What goes on in your head when you improvise? Are you thinking about something in particular, or just playing “anything” and not really thinking at all? How are you able to improvise with other musicians you’ve never played with before and sound so good together?
The orthopedic surgeon who was vacationing on a recent Jazz & Wine Riverboat Cruise sincerely wanted to know what goes on inside a jazz musician’s brain. Word had gotten around and I was invited to play piano during cocktail hour time as a guest on The Gil Eanes down The Douro River. It was such a pleasure to be joined on many tunes by the ship’s hired bassist from Sweden, drummer from France, and a Cuban sax player. I called tunes in standard keys (we all knew them), and with hardly a spoken word away we played!
The doctor admitted he didn’t know a whole lot about jazz, and was amazed at how, without any rehearsal, we could play tunes together like that. I explained to him what goes on in my own particular brain as a pianist when I improvise with the following ‘medical’ description:
First, after deciding the composition & key, there is a basic Skeleton which jazz musicians understand about the tune: The Melody of the piece, the bare bones essential Chords, the main Roots to these chords, the desired Tempo & rhythmic Feel – (perhaps indicated by a tune’s lyrics), all are the starting points for this understood skeleton.
Next, we listen to each other to add Muscles & Connective Tissue: These elements can consist of slight alterations in the melody or the lead improviser’s note choices, various ways the pianist can move from chord to chord or use chord substitutions in conjunction with the bassist, a driving bass line which connects between chord roots to move the music forward, a rhythmic response the drummer either reacts to or initiates, or perhaps a change of feel from latin to swing or into doubletime. This is where it takes close listening and quick reactions from all musicians – it’s also where it gets your blood going as you use dynamics, humor, & passion to connect with your audience while inspiring each other to become stronger players together!
Finally, we dress the body with Skin, Clothes, and Bling! This is all about each person’s individual musical heritage, influenced by such things as their own background culture, listening to the great jazz musicans, teachers, and recordings, perhaps reading articles/studying books on jazz, plus skills achieved playing with others after countless hours of practice on your instrument. Each jazz musician needs to discover their own personal style by finding creative ways to dress up a tune. A flash of musical bling now and then never hurts to impress an audience – Do you know a flashy run to toss off? Just don’t overdo the bling or it’s too much!
Back to the original question of what do I think about when improvising: During the best music situations I will reach a zone where I am not consciously aware of any of the above written things – Improvisation can be a surreal experience of listening, reacting, and feeling as if suspended in some alternate existence – yet I know on some level I have put in time and laid the groundwork to make it appear (at least to certain others), that it all comes to me so easily! Truth be told, during most music improvisations I think about the skeleton of a tune, and react spontaneously to all the rest!