Speaking the Language of Jazz Improvisation

Matthew Fries

I’ve met many musicians who claim they can’t improvise. Someone will come up to me aſter a performance and comment on my playing, and then add that they could never improvise like that. Tey describe it as if it were some sort of magical ability that only certain people have, and they just could never do it. But ironically, they are really improvising at that very mo- ment. We all improvise all day long. We do it with words. Improvising is the same skill we use when we communicate and figure out the best way to express meaning in the moment with words. So, in many ways, learning jazz improvisation can be compared to learning a foreign language and if we think of it this way we can find some great guidance in what and how to study.

Tere are many similarities between the way we learn jazz improvisation and the way we learn a new language. Te parallels are present in concepts such as grammar, vocabulary, pronun- ciation and more.

Learn Jazz the Same Way We Learned to Speak

When we look at learning jazz we oſten think first about learning chords and scales, and I like to compare this to the way that we learn grammar in language. It is important to grasp how to correctly conjugate verbs and structure sentences, but it can be a big step to go from these rules to a place where we are expressing something meaningful and are really able to speak a language. Similarly, when we are learn- ing music, we end up asking ourselves what do we do with these notes that are supposed to sound like jazz? Te musical grammar rules might tell us that a B flat will sound great on that C7 chord, but studying grammar is just one part of this process. How do you make it sound like jazz improvising?

I’ve found the most effective tool in learning to improvise in jazz authentically is “transcrib- ing.” Transcribing in jazz is the process where

a student listens to a recording, figures out what the soloist is playing and learns to play it. Each of these steps in transcribing has value, and through this process of imitation we learn to go from a bunch of random noises on our instrument to something that sounds great and makes sense! And isn’t that exactly how we learned to speak when we were young? By imitating those strange words our parents were saying? Some of us as educators have probably suggested transcribing a solo to our students without knowing exactly what is so helpful about it, but this connection to language learn- ing can shed light on why it can be effective.

Why Is Transcribing So Useful?

Tere are many benefits to this process for a student of jazz. It’s true that if we aren’t used to playing by ear, transcribing can be an over- whelming and difficult challenge at first, but there is a wealth of information to be gained in the process. Tere are always shortcuts – there are books of transcriptions out there, and a quick Google search will turn up tons of transcriptions – but the process of listening and figuring it out note by note is what is most valu- able. Compared to reading, listening is certainly more closely connected to speaking in language and so, in our musical language, listening over and over to figure out what is played can be a pathway for absorbing what we hear and using it in our own music. Like anything else, tran- scribing gets easier and easier the more we do it, and learning to play by ear isn’t the goal. Tis is about using imitation to get ourselves playing in a way that fits the jazz style of phrasing, tone and note choice. Let’s look at some of the spe- cifics and some of these language parallels.

Where Do We Start?

A great first solo is Miles Davis’ solo on “So What” from his quintessential album Kind of Blue (if you don’t own it, you should go buy it right now). His playing is clear and melodic, and the tune only has two chords, so the pro-


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