This is limiting you from satisfying jazz improvisation

I’m creating a new product. It is an eBook on how to learn tunes in order to improvise really well over them. It will also have a series of packets dedicated to individual songs.

Think of it like a razor and blades. The main eBook is the razor, the foundational methodology for learning tunes and how to practice them in ways you probably haven’t considered. The blades are the individual tune packets that take you through a different song and provide you with drills and exercises for identifying the parts with which you struggle. Each packet will contain transcriptions and models for learning the tune more effectively. I’m in the process of figuring out copyright issues so that I can keep the price affordable.

If you own my book Trombone Improvisation Savvy, the tune analysis, models, and drills will sound familiar. I have new ideas on learning tunes, which you’ll find, but I’ve also expanded my thinking on something much more important and foundational to mastering improvisation.

Being you instead of someone else

As I work one-on-one with players and hear musicians in rehearsals and gigs, I am constantly reminded of the critical component of self-assurance. But it’s deeper than that. We develop as musicians by modeling others, and that is a very important and legitimate component of learning. But one must be careful not to carry that modeling into a belief that the musician being modeled is the end instead of the means.

As an “end” one would try to conform one’s sound and approach – even the notes played – to everyday improvisation. “Look, I sound like Michael Brecker!” Yes, Michael Brecker started out modeling John Coltrane and for a time, worked hard to sound like him. But at a certain point, his unique musicality came through and he developed into the player we all knew and loved.

It is very tempting to believe that the end goal of learning to improvise is to play like the giants of jazz on your instrument. Trombone players should play fast like Watrous or Bob McChesney. Sax players should sound like Brecker or Bird, trumpet players like Clifford or Freddie Hubbard, and piano players like Jarrett and Chick. Anything short of that technical mastery is considered a loss.

And while the masters of jazz are considered masters partly because of their technical fluency, I think their stature is due to something more fundamental: their unique musical fingerprint.

We all have a unique musical fingerprint, but I see in far too many players a tendency to ignore it. Instead of improvising lines originating from their inner musical voice, they get caught up in their preoccupation of sounding like someone else. That someone else could be a more experienced player in their band or a jazz master.

I’m not suggesting that world-class improvisation can be done without technical ability. Instrumental technical prowess will provide more options of range and rhythm, and a more developed ear will allow you to more easily dance through the changes. But no matter what technical level you currently enjoy, you can still weave engaging musical lines unique to you. Keep learning and getting better on your instrument but when it comes to performing, pause the internal dialog about what you can’t play, stop thinking about what chord change is coming next (or the one you just missed) and avoid chasing after the sound of someone else. Simply listen to everything going on around you and sing.

My personal example

Easier said than done, isn’t it? An example of mine was at the 2017 International Trombone Festival. Jazz night was the final night and performing in front of the 100 or so trombonists were Bill Watrous, Bob McChesney, Scott Whitfield, and Dick Nash. I was asked to sit in so I ran to my car, grabbed my horn, and before I knew it I was following Watrous’ solo on All the Things You Are. Here is the excerpt of Watrous followed by me.

That was a moment for me to center myself and not succumb to trying to sound like I thought the trombone players in the audience thought trombone should sound. If I had covered the mic with my bell and tried to do a fast high soft bebop thing like these other great players, that inauthentic solo would have lead to a disastrous result. If I had preoccupied myself with the gravity of the moment instead of simply listening to the rhythm section and dancing my musical dance, a flat uninspired solo would have oozed out of my alto.

How does that relate to you? Well, the next time you are at a rehearsal and a piece of music is called that has those scary diagonal lines with chord symbols above them along with that four-letter word “solo”, catch yourself thinking, “I can’t improvise.” or “People will hear that I don’t play as well as so and so.” or “What if I get lost in the changes?”. Ignore that internal dialog and just listen to the other musicians playing around you. Resist evaluating yourself negatively as you play. That negative thinking in your internal dialog is preventing you from being the good improviser you can be.

Yes, knowing the tune and having a lucid facility around the harmony will make you a better improviser, but start now mastering the inner game I am describing. Is it a chicken and egg cycle? It can feel that way, but ignorance of what we cannot do is sometimes a blessing in disguise.

None of this guarantees that you will play perfectly. I certainly didn’t that night 18 months ago, but it provides your best shot at being authentic and confident in order to play at your personal best at any given moment.

I came away that night reaffirming that the technical aspects of playing matter much less authenticity. I confirmed that from the generous applause after my solo and from later that night running into Dick Nash back at the hotel as he grabbed my arm, looked up at me and said, “Kid, you played your ass off tonight.”

You have the ability to play your ass off every time you pick up your instrument if you are willing to turn down or ignore your internal negative dialog, stop chasing after someone else’s sound, and simply listen and sing your unique personal improvised song.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Lieske on January 13, 2019 at 10:15 pm

    Your playing woke up rhythm section. You also followed the changes in a recognizable way. Audience seems to have agreed.

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