LEARNING TO IMPROVISE - ARTICLE LINKS
- Listening To Jazz
- Ear Training
- Rhythm & Phrasing
- Motifs & Cohesive Solos
- Vocal Improvisation
- Jazz Theory
RHYTHM AND PHRASING
"It's not what you play; it's how you play it." I don't know who first spoke those words, nor do I even know if they were initially spoken in the context of jazz improvisation (a Google search returns all sorts of things), but I do know that the quotation aptly describes the importance of rhythm and phrasing in jazz improvisation. You can take any series of notes and depending upon your choice of rhythm and phrasing you can play them with a ferocity that tells the world: look out, here comes one bad mother (shut yo' mouth!), or you can play those notes as ballad, with so much emotion that audiences hang on every note with tears in their eyes. It all comes down to rhythm and phrasing.
Another popular quotation, which I'm paraphrasing, says "If you play wrong notes with good rhythm and phrasing, most people won't hear them as wrong notes. On the other hand, if your rhythm is off, it doesn't matter what you're playing; it will immediately sound bad to just about everyone." As listeners, we have a pretty good tolerance for "wrong" notes as long as they're played with good rhythm and phrasing. One example of acceptable "wrong" notes are the passing tones that we hear in just about every good jazz solo. These are the notes that are not part of the chord being played, but the way they're placed and accented in the overall phrase makes them sound perfectly fine. In fact, they're often what make the solo sound hip in the first place. Another example of acceptable "wrong" notes occurs when somebody plays outside a given harmony. Players like Woody Shaw, Kenny Garrett, and Joe Farrell are masters of outside playing. When they play outside, it doesn't sound like they're playing wrong notes at all. That's because their rhythm and phrasing gives the outside lines the support they need to sound right! They also do other things to tie those lines in, such as chromatic modulation of motifs, but it's really the rhythm and phrasing that anchors everything together. Believe me, if you gave those same "wrong" notes to a person with poor rhythm and phrasing, all you'd hear are wrong notes.
HOW I LEARNED RHYTHM AND PHRASING
My first experience with jazz improvisation was in middle school band. Our band teacher began by teaching us how to play notes in a swing style. As a group, we all played the familiar dotted-eighth/sixteenth note rhythm that you read about in every book on jazz improvisation. Actually, most books nowadays describe it as a triplet rhythm, where the first two notes are tied... In any case, I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.
After learning the basic swing rhythm, we were shown the notes to the C blues scale (C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb). Once we played that through a few times, the teacher put on a play-a-long recording and soloed for a couple of choruses so we'd have some idea of what a jazz solo sounds like. Finally, we went around the class, each of us getting a chorus or two to try our hand at jazz improvisation. Naturally, after a five-minute introduction to jazz improvisation, none of us sounded good at all. But, the thing that really sticks out to me now is the fact that we forgot all about rhythm once it came time to solo. Instead, we simply ran up and down the blues scale, trying to get the notes right. Rhythm fell by the wayside and notes took over!
This approach to teaching jazz is echoed in quite a few jazz improvisation books. You start out with the basic swing rhythm. If you're lucky, you'll learn about basic the basic phrasing of eighth-note lines (offbeat accenting). But, inevitably you're deluged with chapter after chapter about scales, modes, and complex theory. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with the study of theory or it's place in jazz education. But I do have a problem with the fact that many beginning players focus too much attention on learning theory without building a solid rhythmic foundation first. Without a solid basis of rhythm and phrasing, any note you play is doomed to sound lifeless and uninteresting.
RHYTHM AND PHRASING FIRST
When somebody asks me for advice on learning jazz improvisation, I suggest the following starting point:
Pick a jazz recording that you really like and listen to it over and over again. As your familiarity with the tune (or solo) increases, start singing along, using simple doo-ba-da-bop syllables. The goal is to mimic the rhythm and phrasing on the recording as you sing. This includes each accent, each inflection, and everything else that's happening in the realm of rhythm and phrasing. If possible, record yourself as you sing along, so you can compare your rhythm and phrasing to that of the recording. Don't worry about getting the pitches right, you can worry about notes later.
Continue the above process until you develop a basic rhythmic vocabulary (i.e. you know what jazz rhythms sound like and you can sing them on your own). Once you reach that point, try playing the same rhythms on your instrument with single-note solos. Isolating your solo to just one pitch/note gives you the freedom to focus entirely on rhythm and phrasing. If you can make one note sound good, just imagine how good you'll sound when you add in more notes! Or, another way of looking at it might be: if you can't play a decent one-note solo, what makes you think you'll sound good with more notes? I'm such a glass is half-empty sorta guy, aren't I?
EXERCISE 1: ONE-NOTE CALL AND RESPONSE
In both of the following tracks, I'm playing nothing but a concert Bb over a Bb concert blues track. For the trumpet players out there, this means I'm playing a C over C blues..
iwasdoingallright - audio clip - ONE NOTE, TRACK 1 - I play a one-measure phrase followed by a measure of rest. During the rest, play back the same rhythm, matching the phrasing and attacks as closely as possible. Here's an example of me playing along to this recording: iwasdoingallright - audio clip. The muted part is what you should play.
iwasdoingallright - audio clip - ONE NOTE, TRACK 2- This clip lasts for two choruses. The rhythms also have a bit more variation.
Once you are able to mimic my rhythm and phrasing, try to improvise your own rhythms in response to mine.
EXERCISE 2: TWO NOTE CALL AND RESPONSE
In the following track, I'm also playing over the same concert Bb blues track, however I'm now playing both concert Bb and F (C and G for the trumpets).
iwasdoingallright - audio clip - TWO NOTE, TRACK 1 - As with the examples above, try to mimic my rhythms and phrasing. Use your ear to play the same notes that I play.
EXERCISE 3: I'VE GOT THE SINGLE-NOTE BLUES
Once you get good at mimicking my rhythms and once you are able to improvise some of your own, you should try to improvise an entire solo with just a single note.
iwasdoingallright - audio clip - SINGLE-NOTE BLUES - Here's an example of what a single-note solo might sound like.
If possible, record yourself playing these exercises. When you listen back, compare your rhythm and phrasing to mine. Hopefully yours will sound similar. Ideally, yours will sound even better!
ABOUT THE PLAY-A-LONG TRACK
Each exercise above use the Bb concert blues track from Volume 1 - "How To Play Jazz & Improvise" of Jamey Aebersold's play-a-long series. I recommend this play-a-long, not only for it's audio tracks, but also for the accompanying book. The book has a lot of useful information on a variety of topics. It's also a good resource for learning jazz theory.
If you don't have the Aebersold play-a-long, you might try one of the tracks at jazzpracticeloops.com.
UPDATE 10/06/2006: My newest ear trainer, currently in BETA, has blues and other sequences that you can use a play-a-long. Give that a try if you have nothing else.