The key to satisfying jazz improvisation may not be learning all the scales.

A trombone player who bought Trombone Improvisation Savvy a while back wrote that as an orchestral player proficient at reading music, he feels overwhelmed when looking at chord changes. He wrote that the book isn’t giving him what he needs in terms of chord scales to practice until they become part of muscle memory. He asked for advice.

I first want to say that he is right. Trombone Improvisation Savvy is not meant to teach jazz harmonic theory or provide the scales that can be played over every possible chord. There are two paultry pages dedicated to theory, and it probably wasn’t worth including even those.

Trombone Improvisation Savvy

The book’s focus is on hearing the harmony, not looking and analyzing chords. There’s nothing wrong with analyzing chords and creating scales that contain the notes of those chords, but there are two reasons the book doesn’t teach that.

One, there’s already a ton of great books on jazz Harmony by people far smarter than me. Check out the Berklee Book of Jazz Harmony by Joe Mulholland & Tom Hojnacki.

Second, and more importantly, I think great improvisation relies on the composing you are doing in your head being amplified through your instrument. There are plenty of virtuosic players that are great repositories of learned lines, patterns, scales, and entire solos. If done well, that style of jazz playing is impressive. But that is neither my style nor preference for jazz, which is why you won’t find a reference to chord/scale theory and analysis in my books.

External instruments are only extensions of the biological instrument.”
– Yusef Lateef

What you WILL find, however, is a passion for connecting your musical mind with your instrument.

Play this audio track of 12 bar Bb blues…

12 bar Bb blues

While it’s playing, sing some jazz. Get over being self-conscious about your singing tone and flexibility. If singing is getting in your way, imagine a solo. Hear musical lines in your head.

Next, without thinking about which scales you should be playing, Think about the lines you heard in your head and play them on your instrument. Start with one note then two and work your way up to a complete phrase. You may have a hard time shutting down the “What note should I play here?” and “Does this sound right?” self-talk or self-doubt. When you hear that creeping in, stop, pick a note, a play another line.

“Keep searching for that sound you hear in your head until it becomes a reality.”
– Bill Evans

I should admit that the third reason chord/scale analysis isn’t in Trombone Improvisation Savvy is because I think too many potentially talented jazz players try to let the theory to lead the way. Before playing a single note, they start out thinking, “I don’t know how to read changes.” or “I don’t know what scale to play here.” All because they think that the music will arise from the G Mixolydian scale or the D altered diminished scale. The scales are a tool but I personally don’t believe they are the most important tool nor do they hold the key to making great music on your instrument.

Here’s another ear exercise from Trombone Improvisation Savvy. Play the audio file below.

Start on C, E, G, B, or D. Start simple by playing whole notes (one note per bar). For each successive bar, play the best-sounding note which is either a half or whole step up from the prior note. Continue playing whole notes up by a half or whole step. I’m deliberately not providing you with the names of the chords because I want you to hear your way through the changes, not analyze your way through.

If playing this is too difficult, start by singing. Give yourself that first note or pick it out and sing ascending by whole or half notes. Now, with singing, you probably won’t be thinking, “That was a half step.” “That was F#.” You will be focused instead on listening. That’s the point.

Start the track over and start on a different note. Maybe play half notes. That will force you to react quicker. Play down instead of up. Maybe try it with quarter notes. At quarter notes you are really exercising your reaction and therefore, strengthening your ear/horn connection.

At some point, after you’ve had success with playing those whole and half note custom scales, try playing simple lines over the chords. You will find after practicing this, the notes become easier to find on your instrument. They are not as far away as they felt earlier.

“Once I could play what I heard inside me, that’s when I was born.”
– Charlie Parker

Now, you don’t go directly from this simple ear training exercise to immediately playing long eighth-note lines over the tune Stablemates or Moment’s Notice. But what I do see players developing from this is the experience of playing more melodically and more intuitively more easily.

If you want to master Stablemates or Moment’s Notice, you’ll have to listen to the tune over and over, listen to great jazz players blow over it, transcribe solos and analyze them, practice the tune for years, and develop your technical facility to play the lines you imagine. Who said playing jazz well was easy?

Learn the chords and the relationships between keys and which notes sound right and wrong over the chords. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that you should lead your improvisation with the theory. Lead with your ears and support your musical imagination with the theory.

If all this makes sense to my book’s customer who wrote to me, open the book and play through the many exercises developed to strengthen your ear. Play over the many rhythm tracks and as you do, suspend the urge to think about which scales must be played and instead, hear the music and sing through your instrument what you think sounds right.

Last, give yourself the challenge to play the exercises you’ve chosen for just a short amount of time each day. Practicing regularly is much more important than occassionally practicing for long periods.

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