Elias has over 30 years of experience performing and teaching music with degrees in music performance and composition. If you live in central Texas, Elias gives lessons at his home studio or if you have a high-speed internet connection, online lessons are also available.
One of the best and fastest ways to improve your improvising is to transcribe solos of the great jazz masters. There are lots of books published which contain volumes of solos but if you truly want to cop someone else's licks, you've got to get your hands dirty and learn 'em off the record. Trust me, I own a bunch of solo books and have collected reams of transcriptions over the years but the licks and phrases that have stayed with me are the ones I took down myself the old-fashioned way. There's no secret here - you must listen, listen, listen and when you are tired of listening, take a break and then come back and listen some more. Memorize, by ear, every lick and phrase and here's the key - be able to sing, note for note, the solo you are attempting to transcribe. The process of actually writing the solo down (if you choose to do so) will go so much faster if you've memorized it first. And after all, isn't that the point of transcribing? To internalize the music of someone you'd like to emulate? Bird took all of Lester Young's recordings into the woodshed and copped 'em all. He didn't write 'em down, he just memorized them all and digested the very essence of Pres. Many students are overwhelmed by the task and don't know where to begin. It's easy: choose a recording you love to listen to. It's really that simple. Don't get wrapped up in the technique or the chords or anything else but the love of the music and your desire to learn it. Choose one track off the recording you love and choose one solo from that track. Listen critically. Listen over and over. Sing along with the solo. Try to sing the inflections. Sing the dynamics. Memorize the solo and be able to sing the solo before trying to play it on your instrument. Please believe me that you will learn the solo SO much faster if you can sing it first. Once you have it memorized, try to play along with it. This may take several attempts and it's perfectly fine to start and stop along the way. I usually will focus on one measure at a time and I'll repeat playing that measure over and over until I get it and then I'll start at the beginning once more and play up until the point where I add another measure. Is it slow going? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. As Ellis Marsalis once told me when I was complaining to him about how tough NYC and the jazz scene was: "if it were easy, everyone would do it." Mouth shut and message received. Nothing worth having is going to come easy so if you want to solo like Wayne Shorter, you'd better be willing to put in the time because I guarantee you Wayne did. Here's a copy of the transcription I did of Wayne's solo on Speak No Evil. Enjoy and happy transcribing.
You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail. --Charlie Parker
Many students struggle with the leap from technique practice to actually improvising and creating their own melodies. I'll be the first to admit that it's not easy, but there are a few things you can do to practice improvising and make the transition from practice room to bandstand less intimidating.
The reason I love this Bird quote is twofold: 1. Bird practiced his butt off. He wasn't some alien being that God dropped on the planet who magically started playing bebop. In fact, he spent 10 years practicing and playing in swing bands before the notion of bebop was conceived. The lesson here is that everyone, including Bird, must practice and apply that practice before any real change or personal style emerges. 2. It's clear that Bird sees creating and improvising as a much different animal than shedding in the practice room. He doesn't go into great detail so what exactly does he mean by "forget all that and just wail?" Well, I'll attempt to break it down for you.
The first concept that most young improvisers fail to grasp is that you are improvising RHYTHMS in addition to MELODIES. In fact, rhythmic integrity and variation is the foundation of good improvising. In today's harmonic/melodic environment where anything goes (there are no wrong notes), I encourage students to focus on practicing improvising using a basic rhythm first. Always remember - It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing. If you aren't in the pocket and playing with solid rhythmic integrity, it simply does not matter how hip your melodies are. No one will hear them because they'll be thinking "man, that cat cannot swing."
First, place your metronome with your tuner on your music stand and turn them on (notice a pattern here?) Set your metronome to about 66 bpm. Then, take a basic jazz rhythm like quarter note followed by 4 eighth notes followed by a quarter note rest. That combination of notes and rests equals one full measure in 4/4 time.
You'll notice that that in the example, I'm simply using that rhythm and going up the C major scale. The notes do not matter. Let me repeat - the notes do not matter. Play whatever notes you want but you must make sure you are playing the rhythm in time and swinging. Next, add some rhythmic variation. Here, I changed the two eighths on beat two to a triplet. I'm still within the C major scale but again, don't worry so much about the notes. Focus on the rhythm.
As you become familiar with the rhythm you are practicing and you start to understand the concept of rhythmic practice, you can branch out a bit and start to incorporate different tonal shapes. Try playing the rhythm above within a C melodic minor scale or a C diminished scale or a C augmented scale. Please do not jump immediately to trying out the different tonal centers and shapes without first mastering the basic rhythm you are practicing. If you do focus on one sound or tonal shape, make sure you are really focusing on it and staying within that scale or shape while consistently emphasizing the RHYTHM.
The next step, as you grow comfortable with the rhythm, is embellishing that rhythm, being very careful to stay within the groove. Here's a potential variation on the triplet rhythm stated above.
Again, I'm staying within C major but the notes do not matter - you can play any notes you want as long as you are swinging the rhythm and staying right in that pocket. Any time you feel the groove slipping away, stop and go back to the basic starting rhythm. Remember, you are practicing rhythms first and melodies second.
This exercise does a few things to help bridge the gap between practicing scales and licks and actually improvising. Primarily, it gets you out of the mindset of notes and into rhythms, which are really crucial to interacting with a rhythm section and building a solo via motivic development. A motive is a short rhythmic and melodic phrase on which you can build your improvisation. When I think of Sonny Rollins, I think of a great master of motivic development. He will take one rhythmic phrase and build an entire solo out of that rhythm. It also makes you focus on swinging - always placing your rhythms in time. Remember that if you aren't swinging, it simply ain't happening.
Try this rhythmic practicing concept over a tune you are learning. Start with a tune with minimal key changes like a blues or a rhythm changes and see if you can shift the focus from "making the changes" to "making the rhythms". Constantly build on your motives and vary the rhythms within the basic rhythm. I think you'll find that a new door will open for you and you'll start to think about truly improvising and building on motives rather than trying to insert lick #142 into the turnaround before the top.
There are few who reached the level of proficiency and genius of Bird, but if you get inside this famous quote from him that started this lesson, you can start to unlock a couple of key concepts. First, you must practice - learn your horn! I equate that to tone and technique practice in my regime. Second, "forget all that and just wail". It's not quite that simple, but I believe what he meant was to use your instincts, play with conviction, never forsake the groove, and don't be afraid to take a few chances. Practicing your rhythms can help you do this.