As I write my book I’ve been sending excerpts to players for their input. I’ve also been reaching out on various forums for thoughts and perspectives. While I certainly maintain strong opinions about how one goes about gaining proficiency with jazz improvisation, I want to hear what others have tried – what works and what doesn’t. I am also eager to ask about the challenges players face learning what for many seems like a near-impossible dark art called jazz improvisation.
A recent forum post I started has spurred some enthusiastic comments regarding improvisation and the challenges players face. On the subject of how players learn improvisation, one popular answer revolves around scales.
From when I first began to play jazz, scales were the unquestioned methodology for playing over chord changes. Major, minor, dorian, lydian, mixolydian, diminished, blues, whole tone… There is a scale for every chord. Learn them in every key and every octave. They are your badge of jazz improvisatory proficiency.
I think there is a value to learning scales but I also believe there is a danger in applying them inappropriately. As I listen to players, I often hear a tendency to confuse scales with music. I think in many cases, scales satisfy a deep-rooted need to play notes for the sake of playing notes. After all, the great players seem never to be at a loss for notes as they effortlessly whiz through the changes. Scales seem to provide that jazz vocabulary for the note flurry that seems to be the hallmark of good improvisation. But is that what scales truly should provide and is that why we practice them incessantly?
The value of scales is that it builds the technical facility needed to play jazz well. As difficult as trombone is to fluidly move through various tonalities, scales provides us with a template for training our arm movement and inner ear for manipulating key centers.
But what happens when scales become, not just a mechanical tool for learning, but the actual stuff of your musical phrases?
I mentioned recently in one of these online discussions my good friend and partner on my CD Roads Less Traveled, Gerry Pagano. I remember after a long day of recording tracks for the CD, we kicked back in my studio and played some jazz with our old reliable rhythm section lead by Jamey Aebersold.
I think that was the first time I’d heard Gerry improvise and I was shocked by how well he played through the chord changes. He was weaving melodies through the changes by nothing more than his ear. To my knowledge jazz is not something Gerry plays or even practices so I took it as an example of pure improvisation unencumbered by rote patterns, imitation, or scales. Instead of dedicating a good portion of his life to maniacally running up and down scales, he’s been sitting in the back of the St Louis Symphony playing bass trombone performing and listening to the great melodies of the ages.
The premise of that portion of my upcoming book on improvisation is that good jazz playing is born of melodies, not memorized patterns and scales. Patterns and scales do have their place in the practice room to help build flexibility and familiarity with key centers but the challenge many players face is in leaving scales for scales sake out of their performances. Scales can be the tonal diarrhea signaling the lack of authentic spontaneous music.
I am developing what I believe is a practical method for getting outside of those memorized patterns and scales living inside your head and instead playing with a musical fluency facilitated by the tonal and rhythmic accompaniment you hear and the melodies to which your musical instincts lead.
I don’t know how to give you more talent, but I think I can guide you in using whatever talents and gifts you possess to create authentic and satisfying music as you improvise this great music called jazz.