Jazz Improvisation Fundamentals Part 2: Incorporating and Assimilating Jazz Vocabulary

In this second article, Doug Stone (Assistant Professor of Jazz Studies at Louisiana State University, LA, USA) helps you enlarge your jazz vocabulary in a very efficient manner. Learn directly from those on top and directly listen to Doug’s examples.
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The jazz improviser’s ultimate goal is to make a creative and spontaneous musical statement that encompasses the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic information presented in the tune at hand, using musical vocabulary rooted in the jazz tradition but unique to the situation. To achieve that goal, systematic, thorough, and creative practice of musical material produced by history’s great jazz improvisers is requisite.

It is critical for the student of jazz improvisation to identify sources of the jazz vocabulary. Learning “licks” that signify specific harmonic information is a wonderful starting point. There are myriad sources that can be used for “lick” discovery. Greg Fishman’s Hip Licks volume 1 and volume 2 are a prime example of a print resource with a thorough listing of useful “licks” and many other such resources. Printed transcribed solos are valuable for “lick” discovery. If students do their own transcription work, not relying on printed sources, they will develop a much deeper relationship with the “licks” they learn, truly assimilating vocabulary by using their ears.

It is important to be aware of the harmony that each “lick” is outlining. I recommend beginning with “licks” that outline a long major ii-V7-I, with the ii lasting for one measure, the V7 lasting for one measure, and the I lasting for two measures. You can look up those types of “licks” in “lick” learning books, in printed transcribed solos, or by being aware of the harmonic progression of a solo you have transcribed.

Once you select the ii-V7-I “lick” you would like to focus on and ask your private teacher to certify that it truly is a ii-V7-I “lick,” do the following process:

  1. Learn the “lick” in all keys.
  2. Plug the “lick” into the harmonic progressions of lots of jazz standards and originals.
  3. With a new “lick,” repeat steps 1 and 2, then,
  4. Plug “licks” number 1 and 2 into tunes.
  5. Repeat the process over and over and over again with more and more “licks.”

Some tunes lend themselves to this type of “lick”-generated etudes. Good plug-in tunes include:

  • Tune Up (Eddie Cleanhead Vincent)
  • Lady Bird (Tadd Dameron)
  • Groovin’ High (Dizzy Gillespie)
  • On Green Dolphin Street (Bronislaw Kaper)
  • There Will Never Be Another You (Harry Warren)
  • Autumn Leaves (Joseph Kosma)
  • What Is This Thing Called Love (Cole Porter).

Sonny Stitt “lick” no. 1’s transcription:

Something to note — when using full-length ii-V7-I “licks,” one should practice the ii-V7 portion and the I portion separately to be able to utilize the “lick” to its fullest — playing just the I portion when necessary, like in the first two measure of There Will Never Be Another You or Lady Bird — or playing just the ii-V7 portion when necessary, like in measures 3 and 4 of Lady Bird or Groovin’ High.

Knowing the steps we saw previously:

  • Learn as many major ii-V7-I “licks” as you can.
  • Learn as many minor iimin7(b5)-V7(alt)-imin(Maj 7) “licks” as you can.
  • Also, learn “licks” for short ii-V7-I’s.
  • Plug all the “licks” you learn into chord progressions.

Sonny Stitt “lick” nº 2’s transcription:

Plugging “licks” into chord progressions is similar to painting by numbers. In the introduction to this article, I mentioned that the jazz improviser’s ultimate goal is to make a creative and spontaneous musical statement. Learning and plugging-in “licks” build a foundation for your ears and your fingers.

When you are actually improvising, you will hear ii-V7-I harmony. If you have diligently practiced “licks,” you will hear “licks” you have learned in your mind’s ear when you improvise in a ii-V7-I situation. If you have practiced the “licks” in all keys and practiced plugging them in at the right moments, you will be able to access the “lick” in your fingers when you hear it.

Hearing historically accurate jazz vocabulary and playing it in reaction to musical events at the moment is the heart of jazz improvisation. I hope my suggested exercise will help you in your pursuit to seriously, accurately, and truthfully become a jazz improviser.

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