A great lesson on improvisation

In a recent big band rehearsal we were provided with a wonderful lesson on improvisation.

The lesson came from one of the trumpet players. He’s a good lead and section player but doesn’t fancy himself as an improviser. In fact, I think he’s done a pretty good job of avoiding it. But a tune got passed out and I think to his great apprehension, the dreaded chord changes (slashes with letters) were on his part and he would have to blow over them.

When time came to play, he played a superb solo. I think he surprised himself with how well he played. He took his time and played nice easy melodic phrases leading smoothly from one to the next. Nothing terribly loud or high, just cool.

The following rehearsal, time came for him to again play that solo on the tune. This time, he struggled. He played louder and made several attempts to play fast phrases. He tried to play more complicated jazz. He was working hard to recreate the magic he remembered from last week. In a word, he pressed.

I spoke to him after rehearsal and conveyed what I’m writing, which is that jazz is a music best served cool. In other words, well-played improvisation can’t be forced.

The reason I recognized what was happening was because I sometimes fall into that exact same affliction in my own playing. We press because:

  • We’re nervous for a whole bunch of possible reasons
  • We’re unsure of the tune and are compensating for lack of confidence
  • We are trying to live up to some self-imposed standard.

But the rare magic we occasionally capture through improvisation is magic simply because it spontaneously occurs. We put the horn up to our face and our inner musical voice speaks through our bell. We aren’t working hard at it or trying to demonstrate anything. It just comes out.

I think this is the essence of great improvisation. And I think most of us are much better at it than we permit ourselves. We rarely hear our full potential because we’re too busy trying to sound like something else.

Think about your improvisation. What are you trying to accomplish? What are you engineering? What are you proving? To whom are you proving it? Or are you simply playing what seems natural? Confidence plays a huge role. I think the jazz greats are great partly because they have stopped trying and are at peace with their inner voice and with letting it out of its safe confines.

I speak from experience. With high profile performances and high profile players, the urge to impress is strong. The urge to prove my ability is almost instinctive. But the exact opposite of those motivations is what makes for great improvisation.

So if my friend were to ask me, I’d counsel not give a damn what people think as he plays. And instead blow what just seems right. No judgement. No fear. Just music. Be cool.



  1. Paul Ackerman on December 2, 2016 at 3:01 am

    Cool 🙂

  2. Ryan Bodilly on June 14, 2017 at 4:44 am

    Great article Michael! I myself have learnt this lesson the hard way after many years, even though my fellow musicians have given me this exact advise and been encouraging I always felt I had to step it up each time I did a solo, when really the more I just let it naturally flow at a more steady natural rate the more I successfully started improving my improvising subconsciously.

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