Monday, August 10, 2009

The Art of Solo Improvisation

Being in a jazz band gives me cause to frequently ask myself this simple question, "What makes a good jazz solo?" Sometimes, when I am feeling especially creative, I even ask, "What makes a great jazz solo?" A few years ago, when I first started playing jazz, I had no idea how to even consider such a question. I figured it must have something to do with playing a few notes -- or something like that. That was then. Now that I've been playing jazz bass for a few years, I feel that a better answer to that question is coalescing in my mind. Now, whenever I take a solo, I generally consider one or more of the following things:

Notes Don't Matter
Nobody cares what notes you are playing. Individual notes are only important to the listener in regards to how they sound. Nobody cares whether a note is a third, a fifth, a minor sixth or even a weird harmonic. What they do care about is how the note fits (or doesn't fit) with what the other instruments are playing. Sometimes "wrong" notes sound even better and more interesting than right notes. Sometimes a "right" note doesn't sound that great. With the perspective that notes don't matter, it is easier to focus on the sound than on the theoretical aspects of a solo.

Texture Is Vital
Musical texture is defined by several things. In the case of a single instrument texture varies based on articulation, phrasing, melodic speed, pacing and harmonic range. Playing a bunch of lower notes in succession creates a very different sound than a flurry of high notes. Playing several notes slowly and deliberately creates a completely different feel that fast, short licks. Note articulation also can create many different sorts of textures. For example, notes with a quick and strong attack sound more forceful and pronounced. Lightly picked notes sound a lot smoother and more flowing. Sliding up to, or down to a pitch creates a completely different sound than notes that are played straight. Vibrato can be used to add more emotion and power to a held note. Ridiculously fast sections generate energy and excitement, while slow melodic lines bring the energy down and place more emphasis on expressiveness. Utilizing texture well can give a jazz solo clear direction and serve as compelling sonic material for listeners to enjoy. When texture is not varied enough, a solo will sound quite bland and uninspired.

Dynamics Are Powerful
One thing that sets the pros apart from the amateurs is an understanding and utilization of dynamics. This is especially vital for the drummer, since the best drum solos always capitalize on dynamic changes, but dynamics are almost equally powerful for every instrument. By learning to bring things down to a low volume and then build energy through a solo, with dynamic changes at both expected and unexpected times, the listener more easily grasps the development of the solo. The usage of the soft passages makes the louder sections seem more powerful and the loud sections serve to highlight the subtlety and delicateness of the softer licks. This use of relative contrast can make bland musical ideas seem almost exciting, and incredible licks will shine more brightly than ever. Mastering the use of dynamics in an improvised solo will give it a rich luster, not to be quickly forgotten!

Notes Do Matter
I know that a few paragraphs ago I said that notes don't matter. That's still true. But in another sense, notes do matter. Though most people don't know or care which specific notes you are playing, sometimes musicians do. If you want to show off your virtuosity or impress other musicians then it's great to throw in some licks and arpeggios that clearly demonstrate your understanding of keys, modulation and scales. Alternate modal licks that fit over the current chord can add a really nice flavor to a solo. Playing that kind of stuff requires a firm knowledge of what notes normally fit, and which ones can be altered without clashing with the harmony.

Utilize The Full Range of Your Instrument
Sometimes it's easy to get stuck playing in the same range on your instrument. After all, some octaves sound better than others on any instrument. However, the best solos not only show off the skill of the musician, but also showcase the sounds of both the lower and upper registers of the instrument itself. Though there are no specific guidelines on how much time should be spent playing high notes and low notes, a good solo will definitely make use of both, in some fashion. There are many various ways to do this.

Most Importantly, Have Fun
In the end, the best determinant of a good solo is how much fun you're having with it. If the solo feels dull and uninspired to you, then it probably is. If you are bursting with cool ideas and keep wishing you could solo for several more choruses, then your solo is probably sounding really good. Most of the best solos I've played were the ones where I just focused on having fun and doing crazy things. They felt good. They were fun. And they sounded great!

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