The Art of Improvisation: Going Solo

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To me, planning and notating the solo is like setting up orange traffic cones inside the arrangement.
What exactly is improvisation? The Latin form "improvisus" literally means "unforeseen." Merriam-Webster describes the verb "improvise" this way:

  1. to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously

  2. to make, invent, or arrange offhand

  3. to fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand


This definition serves as a good reminder for how we should approach our music. I admit that I need this kind of reminder. As a musician, it’s easy to forget to play extemporaneously when we play with other musicians who have also forgotten the beautiful art and purpose of taking a solo.

Pre-Planned Versus Extemporaneous Solos

I have recorded with musicians who consciously practice a pre-conceived, pre-fabricated solo within the jazz setting. This defeats the purpose of playing jazz. It’s one thing to pre-plan your journey (remember that term: journey) when thinking about a tune you are going to solo on, but for experienced players to plan, notate, and rehearse their solos is as far from jazz as it gets.

I gained some insight on pre-planned solos from one player who was legendary for the practice. I studied him studying his solos, and I realized that his approach was in perfect complement to his personality. What he played during these carefully constructed solos was himself. In some ways, this is a beautiful thing. You have a player who can literally inject his personality into his solos and who is determined to express his music in that way. To me, it’s not enough. To me, planning and notating the solo is like setting up orange traffic cones inside the arrangement.

That’s not to say that freeform improvisation is easy for a soloist. To approach a solo unrehearsed and unpracticed, you first must not be afraid of what others on the bandstand will think if it comes out sounding just plain wrong.

I learned early on to not be afraid what a colleague might think of my lack of technical prowess when soloing. Instead, I use all of my technical knowledge, along with the melodies running through my head, and follow those into solo mode. Sometimes it actually works.

And sometimes it sucks.

But, the longer I work on this art form called jazz, the more accepting I've become to the "sometimes it doesn't work" part.

Maybe it's maturity, an acceptance of what we can control and what we can’t. My personal bottom line in judging whether or not my solo worked is answering this question: "Did you tell your story tonight?" And not, “Did you give the audience your master plan for the ages?"

I believe the beauty of jazz is improvisation in the truest sense of the word, the release of the good, the bad, the ugly, the really ugly—the right and the wrong—through improvisation. This is my personality, and just as the careful soloist seeks to bring his boundary-conscious, carefully constructed harmonic and rhythmic confines to his solos, I seek to abandon those same things in mine.

This is not to say that the only way to improvise is to approach the journey without a map, but it is to say it won’t kill you to give it a try.

The Group and the Solo

There is room for the practiced application of the solo within a musical setting. It goes something like this: You hear a solo played by one you consider a master. You listen to it until you can sing it back, first in your head and then by whistling or singing it out loud. What you should tune into is not so much the technical prowess of the soloist, but rather the way the soloist places the notes against the rhythm section. (Remember the rhythm section? These are the guys in the back waiting to read the horn player’s mind and pleasure him as required. But that's another article.) The master soloist always has a repertoire with the rhythm section.

He probably even says hello to them when he walks onstage.

This is a secret I’ve discovered in listening to solos that “work”: The rhythm section is key in supporting the soloist. They complement the soloist and help him on his journey. The rhythm section listens to the soloist and bends, groans, sways and screams with the soloist.

This is storytelling. This is soloing. In its best form, soloing becomes a group activity. You can play your butt off on a solo, and it won’t feel right unless the communication between you and your support system is strong.

The music we make is supposed to be beautiful, even at its ugliest. If you can tell a story with technical zeal and you want to express your solo that way, then do it. If that’s you, then go nuts. Just don't talk to the rest of us about being the fastest, strongest player out here, as if we’re in some kind of a weight lifting competition. You give me yours; I give you mine. And either way, to be worth playing and worth listening to, your solo has to reflect you, has to tell your story.

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