Innovate: How To Start Sounding Like You

Innovate – n. To begin or introduce something new; be creative (American Heritage Dictionary)

So we come to the third and final piece of Clark Terry’s jazz education paradigm: innovation.

Improvisation, by it’s very nature, implies innovation. If you are truly improvising, you are creating (composing) something new as you go. But, as we all know, playing jazz is not just pure improvisation. Unless you’re playing free-form music (and even so-called “free” jazz has it’s constraints), you are always limited by a variety of contexts that, by their very nature, impose boundaries on your ability to improvise. Song form, harmony and tempo are the most obvious structures that come between you and pure improvisation. Then there’s tradition – a huge context that can both help and hinder your ability to create. You’re also limited by the nature of your instrument and it’s technical demands; after all, you can only play what you can play!

It looks like we’re going to have to come up with a more nuanced understanding of innovation when it comes to playing jazz. One way to think of innovation is as less of a “what” and more of a “how”. Each improvisor comes to play with a particular chunk of knowledge and experience. If he deliberately seeks opportunities to explore new possibilities for expression in the context of performing, the chances are good that some actual improvising will occur. There’s an implicit conflict between form and freedom whenever we play jazz. It’s a delicate balance between the boundaries imposed by tradition, style, harmony, rhythm etc on the one hand, and the desire to create a unique musical statement on the other.

If we rely too heavily on what we know (all the scales, melodies, licks etc we’ve practiced) we risk becoming banal- only capable of regurgitating and repeating the same stuff over and over. If we haven’t done our homework (and therefore don’t have a jazz vocabulary to use when we improvise) we risk descending into chaos- which is a banality all it’s own. We can get stuck sounding too much like another player, especially if we’ve modeled our playing on that person’s style. Another common trap is getting limited by a certain stylistic vocabulary; just because you like bebop doesn’t mean you can’t move beyond those harmonies and melodic shapes.

What to do, then? How do we walk this line between form and freedom to create some innovative space for ourselves?

Here’s a beautiful quote I found at that hits a few crucial points:

In jazz, innovation implies a creative partnership between the “leadership” of the soloist and the “support” of the rhythm section. The rhythm section provides a foundation of support for the exploration of the soloist. The discoveries of the soloist expand and strengthen that foundation in a continual cycle of innovative growth. It is a process that delivers both support and safety and rejects stasis and complacency.

In order to make the most of the “creative partnership”, I suggest that you:

Stay in the moment.
Take nothing for granted, whether you’re playing the melody or comping. You can keep the music fresh by mentally staying “on your toes” and ready for anything you might hear or feel at any time. Don’t phone it in.

Focus your attention on the overall sound of the ensemble.
Unless you are playing by yourself, you always have the opportunity to listen and respond to what’s going on around you. If your ears are open, you will be fed a constant stream of harmonic, textural, rhythmic and dynamic information that you can choose to contribute to in whatever way you wish.

Give and take in equal measure.
As the soloist you literally “take the lead”, but that doesn’t mean that you shut yourself off from the rest of the band. When you do that, you lose a lot of opportunities to ride the wave and get pushed into areas you might not be able to predict. Great things can happen when you allow yourself to be carried away (sometimes, anyway). As an accompanist, give the soloist some room but don’t disappear or fall asleep. Take care of business but inject some of the unexpected once in awhile. The soloist may have the floor for the time being but you get to add some commentary to the proceedings. Push and pull.

You can increase the odds of becoming an innovator by using some of these additional ideas:

Re-imagine your material.
If you compose your own music for improvisation – great! You get to create all of the parameters that you and the group will use as a springboard for your collective creativity. If you play other people’s music, especially if it is drawn from that large repertoire of standards, please don’t read the tune out of a fake book. Make your own arrangement of the song! Nothing leads to a dull performance more easily than a recreation of someone else’s tune as played on some record by somebody famous. Re-frame the material! Play it in a different style and/or key, change the tempo, do a reharmonization… whatever it takes to break your old habits.

Change your presentation (format) and re-cast the roles of your band members.
What about having the bassist play the melody once in awhile? How about an (accompanied) drum solo right after stating the melody? Or leave out the statement of the melody (in-head) altogether and start with a burning piano solo. There are so many ways to shake things up! Just rethinking how you present a song can help you get away from your own cliches.

Incorporate other musical styles, traditions and techniques.
The term “fusion” has become a cliche itself, but the act of bringing together seemingly disparate musical elements can yield great results. The history of jazz is filled with examples of genre-bending, from Dizzy Gillespie’s integration of bop and Afro-Cuban music to contemporary mash-up artists like The Bad Plus, Ben Allison and Robert Glasper. The world of world music has a lot to offer jazz – take advantage of it by finding music you love and making it your own.

Commit to expanding your personal vocabulary.
Think of your practice room as a laboratory and keep experimenting with new rhythmic and melodic ideas to use when you improvise. Keep learning new tunes and listening to a diverse diet of music.

Search intentionally for opportunities to innovate.
You have to want to keep creating in order for it to happen. If you keep the intention to really improvise when you play, it will happen more and more consistently.

I’m going to end with another great quote, this time from Jeff Perry on the AllAboutJazz website (

Jazz musicians have a long history of introducing new ideas: new forms, new techniques, new sources, and new styles. Jazz musicians have found new ways to play their instruments, new ways to establish unique identities, and they have both expanded and re-invented their roles. The very cornerstone of the music ‘ improvisation ‘ demands spontaneous creativity or ‘instant innovation’ from every jazz player every time they perform.

Over the past hundred years, jazz musicians have been striving to ‘get different.’ The culture has them continuously seeking answers to questions such as: ‘How can I come up with something that is different from what everyone else is doing?’ Or, ‘How can I stand out from my peers/competitors and be recognized as unique?

I hope I’ve given you some ideas on how to do just that.

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