Bass blog contributor Bill Harrison wrote a very interesting post recently on his bog Jazz Underneath. His post was prompted by this post from jazz vocalist Carol Sloane. Regarding the skills necessary for constructing a solid improvisation, Bill writes:
Just because one knows the melody and lyric of a song does NOT mean one has the skills to improvise or scat (ugh, just writing the word makes my flesh crawl). Skilled jazz players (and the few singers who have taken the time to do so) spend YEARS learning the language of jazz improvisation in order to play meaningful solos in this style. It should be self-evident (but clearly isn’t) that the necessary skills include practical knowledge of song form, theory, harmony, rhythm, jazz history and the many stylistic elements that comprise a convincing solo (melodic shape, use of space, density, inflection, etc).
It is true that many inexperienced singers (and the all too frequently heard “solo” pianist) improvise as if they’ve never heard this music before in their lives. Slightly less common but still epidemic is the soloist who thinks that improvising is “making up something that no one has ever thought of right in this moment”. So this would mean that the only “true” improviser is the junior high kid who stands up for the very time in “stage band” to play 16 bars on “Sing, Sing, Sing”. I think we can all imagine just how that might sound.
A common misconception among non-jazz musicians (even very talented classical musicians) is that one just “makes something up” on the spur of the moment when improvising. This is not the case! Even with the necessary theoretical and harmonic skills, it takes years to start to really improvise in a meaningful way in a jazz context. Classical musicians labors at their craft for years to produce a beautiful vibrato, varied bow strokes, control of dynamics and articulation, and a solid sense of intonation. These (or similar) skills are also necessary to play jazz, but adding improvisation into the mix adds an even further layer to the learning process.
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