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Help me get a Conceptual Handle on Developing an Improvised Solo

Discussion in 'Jazz Technique [DB]' started by PauFerro, Dec 6, 2018.

  1. PauFerro


    Jun 8, 2008
    United States
    So, improvisation has fascinated me for years and years. I can do it to the point I make OK note choices, and understand how to fit the harmony. I know there is A LOT more to it than that, but I have been germinating on improvisation at a higher level than this. Not a necessarily higher SKILL level, but at a higher CONCEPTUAL level for guiding me in developing a solo using the vocabulary I've developed, or that comes to me spontaneously on stage.

    So, there are two conceptual approaches to improvisation on which I have stumbled. One is the narrative approach. This gets mentioned a lot -- that improvising a solo is like telling a story. I get it -- notes are like words, phrases are like sentences, and phrases combine to make paragraphs that "tell a story". The other approach is that you are simply trying to create emotion and drama.

    The former definition -- the narrative definition -- never resonated with me. The idea of vocabulary makes sense, so the analogy between writing English and performing a solo makes sense. But the meaning of the story -- that will vary from person to person. Because there are truly no words, the idea of story never made any sense to me beyond the linguistic analogy, not the meaning side. There is even a logical component to it -- you can hear solos which seem incredibly logical with the way phrases relate to each other, or seem to be a premise for a conclusion (resolution), but the actual meaning -- there isn't one in terms of English.

    I think the fact that Pat Metheny, and improvisational guru named an entire album " Secret Story" is case in point -- no one really knows what the story means as notes do not translate into words.

    The other approach -- trying to create drama means a lot more to me -- as the idea of tension and release, repetition, transposition, space -- all these things create a dramatic effect that makes a lot of sense. I think music, having no words, can evoke emotion, just as sounds can, so the dramatic approach makes seems to be a more useful, conceptual approach to composing a solo.

    Are there other conceptual approaches to improvisation of which you are aware? Which seems to make the most sense to you in guiding you when you are improvising a solo?
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2018
  2. In jazz, I'm using tension and release method mostly, using 'appropriate scale for every chord'. Aebersold book 1 stuff, I would say.

    Sometimes, like on Chicken (in Bb), I tend to find one simple scale - G minor blues in this case - and play it over following my momentary feeling; the idea would be something like 'trying to find something easy that would glue the not much cadential chord changes'.

    Or, I sometimes go to improvise over silent movies, like here, which is weird stuff. In this, I'm trying to express concrete things I see on the screen. The movie I link to was some german educational movie from ca 1920 about planets, stars and space; I was mostly trying to find out 'how could I express rotation' (and failing at that).

    Whenever I learn something from method 1, I try to apply it to method 2 and 3 and vice versa.
    PauFerro likes this.
  3. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I'm not sure about the terminology being used, so I won't advocate for any specific definition of which is which "type" of soloing. But I've always been attracted to melodic construction that transcends "chord scales" and tells a story that moves forward by developing motifs. I use the Americanized words motive, motives, and motivic in my advanced improv classes because it puts students in mind not only of the idea of the word motif, but also because by definition it represents the idea of "causing or being the reason for something", and leads to the idea of motivic development; this last idea seems to me to be the principle mode of memorable melodies in any style of music I have encountered in my lifetime, from the classical tradition to the musics that we tend to categorize as folk/jazz/popular/country/rock/etc.

    Given the above, my ideal for creating an improvised solo is for the solo to be melodic. When I ask myself how to create a melodic solo, the obvious answer is to "do as melodies do"; once there, when I ask the obvious "what do melodies do" followup question, the answer that appears is always "develop a theme". I honestly cannot think of a great melody that does not do this, that doesn't take a small idea and repeat/transform it over time until it takes on a life of its own. In my classes, I'll ask students to name random melodies (including classical/romantic symphony melodies) and then play them on the piano and students will count how many times the motive the theme is built on can be heard. They are always surprised at how much repetition there is in melodic construction.

    There is a lot more that can be said about this, but time is short and this post is long enough already. I'll leave this with an example of a brilliant melodic solo that I transcribed years ago that completely blew my mind at the time. if the forwarding feature doesn't work, the solo begins at about 2:10, taking a seamless cue from he end of the bass solo preceding it.

  4. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    Of course there are so many ways to think about it. I have two ideas I like, one is to think of it as the bass handling the composition for that time period, similar to how you would handle a solo bass concert, you still need to be interesting, but, not so much going nuts or showing off.
    Another idea, and this goes for improvising in general, is something Mark Dresser calls analyzing your intuition - he talks about it in terms of figuring out the sounds and ideas you come up with and working out exactly what they are.
    I also think about moving between intuitive playing and analyzing that material on the bandstand.
    You listen, trust yourself and play, and then see what you find, you can then work that material in a more conscious way.
    Of course the whole thing is endless and there is no one answer, you will find the tools you like along the way.
    tito mangialajo and Seanto like this.
  5. statsc

    statsc Supporting Member

    Apr 23, 2010
    Burlington, VT
    I think it’s important to distinguish between tools for improvising and an overall “concept” for improvisation. Tension and release, motivic development, chord/scale relationships, really knowing a tune; these are all tools to use in the practice space to create musical material that then become deposits in a mental “bank” that can be drawn upon when improvising. For me, the overall concept of improvisation is to have no concept. That means to have an open, “empty” mind free of thoughts, concepts, emotions, etc., where what I’m playing consists of spontaneous “withdrawals” from this “bank” colored by what I just played previously and what sounds are happening around me. This mental blank slate is very difficult to attain, but whenever I can get there I always play my best solos. Sometimes in that state one can even create totally new and fresh musical material, and that’s the best of all!
    Drang22 and PauFerro like this.
  6. Seanto


    Dec 29, 2005
    If you think about it though, those elements you listed here are essentially what would make up a compelling narrative. A compelling narrative should have elements of drama and emotion. I think the idea of describing a solo as a narrative is to get you thinking of a solo more like a story and implement the same elements that make a story good against an improvised solo. A good story has recurring themes, build ups of excitement, hills and valleys. An overall arch with a climax and resolution. When applying these concepts to a solo, you give the listener the impression that they have just taken some sort of journey, not unlike reading a short story or novel.

    For me, a compelling narrative is exactly what i want. I want to catch the listener's attention with my solo, hold them there, and leave them gratified at the end of it all. The fun comes in how you achieve that. Different situations will require different devices to achieve that goal, and can range from a very minimalist solo approach to a full on flurry of dense musical ideas. Context becomes huge here in influencing the overall strategy. What has happens musically before or after your solo spot can change the course you take during your slot.
    Chris Fitzgerald likes this.
  7. LowG


    Dec 8, 2006
    Milwaukee, WI
    +1 to statsc

    This concept of a clear and blank mental state is known as “flow”, and there is plenty of research about it in various applications. If you can turn off your consciousness, now you’re really improvising. If you finish your solo and feel like you just woke up from a dream, 100% you just played an awesome solo.
  8. Scottgun


    Jan 24, 2004
    South Carolina

    While there is much about note choice here, there is also conceptual stuff as well.
    Chris Fitzgerald and PauFerro like this.
  9. Carl Hillman

    Carl Hillman

    Jan 1, 2010
    As noted by others above, there is the "no conception" conception. ...turning off your inner chatter and letting the music play you.

    To get in that state, it helps to have a really advanced knowledge of the changes and the melody of the song, the possible scale relationships to the chords, and intimate knowledge of how to reproduce what you hear in your head on your instrument. Then, you forget all that stuff and just listen and sing through your axe.

    There are any number of books on zen that can help teach you how to get out of your own way by focusing and quieting your internal monologue.
    Groove Doctor likes this.
  10. unbrokenchain

    unbrokenchain Supporting Member

    Jun 8, 2011
    Asheville, NC
    I always just try and play something that sounds cool, figure out what notes I played later if it's recorded...
    Seanto likes this.
  11. ctrlzjones


    Jul 11, 2013
    I'd suggest to take it from the opposite direction: As the term "improvisation" already points to the realm of non-(pre)conceptional-behaviour, the address should be action without overthinking what is happening, but rathet letting 'it' happen.

    The language methaphor works pretty well for understanding that ... Few speakers have a conceptional way of talking but totally intuitive. They just express themselves the best they can. They have learned how to do that by imitation and trial&error.

    Some neurologists lately figured that in beginning when learning how to speak, the left and right hemispheres of a brain, representing analytic vs synthetic processing, are equally involved and it is only when writing starts that the analytics take over.

    Those synthetic procedures are then reactivated when it comes to learning how to play music.

    I have conceived music always as being the "emotional layer" of communication: as a speech of emotions, a text stripped off its informative function, rather calling for empathy instead of understanding contents.

    Maybe one should take it from there: to develop the facility to improvise and play and be playful; having fun expressing oneself.

    I found it very helpful to emulate people I really really like. I also found out that note choices (as a thing that is given way too much weight in education) is not as important to become a hot player who expresses well.

    And then there is also a posture that invites listeners (and fellow musicians) to participate. An attitude may be of greater importance than concepts and material.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2018
    Groove Doctor likes this.
  12. PauFerro


    Jun 8, 2008
    United States
    Really enjoyed this approach to soloing. There was a bit of conceptual stuff in it. Aebersold takes a tension and release approach, and lists all the ways you can create tension...

    a) repetition
    b) playing louder
    c) playing higher
    d) playing faster

    I think the Cantus Firmus approach helps you plan how you will play "higher" or "lower", thus creating or releasing tension.

    I also think the tension and release approach is clearer, as is the "creation of drama" approach.

    Interesting, I was on a Bluenote jazz cruise two years ago. I met up with a jazz great you'd know at the end of an interview, and asked him about the "telling a story" approach to soloing and how it didn't resonate with me.

    He told me to get a song, like a ballad, and play along with it, thinking about the words, to get the sense of it. I explained why that didn't seem to make sense to me (the part in my OP). I told him I thought Lyle May's comment that really, soloing is a quest for drama, which seemed to make a lot more sense -- particularly since notes don't have words that are commonly understood by everyone.

    Well, that evening, another famous musician whose name you'd all recognize got up on stage for a show. He was a major collaborator with the first jazz great I'd spoke with about drama at the height of their careers, producing a number of best selling jazz albums on which they both performed and composed. This second jazz great started one song by saying "we're going to create some DRAMA up here for you with this next song!".

    Since I'd spoke to the first jazz great the day before or that morning (can't remember) about the drama conceptualization, it seemed like too much of a coincidence. But who knows. If they did talk, and the "drama" approach resonated with the second jazz great, it seems to me to be a viable way of conceptualizing a solo.

    For now, I think I'm going to stop short of trying to "tell a story" unless I have a specific situation in mind. And even then, the story telling approach will likely be something I use when composing. I know of one composer who wrote a song that was a cat and a bird talking in question and answer. I also have an idea in mind about a song that expresses the personality of a former band mate. Those would tell stories of a kind.

    But for improvising a solo, I think the idea of relating notes and phrases to language is enough. Drama, or creating tension and release seems a more viable guide for me personally.
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2018
  13. Improvising came more natural to me after spending time composing solos (helps in the studio to be fully prepared). Once the notes were written I crafted them into a message using expression - dynamics, tone, phrasing, etc.

    Notes are just a starting point, it’s expression that carries the emotion from you to the listener.
    PauFerro and Chris Fitzgerald like this.
  14. Scottgun


    Jan 24, 2004
    South Carolina
    Here's a documentary on Robert Moog that is as dull as dishwater, but jump ahead to 42:00 and see a conversation between Moog, Rick Wakeman, and Bernie Worrell. Bernie says he thinks of his solos sexually (and then cut to him playing live which might have you going eww), Wakeman retorts that he used to do that but he found his solos were too short. :)
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  15. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    Story telling is a pretty tired metaphor - while other art forms certainly overlap and understanding them can help your concept of music - at the end of the day music is music.
    When asked about structure the great composer Morton Feldman once said, "it's not bridge, you don't have to walk on it".
    The most important thing is to understand you can't actually answer this question and that those who think they have answered it are done. There are many tools and there are tools that have not been invented yet. Finding ways to get your footing while maintaining an openness is a tricky balance.
  16. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    He is sharp, I would characterize him as very informed but not so experienced. While he isn't wrong, and is a great resource online, we can do better in terms of sources on the double bass side of TB.

    noelpaz, VictorW126 and leonard like this.
  17. Scottgun


    Jan 24, 2004
    South Carolina
    The performances I've seen by him suggest otherwise.
  18. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    I mean, yeah, he is a young guy who knows a lot and can really play. 20 more years on the bandstand and he will be great. He doesn't have a lot of records out and he is not a double bassist.
    tito mangialajo likes this.
  19. damonsmith


    May 10, 2006
    Quincy, MA
    Again, a very useful tool. If you rely on it for years you will find this method often generates the same two or three 'awesome solos". Since music is an ongoing thing that lasts a lifetime, we need long-term plans. I'd call this step one, step two is all about finding ways to vary this approach over many decades.
  20. I found the Cantus Firmus video fascinating, it is the way I've been trying to structure solos for a long time, but never knew the moniker. Most bass solos can be extremely boring, unless carefully "composed" in the moment
    and try to avoid using the root as much as possible (except as a passing tone).
    But also using the songs melody, (if interesting) as a guideline.
    PauFerro likes this.

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