Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Goldsmiths, University of London 's online course, Learn Jazz Piano: II. Improvising on Jazz Standards. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds When is improvising good improvising? Perhaps what I can do is to say when it’s not very good improvising. And that is - we have a word for it , a very unkind word for it in jazz circles - and it’s called “noodling”. I have probably been doing some noodling, I have to confess, when I have been showing you what notes are available to you - I’ve just been climbing up and down the scales - in fact climbing up and down the scales is a form of noodling.

Skip to 0 minutes and 41 seconds Supposing I sing over a blues like this: 1,2,3,4. Noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle, noodle … You get the idea. In some sense, there’s nothing wrong with it. All the notes I played fit the chords, fit the scales and it’s singable because I was singing along with it but, musically, noodling doesn’t go anywhere - there’s no kind of direction to the music, no direction to the musical phrase.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds I used to run a big band once: the SMC Big Band - Southampton Musicians Co-operative Big Band. I ran it for 10 years. We did some memorable concerts with established British jazz musicians. It was a wonderful mixture of professional jazz musicians, semi-professional and amateur but, you know, it was an opportunity for people to play. One of the musicians - I’ll try not to identify the musician - but, bless this person, he was a noodler. When he got to play, he did those phrases that were all rhythmically the same. He actually had one special device, which was a little turn, and you would find it in most phrases.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds It was all very samey - so that’s one of the first characteristics of noodling. Let’s, for a minute, look at the four approaches I have given you - four routes to improvising. They’re routes in the sense that you can have them in your armoury but then it’s how you put them together to make a musical statement. Scalic - scalic, I suppose in some sense, is the worst because you can just climb up and down the scales and it will sound correct because the scales go with the - assuming it is the right scale that you’re on.

Skip to 2 minutes and 54 seconds Scalic sometimes is called “horizontal” improvising, because if you were to write it down on a piece of music very often the line of music is horizontal - because the notes tend to be next to each other - they tend to flow in a more horizontal way. But the great thing about scalic improvisation - why I’ve been making it so important - is it tells you which notes are available to you. If you are in a turnaround in C major, you know all the white notes are available to you and, therefore, you can concentrate on trying to construct musical phrases and doing something with them, rather than worrying about which notes will work and which notes won’t.

Skip to 3 minutes and 40 seconds I should say that there’s a kind of belief in jazz that the worst thing you can do is to play a “bum” note. A bum note is a note which doesn’t belong to the scale or the chord and sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s amazing how, in the hands of the right players, bum notes can actually work, but that’s another issue. It’s a question of scalic improvisation does help you know how to avoid bum notes - which notes are available to you - and, as I say, it is usually called horizontal improvisation, as opposed to chordal improvisation where you bounce up and down the chords and that’s called “vertical” improvisation for obvious reasons.

Skip to 4 minutes and 27 seconds You can noodle going up and down chords just as much as you can noodle on a scale. You have to use them musically. Then there’s special devices and you have to be careful about special devices - you know my crushed notes.

Skip to 4 minutes and 46 seconds So with special devices they are important because it gives an individual their identity but always, in the end, you have to use discretion as to when to employ them and when not to employ them. The one that’s the most important of all is motivic improvisation because, as it says, it’s based on motives, it’s based on phrases, it’s based on hopefully musical phrases. We’ve seen the example of “Blue Monk” whose first motivic element could’t be simpler …

Skip to 5 minutes and 22 seconds I’ve told you of that wonderful introduction by Keith Jarrett to “Autumn Leaves” where he just really bases everything on … that diminished figure, and the music just stems from that. Motivic improvisation is important. So far we have only had a look at where we have got motives from the tune and we have tried to do something with them. What we will do a little bit later is, as an exercise again, look at the idea of “hot licks” where I will try and give you some source material for motives - things that are used in the jazz fraternity.

Skip to 6 minutes and 6 seconds There’s one other thing I want to mention and that’s “gaps” - that is not playing. Have you heard the joke about Miles Davis who was asked to define jazz and he said “You think of a musical phrase - and you don’t play it.” Miles was very influenced by the jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal whose still alive. Ahmad Jamal is important I think in the history of the music for not playing. What he often does is just let the rhythm section tick along over the chord sequence and he will wait until, if you like, an idea strikes and then he’ll articulate that idea, but he doesn’t need to play all the time.

Skip to 6 minutes and 53 seconds One of the problems with people that don’t play regularly is that when they get an opportunity to play, like in a jam session or on a gig, is that they fill every space up with notes. I should know because I am an arch criminal when it comes to this - sometimes known as “notes d’Inverno” because I just use lots of notes and it’s because I kinda, I suppose, want to fill up that space where possible. But not playing is almost as important as playing. So using gaps, that is using pauses to - or using gaps to make the phrases that you use stick out and not fill up every hole - is an important element of your improvising too.

Skip to 7 minutes and 42 seconds So let’s next look at this idea of hot licks.

Noodling and improvising, and using gaps

I look at the distinction between something called noodling and good improvising, and discuss the significance of using gaps when improvising.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Learn Jazz Piano: II. Improvising on Jazz Standards

Goldsmiths, University of London