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Learn Jazz Improvisation With Tips From Herbie Hancock

Written by MasterClass

Oct 31, 2018 • 5 min read

Written by MasterClass

Oct 31, 2018 • 5 min read

If you want to learn about jazz improvisation, you can’t find a better expert to learn from than the Oscar and Grammy Award-winning jazz musician, pianist, and composer Herbie Hancock. Herbie Hancock’s decades-long career began with classical music before transitioning to jazz piano and beyond. Here, he reveals his ideology behind jazz improvisation and a few basic tips for anyone who wants to get started playing great jazz.

What Is Jazz Improvisation?

Jazz improv is one of those things that many people suspect can’t be taught—but they’d be wrong. Improvisation is probably part of your everyday life already, even if you don’t realize it. That’s Herbie’s perspective. If you think about improvisation the way Herbie does—expressing yourself and your given circumstances in the moment, acting and reacting without premeditation—then you start to realize we’re all improvising constantly. Conversations are a kind of improvisation. You don’t plan and rehearse what you’re going to say. Rather, you listen to the people around you and create your responses on the spot.

You can also think of jazz improvisation as living and playing in the moment. Learning to play in the moment starts with acknowledging that each musical moment offers you an infinite set of possible directions to take your playing. A silly little melody can turn itself into a gorgeous ballad, and a mistake can become an exciting melodic shift. Playing jazz means being open minded and learning to see any note, any sound, no matter how strange, as an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of what you’re playing. Don’t limit yourself by thinking in terms of conventional relationships between chords and scales or “right” notes and “wrong” notes. There are no wrong notes.

Another cornerstone to Herbie’s approach (which goes hand in hand with open-mindedness) is experimentation. You don’t know what kind of player you are, or what kind of player you could be, until you’ve tried a vast variety of styles and approaches. Keep your ears open to everything and take risks to find the sounds that really move you.

The Pros of Playing Solo

When you’re learning jazz improvisation, it’s a good idea to start by experimenting on your own. Improvising on your own makes it easier to test various musical ideas through chord changes and chord progressions. Playing solo also allows room to make mistakes, and just let yourself go. It’s a good opportunity to develop your own sound without feeling nervous or judged by others, which will eventually inform your jazz solos and give you the confidence to play alongside other jazz players.

When you’re playing alone, Herbie says: “You don’t have to follow any particular tempo. You can speed up; you can slow down. You don’t even have to play any particular harmonies.”

The process of developing your own sound should lead you to some strange, uncharted places. You’ll find there are ways to approach improvisation that have nothing to do with chords, melodies, or the traditional language of jazz. You might want to explore improvisations that start with no structure at all—just letting the notes come out of your fingers—and see how you can latch onto themes or ideas that emerge, repeating and transforming them to make compositions on the fly.

What Are Some Jazz Improvisation Techniques?

Playing with others can be a great joy and inspiration. The best musical partnerships arise when everyone is listening closely to each other’s playing and trusting the instincts and choices of his/ her fellow players. If you start with the two basic principles of listening and trust, you can create improvisations out of thin air like Herbie does with his musical partners.

Another jazz improvisation technique Herbie uses is “displaced rhythms” which means shifting around musical phrases to land before or after where the ear is used to hearing them. This gives the piece an unexpected sound and makes it exciting to listen to and play. Displacement is just one of many tools you can use in your playing to push yourself and your fellow musicians to stay creative.Other tools include playing free jazz, which is jazz music without any time constraints or set chord patterns, and learning to transcribe music in real time, from major scales to minor scales.

Variety in technique is an important device to add to your improvisation repertoire. Herbie encourages experimenting with sounds, both melodic and not, to get a handle on contrast.

Herbie says: “Contrast is a good thing. That’s part of the creation of variety. Variety is important—and that applies to a lot of things in life. If you don’t have variety, what do you have? Boredom.”

The Five Best Exercises for Jazz Improvisers

Let’s take a look at specific jazz improvisation exercises you can incorporate in your practice routine, inspired by Herbie’s work.

1. Let Images Inspire You

How you can let images inspire you? Pick a favorite painting or photograph and let it inspire an improvisation. Think about what different aspects of the image you can use to guide your playing: colors, the quality of the lines, the sounds of the world being depicted, your emotions, etc.

2. Master Your Dyanmics

Pay attention to touch and feeling when you’re practicing. That includes dynamics, articulation, and expression, “milking the notes,” as Herbie calls it. When you practice your scales, play some quietly, then some loudly, some staccato, and others legato. The more you develop your touch, the more of an emotional impact you’ll make with your music. This difference between loud and soft, crescendo and diminuendo, is otherwise known as dynamics.

3. Experiment With Free Jazz

You might also want to experiment with freer forms of jazz, like Herbie did during his stint with Eric Dolphy’s band. Think about what your instrument can do, not in terms of notes or chords, but in terms of abstract sounds that evoke images or feelings.

4. Examine How You Play With Other Musicians

When you’re playing in groups, focus on how your playing interacts with the playing of the other musicians. Is it adding an interesting contrast? If you don’t think there’s anything to add, not playing can be a contribution in itself.

5. Get “Out There”

When there’s no sheet music to work from, it can be helpful to think in terms of images; is there motion or stillness in what you’re hearing? Are you playing the sound of the planets moving around one another in space? Don’t be afraid to get “out there.”

Remember learning an instrument is a process; don’t rule things out until you’ve tried them, no matter how crazy, and don’t get discouraged. When you’re feeling stuck, there are resources for jazz chord scales available online, or try turning to the jazz standards and feeling your way through some of the classics. Dedicate yourself to the process and believe you can be better tomorrow than you are today.

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