“Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation”
Those are the words of the immortal jazz trumpeter Clark Terry on learning jazz improvisation.
Imitate your favorite players. Copying their licks, transcribing their solos. Emulating their sound.
Assimilate their articulations, phrasing and ornamentation and let it become a part of your style.
Innovate what you have learned by making it personal. Change the licks. Experiment with them. Make something new out of them.
These are necessary techniques and study in order to learn to improvise in any genre.
As I studied with saxophonist Steve Grossman many years ago, he told me that he concentrated mainly on copying John Coltrane in his younger years. He had definitely learned to take what he learned to another level. After a while, he commenced to do the same intensive study of Sonny Rollins in order bring yet another totally different element into his playing.
A few years back, I did an interview with saxophonist Greg Osby. He concentrated on transcribing piano solos! He went on to say that he altered every lick little by little until it bore practically no resemblance to the original.
These are the ways many artists learn, transform and innovate their craft.
The use of patterns book has not been without some criticism. I’ve encountered student who didn’t want to learn patterns out of fear that they would limit their creativity or even make them sound like everybody else. Many jazz instructors and artists also share this opinion.
Nothing could be farther from the truth! But there are some prerequisites for using patterns.
I’ve witness over the past years that many students of jazz, whether solo (learning independently) or in college, have embarked on studying jazz or “jazz and pop music”, tend to look for the shortcut to learning jazz.
Many just buy The Real Book and try to learn the tunes (although many tunes in the book have incorrect chord changes and melodies), and they buy patterns books and just practice the licks, but leave the MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENT out. Many of these students DON’T EVEN LISTEN TO JAZZ!
How could that be? Why are they studying to get their degree in Jazz and don’t even LISTEN to the music? How do they expect that to work?
Answer: It can’t!
In order to imitate, you have to listen to someone! In order to assimilate, you have to have listened to someone. In order to innovate, the first two steps have to have been accomplished!
Jazz Patterns are merely a tool to train the technique and ears of the player. In all honesty, most of what we first learn to play/improvise is learned by rote. It is handiwork. Once the material is assimilated and harmonically and stylistically understood, can we begin to innovate, and avoid what many fear as “sounding like everybody else”.
As a comparison, just because you know the alphabet doesn’t guarantee that you can become a poet or writer. Learning the alphabet and learning to read is just the beginning.
Just because you’ve learned all the notes on your instrument won’t guarantee that you’ll become a proficient player. Learning the noted is just the beginning.
With jazz improvisation, listening and having an affinity to the music is just the beginning of being in a position to start learning how to improvise. Patterns are merely, sentences, phrases, and idioms just like learning a language.
But learning the phrase alone won’t get you to your goal. You have to purposely use them in a context. Just as one cannot really learn to speak Spanish just by studying out of a book. You have to purposefully go out and try out your skills with other human beings in order to learn better, be corrected, add nuances and build confidence.
With my improvisation students, I use what I call “Improv Etudes“. Improv Etudes are a type of study using the jazz patterns in a context that is realistically closer to an actual improvising situation. Learning a lick in a vacuum (i.e., practicing just the lick) may get it under your fingers, but you mostly likely won’t get to use that lick in the heat of the situation as you would hope. Practicing the lick in context, a framework of some chord changes in a tune, will help you hear and understand the lick better, and therefore learn it quicker!
Do you have to learn tons of licks to be a proficient improviser? No. Again, patterns are an aid, but shouldn’t be a crutch. The more you understand melody and hear, and have a burning drive to experiment with your knowledge, you’ll be able to create more.
Be sure to check out my book “250 Jazz Patterns” here at the shop page on this site. There you will also find other books and products.