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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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February 23, 2012 | Building a solo

unfinished.jpgIn improvisation, there's always a question of how much creativity is framed in intention and how much in brash, unbridled spontaneity. It's the enigma of the whole generating process, how much do we contrive out of calculation (modes, arpeggios, regenerated riffs) and how much just comes out of nowhere. We maintain you have to have a balance of both. Blind directionless blowing goes nowhere and has no repeatable structure for the listener to grasp. Mechanical, scale quotes are dispassionate and soulless. You need the combination.

One area you should aim for improvement is the concept of story-telling. The set-up, the conflict, the resolution. The story arc of any good movie, novel, or TV show should be as conscious of form as it is internal detail. Good soloists wrap their stories within the context of character development and intent.

The End. We mention this first, because it's the most often ignored. You finish your solo, and there's question whether or not you're really done. A good soloist hands the baton to the next soloist (or returns to the head) and gives a sense of finality. Good authors don't just arbitrarily write their words, they have a sense of how the story is going to end, and that should be the same with improvisation. You can end in a multitude of ways, a gripping climax of high notes, or a resolving release of tension in the lower register. Whatever your choice, you need to communicate a sense of "I've said what I'm going to say."

Intermediate resonance. In the middle of it all, you need to convey a sense of familiarity midst the departure. Returning to motifs from the melody or repeating nuggets from the previous soloists are a way of maintaining a sense of whole. You want to explore, but bring it home a few times with something the audience has already heard. The contrast makes the journey away even more intriguing.

Minor arcs of conflict and resolution. "Call and response" is like the soloist having a conversation with himself. Also called "antecedent/consequence," the technique is to include minor phrases of question, answer, question, answer. It can be as short as a couple notes or as long as four measure phrases. If you don't consciously include these in your solos, you'll sound meandering and directionless.

The Beginning. How you start the solo is almost as important as how you end. As the saying goes, "you never have another chance to make a first impression." You want to start with something concrete and intentional, but without the sophomore mistake of unloading all your best material in the first five measures. It can be transitional in nature, repeating the last phrase of the last soloist to set up a continuing story. It can be bold and contrasting, a new story. It should always be something you can build off of, confident and catchy.

We focus a lot on the details of soloing, borrowing notes from the scale, outlining harmonic progression, propelling with gravity notes and exploiting guide tones, but just as important is form. The best solos will be properly framed and hung proudly on the wall, worthy of display.

Compose yourself. Story Arcs
Compose yourself. Antecedent/Consequent thinking
Don Stiernberg on the "Big Picture" of improvising
Intentional Improvisation
More Appropriate

Posted by Ted at February 23, 2012 2:09 PM

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