Weekend Chops Builder: Jazz Improvisation - The Jazz Beat

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[This article first appeared in Contemporary Keyboard magazine in 1978.]

One of the most distinguishing features of the best jazz improvisers is their ability to swing. Much has been written about this hard-to-define aspect of jazz, but it is still very difficult to describe the process. Why do some improvisations have that special vitality and effervescence while others do not? What do the best improvisers do that lesser players do not do?

First, in order to say what he or she wants to say musically, the jazz improviser must develop the technical capability to execute ideas and feelings spontaneously. To do this, the improviser must master the scales, patterns, harmonic devices, and other musical elements necessary to instantly produce music of quality. More importantly, in addition to developing the facility for instant composition, the jazz player must be absolutely in control of the rhythmic elements of his or her improvisation. The best jazz improvisers have traditionally offered innumerable examples of the best ways to group sounds by means of accent. It doesn't matter if the player is a "hot" player like Oscar Peterson or a "cool" player like Bill Evans; he or she must always be in control of the basic pulse.

In jazz, the most often used basic pulse is the quarter note, and whether the phrase is simple, as in Ex. 1, or complex, as in Ex. 2, the player must play with the rhythmic feeling inherent in whatever jazz style is being dealt with—ragtime, stride, swing, bebop, fusion, or whatever. Many inexperienced players play phrases which though rhythmically correct within themselves are out of phase with the basic pulse of the music being played. When this is done deliberately a feeling of tension can result, but the player must be in control of all the elements of his or her playing to make this an effective musical device rather than a handicap.

I once took the basic elements of stride piano and reversed them so that the on-the-beat references to the basic pulse were in the right hand while the off-the-beat references were in the left (see Ex. 3). Exercises like this can help you develop a clearer awareness of the basic pulse and place the accents in a way that clarifies rather than obscuring the swing of the phrase.

There are three approaches to playing the jazz beat used by most improvisers. They are: 1) on top of the beat—the player consistently seems to anticipate the pulse; 2) right on the beat—the player is almost metronomic, yet without feeling mechanical and 3) behind the beat—the player plays in a laid-back fashion sometimes letting the beat get well ahead. For reference, the playing of Oscar Peterson provides many examples of the first approach, that of John Lewis many examples of the second, and that of Bill Evans many examples of the third. Each of these pianists has absolutely mastered his approach to the jazz beat, and each creates excellent jazz improvisations from his own rhythmic perspective.

The rhythmic organization of ideas happens instantly in performance, so not only must the player feel the beat, his or her listeners must feel it in the same place or they will be most uncomfortable. The execution of complex musical phrases and the comprehension of those phrases is greatly enhanced when the basic pulse is felt in the same place by all concerned. It is imperative that the keyboard player who wishes to develop this facility practice many different rhythmic patterns and devices, until he or she feels absolutely comfortable playing them in any tempo.

The student must begin practice slowly and repeat the devices at gradually increasing tempos until the limit of his or her capability is reached. Exercises, which divide the beat into equal and unequal parts, should be practiced in this manner. Play through Ex. 4, 5, 6, and 7, then make up phrases using these rhythms and others that may be more suitable for your needs. For practice purposes the pulse must be absolutely steady, so I would suggest the use of a metronome. Also, check your progress with a tape recorder, and you will be amazed at the results of long, tedious hours of practice.

The ability to confidently improvise long complicated jazz passages requiring split-second timing can be easily achieved, if one carefully works through the diverse materials used with reference to the jazz beat.

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