The Inspiration & Foundation behind Jazz Improvisation
By Terrence Richburg © 2009

"So, what planet did you say you're from?" It's often said by some that Jazz musicians exist in a world of their own because the music they feel, compose and perform sounds as though it's based on something not of this world. In theory this is actually true since much of this art is spiritually inspired--being presented through a real-time transmission from God through the musician to the audience. However, much of what is heard musically in Jazz and even the dynamic genre of Gospel originates from very basic musical concepts and principles of early times. Yet, it's the artist's job with raw talent and preparation to convey their "in the moment" ideas. This virtual "team" of ingredients controls how the ear of a listener perceives and receives the complex passion and depth of their music. Its spiritual inspiration combined with the use of tried and true musical tools make it possible to improvise and affect the mindset and inner disposition of an audience of one or of a thousand or even ten thousand. Improvisation empowers musicians with the liberty to express their musical convictions conforming only to the outer edges of their faith, genius, and the sound of what pleases them personally as well as their listening audiences.

As a young musician growing up listening to a variety of many genres of music, I learned to appreciate the value each had to offer those who gravitated towards what they heard and liked most. I often analyzed what specific emotion-stimulating qualities attracted people to appreciate styles from different eras and cultures. But when it came to Jazz and Gospel music I discovered a rather peculiar phenomenon unlike other styles with somewhat strict formats--the goal wasn't to play or sing, produce or reproduce the music as close to the composer's original score and intent. This being said, interestingly enough even early roots of such European forms of Classical music were improvisational-based with such masters as Franz Liszt giving completely improvised recitals, and Mozart and Beethoven who mastered the art of variations on a theme. There are other examples of extraordinary musicians with superior technical and compositional offerings in the Classical realm that amazed audiences of their era with the use of improvisation in live performances. However, the American born Jazz and Gospel genres offer distinctive freedom to each musician and vocalist the chance to incorporate their interpretations and stylistic approach centered in expansive Jazz and Blues tonalities--even at times creating their own "signature" versions of popular compositions. This intriguingly inspired my personal commitment to explore what ingredients these musicians used to seemingly infuse the musical complexities they were hearing and creating within themselves. I found that the answer was not essentially technical or even emotional in nature--but rather, spiritual. In fact, this is the overriding factor in fusing Jazz and Gospel to shape the contemporary genre of Gospel Jazz.

As "we move and have our being," we're continually using the essence of who we were created to be to express our innermost thoughts and feelings and hopefully create a wave of inspiration beyond ourselves. Our rich heritage, our life experiences, and even our educational accomplishments, whether formal or informal facilitate the shaping of our personalities and develop the inexplicable gifts we possess and present to the world. It is an exchange of positively charged ideas and heart-profound wealth. It is also an offer to teach and touch lives by connecting each of us beyond the frame of any traditional means of communication and draw us into a common place to experience what is stewarded inside. Although all of us have varying levels of this inspirational power within, only a select number can effectively produce a change outside of us within the hearts of great masses of people simultaneously yielding the same or similar response. In this way, music in the hands of masterful musicians can be the most powerful force and effective tool to unite and communicate even the most intricate of ideas.

Most people have probably heard or have even played the familiar song "Chop Sticks" on the white keys of the piano. Well, many may be unaware that these same notes and their diatonic relationship possess a much more extensive foundation of tools used within Jazz improvisation. One such set of tools, "modes," are basic elements which are rich in tonal probability for creating elaborate displays of improvisational skill. Yet, these scales are originally based on medieval music theory. The modern version of each mode encompasses the usual diatonic scale (moving from one note to the next) but with a different tonal or tonic center. In other words, the sound of a C major scale starting on a different degree or key of that same scale produces a completely new and unique character and tonal quality. On the piano for instance, white-note scales in the modal structure are: C: Ionian, D: Dorian, E: Phrygian, F: Lydian, G: Mixolydian, A: Aeolian, B: Locrian. Modes are commonly used in all popular music. However, in Jazz, these modal scales become a treasure chest of potential when used for foundational harmony and for rendering profound improvisational solos, complex melodic lines, and challenging passages. When properly used they tend to be rather pleasing to the ear because of the inherent tonal relationship to the foundational scales. When used even without any alterations to the mode scale itself, and just by utilizing other traditional techniques such as arpeggios, transposition, rhythmic patterns, etc. musicians possess a remarkable level of creative power to express their innermost musical ingenuity. All of the modes fall under the subcategory of major modes, minor modes, and diminished modes. Therefore, it's easy with the use of modal harmonies and melodies to create an array of excitement as the listener enters the "strange" world of the musician's realm of influence. There are obviously many more musical building blocks to the art of Jazz improvisation, which JGC will cover in detail in later issues. However, understanding modes as a familiar premise licenses the most novice of musician within a short span of time to grasp and begin to harness the tonal clout which is at their command.

Once the vast possibilities in using modes as a concept are made clear to the ear and heart of a musician, the rest in terms of making music is first experimental, but eventually becomes second nature. There are any number of ways to manipulate the use of modal scales while developing improvisation opportunities within the general structure of Jazz music. But they generally exist within a key center (chords diatonic to the root key), or modal method (each chord associated with the mode based on its root) using relative modes (beginning on each degree of the scale) or parallel modes (starting on the same root note of the scale) when applied to use of melodic passages over chord progressions. A true master of these various manipulations can seemingly have an endless number of solo lines and variations without ever repeating a single phrase. Although this is an illusion to the ear it does have its merits in how well improvisations are crafted and delivered by a gifted player. Use of such common practices as motif variation, rhythmic accents, sequences, relative and adjacent key borrowing, chromatic passing tones or notes, or even altered modal scales make it easy to improvise over chords and harmonic centers that please the ear. This is accomplished either through the natural progression of the passage itself or in the resolution of dissonance (which is present when certain notes because of their intervallic spacing occur together or in terms of what is heard over and against a certain chord progression). Some tonal combinations generate a level of emotional tension requiring a harmonic release to the listener before moving on musically. This effect is similar to cross-country racing in which the runner is moving smoothly on level terrain and then encounters various hills and obstacles along the way--that once overcome a brief time of rest is experienced prior to going on to the next encounter. For the musician improvisation is a thrilling but sometimes humbling facet to the music-making process in terms of learning what works when and what doesn't. But many times an appreciative audience of the art will be both forgiving and unaware when and if any problems arise. Improvising even offers the freedom for "do-overs" during a song (when a phrase doesn't work initially, but the player starts it again to get over the hurdle not achieved during the first attempt). This has somehow become part of the Jazz performance culture and an accepted practice within improvisational decorum. [But try using this in a traditional Classical music situation today and see the strange looks you may receive from the other players and the audience.] This doesn't mean that Jazz is not at the same legitimate level of artistry as other genres. In fact Jazz and Gospel are a step above in many ways because they involve composing in real-time. Each performance yields brand new songs or versions of songs based on what is happening emotionally and spiritually within the players, among the musicians, between artists and audiences, and within the overall performance environment. The musical risks are sometimes high, but the emotional and spiritual benefits are "off the scale" for all who participate in the improvisational experience and therefore it cannot be matched on any level in any other musical setting.

Understanding these concepts is only the beginning of what makes them important to the goals of artistic expression and the experiencing of joy through and within the gift of music. Musicians must take the next steps to further educate themselves through additional audio, visual and written resources as well as applied practice and experimentation--to make the musical benefits from using modal scales come alive in their performances and writing. Listening and emulation are always key to understanding and applying any new concept or technique to one's playing. There are many musicians who demonstrate their use of modes in Jazz through video and audio resources. A couple recommendations are guitarist Frank Gambale's " Modes: No More Mystery ", and bassist John Patitucci's " Electric Bass 2. " Both of these explain in clear detail how to utilize scales and particularly modes in practice and performance situations. There are also many other online resources to check out for learning more about improvisation techniques and using modal scales in Jazz soloing. However, the rest is really all up to you as players, listeners and consumers to support the musical works written and produced by aspiring artists and the great Jazz and Gospel Jazz musicians of our day.

For more information there are many online resources regarding the use of modes in Jazz improvisation. As a quick reference, feel free to check out these links:

Just What Is Improvisation?
One man's quest to find the answer.
By John Stoddart

click here to get pdf version

The drummer starts an infectious groove. The bass kicks in, slapping a funky pattern alternating between E and A. The guitar and percussion both ease in with tasty counter-rhythms and pitches. The Piano fills in the missing pieces of the E13-A13 pattern just before the sax player dives in with... Hmmm... That's interesting - it's a familiar melody but you've never heard it played quite like this before. And every time they play the verse the melody becomes less and less recognizable. The musicians appear to be reading music but are all of those notes really on that single sheet of paper?

What I've just described is one of most common examples of the phenomenon we've come to know as Improvisation! Improvisation is simply spontaneous creation. It's not unique to Jazz or even to the artistic discipline of music. There are improvisational elements in everything from Flamenco to Gospel. Much of the keyboard music in the Baroque period (in ensemble music, mostly) was notated as numbers outlining chords. The actual notes, voicing and ornaments were left to the discretion of the musician. You can even find improvisation in creation. I like to think God (the Great Improvisor, as Jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum likes to refer to Him) improvised our world when He made it! He was definitely not just "reading the music, note for note".

How do you improvise?
Breakin' it down!

If you've never tried it before, just the thought of improvising can be an overwhelming prospect. But with a few tips you can get going in the right direction and you'll be adding your own unique spin to your favorite song in no time. And for those who have graduated past the "improv neophyte" stage, we've included some cool techniques for you too. Here we go!

There are 3 major components to music--rhythm, harmony and melody--and you can improvise in all 3 areas. You could consider lyrics a 4th element and improvise by making up your own words or by singing meaningless syllables called "scatting". For the purpose of this discussion we'll stick to the 3 major ones.

Let's look at rhythm first. One way to improvise rhythm is by using syncopation . Syncopation is moving the accents from the strong beats to the weaker beats. In 4/4 time the strong beats are 1 and 3. You can syncopate the rhythm by putting the emphasis on beats 2 and 4 or even on the off-beat 1/8 notes. You can also syncopate by accenting, for example, every 3rd 1/4 note in a 4/4 time signature so that a different beat is accented in each measure.

What about harmony? Well, I'm a pianist and arranger and as a student of an instrument capable of playing chords, this component of music has always fascinated me. You can improvise by adding to or even completely changing the original harmonies in a song by using extensions . In this context, extensions are the voices of the chord that go beyond the triad.

"There are 3 major components to music--rhythm, melody and harmony--and you can improvise in all 3 areas."

Think about an ordinary C major chord--C E G. Let's add a "Major 7th" or B to the chord. Now let's add a "Major 9th" or D to the chord. How about a "Sharp 11" or F#? Experiment with adding extensions to the some of the chords in a song you already know and see what new chord progressions you can come up with.

The 3rd major component to music is melody. Perhaps the simplest way to improvise a melody is to embellish it. You can embellish a melody by adding ornaments such as trills or grace notes to the beginning or end of some of the notes. Some of the best examples of this can be found in Gospel music. Gospel singers are renowned for their use of embellishment.

You can also create your own melody using a variety of scales (or "modes" as they are sometimes called) that compliment the chord being played at the time. The "Blues" scale--C Eb F Gb G Bb C--can be played over a variety of chords. The "Diminished Scale"--a scale that alternates between whole and half step intervals--can work over a diminished chord or a dominant chord. (Here's a great link for learning the some of the basic scales. )

As you begin experimenting with these techniques you'll grow more and more comfortable. Remember, none of these improvisational tools exist in a vacuum. Be free to syncopate a scale or embellish a chord. Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. There's always more to learn!

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