When you think jazz, what do you usually think? Improvisation, right? Well, in order for improvisation amongst several players to go smoothly, there must be interaction – a conversation. This conversation is carried out via a number of different musical devices and techniques. Among these are imitation, call-and-response, and many more.
If multiple musicians are playing together and they are not on the same page, things can get ugly very quickly. On the other hand, if everyone is “in tune” with each other and actively engaged, you can really achieve some great things in the moment.
Today, we will go over some of these approaches and how they can be executed most effectively.
The Eyes Have It
We should definitely start with the concept of eye contact. I am aware that this seems painfully obvious, but you would be surprised how many players are caught looking down at their instruments and not communicating with anyone else.
I recall an instance in one of my first ever jam sessions where I couldn’t get my nose out of the Real Book.
We were playing the tune “All the Things You Are,” and I didn’t know the tune and was so worried about losing the form that I couldn’t take my eyes off the sheet music. I did some accompanying for just about every solo, and the keyboard player was giving me the stink-eye because he also wanted to accompany (in most cases, a guitar player and a keyboardist don’t accompany together).
Toward end of the tune, I noticed he was visibly upset with me, so I went over and asked what I did wrong. He explained, and I apologized. The moral of the story: this could have all been avoided if I had just maintained eye contact!
Talk It Out
Yes, talking. Establishing basic parameters for how you will be going about certain aspects of the tune beforehand can save you a lot of trouble. How do you want to end it? Are there any hits you need to be aware of? These are all valid questions, and if you have about 10 seconds to spare before getting started, they can be very helpful.
Furthermore, shouting out ideas for someone accompanying you during your solo can also be helpful. This, of course, is something you want to exercise with great care. You do not want to seem like you are barking orders at your fellow musicians, but rather, trying to establish some fun and meaningful collaboration.
Dynamics are quite straightforward and can be achieved by listening as much as by eye contact. Oftentimes, a soloist will ask the accompanying band to start at a low volume so as to give the solo the opportunity to build in volume. This can be achieved with a simple indication with the eyes or even a quick hand gesture.
Conversely, sometimes, the player just wants to start with guns blazing right out of the gate. If everyone is paying attention, the desired effect will be achieved.
Sometimes, it is also fun to drop the volume down to an almost ridiculously low level, and if one of the band members is not on the same page, this can sound rather strange. In my opinion, one of the masters of this sort of thing is Gilad Hekselman. He can take the volume to an infinitesimally low level and build interest with all sorts of interesting textures and colors. Watch him in action, with a drummer and double-bassist accompanying him:
The change in dynamics over the first five minutes alone illustrate how powerful volume is as a musical tool.
You also hear this sort of building up in a lot of blues players. They are well-known for their wonderful approach to using dynamics in their playing.
Often, the improviser might take a small fragment or motif and repeat it several times.
As an accompanist, it can sound great to listen for this and perhaps match the player’s motif rhythmically with your chords or hits. It can also be fun to listen for a repeating fragment and try to harmonize it, if you are skilled enough. Personally, I find that this is particularly effective when the improviser is attempting to achieve an obvious polyrhythm or metric modulation.
”Improvisation is as much about the conversation among the players as it is about the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic content.”
Though it can sound great to match the player, it is of the utmost importance that the accompanist recognize where they are simply not experienced enough to attempt such a thing.
If you, as the accompanist, attempt to match a particular polyrhythm or metric modulation and you lose your place in the form, things can get pretty hairy rather quickly. You might even get a scowl or two as a result.
As always, when finding the best place to try this, it is best to look at the improviser. Again, this is why it is so important to maintain eye-contact with your bandmates – some might not be interested in you matching their hits.
This particular device is one of my favorites. Sometimes, the improviser will purposely leave space in a phrase for other band members to interject with their own content. In these cases, a call-and-response approach is very effective! Watch as Reggie Thomas and Alvin Atkinson demonstrate this interaction:
I also like to imitate a figure and respond to their phrase with it. This is kind of like the previous technique, only you are not doing it together with the other player. Instead, you are responding with their phrase when they choose to leave space.
You might also try playing similar sequences in different permutations and modes. This can help create tension, perhaps leading into the “B section” of a given tune.
Improv: A Conversation
The importance of eye contact is far and away the most important thing to take away from this post. Other techniques and devices for interaction during improvisation exist, but in my own experience, these are the ones I have encountered most frequently.
Improvisation is as much about the conversation among the players as it is about the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic content. It takes time to really understand what is generally considered acceptable, and the way you learn is by putting yourself out there!
Seize the opportunity to participate in jam sessions or gigs and play with other players whenever possible, open yourself to communicating with your fellow musicians watch your improvisation blossom forth into new interactive musical worlds.