At our College of the Desert clinic, we were asked this question by a student. Needless to say there are many possible answers to that question. Here are a few thoughts.
“The biggest thing to remember with improvisation is that there ARE no wrong notes. There may be notes that sound better than others, but a great musician can ‘sell’ a note that’s not ‘supposed’ to go over a certain chord or harmony. Notes also make up only part of what a musician communicates. Don’t forget phrasing, tone, dynamics, rhythm and space.
For some students, the ‘blank canvas’ of improvisation can be a little intimidating, just as for the novice jazz listener it can be hard to understand exactly what’s going on in a Bird or Coltrane solo. The more you listen to jazz, whether on recording or live, the more you will pick up.
I always suggest starting by quoting the melody of the tune. This can make your solo feel more coherent; you’re trying to tell the audience a story, not just show them how fast you can play. For guitarists, pianists, vibraphonists, bassists and other non-wind instrumentalists, try singing along as you play. It doesn’t have to be perfect; that’s not the point. The point is that by singing along with your line, you’re likely to play more musically. Every note and phrase you play will have a purpose, even if they’re not executed 100% accurately. For phrasing, try the “two on, two off” exercise – that is to say, on a progression such as a 12-bar blues or a jazz standard, solo for two bars and then rest for two, as if you’re trading with a drummer.
As for the language of jazz and the ability to navigate over chords, there are many transcriptions of great jazz solos available. The Charlie Parker Omnibook is a good place to start. Playing the arpeggios of chord symbols (Cm7 = C, Eb, G, Bb; F7 = F, A, C, Eb; Bbmaj7 = Bb, D, F, A) is a good exercise too. In addition to reading the transcriptions of other soloists, try transcribing solos yourself–and not just those played on your own instrument.
Realize that trial and error is part of the learning process. With software such as Garage Band, it’s possible to record yourself improvising along to existing tracks. Some of what you play won’t work; some of it will probably make you cringe, but that’s how you grow.” – David Lockeretz