Jazz Improvisation – Balancing Intellect and Intuition - Part II - By Dave Glenn

Jazz Improvisation – Balancing Intellect and Intuition
By Dave Glenn

The following article was originally written for the International Trumpet Guild magazine.  I believe it may also be useful for this blog of iJazzMusic.com, a leading publisher of Original Jazz Arrangements and Compositions.

            Most Big Band Charts and Vocal Jazz Arrangements have space for improvised solos.  Often, that becomes a concern for the band director or vocal jazz director when choosing a chart to fit their personnel.  The more good soloists, the more freedom in choosing good material for your jazz groups.  It is my hope that the following blog(s) will help directors and their jazz musicians with the development of their improvisational skills.  

When Chuck Tumlinson approached me about writing this article for the International Trumpet Guild he said to keep it between 750 and 1500 words.  At the beginning of the article, I claimed I would try to achieve a balance between intellect and intuition.  Here I am at 1200 words and I still haven’t really talked about intuition.  So much for being succinct!   Oh well – onward to the world of intuition.

Intuition – Step 1 – Active Listening

            Listening to recordings with an active mind is without a doubt the most valuable activity for an aspiring jazz improviser.  I know you’ve heard it all before, but I truly don’t think this can be over-emphasized.  Jazz is a language, and like learning any language an important aspect is hearing that language spoken.  Also, don’t limit yourself to just listening to jazz – great music of all genres will positively inform your playing.

Intuition – Step 2 – Playing Free

            I find it extremely useful to spend some time every day playing free.  Practice getting out of the way and letting music happen.  I know this sounds “new age”, but so often we just end up playing what we’ve practiced and it always sounds mechanical.  Especially after going through all of those steps prescribed above, I feel it is important to counteract the “intellect” by practicing being creative.  Remember how cool it was when you first started playing your instrument?  Remember how fun it was to mess around when you were supposed to be practicing?  Try to find that childlike curiosity again and play around with it.  At first, you’ll probably find this hard to do and a little disconcerting.  So much freedom is a bit unsettling, but once you start doing this on a regular basis you’ll find that it’s a great break in your regular practicing routine and you’ll quickly see the positive effects on your playing.  Plus it’s a lot of fun!!

Intuition – Step 3 – Telling a Story

              Another way of dealing with intuition is to approach playing with a message to convey.  Tell a story.  This way you start using your heart as well as your head, which will make playing music more satisfying for you and for your audience.  Draw on personal experience, the lyrics of the tune etc., to help you open up in this way.

Intuition – Step 4 – Borrowing ideas from your bandmates or arrangement

            A great way to get good ideas for your solo is to listen carefully to the solo before you and “borrow’ an idea or two.  When I played with the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band, I played a solo right after Gary Keller, a great tenor sax player.  I always just tried to keep my mind clear of preconceived ideas before that solo, and respond to the last melodic idea Gary played.  Not only did that guarantee a good idea to start my solo, but Gerry Mulligan liked it too because it served as a unifying factor in the arrangement.  Mulligan also used to like it when I used bits and pieces from the arrangement in my solos.  This is a good way to keep a gig, and make more meaningful music in the process.

Intuition – Step 4 – Listening to the rhythm section for ideas

            Along these same lines, one of the most important advantages of playing with good phrasing and using silence is being able to then listen to the rhythm section for ideas.  I particularly like to listen to the rhythms being used by the comping instrument and the drummer to inspire my rhythmic ideas.

Intuition – Step 5 – Balance between Unity and Variety

             I had a composition teacher tell me once to always check the balance between the concepts of unity and variety when composing.  Of course, improvising and composing are very closely related activities, so that same general idea will help an improviser.  Most of us need more unifying devices.  Don’t be afraid of repetition.  Sequence your ideas, making subtle changes in the rhythms so you have both aspects of unity and variety.  Listen to Bill Evans and Bob Brookmeyer.  Those two players are terrific in their development of melodic ideas.

Intuition – Step 6 – Shape

            Pay attention to the shape of your solo.  Dynamics, use of the ranges of your instrument, rate of activity, variety of articulation all will help add life to your playing.  All are often overlooked.  Don’t be afraid of even using staging devices. Think of how fun it was to see Clark Terry in a self-dialogue, playing muted trumpet with one hand and flugelhorn with the other.

Intuition – Step 7 – Composing

Composing is one of the greatest ways to learn about music.  When I am working on a piece, I always find myself being more aware of the music I’m listening to, and even the everyday sounds around me.  In addition, I always learn something new about music when composing.  Most of the time, whatever I learn eventually informs my jazz improvising.

Intuition – Step 8 – Having more to say

            My last comment on developing the intuitive side of playing has to do with having more to say.  Read great books, study great works of art, watch ballet.  Be curious and observe life closely.  Develop an interest in many things, and you’ll find that you have more to draw from when trying to express yourself musically.


            In reaching a balance between the concepts of intellect and intuition, the idea is to have knowledge of the language of jazz (really music in general), while having the freedom to access your intuitive impulses.  Feed the sounds and ideas into your head and ears, and then when you stand up to take a solo think of the story you want to tell.  The better the vocabulary and grammar and the more one has to say, the more eloquent the message.      


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