The Rites of Swing

A Compositional Approach to Jazz Improvisation


Mel Martin

This article will attempt to offer a compositional approach to jazz playing. When you hear great players soloing it is sometimes, though not always, apparent that they have some very coherent thought processes that form the essence of their efforts. The most musically satisfying solos contain a timelessness that gives them a true permanence. It takes much musical preparation and training to get to that level of performance. The beginning player has enough difficulty just finding the best notes and then executing them in real time. As a player advances in his experience and ability, his solos become more structured and technically adept. Many seem to feel that this is enough and the more adept at playing certain licks they become, the better soloists they are. This is where true musical understanding comes in. A composition is a formal structure that offers theme, variation, development, counterpoint, harmony and, perhaps orchestration. It can be a simple 32 bar form or an extended form or even an abstract form but it's chief function is to offer structure and a launching pad for improvisation.

With this idea in mind, a soloist should attempt to visualize a direction to his solo. This can be done by simply attempting to mentally erase any pre-conceived notions of what the solo should be, proceeding as if the mind were a blank canvas and the soloist the painter. The only things that you would want to relate to are the composition itself and your feelings at the moment. This is, I'm sure, easier said than done but I believe that's the concept that many great soloists follow. None of this can take place without a thorough grounding in instrumental technique, ear training, harmony, an understanding of orchestration and much music appreciation, ie; a great deal of critical listening and analysis to all types of music. Also needed, a strong sense of self, who you are, what your sound is and your perceptions on what your music means. When you are soloing, the sky's the limit as far as imagination is concerned. Your soloing has the potential to live forever or be immediately forgettable. The more music you know, the more musical you can be. This is what elevates jazz to a true art form. Stan Getz once told me that he listened to classical music every morning because it made him feel a certain purity. Clearly he was able to achieve this same sense of beauty into his soloing. Obviously, it will help if you actively compose and have done all the research and study of a student of composition. Given the understood background necessary to proceed from here, I believe I can offer some thoughts on how any player can develop this approach.

A solo, like a composition, is composed of many elements and resources. For the jazz musician, the very first thing to be aware of is the framework for the improvisation or the composition itself. The greater the knowledge of the work, the better the solo. A musician may compose the material which would give even further ability to project a unified thematic approach to the soloing. Although there are many, a great example of this integrated approach is Wayne Shorter. He is widely known for his unique compositional approach and his soloing also reflects the mind of a composer. I have heard him play in many different contexts from the cool sound of the Miles Davis band through Weather Report and his own brand of fusion. At all times does he solo with a conceptual mindset that allows him to compose as he solos and it may be compositional in stark contrast to his formal compositions yet beautifully integrated with his overall concept. Another great example is Thelonious Monk whose compositions are so strong and individualistic that the soloist is almost forced to adhere to the melodic and harmonic structures. The same can be said of Ornette Coleman. The idea is to conceive of an overall musical thought or series of connections while soloing. This can be achieved through theme and variations, embellishment, variety of melodic contours, variations on the harmony, extensions of the form, use of a variety of rhythmic structures and a sensitivity towards mood.

In working with students, I often have them attempt to write out a solo as they would try to play it on a standard. Many times I would ask them to take a tune like Giant Steps (see example 1) and write a balladic solo or take a ballad and write an uptempo solo. This puts the student in a formal context that forces them to consider the content of what they are attempting to do. I have also written previously on the Lee Konitz Ten Steps to an Act of Pure Inspiration method. Briefly, this requires that the student take a song at about 60 on the metronome and develop a solo by first adding only simple embellishment and then further variations for ten choruses until it becomes, hopefully, an act of pure inspiration. It will also do for the student what thinking in compositional terms does for the soloist.

Soloing at the highest level is spontaneous composition. Sonny Rollins is another master of the theme and variations approach. He has been known to tease the melodic development of a solo until it bursts forth with a unique creative force. Soloing at that level is a virtuosic exercise in restraint. Having the technique to play whatever comes to mind is not an end in itself but a means towards ultimate musical expression. Joe Henderson has absorbed this same ability to blend interesting new structures with tried and true forms. The result is fresh as an ocean breeze.

Attempting to recompose on a standard form is another ideal way for the student and professional alike to develop a compositional attitude. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd Dameron all did this and their bebop inspirations became classic lines. Many times there was little differences between the style of the compositions and the style of their soloing. This would be a good process for you to try now. (See example 2) Can you come up with a melody that will stand on it's own and reflect something of your personal approach? It's not that easy. This should be attempted away from a piano or horn on a well known tune. Then it's just you and your imagination. Then attempt a second chorus and a third. See how many variations you can come up with. Try to envision them as tunes you would like to play or have others play. Try different keys from the original. Try to envision what keys work best for you or your instrument, taking into account ranges, resonances, etc. Aim for a permanence as if you are really composing something for all time. This should show you what it takes to solo with the same idea in mind.

Many great performers have recorded and performed large scale works where there soloing is integrated with a large ensemble. Miles Davis and Gil Evans come readily to mind as a team that accomplished some great works with recordings such as Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, The Early Capitol Sessions and others. These sessions integrated soloing in a seamless manner with the thoughts of the arranger and the nature of the compositions. Charlie Parker with strings actually did something similar. Charlie Parker had expressed the desire to study contemporary composition and this was a spontaneous effort for him to stretch his boundaries. Listening to Just Friends, in particular, is a perfect example of this approach. Joe Lovano's recent recording with Gunther Schuller accomplishes much of the same type of thing. Charles Mingus was able to push his soloists in such a way as to force them to be contributors to his considerable compositional talents. His soloing on the contrabass was also a fascinating demonstration of a compositional approach to soloing, often quoting from many other songs as did Charlie Parker. Duke Ellington was also a great example of a phenomenal composer who employed his soloists to add to his compositions, sometimes contributing solos that actually became a part of the work. Many big bands put the soloist in the position of working within an orchestration and embellishing the compositional aspect. The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band had many interesting charts by Thad, Bob Brookmeyer, Jim McNeely and others that challenged the soloist to play beyond their usual limitation and dig deep into the musical concepts that were being advanced. I would suggest that those of you that work in big bands try to relate your solo to what's going on with the arrangement that you may solo on. First learn the composition itself as well as possible, exploring the harmonic content as much as possible. Then listen closely to backgrounds and moods of the arrangement. Try to enhance all of this in your soloing. I think you will find the results very rewarding.

Jazz musicians that play in more "free-form" situations actually have one of the best opportunities to create something compositional. Often, this type of music includes a preconceived form, melody and mood but allows the soloist to use it as a launching pad without necessarily adhering to the original form or even harmonies. There are many great recorded examples of this, particularly Ornette Coleman's early work. This type of "freedom" takes much discipline and musical knowledge and ability to use the imagination in the most open way. If you have never tried to play like this, I would suggest you try it at your earliest opportunity. Of course, you need like minded players and compositions. When you do try it, it's kind of like a trapeze without a net. There's nothing to hang your hat on except, perhaps the melodic structure. It will tax your imagination to the fullest. Even if this is not the style of music you may be most attracted to, it's a great discipline to try.

It is my feeling that the most difficult thing to do is to come up with something new and meaningful on material that has been played a lot such as the pantheon of Broadway and jazz standards. Although it would seem that everything that can be done in this area already has been done and better than anyone else could. Yet great players continue to mine this fertile area. Repertoire records are bigger than ever and I think that familiarity can breed some fine music. Again, the best players take a compositional attitude. I have a friend that's a brilliant improviser and composer of more than just jazz but claims he completely missed the bebop repertoire. Although I feel he is probably exagerrating, when he improvises in this area it comes off as fresh as a daisy because he is far less cliched than many beboppers and brings a compositional mindset to the party.

Music is truly an open sky. You are limited only by your imagination and the ability to carry out the musical things you envision. As you study the many forms and styles of all music, your personal growth will bring forth an accelerated sense of substance and allow you to approach all forms of improvisation with an open mind. There is no substitution for solid musical thought and thorough study of all music. It is necessary to have the necessary technique to play great musical ideas, but it is dangerous to let the fingers do the walking. What gets sacrificed in that situation is inevitably the music itself. Try and get a clear idea of what is you want to communicate and go about developing the means to do it. In my next article I will discuss ways of practicing that will allow you to play ideas and not just licks.

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