Jazz Improv: The Kiss Method

“I never have any trouble playing anything I can think of. The trouble is thinking of what to play.”  – Stan Getz

If you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it a hundred times. If you want to play on this chord change, use this scale or that scale. Or, use this one scale to play over this two or four bar phrase. Or, here are the “target tones” you can use to indicate that the chords have changed.

Good advice. All true. But not so easy to actually DO if you really aren’t HEARING how the scale(s) or target tones sound in the context of the harmony.

When a beginning improviser says something like “I just can’t play what I’m hearing” what they most often mean is “I’m not hearing anything specific enough to play”. Most of the time, an inexperienced player can make some notes on their instrument but they aren’t yet able to generate anything in their “mind’s ear” and then re-create that sound on their instrument.

A 7 or 8 note scale contains far too many choices for the untrained ear. It can be very intimidating for a neophyte to pick something – anything – to actually play when she has very little idea what any of those notes will sound like in relation to the underlying harmony. Talk about “free jazz”!

So I propose using the KISS method. No, I’m not nominating Gene Simmons to be our musical mentor. Keep It Simple (and) Swinging is the idea. Start with an easy to hear, repetitive chord progression and experiment with playing one note at a time and listening carefully to how it sounds with each of the chords.

Chameleon Changes, one of the progressions in our new collection Jazz Funk Trax, is an excellent choice for this exercise. It’s a basic ii/V in the key of Ab. (Bb-7/Eb7) set in an easy, loping straight eighth note groove. If you prefer a swing feel, any one of our Major ii/V sets would work just as well.

Choose one note to start with. Play your note in any octave(s) using whatever rhythms feel good to you. When you stop, imagine how that note will sound internally before you play again. Do this for awhile, until it gets really easy.

Then add another note, preferably close by the first. If you chose a C,  for example, try adding a Bb, Db or Eb. Do the same thing with the new note: play it alone against both chord changes. Stop. Imagine that note and play it to prove to yourself that you’re really hearing it. Now mess around with the two notes for awhile. How many different ways can you think of to phrase between your two notes? Change octaves, change rhythms. Again, do it until you’re bored. Then add a note and start again.

The more notes you add into your vocabulary, the more choices you will have to HEAR and execute. Now’s not the time to stop listening. By the time you get up to 4 notes you’re in pretty sophisticated territory. Some musicians have built their careers using primarily 5 notes (pentatonics). There are a ton of rhythmic and melodic variations you can come up with, but remember that the primary goal is to hear it before you play it.

Once you get to it, here are some suggested 4 note groupings that should be relatively easy to hear and execute: Ab, Bb, Db, Eb  / Bb C Eb F / F Ab Bb C / Bb Db Eb F / C Eb F G /. Of course, invent your own – that’s the whole idea of improvising!

You’ve got to get these sounds in your ears before you can move on to using more complex combinations. Michael Brecker didn’t learn how to play his amazing stuff without putting in a ton of time developing both his ears and his vocabulary. But I’m sure he started out by using his version of Keeping It Simple and Swinging.

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