Photo by Valeria Guerrero
Some methods of learning jazz improvisation start out from the beginning by asking us to memorize chords, scales, and to play patterns in every key. For those unaccustomed to improvising, or inexperienced in theory, starting out this way can be a daunting task. It can make the learning curve for improvisation seem insurmountable. Some people take naturally to it, of course, but such a process can cause others to give up the attempt altogether.
Below are a few suggestions for beginning improvisers who want a less intensive beginning. For all these steps, I suggest using a play-a-long recording or app to play the changes behind you.
Learn Some Melodies
One good way to make the transition for “reader” to “improviser” is to learn the melodies to a boatload of tunes and internalize them. Memorize the melodies to twenty, thirty, or more, tunes in the same general style. After a time you will begin to feel comfortable with where melodies tend to go, how they progress, and how they are designed. Before you know it, you will start hearing your own ideas when you hear a set of chord changes.
Once you are feeling comfortable playing a batch of melodies, it’s time for the next step.
Embellish Those Melodies
Play the melodies you just learned, over the changes, but change the melody just a little bit. Alter the rhythm here. Add a chromatic note in that bar. Play a pick-up note to that bar. Anticipate the next bar by playing a short run to the downbeat….You get the idea. Try things out, and discover what sounds good to you.
Stick as close to the original melody as you need, but experiment and keep making small changes. If you don’t like what you added to the melody one time around, do something different the next time. Try something each time you play the tune, until you find some things you like. Repeat each melody multiple times, until you are comfortable embellishing it.
Do this with as many tunes as you know. Stay at this step until you feel relaxed about embellishing the melodies you learned earlier.
Create Your Own Melody
Now it is time to step out even further. While the changes play behind you on a familiar tune (from above), create your own melody using just your ear and your knowledge of the original melody.
Don’t worry too much about any specific chord/scale relationships at this point. Even with the quick-changing chord progressions of many tunes, you can often improvise a melody that works by playing in a single key. At this point, keep it simple and just experiment. If creating a melody on your instrument is paralyzing, try humming or singing instead. Once you are comfortable with this, try playing what you sing on your bass.
When you can improvise a melody over a tune, you are, in fact, improvising. You can always play faster notes, cooler licks, hipper scales, but playing a melody you create on the spot is pretty much the essence of jazz soloing.
Having an understanding of harmony and the practical application of theory is always helpful, and any jazzer will tell you it’s a lifelong learning experience. However, you don’t have to be a theory genius to get started. Keep it simple. Focus on finding your own melody over tunes you know. If you can do that, you are already on your way.