Constructing a Jazz Solo
Ever wanted to play a bit of jazz but not had the faintest idea where to start? Then join John Wheatcroft as he looks at some failsafe steps you can take to construct the perfect jazz solo.
OccasiOnally we'll stumble across something on the internet that can really brighten our day, and make us feel the need to share these rare gems with our friends. such was the case when Jason sidwell sent me a link to a sharply observant and really quite funny diagram written by Dustin mollick. boldly titled How to construct the Perfect Jazz solo, the bar-by-bar timeline plots a 100% failsafe approach to eliciting a polite round of applause from the audience, along with a “yeah man!” from your band mates, assuming you plot this course. it had me smiling for ages, and i showed it in turn to all my jazz musician friends with predictably similar results.
while the concept of a formulaic solo with a prescribed outcome if you simply follow the steps by the letter is obviously quite funny (well it got me laughing anyway), the serious side of this is that if you give your solo construction some thought then the impact of your playing will undoubtedly improve. so it most definitely pays to give this crucial aspect of your playing some thought, and in turn the idea for this article was born.
solo construction can be a tricky business and we often don’t give this area the attention it truly deserves. Just like some people seem to be born with a natural ability to tell a good joke, or can hold your interest when telling a story, some players have just got the knack to know what’s going to work when building a solo. while you can learn a great deal by osmosis - by essentially just listening a lot to great music - it’s also possible to give the process a jump-start by being consciously aware of some of the most effective musical devices that you can employ. the beauty of having some form of cognitive appreciation is that you can open the door to an idiom or an approach, and expand your vocabulary in an efficient and progressive way and, if nothing else, can give you a pretty solid foundation to build upon while working on the more intuitive parts of your style.
while idiomatic improvisation - playing within a genre’s accepted borders - is a huge consideration and of utmost importance in jazz, it can be a huge help to have some kind of a plan, shape or form in mind as you go. Rather like composition, improvisation is about decision making, not about knowing all the options. even players with a massive vocabulary of ideas have split-second choices to make; so one highly effective method is to focus on a restricted range of options at any given point. you can always change your mind should you find these options too limiting, or feel you’ve exhausted their potential. Rather like an engaging conversation, you don’t feel the need to talk about everything you know every time you speak. the connection from subject to subject can either flow, or you can jump to something new when this seems appropriate.
the purpose of this lesson is to look at six distinct approaches or themes you can employ when constructing a jazz solo, following the template as presented by our initial inspiration from Dustin mollick. For the sake of clarity i’ve presented all the examples in the key of bb, although of course you should transpose each idea when appropriate through a variety of keys. Of course, the musical material presented is literally the tip of the iceberg. Once you’ve learnt the phrases and examples presented here, why not replace my licks and ideas with some of your own - even by tweaking a note here or there at first? this way you can use your own vocabulary, influenced by your personal preferences and informed by a combination of the music you’ve heard, the experiences you’ve had and all edited by your creative imagination.
As is customary with these lessons, we finish with a contextualised musical study based around an imaginary 32-bar jazz progression following a super-typical aaba form, with each section eight bars in duration. Once again, we follow the template to the letter, with eight bars melody, four bars double-time, four bars of ‘quotes’ and so on. nice!
I try to think of building as you go, just the same way as when you’re having a conversation.