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Skip to 0 minutes and 11 secondsThe third approach to improvising is to use motivic elements. This is much harder to do because not only does one need to think about the phrase - the motivic element - you are going to use, it also has to match the underlying chords and therefore, if you like, the corresponding scales.

Skip to 0 minutes and 38 secondsWhen you are improvising, in a sense, you are responsible for dreaming up the motivic element, but you can always return to the tune and use that as your source. Indeed, with many great improvisers, you can hear them often going back to the tune and using some element of the tune and then going off in a direction where that element takes them. These motivic elements can be quite simple but it is surprising what you can do with them. I think one of the most amazing examples of this is Keith Jarrett when he’s playing “Autumn Leaves”.

Skip to 1 minute and 20 secondsThere’s a recording of him and his trio at the Blue Note jazz club in New York in 1994, when he had a week’s engagement there, each evening was recorded and the recordings were released as a box set of 6 CDs. And the third CD consists of - the first track - is a recording of “Autumn Leaves”. The track lasts 26 and a half minutes and of that the first 4 and quarter minutes or so is the introduction that Jarrett gives to “Autumn Leaves". It’s rubato - it’s out of tempo - but it relies heavily on one small element in the middle 8. The middle 8 of “Autumn Leaves” goes like this …

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 secondsOK, in the middle of that we have this phrase … So in terms of the intervals it’s a diminished chord and in terms of the notes, you repeat the first one and the second one, you play the third one once. Well as I say, Jarrett uses that as the seed for an improvisation which has lots of different colours, lots of tonal centres.

Skip to 2 minutes and 59 secondsAs he improvises he comes across other ideas and he expands on them for a little while but he usually, in the end, goes back to that figure, that motif. I can’t do it like he does - he’s a genius - but I can give you just a glimpse of how it might be used ...

Skip to 3 minutes and 55 secondsAnd then back to the tune …

Skip to 4 minutes and 6 secondsOK, but as I say you should listen to the original - it’s absolutely mind blowing. The point I want to get at is that the elements we are using are often quite simple like the very first motivic device in “Blue Monk” - just a little chromatic figure. And then the third motivic device … So let’s use these now as a way of starting our motivic improvising using a playalong.

Using motivic devices to improvise

We investigate how we might use motivic devices to improvise.

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This video is from the free online course:

Learn Jazz Piano: I. Begin with the Blues

Goldsmiths, University of London