I recently received in the comments a very long question regarding learning how to play, and it has inspired me to start a new section called Viewer Mail. I'm posting Anonymous' question (I edited it some) and then I will respond. Hopefully, Anonymous will find my answers helpful.
Hi George (sorry for the long post in advance, and thank you for your time…). This is Anonymous from Toronto, and I started studying jazz improvisation very seriously about 4 years ago. I am 32, and very hungry for jazz improvisation related information. I found your blog via some of the interviews you posted. I just want to say this is SUCH a blessing and you’re really COOL guy to want to dedicate your time sharing insights and experiences openly. Although there is a lot of information out there for jazz students, oftentimes they are not specific enough on describing the actual process of learning how to improvise, or more precisely, how to acquire and maintain a musician’s jazz vocabulary in our brain. Could you shed some light please?
For example, I started transcribing about 2 years ago, and I’ve been transcribing a bit everyday and went through 4-5 solos in the past year (Aaron Goldberg’s piano solos on Jimmy Greene’s Introducing CD track: Con Alma, Flower and Fly Little Bird Fly). I’ve practiced to the point that I have lines memorized. I can sing them in my head from start to finish. And I’ve analyzed the harmonic ideas of his outlines (although the more I memorize the solo, I tend to not be conscious anymore of the harmonic and chord changes but it’s more playing out of muscle memory, and I’m not sure if this is effective or not). I’ve practiced some 2 bar lines in all 12 keys on the guitar , and then move on to next line and repeat again next day or work on new projects. Usually I can only remember the lines for a few weeks.
When actually improvising, I end up still going to my familiar few patterns and few licks. If I slow down, or just sing alone without the guitar, occasionally one of Aaron’s transcribed idea will come up while singing. Then, eventually, I get so tired of the transcribed solo and fear that I’m not progressing that I move on to new solos for inspirations, and then the results are the same.
Recently I read a book by Lee Konitz called "Conversation on the Improviser's Art", and he said that Lennie Tristano used to ask his students to write a chorus etude and memorize it. I’ve been doing that over common standard progressions. If I can slow down time I hear really good ideas that I even surprise myself and have time to think how to connect changes linearly. But for me to be able to improvise in real-time at the rate this is going, well, i'm afraid I will be 80 years old before I succeed.
Question 1. Is the way I’m studying jazz improvisation normal? Or am I going totally the wrong direction?
Question 2. Do you recommend a way to memorize lines and/or a system how to maintain your vocabulary, and how to discern which line you hear/feel so quickly when you’re in the bandstand situation. Or, if you can just post any info you feel it’s important to share to this regard, or how did you practice when you first started, or just how to build your vocabulary. George- thanks so much!
OK. Anonymous- Thanks for writing. Your situation is quite common. The larger question, and to put your entire monologue much more succinctly, is: How can I improve my improvisational vocabulary? Also, how can I use what I'm studying to improve my improvisation?
Licor de Manzana:
doesn't necessarily help you speak Spanish
Think of jazz music like a language. When you learn a language, you learn one word at a time. Gradually, over a period of time and much real practice with people who speak the language, you will develop fluency. But we must remember that you can only learn one word at a time. When you develop fluency, you will be able to memorize long passages of T.S. Eliot or William Shakespeare, or what have you. But at the beginning stages, it's one word or concept at a time. When I learned Spanish, I was traveling to Spain a lot and I would write down vocabulary words and work on verb tenses everyday, and then practice with the locals. I knew I didn't speak very well, but the real time awkward practice really helped. (It forces you to think, even after five glasses of Licor De Manzana at 3:30 in the morning....)
I believe it is the same with jazz vocabulary. You have to concentrate on the short phrases. Even 2 note ideas can go a long way if you are trying to apply them to chord changes. Let's go back to the spoken language analogy: you would never attempt to "learn" to speak English by learning Alec Baldwin's monologue from Glenn Garry Glen Ross. If you don't understand basic verb tenses, Baldwin's speech, while amazing, won't really mean much to you.
I am not saying don't transcribe entire solos ever. Eventually, you will be able to do that more easily. What I do recommend is to take small, small ideas from a wide variety of jazz players, and then work it into your own playing. And when I say "work it into", I mean that this could be described as "plugging licks into the chord changes". That doesn't sound very artistic, I know. However, this is the beginning of the process. When you are just starting to learn to speak a second language, it is the same; it's not very correct or profound, but you keep speaking, hope you'll be understood, and hang in there.
The great Lee Morgan
I gave out an assignment recently of "Moment's Notice" where students will just "plug" one measure ideas into every ii V progression in the tune. This is very robotic and calculated; be that as it may, if you look at what Trane and Lee Morgan are doing on the recording, they are doing a very artistic and advanced form of this.
I also think you need to combine "licks" with "concepts". For example, maybe instead of thinking about a "lick", think about the scale that goes with the chord. Use the scale as if it was a a big drum kit with 7 drums. That combined with melodic shapes in the jazz idiom should give you a lot to think about.
To further the analogy; your goal in speaking a language is to express your needs. Not to quote Shakespeare or T.S. Eliot's needs. Your needs. So you need to understand how the process works on a molecular level. If you take two and three note ideas and "apply" them to chord changes, and then start to experiment with how to move those ideas around and connect with other SMALL ideas, then eventually you will start to see progress.
I like Tristano's idea of writing a solo chorus of your own and memorizing it. I have my students do this.
It's like soloing in slow motion. Eventually, you want to be able to do that in time.
I also wanted to comment on your choice of transcription subject. Aaron Goldberg is a fine pianist, but he's pretty advanced and modern. Why don't you try something like Dexter Gordon, or Hank Mobley, or even a Miles Davis solo? Something very simple. Maybe one chorus of Bird, or Freddie Hubbard? Aaron Goldberg is a weird place to start for a beginner. Again, it would be like me trying to learn Spanish by memorizing the poetry of Pablo Neruda. Now, eventually, I would love to get to that level, where I could speak on the level of Pablo Neruda's poems. In this way, you want a high level of fluency as a jazz musician. But you have to be patient.
Also, why not try someone on your instrument? What about a Grant Green or Wes Montgomery solo? It's not essential, but you might want to at least check out some guitar players. Maybe some George Benson? Maybe something of John Scofield that isn't too hard?
Above all, be patient. Rome wasn't built in a day. (And with Roman contractors, it's a wonder they ever completed the job to begin with.) I'll be in Toronto in April, if you want a lesson, let me know. Email me at my website www.georgecolligan.com