Thematic Improvisation Part 1

On our path to becoming proficient improvisers/soloists we will, undoubtedly, make attempts to transcribe players that move us, the hope being to capture some of the ‘magic’ and bring it out in our own playing. We may also find ourselves studying a virtual library of theory books trying to shed light on some of the mysteries that we find in our favorite players. After years of doing this we often find ourselves with handfuls of licks, lines, and voicing wondering how to free ourselves from it all and ‘play from the heart’ with our own voice. The phrase ‘play from the heart’ is so subjective. Allow me to compensate for any errors in interpretation by providing you with a specific definition. To me, playing from the heart means to have a connection to every note I play; being aware of exactly what effect the present note(s) has on the overall momentum, texture, and mood of the piece. Some would say that this is a lofty goal. This would be true if there were an end to it, but since the path is a life-long pursuit, there is no end, and thusly, no way to identify the defining parameters of a ‘goal’. Every bit of progress made in this direction is a success or completion of what could be termed a ‘goal’ cycle.

In order to do have this sort of connection to the music when playing, a release of musical agenda when ‘performing’ must happen. Having an agenda, musically, can range from trying to ‘work in’ things from our practice sessions to trying to play in the style of a particular player. Both of these approaches can produce good-sounding, cohesive music, but they both tip the balance of our participation in the music from active to preemptive. That is, we impose things (lines, voicings, etc) on the music that may not have anything to do with the piece other than the fact that it ‘fit’. Again, even if it sounds good, is it really true to the moment?

What exactly is the “moment”?

The ‘moment’ is the lump in your throat and the feeling of sliding down the front of a 12 ft. wave! It’s hearing the drummer displace a snare hit and being able to react to it within an eighth note. It’s picking up on interplay between the saxophone and bass player and wrapping them in the perfect stack of notes, drawn from the pool of melodies improvised up to that point in the piece. The ‘moment’ is the exact space that you situate your musical self amongst the other sounds.

To be in the moment while playing/improvising music means that we will be causing, and reacting to, events within the music.

The last paragraph makes the ‘moment’ almost sound like a scary place to be! It is actually the safest and easiest place to be. We don’t have to worry about remembering things that we have practiced because we have no need to use them. This, in turn, means that we don’t have to add more to our list of ‘things that must be played correctly’ throughout the course of a performance and frees our mind. All we have to do is listen and be aware of where the piece evolved from (melody, rhythm, stylistic context, etc), the music will give us all of the material we need for our improvisation. Open up and play.

What is thematic improvisation?

When referring to ‘soloing’, thematic improvisation is a mindset that dictates that each note we play is based on, the result of, and ultimately indebted to the one we played previous. This mandate eliminates the room for ‘licks’ and lines that we may feel inclined to play. Our playing becomes based on musical ideas that we pull from the ‘head,’ which is a jazz term for the written opening statement or the initial thematic statement of a piece.

The purpose of practice is to ensure that we are able to ‘get around’ on our instrument in order to bring forth our ideas.

A musical idea is anything that happens through the course of a piece whether it be an accidental string fart or a six beat phrase (I have found that actually thinking of the word “idea” will spawn a new theme in my mind). The action starts a cycle within the group that will eventually need to resolve. In order for it to resolve, we must pay attention to how the other members of the group react/reply to it (to whatever lesser or greater degree this happens) and co-develop until the idea is concluded or evolves into something else.

The development of an improvisation should be as a pot of cold water coming to a boil and then cooling. Be aware from the first bubble to the last one.

What do I need to know in order to do this?

At this point it must sound like we have to unlearn everything we already know in order to ’empty’ ourselves. This isn’t so, we will be drawing (initially) from the ‘basics’, which everything else is derived from, but our exercises and discussions will be applicable to anything we may already have under our fingers. We will work towards liberating the music from the confines of licks, lines, and formulae.

Looking into what it takes to become a thematic improviser we will see that, from an academic standpoint, as we practice we will split our ideas up into halves, thirds… etc. We will displace the melodic and rhythmic motifs against a pulse provided by a metronome, drum machine, or some other reliable time keeping source. It is through this that our mind will first start to become aware of what it takes to expand a theme.

And where will we get our ideas to with which to practice? Among others places, through the aforementioned transcription process, experimentation with material we already know, and any further study of the theoretical end of music. We will also introduce different mechanisms that can used to give us a thematic “jump-start” in future articles.

A quick thought on Transcription

One of the central ideas to the mindset of learning to improvise (especially for students of jazz) is that of transcription. Transcription in and of itself is a great thing. It can strengthen our musical minds by helping us to pay attention to the details of what the soloist is playing, the note-to-note evolution, and how it is affecting the accompanying musicians. If that is as far as we take the process, we would have all we need. Without learning the ‘solo’ on our instruments we can get what we need from it. What do we need from it? During the transcription process we should observe the following:

  • Key center(s)/textures – where the soloist situates his or her melodies in relation to the reigning tonic and how the surrounding harmony expands and contracts to accommodate.
  • Interaction amongst the band members – are they passing musical clues around the circle?
  • Your own personal impression of mood that the notes and phrases played by the soloist helps to create (it’s these moods that we will strive to find during our own practice sessions, not by playing things we have transcribed, but through searching for combinations of notes and rhythms that make us feel that way on our own – this is what people mean when they say things like “John Coltrane was always searching for something”, etc)
  • Close attention should be given to the rhythmic relationships between the voices – ie. Are saxophone and guitar playing off of each other in a way that comes together to create one phrase (each playing separate partials of the beat)? Etc…

My experience with thematic improvisation

Early on in my life as a musician I sought liberation from position playing, patterns, ‘chords’ and such. The way that I choose to handle this was in the way that I shed (practiced) and what I worked on. My first thought towards this goal was around the age of 17. I believed that improvisation was, in essence, spontaneous composition. What I had not yet realized was that when playing in a certain context (such as the framework of a ‘tune’) the ‘solo’ first needed to make musical sense unto itself (i.e. no ‘licks’ or formulaic playing). And it also needed to be a literal exposition on the head or main theme, as it were (it took me another few years for this one to hit).

Anyway, as a means to this end, I started approaching my practice sessions as a time to learn to make strong musical sense with very few notes (this is by no means the only thing I worked on – there was the composing, reading, etc). The only way to do this is to undertake the task of mastering time and rhythm. Anything that is played with good time and self-assured rhythmic intent will work anywhere. Add a real sense of melody and you have a true voice.

I would start by first choosing a rhythmic backdrop (always!). This often took the form of a metronome (or drum machine) or a piece of recorded music. The next thing I would do is choose 3 random notes. These would be literal notes, not a graphical point on the guitar. In other words I would think to myself “Eb, D, and B”, as opposed to “4th string 1st fret, etc…” This way I had to use all of those notes from everywhere on the fingerboard! And, I had to make the playing of them sit well in the groove and give the playing momentum. So I was making music with every pitched inch of my instrument (well, at this point, the part with strings at least).

When playing with the recorded music (often times Shostakovich or Bartok string quartets, various fusion albums) the goal was to interact with the music as though I were a part of it. I am not talking about ‘fantasy jamming’, I mean that I would try to be an additional voice within the music (not *soloing*). This was difficult depending on a few things such as: did the random notes I chose work with the music well? If not, I would spend a lot of time trying to play in between the ‘inside’ notes on the recording so the movement between notes would make some sense. Etc… As time went on I started choosing 4 notes, 5 notes… By the time I was using all twelve I had discovered the concept of tone rows and went on that tangent for a while trying to make them groove beautiful…

When I worked with the metronome I would work on the same thing, but an odd thing started to happen. I noticed that I became sort of ‘rain man-ish’ using the metronome. I would come out of my practice trance and find myself obsessively regrouping the beats in bars of four by eights (5+3, 2+2+1+2+1, etc) and sixteenths (this became really bad, after a while. I was doing it on a macro and micro level at the same time – partials, beats, bars, etc…), all the while maintaining a melodic/thematic/rhythmic mental mandate (needless to say, I had almost no social life as a kid – nor now).

This (among many other things) has left me with the ability to be free from the imposition of the instrument (for the most part) to give more respect to the music that I am participating in by allowing myself to be moved by it and play accordingly. Taking the head and playing an exposition…


In my future articles we will cover:

  • Devices to generate thematic material for practice
  • Exercises designed to break apart, and find the music in the licks, lines, and voicings we already know, having them reemerge almost unrecognizable, yet fresh.
  • Approaches to group improvisation that will spur interaction, contrapuntal playing, and a cohesive, controlled development.

Between now and the next time, take a moment to do some focused listening and try to find examples of some of the things we have talked about (group interaction, rhythmic variation, lyrical, thematic playing, etc). A few of the recordings (there are many, many more) that revealed some of these properties to me are:

  • Keith Jarrett Trio – Standards Live, Still Live, Tribute, Changeless, etc
  • Ravi Shankar – Live at Monterey 1967 [LIVE], etc (the interaction between sitar and tabla is something else)
  • Miles Davis -’65 era trio, We Want Miles, etc
  • Ornette Coleman – Soap Suds, etc
  • Joe Henderson – State of the Tenor

Have fun.

Also check out… Thematic Improvisation Part 2