Driver assist for guiding your improvisation

Last week’s video was on simplifying improvisation to the point of making it much easier for you to feel confident standing up to play a solo.

I used the standard I Thought About You to demonstrate that you can play nothing but Eb major and sound good throughout the entire form of the tune. My message was, stop obsessing about the chords, scales, and patterns. Just hear Eb major and play cool phrases.

For the video, I played over an Eb drone harmony track while I recorded a few 8 bar phrases. I then brought those phrases over to the actual rhythm track and played it. Spoiler alert: the phrases sounded surprisingly good over the harmony.

I noticed as I played random scales and patterns over the tune, note emphasis was good and phrases ended well. I’m not bragging. It was just something I noticed especially when I started doing it on the piano.

Because my scales and patterns didn’t sound good and phrases didn’t have as happy a phrase ending as they did on trombone Why?

I even checked the electric piano patch to see if there was something funky about the tuning. Of course, there wasn’t! What was happening?

Musician’s driver assist

Jazz musicians have a radar that anticipates their playing. Perhaps the better the jazz player the more long-range the radar. But on piano, I felt like I was tailgating the rhythm track. A stunted ability to anticipate and create.

I recently bought a new car. It has diver assist features. Somewhat annoying but probably beneficial to my longevity. The safety features remind me of that radar I mentioned. But there’s more to it.

The standard I Thought About You does deviate from Eb. I made the point, you can play any note and that the next one is more important. There are potential accidents if you land on C natural over the Ab min/Db7 bar and don’t resolve it well. Get back quickly in your lane, you’re forgiven.

By lane, I mean your flow, whatever flow is for you. By lane, I’ not suggesting artificial limits on your playing. Leaving your lane might come from losing your focus or getting lost on a tune, or not trusting yourself as you get into difficult keys. Times what you start going a direction you don’t want.

As you play, do you notice that there is a bit of a force guiding your note choices?

I don’t see it as anything mystical. I think it’s something you develop over time and practice and performance. I have always loved the idea that Pablo Casals was asked how he plays with such great intonation. He replied that he just knows how to adjust very quickly. That’s a reaction that is developed over a lifetime of playing at a high level.

I’m fascinated by the idea of strengthening the connection between mind and instrument. The speed with which choices are made that create wonderful musical phrases is a sign of that dissolving barrier between mind and instrument.

I created some exercises for this in Jazz Ear Savvy I provided a rhythm background and ask the reader to play up or down but in intervals of only half and full steps. Like a scale. The challenge is that the key is moving so you need to be alert and super-focused. I think that practice will build that anticipation muscle that keeps you in your lane and prevents bodily injury!


  1. Jerry Gordon on April 20, 2019 at 11:02 am

    I find this idea of a “musician’s driver assist” mechanism interesting. I also find it curious that on the piano, it didn’t work as well as on the trombone. At first blush, that is odd since the driver assist mechanism clearly isn’t located either in the horn or in the piano. Presumably, it must be located in some part of our consciousness. So, why was there a difference with the two instruments?

    The most obvious conclusion is that the mechanism was the same, but different degrees of fluency on the two instruments made utilization easier on the horn. In other words, for a professional trombone player, reaching for a “good” note (the one that complied with the driver assist mechanism) was more instinctive on the horn than it was on the keyboard.

    Both the trombone and the piano are difficult instruments. Learning how to express what one “hears” in their head through either instrument is a challenge. Learning to “sing” through the instrument is not easy. So, I wonder if it would be easier (as a learning technique) to literally sing with our natural instrument — the voice.

    I once heard the fine (and fun) trombonist Wycliffe Gordon talk to a room of students. In that talk, he said that looking back on his career, one of his regrets was that he had not started singing earlier. Now he sings on many of his recordings, but his point in the talk was that singing had made him a better improviser on his horn.

    Recently I have been wondering whether, during practice sessions, I should sing improvised solos as a way of freeing myself from analysis. It seems like the driver assist mechanism might work when I sing because I would be freed from the technical issues of finding the right slide position on the horn or the correct finger position on the keys. If I can hear a note in my head I should be able to produce it with my voice without worrying about technique. Then, I wonder, will freedom found with the voice carry over to the horn?

  2. Michael Lake on April 20, 2019 at 12:05 pm

    I think the reason for the difference is, as you wrote, that the “radar” is not in the instrument but in consciousness. My trombone instincts lead me to good note emphasis and phrase resolutions. My piano chops aren’t well enough developed to guide me in the same way. (The connection between my ear/musical mind and the piano.)

    I have always been an advocate of singing since that is the most direct connection to one’s musical mind. I may do a video on singing then playing (imitating on the instrument) what was sung. As an exercise put on a rhythm track, sing a short phrase, then find and play that phrase on trombone. How difficult or easy is that? I think the answer provides a clue as to the connection between mind and instrument.

    I recently heard Bob Reynolds say that his goal is to eliminate the sax so that he’s simply “singing” his musical ideas. They just happen to sound like a tenor sax. I feel the same about the trombone. The friction disappears between mind and instrument and all that remains is an amplifier for my musical ideas that sounds like an alto trombone.

  3. Jerry Gordon on April 24, 2019 at 6:47 am

    Years ago I attended a presentation by trombonist Ray Anderson at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He was a guest of the music department and his lecture was presented in the music building auditorium on campus. The audience was mainly music students – but not all jazz students. Since the event was mid-day, the students trundled into the auditorium burdened by the cases of their various instruments.

    Anderson said he wanted some student volunteers – with their instruments — for a demonstration. After some cajoling, he got a motley crew to step forward, instruments in hand. Again, these were not all jazz players and included students with string instruments.

    He then instructed the students on stage that when he gave a downbeat, the students were to play the most awful, horrible, terrible sounds they could produce until he gave a cut-off signal. Then, before signaling the downbeat, he repeated how horrible and awful the noise was to be.

    The downbeat happened and the noise ensued. And, true to their promise, the initial sounds the students produced were a cacophonous horror. But Anderson did not cut off the ensemble immediately. He let the process go for four of five minutes. Then, when he finally signaled an end to the exercise he asked whether everyone (performers and audience members) had noticed what had happened? The initial sounds were indeed awful, horrible, and terrible. However, as the kids played something changed. The sounds of the makeshift ensemble had somehow morphed into music. Not great music, but certainly not a cacophonous horror. “You see,” Anderson commented, “you are all musicians. You are not capable of making just noise. Something inside guides you toward musical sounds.”

    I recalled this incident when thinking about the “musician’s driver assist mechanism.”

  4. Michael Lake on April 24, 2019 at 7:25 am

    Very interesting and a nice tie-in to the post. Thanks!

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