Ontimpr6. Improvisation and Education
Practices and Techniques Relevant to Jazz Improvisations
- Listen to many different styles of jazz.
- Understand jazz fundamentals.
- Learn chord/scale relationships.
- Learn how to apply the theory to jazz improvisations.
- Learn how to accompany other soloists.
- Play with others.
- Listen analytically.
- Break the rules.
Marc Sabatella believes listening to past jazz performances “is by far the most important single thing you can do to learn about jazz improvisation. Just as no words can ever describe what a Monet painting looks like, no primer can describe what Charlie Parker sounds like. While it is important for a performer to develop his own style, this should not be done in isolation. You should be aware of what others have done before you.” (bold not in original)
Of course, Sabatella is entirely wrong that "no words can ever describe what a Monet painting looks like." Art historians on Monet spend their entire academic careers describing the look of a Monet painting.
At Wikipedia: Monet, the authors describe his paintings and provide reasons for why Monet (1840-1926) paints as he does. “Monet's ambition of documenting the French countryside led him to adopt a method of painting the same scene many times in order to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons.”
- 🔆 Britisher John Berger describes the work [a painting of Monet's dead wife Camille] as “a blizzard of white, grey, purplish paint . . . a terrible blizzard of loss which will forever efface her features. In fact, there can be very few death-bed paintings which have been so intensely felt or subjectively expressive.”
- 🔆 American Helen Gardner writes: “Monet, with a scientific precision, has given us an unparalleled and unexcelled record of the passing of time as seen in the movement of light over identical forms.”
At The Art Story: Modern Art Insight clearly and carefully describes and explains both the painting content and the reasons why Monet paints as he does:
“Inspired in part by Edouard Manet, Monet departed from the clear depiction of forms and linear perspective, which were prescribed by the established art of the time, and experimented with loose handling, bold color, and strikingly unconventional compositions. The emphasis in his pictures shifted from representing figures to depicting different qualities of light and atmosphere in each scene. In his later years, Monet also became increasingly sensitive to the decorative qualities of color and form. He began to apply paint in smaller strokes, building it up in broad fields of color, and exploring the possibilities of a decorative paint surface of harmonies and contrasts of color. The effects that he achieved, particularly in the series paintings of the 1890s, represent a remarkable advance towards abstraction and towards a modern painting focused purely on surface effects.” (bold not in original)
These are obviously descriptions of the contents of Monet's 🎨 paintings, contrary to Sabatella's claims of impossibility. Perhaps, a better way to describe what Sabatella was after when he made his claims is that one cannot fully experience what the paintings look like without seeing them in person. Of course, this claim is tautologically and uninterestingly true by definition of "fully experience." But even a blind person can comprehend, and even sensorily experience, what it means to "apply paint in smaller strokes," so people can acquire much knowledge about Monet's paintings via descriptions of them.
How is any of this relevant to the philosophy of jazz? The answer is that it is relevant because Sabatella makes the same claims about both Monet's paintings and Charlie Parker's saxophone solos when he asserts, "no primer can describe what Charlie Parker sounds like." But this is just as false as the claim about Monet. One can describe Charlie Parker's sounds.
Encyclopaedia Brittanica describes Parker's sound and musical techniques used to produce it:
“His alto tone was hard and ideally expressive, with a crying edge to his highest tones and little vibrato. One of his most influential innovations was the establishment of eighth notes as the basic units of his phrases. The phrases themselves he broke into irregular lengths and shapes and applied asymmetrical accenting. His brilliant, innovative technique—the speed of execution, full sound in all registers, and precision during very fast tempos—was widely imitated.” (bold not in original)
Sabatella's main point persists, however. There is indeed no substitute for actually hearing what Parker sounds like in person by listening to recordings, so Sabatella's advice is still sound, but not for the reasons that he supplies. Although one can describe what it feels like to ride a roller coaster, it will not provide the same kind of exhilaration, etc. from merely reading about the experiences involved as when riding the coaster in person.
Marc Sabatella's Harmonic Language of Jazz Standards explains that a superior jazz musician needs to be able to “play any song in any key [and can] come up with different chord substitutions on every chorus.” The way to accomplish this is to acquire “the ability to recognize and understand common chord progressions and to reproduce them by ear as easily as one can play melodies by ear.”
A jazz student needs to understand and practice using the principles and techniques below:
- What allows players to do these things is the ability to recognize and understand common chord progressions and to reproduce them by ear as easily as one can play melodies by ear.
- Learning sound theoretical principles. The harmonic guidelines in jazz are the same ones used in classical harmony.
- Learning these principles will produce immediate and dramatic improvement in your ability to play by ear, to transpose on the fly, and to reharmonize.
Internet Resources on Improvisation and Education
- "Improvisation: Thinking and Playing Music," David Beckstead, Music Educators Journal, Vol. 99, No. 3 (March 2013), pp. 69-74. Published by Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of MENC: The National Association for Music Education. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23364264.
- Marc Sabatella, "A Brief History of Jazz," in A Jazz Improvisation Primer, first paragraph. Accessed December 12, 2020.