Holistic Jazz Improvisation

How to improvise? With Chicago-based saxophonist Chris Madsen’s vision of a strategic system, you can improve and perfect the way you improvise now and for the rest of your life.
How to improvise

Everyone has a different practice regimen, and the idea is to hone your process over many years to be as efficient as possible. For example, when I was first learning about jazz, the world seemed wide open. How to improvise? What to practice? Who to listen to? There was just so much jazz that it seemed overwhelming. Now when I practice, I feel much more focused. I have particular things that I need to get to, and I get to them right away. But that’s an arrival point after over 25 years of honing the process. Here are some things that I’ve learned to do that you might find helpful:


Over the years, transcription has been the cornerstone of my development and witnessed its importance with my students. If you treat transcription as the quickest way to learn about jazz and develop an individual sound, it can be a handy tool. But where to begin? As I said, the world of recorded jazz is massive. Different players at different stages of development will need to choose other solos.

First and foremost, if you’re taking lessons and you’re not sure where to start, let your teacher pick one. If you’re a teacher tasked with choosing a solo for your student to transcribe or a student yourself, allow me to suggest a few criteria:

  • A player you’re not familiar with yet to expand your knowledge.
    Is there a vital soloist that you’ve heard everyone talking about but have yet to dive into listening to them? Why not start by transcribing them? There is no better/more efficient way to learn about a musician than to transcribe them. It’s a step beyond listening.
  • A player who has a style similar to yours.
    You may want to figure out your natural predilection as an improviser and choose a solo/soloist who can help you further explore that style. For example, if you are drawn to vocabulary and can play many different licks in all twelve keys, but you’ve never transcribed someone like Sonny Stitt, his playing can help to enhance this aspect of your own.
  • A player who has a style different than yours.
    We all want to have multi-dimensional, varied, substantive improvisational approaches. If you haven’t explored a specific player who is very important, or you find yourself drawn to certain particular types of players, why not choose someone who is outside of your comfort zone? You don’t necessarily need to like the player you’re transcribing; they might serve a different function for you.
  • The solo contains vocabulary or a technique that you want to understand.
    At this point, for me, this is what I usually do. I’ll be listening to a soloist and notice one specific thing that stands out to me: I have to understand or integrate to zero in on that one thing and practice utilizing it in my improvisation.
  • A player you’ve already spent time studying to deepen the influence even more.
    Want to understand a specific player? You need to have transcribed a large amount of their music to consider yourself an expert. Conversely, if there is something about your playing that you want to lessen or even eliminate, find a specific player who never does those things and transcribe many of them. You will start to sound like them eventually, although I find the older you are, the longer it can take to get rid of ingrained habits.

So you’ve chosen a solo that fits one of the criteria above. Now how do you venture forward to make sure you’re making the most of your transcribing exercise? Copying tone, articulation, phrasing, etc., are a must—don’t get hung up on just the notes. They are one part of a much larger whole that makes up the personality of the musician. Another thing to do with the solo is to memorize it, but make sure to write it down. The solo will not settle into your playing without having learned it, and writing it down will help your rhythmic and melodic dictation, which allows your reading.


Once you’ve finished the solo (or you’ve transcribed as much of it as you’re willing or able to do), zero in on something you want to integrate into your playing. This could be a specific melodic lick, a harmonic technique that you’re noticing is prevalent, or of course, a particular approach to rhythm (for example, how does the performer do to swing the eighth notes like that?) Pick it apart to find out. You find this thing can be a diatonic or chromatic portion of the solo, but remember that in jazz, we are still dealing primarily with tonality so that diatonic licks will have a more practical use in your solos.

Generally, this portion of the solo will pretty much reveal itself to you; you shouldn’t have to look too hard to find the best or most exciting part of the solo. Sometimes it’s a standard lick you’ve heard before, or it can be something unique to the player; it’s whatever piques your interest. Once you find this pattern, try to fit what you need to work on the most. This part is a bit harder and will require some self-reflection.

For example, what is one of your weakest elements as an improviser? Zero in on that and pick something that will help. For example, are you a harmonic master with a lousy time feel? Please don’t pick the hippest harmonic lick from the solo; pick the part with a great rhythmic feel so you can copy it. If you only choose licks that enhance your strong suits, you’re not moving toward a holistic sound.

Lastly, make the solo part that extracts nice and concise—it shouldn’t be too lengthy. If it’s too long, it won’t be easy to manipulate in the following steps, as shown below.

How to improvise


Taking the extraction to the next level will require some sweat. Very few licks in jazz will do you any good in just one key. There are certain idiomatic things that players like Art Tatum or Michael Brecker will do on the instrument that only work in maybe one or two keys, and then you have to learn to be creative in how you integrate them. But most likely, you will need to learn whatever you’ve extracted in all twelve keys. It would help if you transported even chromatic, interval-based patterns to get the most mileage out of them.

Before moving on, executing the extracted lick/pattern in every key is crucial. You can’t be stopping to think about what the notes are past this step. Spend weeks or months getting the transposed lick under your fingers because you’ll need it to be that easy.


The most challenging, most elusive, and potentially most frustrating step, integration, involves bringing the extracted portion of the transcribed solo into your vocabulary and set of tools. This can be the toughest because we don’t naturally want to move beyond our musical comfort zones—indeed, sometimes it can seem like you are your own worst enemy with this. But like almost everything else in music, time and perseverance are your friends. There are some licks that I’m still waiting to naturally integrate themselves into my playing that I’ve been working on for years. But I’m committed to them, and I’m not giving up on them! My goal is to have these tools in my arsenal without thinking too hard about conjuring them up—I want them to be where my brain naturally goes. This takes a lot of time and commitment.

One way to kill multiple birds with one stone and be even more efficient at practicing is to combine your practice session elements. Below is a crude diagram of how to do that: it shows that you can take the lick or pattern that you’ve extracted from the solo (labeled “A”) and use it to practice something else that needs attention. Take the pattern and use it over a vehicle like a tune you are learning or a critical harmonic framework; I find that the blues form always lends itself to practicing. Some other vehicles to use while practicing your licks and patterns could be playing very slow or very fast (tempo manipulation), playing in odd times, or playing in a particular style that you’re not familiar with.

Scheme to improve improvisation

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