Telling A Story in Jazz Improvisation.

lem photo

スタニスロ・レム

This post is written for jazz musicians, but may be of some use to writers who play an instrument and want to find a way of bringing their narrative skills to sound. If you are one of these… go for it!! You may be surprised at how much fun it is and it may re-invigorate/inspire your own writing with new ideas and perspectives. If it does, please leave a comment and tell me about it!

Often, in interviews with famous jazz musicians, one will hear talk of storytelling: that an improvised solo should “tell a story”, or that certain artists are “saying something” when they play. In fact, in the old days, an artist’s merit was very much measured by how they “said” things in music, no matter what their skill level or stature in the community. Indeed, if a young artist was really coming up through the ranks, their inexperience was usually mitigated by the fact that the pros could hear in their work that they were saying something; had a way of playing that “speaks” to (resonates with) people.

This ability to make the music resonate with people is what also makes actual storytelling so powerful. Whatever your preferred literature is, the writing really lingers with you after the story is finished. For example, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem (pictured above) is one of these works that has thrilled me ever since my first reading, as is Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. They both resonated with and captured my imagination. To others, these novels either resonate the same way, do nothing at all for them, or evoke some kind of feeling in between. But whatever it is that excites a person about a story, there are principles that one can consider and/or apply to jazz improvisation that can help a musician contextualize what they do and find new ways to make their music and improvisation sound how they desire it to. To do this we can then consider the structure of a good story and apply certain principles to our music where we see fit.

A fun way to go about this is studying the structure of stories; how stories work. Every story follows a general pattern: an opening scene (something that captures the reader’s attention), some kind of foreshadowing, a major plot point, a pinch point, a shifting middle, a second pinch point, the second major plot point, and the resolution of the story (a satisfying conclusion). So let’s look at how we can use these ideas in music.

(Note: you can also think of each of these points as a scene unto itself, organizing the various points into a set of three or four scenes in which they occur… if this works for you. Anyone can “write”, the masters create compelling scenes out of words and story structure. A scene is the place where the masters rise above the beginners.)

First, we have the Opening Scene. This is the first thing you play when you improvise: your first ideas, pattern, note, rhythm; the thing that you develop melodically, rhythmically, and/or harmonically. Many improvisers think up an opening statement if they are the second in line to improvise, after the first soloist has finished. This does not have to occur, but it is a good opportunity to think up something interesting to “say”. One can prepare an idea for this moment, a great idea for a beginner, but the ultimate goal in improvisation is to be able to spontaneously invent ideas, or find some unique way of expressing something that is already in your vocabulary, something that is in your signature style.

Then we can progress to Foreshadowing. To musically foreshadow something – to hint at what is to come in our solo – we can then focus on a specific aspect of our solo. Thus, if our solo is going to be an artistic display of rhythmic variation, begin playing with the rhythmic shape of your first idea. If you feel that a big flashy ending is how your solo should end, begin ramping up the intensity of the solo a small bit, a way of building tension in your audience, which will be released by the climatic qualities of the end of your solo.

Like a story reaches its First (major) Plot Point, so too can your solo create a feeling of dramatic story telling. At this point, you can create this effect by introducing a dramatic change in your solo: something opposite of what the audience expects. This could be fewer notes, different dynamics, a switch from rhythmic ideas to melodic shapes (more minimalistic rhythm), or moving from simple to more complex harmonic ideas (adding chromatic notes that are not part of the music, but are carefully chosen to create exciting dissonances). This must be done with taste, as an alteration such as this could throw the audience off of the story; interrupt the “plot” in ways they don’t feel excited about.

But that could be the right thing to lead you to your First Pinch Point: the moment when your alteration provides a moment of diversion, a moment of conflict momentarily takes your audience in a direction they are not expecting but then helps understand the next part of your solo. This could be continuing on with dissonance, then surprisingly returning to the original idea you started your solo with, which brings the audience back to what they understand about the solo. This type of musical antagonism, effectively played and then cancelled, can also create a feeling of high drama in your soloing, and I have seen it work very effectively in the music of John Coltrane when he returns from a dissonant part of his solo back to it’s main theme, or even back to a improvised variation on the main melody of the song (which is a great pinch point technique).

By this time you should consider yourself in the Middle of your solo. A solo does not have to be long or short to be good, just musical. In fact, letting your solo become a story is also a great way of gauging how long your solo should be considering how you are progressing. This middle does not have to be anything in particular, as long as it is flowing and moving forward towards your next goal, the Second Pinch Point.

The Second Pinch Point can be a slightly varied repetition of the first pinch point, or a completely new one. Either way, it is a surprising diversion from the expected; what one expects you to play having heard your middle section. At the second pinch point you can to the reverse of the first one: instead of playing the variation of the main melody of the song you are improvising over, you could then quote a completely different melody from the same composer, refitted to the chord changes you are currently playing. This quoting – this contextual information – creates a moment of levity in the audience if they are informed fans. At the very least, your band mates should recognize the quote, and will either appreciate or be nonplussed by it, depending on the quality of the quote and how it relates to the “story” of your solo.

Your second to last musical act should be to bring in another idea that is in thematic keeping with the over arc of you story, your Second Plot Point. I find that creating a variation of your first plot point is a great way of leading your audience back towards the feeling of your opening idea, which can be a great way of running down the slope towards the conclusion of your story. This is the final change, the final twist in the story, the final variation on a theme. This is where you either ramp up the energy towards an exciting climax (high and loud), or surprise the audience by slowly turning down your volume, making your notes more sparse, and slowing the rhythmic/harmonic pace, which is the second plot point I personally prefer (because it suits my musical personality). The second plot point is a great moment to display your emotional qualities, as musical drama can be effective in many ways, as long as it is honest, a true reflection of your personality.

Finally we arrive at the Resolution, the few moments that lead to the final statement you make in your story before you hand over the song for someone else to improvise on or reintroduce the melody to finish the song. A great resolution is both a great way to hand over the solo or finish it, as it provides a logical finish to our journey. The Resolution is also a great chance to begin. If you are playing with great improvising musicians, and the player before you ends with an amazing resolution to their solo, don’t be afraid to repeat it as the Opening Scene of your own solo. That also includes something that the drummer or bassist for example might have played while the trumpet player was finishing their solo. The Resolutions and Opening Scenes performed by Michael Brecker (saxophone) and his brother Randy (trumpet) were one of the highlights of The Brecker Brothers concerts, most notably their concert video filmed in Barcelona in 1992. This video also demonstrates another skill of the great improvisers: choosing to cool off the intensity of the previous soloist, or ratchet it up, depending on how the music and audience is feeling. Randy often “cooled” the ebullient ferocity of Michael’s soloing, and Randy’s opening statements in those moments were brilliant emotional opening statements in this context.

This story telling format for soloing is a great way to explore a different conceptual approach to jazz improvisation, and I guarantee it will at least open up your creative thinking to new directions.

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9 thoughts on “Telling A Story in Jazz Improvisation.

  1. Wonderful. Shame i can’t solo for love nor money.
    It put me in mind though of Dolphy’s astonishing flute solo for Coltrane’s Ole. That tells a very dark story for me. Something of the trouble of black folk & possibly drugs, i think Coltrane was into heroin, right? But even after an uncountable amount of listens it never fails to raise the goosepimples on my skin. i can even whistle quite a good chunk of it much to the joy of some of my pals.

    1. Dahomey Dance is the real gem on that LP for me, but you are totally right. Dolphy really nails it!
      Legend has it that John Coltrane hated the dentist/dentist’s drill and thus never went. He also loved ButterScotch LIfesavers and ate them all the time while practicing 17 hours a day. Soon, his teeth were rather rotten so he turned to boozed and heroin to kill the oral pain. This played into his death to some degree… if this is all true…

      1. Tis a gem all round. Dolphy is my man so that album shines for me.
        Would tooth ache make playing difficult? I mean it’s an obvious discomfort but if i cut my finger it hurts but if i try to play guitar it exacerbates the pain.

  2. Lovely! I’m glad I read it. I also realized that the ingredients of storytelling and making compelling music seem to revolve round some sort of universal pattern or cycle?

    1. Maybe there are inherent universal patterns in everything, Laws of Musical Physics or Laws of Literary Physics… like the Laws of Physics themselves! I might have some small insight into Musical Physics… so maybe your poetry is a nice peek into Word Physics. 🙂

      1. That’s a nice way of putting it! I have this lovely vision of tiny specks of words revolving round my brain…I think I can see a Bb note floating round yours…

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