Discovering Your Personal Jazz Improvisational Style

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The time comes when you start grappling with a daunting challenge:  how to develop your own style.  What is it that you want to say, and how can you most effectively express your ideas, your personality, your passion?

As a young player, when asked why you play as you do, you can justify your approach by replying, “Bird does it this way,” or “I’m trying to sound like Trane.”  But as we mature, it’s paramount we find our own “voice.”  How is that done?

I start each practice session by simply playing a note and listening to its sound.  Then I play another note, enjoying how it feels and how the sound fills the room.

Maybe an idea will pop into my head:  a melody, a phrase, a lick.  If nothing cool comes to mind, there’s a bunch of transcribed solos by the finest players filled with tons of wonderful licks.

For my practice session today, I grabbed a cool Coltrane lick from Ernie Watts’s workshop in Bruce Mishkit’s “Master Lessons” book.

As I began shedding that lick in all 12 keys (around the circle of fifths), the figure began to feel stale.  This often happens to me, and it’s perfectly natural.  It’s really a good thing, an opportunity.  It’s when I start asking myself, “What do I really want to hear?  What would rejuvenate the freshness and vitality of this passage?  What is the essence of this musical moment?”

So I begin to evaluate each note in the passage regarding its relevance to the overall flow.  I experiment with rhythm, trying to make it swing more naturally.  Rhythm needs to be unpredictable and intriguing, without being so outside as to feel contrived.

That reminds me:  Flugelhorn artist Dmitri Matheny once gave a clinic at Peninsula College in which he shared an intriguing insight.  He sang the well-known children’s playground taunt “na, na, na, na, na, na.”  Then he demonstrated how Louis Armstrong could communicate that same gibe with his horn.  Next, Dimitri recounted how – ten years later – Roy Eldridge portrayed that jeer within his own swing context.  Dizzy Gillespie likewise updated the childish sneer using bebop sensibility.  But, by the time the insult found its way into Miles Davis’ terse rhetoric, a mere two notes succinctly telegraphed the identical derisive message.

Indeed, it hardly needs recounting how starkly Miles’ approach contrasted with the dense textures of his band mate, Coltrane, or how Trane translated Monk’s angular, playful vocabulary into a complex verbiage seemingly at odds with Monk’s original conception.

A legend has it that Hank Mobley would intentionally depart from the approach taken by others on the gig in order to better showcase his unique gift.

Here are some variations I experimented with, starting from that Coltrane lick which Ernie Watts demonstrated.  I was struggling to express Trane’s lick using my own peculiar dialect.  As I grapple through a half-dozen iterations, notice how some notes become more prominent, while others vanish in the smoke.  How the rhythm strives to grow more colorful, florid, and swinging, but then finally retreats in stark, attenuated garb.

By the way, when shedding fictitious practice licks in 12 keys, I generally proceed around the circle of fourths, so if possible, the lick ends on the starting note in the next key.

It’s also important to emphasize that I never use these licks on actual gigs.  They merely serve as a means to improve technique and – as stated above – to help develop personal improvisatory style.

My sincere thanks to Bruce and Ernie for stirring up my muddy creative waters.

You’ve just seen a birds eye view of one practice session.

As always, I’m working on tone, intonation, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and building chops in all 12 keys…..not just the common ones!

But the emphasis in this video is:

You need to practice joy!

If you practice joy, you’re going to perform joy, and your audience will be filled with joy as they hear you.

Rather than slavishly, wearily slogging through a predetermined prescriptive regimen, try reinventing the gig as you dance through it.  It’s a lot more fun!  And I think a lot more productive.

Here’s why:

Do you love shopping for clothes?  I hate it, and I avoid it whenever possible.  However – when you shop for clothes – you’re learning what your own preferences are;  You’re discovering your own personality, inventing your own unique style.

Same goes for practicing your instrument.  As you revise and finesse the material at hand, you’re getting to know yourself better.  You’re revealing preferences hidden in your deepest aesthetic sensibility.  You’re getting to know yourself and becoming more comfortable with who you are, with the improvisational style which is already part of you.

Yes, your improv style will develop.  Yes, your playing will mature.  But you don’t need to sweat and strain, trying to find something original.  Your style is already right there inside your soul, just waiting to be discovered.

Ready or not, here we come!  Let’s go find it!







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