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Australian jazz multi-instrumentalist Glenn Henrich
answers the following question...

August 2010

Is good improvisation truly original or just recycled clichés?
(Musings on the Holy Grail of the Good Solo)

by Glenn Henrich share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

A good improvisation is one that you like. Or, if you are insecure in your tastes, one that your trusted musical friend, and therefore you, like. If it were not truly original, or just memorized clichés you (and your friend) wouldn't like it, would you? Could you be fooled? I was.

At age about 26, some 10 years into my early playing career I attended a performance by Cleo Lane, John Dankworth and quartet. I liked it and bought the record. I especially liked John Dankworth's sax solo on Misty, so when I put the record on I was surprised, and a little disappointed to hear it again, note for note! I still didn't think it sounded clichéd. I thought it was a good composition, full of hip passages, some may have even been original with Dankworth. My disappointment was that I had mistaken it for 'good improvisation'. Good improvisation, of course, cannot be fully composed or prepared note for note.

There is more to the original question and I will take some time to begin to answer fully. It is actually three questions:

1. What is 'good' improvisation?

2. What is 'truly original'?

3. Are memorized patterns necessarily clichés?

On the first question, different listeners will be likely to disagree.
Essentially, each listener will probably know what it is that they like to hear in an improvisation. Some enjoy the technical instrumental or vocal performance which impresses with its virtuosity. Others prefer a melodic solo composed of related and developed motifs. Then there are those who only like soloists who incorporate a preponderance of blues phrases in their solo. Still others prefer to hear a musician who places complete freedom and unhampered/unedited spontaneous improvisation foremost. Irving Mill's lyric to Duke's tune "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!" begs the question (which I won't attempt to answer here), "What is swing?" Everyone who likes to witness jazz and improvisation in any of these ways must like the idea of a performer 'coming up with the goods', on the spot – the essential immediacy and creativity it demonstrates.

Improvisers seem quite sure of when they have committed a "good improvisation", and, if they are honest, when they have failed to 'lift-off', 'fire', 'really get hot', or 'cook'. The player's impression is subjective but very certain. It doesn't depend on audience response. What is it that they are looking for and sometimes finding? Is it freedom, swing, the blues, blazing semi-quavers? What is the improviser's Holy Grail?

All would agree that a good solo must not be boring. So what makes it interesting? I've often heard an interesting solo describes as 'telling a story'. I'm sure that this is not literally meant but rather describes a structure of gradually developed musical ideas paced in such a way as to have a beginning, middle and end. Often, but not always, the tension and density of the solo increases from a sparse beginning to a high point somewhere in the middle; the end could be a longer or shorter tapering off that helps to reconnect to the ensemble or next soloist. I also think that the manner of the delivery is important; we all prefer to listen to a story read in a clear, pleasant voice that is lively, with varied expression and mood. An instrumental equivalent would be good tone and the avoidance of monotony by similarly varied values (also called expression, and dynamics). Occasional surprise changes of note speed/rhythm, dynamics or timbre can help to maintain listener interest. These considerations are important but won't in themselves result in a 'good improvisation'. For that we need to delve deeper.

According to Jerry Coker, a good jazz musician will create a solo (A.K.A. 'good improvisation') that satisfies a knowledgeable listener by allowing them to correctly anticipate the next phrase about 50% of the time, and to be surprised the other 50%. Jerry Coker's book "Improvising Jazz" is my favourite, concise 'how-to' for jazz improvisers. I think the fact that I tend to believe in his approximate % type definition has a bearing on my response to the second and third parts of the question.

The short answer to the second question 'What is truly original?' is:

'anything you have never heard before and can't anticipate or understand'.

Or, perhaps, to be "truly original" it should be

'something no one has ever heard before and no one can understand'!!

This type of thinking strikes me as a formula for chaos. Of course, perpetual surprise isn't perpetually surprising. If you can find no touchstone of familiar melody, tonality or rhythmic pattern to balance the new against, the 'truly original' will soon become truly boring! For example the 20th c. Viennese school used 12 tone composition to avoid cliché and break free of tonality. And yet, I don't find this made any music that was easy to love. That doesn't mean that those who profess to enjoy 12 tone music, or even completely random aleatoric contemporary improvisation are not entitled to their preferences.

I personally feel that improvisation with tonal intent and conscious note choice is a vastly superior creative process. I believe it holds more challenge for the improviser and more interest for the listener. As tonality is in some ways a well-trodden path, it will be hard to establish it clearly without resort to some common patterns of scale and chord. These may be facilitated by the use of familiar turns of melody and rhythm that some may call clichés.

I don't mind this type of cliché a bit. I welcome it, in fact, and think these friendly fragments of jazzy melody or blues licks are what draw many people into an appreciation of jazz improvisation. They are what got me in; the 'good bits' that you want to work out and play in your own solos. Rather than label them clichés, we could instead call them 'the common language' of jazz. They will be much of the 50% of the jazz solo which the listener can enjoy anticipating. In saying this I have already started to answer the third part of the question about clichés.

I first started to improvise amongst my Aussie musical colleagues almost 40 years ago. One who was a little older and further down The Path than me heard me playing 'Misty'- just the tune with some nice substitute chords and voicings on the piano. He wished to encourage me in pursuit of the Holy Grail of Jazz – 'the Good Solo', and said
"Not bad man, but how's your chops?"
"Chops?" I asked, ignorantly….

The answer, in short, was an explanation of the practice, development and memorization of prepared patterns and musical phrases, such that they could be deployed in performance 'at a moment's notice'. That good advice came to me from a young, but already fully professional Adelaide musician, John Aué.

I was a little worried at first, because the chops thing sounded a bit daunting and competitive. But then I realized that I had actually started collecting 'chops', in my own way years earlier, when at about age 9, my piano teacher, Jerry Mendelsohn, introduced me to letter chords. I soon began experimenting with chords to see 'what fit' with them. I found my own bag of useful bits by trial and error, first simple arpeggios and their upper diatonic and lower chromatic neighbors, Later as I listened more and heard more complex music I extended these concepts to include extended chords, altered and symmetrical scales and chords. And I gradually realized that I had to be able to play the bits I liked in all 12 Major and Minor keys. That eventually sent me back to the technical bible of pianists, the 5 finger/scale and arpeggio fingering manual, Hanon, (which my piano teacher had tried in vain to interest me in earlier). A later teacher, Hal Hall (first Head of Jazz Studies at Adelaide University, previously the South Australian College of Advanced Education) showed me another technical bible, the Slominsky Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. That just added another layer of technical work to my already large task of acquiring tonal fluency on several instruments. Still, chops can come in handy – in themselves they are not the answer to a 'good solo' but, if you have an idea, you may be able to play it!

You need this sort of technical armament to improvise well. You also need to know your material (what Jerry Coker calls your "Jazz vehicle") very well; melody, harmonization, tonal areas and lyric (if applicable), so that you could sing it, play it in any key, and find your way around it with your eyes closed.

Anyone who plays a musical instrument without a developed technical facility and well known material will find their performance and improvisation hampered by their lack. Jerry Coker suggests keeping a scrapbook of the musical bits or 'motifs' that you like and want to utilize. He recommends learning them in all keys and modifying them to fit in at least three situations, as a Tonic (I chord), as a Minor 7th(II chord) and as a Dominant (V7). If you work at it steadily he says you could have an original bag of 360 of your own hand-picked chops in a year!

In fact, every good musician has to come to terms with their musical heritage, and take on board as much as they need to feel competent to enjoy their performance opportunities. There is, of course, more to a 'good improvisation' than just 'good chops'. There is an important element to improvisation that I haven't mentioned yet – the ear!

If you are not blessed with perfect pitch, you will need to train your ear to recognize all the intervals, diatonic and chromatic. It is also very helpful for an improviser to be able to hear the quality of a chord (i.e. Major, Minor, M7, mi7, 7, aug, dim, etc,) tonal areas (i.e. the enharmonic internal changes of mode and key centre) and time signatures and rhythmic patterns. Not only is it a good tool for transcription and to help you fit in with other players, but it is the only way to break out of the dangerous practice of 'chopping out'! I mean this in the most unfortunate sense of playing prepared, memorized bits that you 'know will fit', because of your knowledge of the tune and its chords. This method of soloing uses the ear only minimally, to keep in time with the rest of the band and assess your own sound. It is not brave enough to make a really 'good solo'. Patterns and motifs played in this way may sound tired or clichéd, even to the player. As Charlie Parker is reported to have said, "You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail!"

To avoid the dangerous practice of 'chopping out' and to take a chance to pursue the Holy Grail of improvisation, trust your ear to lead you- more heart than head. Let your ear tell you on what note of the scale to start (Miles claimed to prefer always to start on the 9th). Be brave and go where your ear leads you. Keep and open mind, listening to the other players in the group, and let your aural imagination respond. Ideas beget ideas. The technique acquired and knowledge of tunes and their structures will support and underpin your effort to 'play by ear'.

Playing in this way, from your aural imagination, could be called 'self-transcription'. If you play in this way, playing only when you have an idea, a pre-heard or pre-imagined phrase and know where it will fit, and, as you hear it, self-transcribing and playing what you know needs to follow it, you can never sound clichéd. You won't know where you are going when you start, the process can only unfold as you play. It is of the moment and 'truly original' because of it. This technique allows you the wonderful possibility of surprising yourself, playing better than you thought you could - this experience, which I have had and heard described by many improvisers of widely differing ability, age and style, seems to me to be the common thread. It is that magic moment in performance when you feel you can do no wrong. With no possibility of mishearing or mistaking a note or an interval the path of your improvisation seems to unfold clearly before you and, happily, unerringly, you follow your muse down a garden path you have never trod before.

This is the Holy Grail of improvisation; the Good Solo. Played by ear, by heart and assisted by head it should contain swing, the blues, melodic motifs, freedom, whatever you can imagine. An experience so good that it keeps practitioners of all stripes in the game despite the acknowledged material downsides of the life lived for art.

© 2010 Glenn Henrich

Have Your Say
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Hi Glenn Really enjoyed your article. Like you I play more than one non-related instrument - vibes and guitar. It has long been an ongoing challenge to take ideas off one instrument and play them smoothly onto the other. It frequently can bring you into new areas on the other instrument. The easy cliche phrases on one instrument often are hard to reproduce on the other. At present I'm working on Milt Jackson's solo on his original blues Stonewall [from 1955 with a quartet with Horace Silver]. To me this is one of those solos that "tells a story" - he develops it over a dozen plus choruses. There are abundant blues and bop-influenced phrases but importantly because Milt is a vibes player, the phrases feel right and fall naturally onto the vibes. Milt apparently was left-handed so there is a really good work-out for the left hand [I'm right-handed]. As I am internalizing his phrases I am also trying to play some on guitar and that is sometimes awkwardly difficult but definitely rewarding like learning some of Bird's phrases from alto sax to vibes or guitar. Years ago I read a jazz education article from US where the author made the point that to be a jazz musician three things had to take place: 1. listen to jazz 2. practise jazz 3. perform jazz They are so obvious but I guess the challenge is how you undertake each facet. Today for me clearly the hardest facet is No 3 - the opportunities for performing jazz appear to diminish almost in proportion to the ease with which you can obtain recordings of all the great past, current and emerging jazz soloists. Certainly articles like yours with the following comments are so important to make us all reflect on the how of jazz improvising Best wishes Garry Lee Perth, Western Australia

Posted by Garry Lee on 22 August 2010

Thanks for that observation, David, very acute. In fact the paradoxical paradigm is a wonder that should be mentioned. It is a fair comment, but I believe, it is a reality that the greatest improvisers have had the ability to think in both spheres, analytical/structural(inside the square), and emotive/imaginative(outside of the square)nearly simultaneously. I am not sure whether this phenomenon is true multi-tasking(something I am told is only possible for certain advanced computers, and accomplished working mums), or a rapid alteration of the two states of mind (a more likely male scenario). Thanks for the Bernstein analogy, I hadn't heard it before. When and if I do survive my tour of duty with the Police Band to retire in 5 or possibly 10 years, I may take a leaf out of your book, and take time to compose; obviously the mannequin-creator would outclass the mannequin-dresser (a very composerly metaphor). Then we could both blame the naughty jazz musicians who alternately decorate(mere frippery/arrangement) and show disrespect(less flippant to outrageous deconstruction) of our creations!

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Tuesday 3 August 2010

Well done Glenn. I admire your paradoxical paradigm involving jazz improvisation being both a structural awareness and a intuitive intent. Leonard Bernsteins' take on this area of music was that if one supposed the tune to be a mannequin then improvised solos were just various items of clothing that the musician desires to be added to this musical framework. New, pre-loved, etc, with all the trimmings. With so many choices the jazz musician must surely be the most hard working of all, if not the hardest thinking. Keep up the good work. When you retire from the Police Band in 5 years there might be time to pursue these jazz educational matters that are obviously close to your heart. Go Glenn ! Thanks, David.

Posted by David Llewellyn on Tuesday 3 August 2010

Thanks for the comment, Kym. I should have qualified my phrase about using 'the common language of jazz' (not clichés) a bit more fully. I like your idea about touching base with the different genres. If an improviser doesn't have a familiarity with the different genres of jazz and other or any other music, then he/she will not have much to say that is instantly catchy or familiar, in the way of stylistic reference or even a fun quote from some other tune (a device some find corny, but used in moderation, it can be used for a light moment of 'comic relief' in an otherwise 'serious' solo).

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Monday 2 August 2010

I was really waiting for this article from you with baited breath!! Your observations are exactly how I think about a lot of things jazz wise, especially your gem of a point about telling a story in your solo makeup. Very important too I think is to try and touch base with as many elements in all genres of music.Cheers,Kym

Posted by Kym Till on Sunday 1 August 2010

Wow Glenn!   I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and must encourage you to write more often!   So much of what you say makes sense and I'm going to send this to all my students as something to think about.   I agree with Andy.....your solos are trulying amazing.   Everyone listens when you play and I've had a 6 yr old kid sing me back one from the Glen St gig straight after the show.     Regards, Christobel

Posted by Christobel Llewellyn on Sunday 1 August 2010

Thanks Andy- You got the first comment in and you said a lot! I don't believe you've never played a good solo, because I've heard you play many that blew me and everybody in the room away.  That doesn't mean it should satisfy you; part of the nature of the Quest is the rarity of the moments of what you called "this [spontaneous/freely developing] level of creative flow.  I'm sure even Charlie Parker's solos didn't exist, for him, on this plane all the time. Thanks, Glenn

Posted by Glenn Henrich on Sunday 1 August 2010

Great article Glenn! Really interesting and well thought out mate! I have to add that your improvisations are some of the most beautiful and musically crafted that I've had the pleasure of watching unfold in person. Personally speaking, I haven't played a good solo yet so I'm still trying to get a handle on what makes a good improvised solo but my feeling is that the solos that don't contain any preconceived or pre-nurtured patterns and licks are usually the ones that I avoid like the plague! I think that the very nature of the spirit of humanity's ability to improvise and spontaneously create comes essentially from that which we have absorbed (either consciously or sub-consciously) and either stored or lost track of where it was stored in the brain until the moment is "right". That moment when the gases of creativity ignite and the soul fuses with the brain, and then this union unearths the required musical phrases to either satisfy, enhance or as ofter happens (especially to me), complicates and clouds what the simplicity and beauty of what the consciousness wanted to create in the first place. I find that this is my biggest challenge actually-to improvise in the rarefied airs of conscious pre-nurtured ideas mixing and enhancing the sub-consciously "stored" lines that then spontaneously emerge and develop freely. It's a rarity, but when it happens it's wonderful! It's kind of like a butterfly stretching its wings after emerging from the tight confines of the cocoon and then discovering that it can fly free of these confines. I guess that's why I love improvising so much, it's that ever present promise of attaining this level of creative flow and enjoying that fleeting moment that brings you that warm glow of being one step closer to that day when you might actually be satisfied with something that you've "improvised". Cheers! Andy

Posted by Andy Firth on Sunday 1 August 2010
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