromise inherent within calculating what to play next as opposed to listening, reacting, and emoting.
What is getting in the way of your authentic improvisation? It’s the mistake of thinking that your instrument is creating the music when it’s actually your mind that should be steering the ship.
This is where I borrow a page from Kenny Werner. He calls this being present and he’s right to advocate for that state of mind. Because at a certain level of instrumental proficiency, it’s a key to genius improvisation.
But it’s just one ingredient, and I don’t think being present means having an empty mind. You’re still paying attention to something. I’m advocating for paying attention to that musical voice inside fueled by thought, personality, and emotion. Not to the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ notes you played or fear playing!
Here’s a thought on the pre-occupation you might have with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ notes. As I mentioned above there are no wrong notes. But I have to add, ‘within a certain context’.
Here’s an exercise for changing your perception of wrong notes while building your skill in creating good context.
While improvising with a rhythm track, tell yourself that you will deliberately try to play a wrong note. An obvious wrong note, not those that you hide in shame. Play one and listen to it. How does it sound? What feels ‘wrong’ about it and what feels right to play after it?
My experience with encouraging wrong notes this way is that it transforms them from being wrong to being just another color. But, again, they must be deliberate and played within a certain musical context.
As an example, listen to Cecil Taylor. Which of those notes are ‘wrong’?
You’ll get at least two benefits from doing this strange exercise:
- You’ll start to worry less about ‘wrong’ notes and actually have more fun playing, and
- You’ll get more skilled at creating musical context around different musical colors.
You really can play any of the 12 notes (and micro pitches in between them) over any harmony. You just need to create the right musical context. So the important skill here is to broaden your hearing and reacting to musical context.
So be brave and if you play B natural over a G minor 7th (HONK!), don’t panic. Just listen to where that could lead and follow that thread.
By asking yourself the musical question, Who am I? I want to get you thinking about the foundation of your jazz playing. Improvisation doesn’t simply jump out of your instrument. It arises from your view of the world and your emotions, which are amplified through your instrument.
The more you manufacture your performed solos using someone else’s musical identity along with pre-constructed licks and patterns, the further away your playing becomes from YOU.
The more thinking you do about the next note and the note after that, the less authentic and (I believe) the less satisfying your playing becomes.
The ideal I’m wishing for you is a musical flow that is emoted from instrumental skill combined with clarity of your personal musical identity. (Who you are.