When it comes to learning the specialized vocabulary of jazz improvisation, the quickest and most direct way to get it into your ears and under your fingers is by transcribing, which is listening to and then notating by ear the streams of notes that some of the greatest musicians have played on record. However, since a primary ethic of jazz is to sound like yourself and not a carbon copy of someone else, the question arises, “How do you bridge the gap between emulating what others played and doing your own thing?” Here are some tools to transform transcribed material into your own original ideas.
1. Transcribe a “Lick”
Ex. 1 is a two-measure lick or idea reminiscent of something famed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker might have played. It’s a ii-V-I turnaround in the key of Bb, but this lesson isn’t going to focus on negotiating chord progressions. Rather, just think of this idea or line as a freestanding packet of musical information from which we can extrapolate a bunch of other cool stuff!
2. Look for Harmonic Patterns
Our original Charlie Parker-style lick has a general downwardmovement chromatically on the strong beats of 1 and 3 in each bar (C-B-Bb-A). Using only this element, we can create a new lick that moves chromatically in the opposite direction (C-C#-D-Eb), as seen in Ex. 2. Don’t worry about whether it fits over the chord changes. Once you’ve decided what your new lick will be, practice surrounding it with a measure of notes on either side.
3. Use Rhythmic Elements
The first measure of our original lick has a recurring rhythmic element of two eighth-notes followed by a triplet, a characteristic pattern from the bebop era. Create a new lick using just that rhythmic element, but change the notes, as in Ex. 3. Again, don’t worry about the chords or whether your lick sounds “appropriate” or “authentic” to the period. Then give your lick context by surrounding it. You can even try it backwards.
4. Mix Things Up
Another characteristic of the historical bebop style is the idea of approaching chord tones chromatically, as seen in measure 2 of the original lick. On beat 2, the two notes G and G# lead up to the A on beat 3, which is a strong chord tone (the third) on the F7 chord. Instead of approaching chord tones from below, try doing it from above, like in Ex. 4. Also try just using chromatic ideas that don’t necessarily lead to chord tones.
“A ‘lick’ by itself is simply a musical moment frozen in time, which is of course preceded and followed by other stream of notes. Practice connecting your own streams of notes as ‘bookends’ to a given lick to give it context and continuity,” says keyboardist and composer Geoffrey Keezer, who joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers at age 18 and has since gone on to work with Sting, Diana Krall, and Wayne Shorter. Keezer’s latest solo release is Heart of the Piano. Find out more at geoffreykeezer.com.