How to Build Solos with Direction

The mechanics of theory and technique may be necessary for a great solo but they are not alone sufficient.
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Hey Jazz Guy,

I’ve got all the right notes in all the right places, but my improvisation just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. How can I build a solo with direction? -Wandering in Williamsburg

Dear Wandering,

This really is the improviser’s greatest challenge. The mechanics of theory and technique may be necessary for a great solo but they are not alone sufficient. One musical concept that appears over and over again, from Bach to Stravinsky to Coltrane to Hendrix, is motif development. Simply put, a motif is a small melody or theme that reoccurs and is recognizable to the listener. They can be composed, such as in a symphony or opera, or improvised. 

When improvised in a jazz context, motifs can give a solo direction and build emotional content. Learning how to create motifs and manipulate them on the spot is a critical component of the improviser’s toolbox. Let us begin with the simple practice motif in Ex. 1. We will use six eighth notes, diatonic to Eb major. When studying these techniques, try to use short motifs because they’re easier to remember - for you and your audience.

Once our motif is established, there are three major categories of techniques we can use to alter the original line: rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic, or even a mixture of the three. Changing the rhythm of a motif is a good place to start. One technique is to elongate or shorten the durations of each note. 

In Ex. 2 we first double the durations, then cut them in half. In Ex. 3 we see that many different combinations of note durations can also be applied to the original motif to create variety and interest. Repetition is a dramatic rhythmic concept where the note duration remains the same [Ex. 4] but the number of attacks on each note changes. Also remember, the motif can always begin on a different beat as it develops.

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Changing our motif harmonically is a major component of development. One idea that works well is to “apply” the motif to whatever chord changes are happening at the time, as we do in Ex. 5. In the original, we began on the 3 of the chord and, transposing accordingly, starting on the 3 of each new chord creates the effect. We can also alter the notes in the motif to reflect different qualities of chords with the same bass note, such as in Ex. 6 where the line is changed to reflect Ebmin7 and Eb7. Transposing the motif chromatically in Ex. 7 creates a texture of superimposition.

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The most abstract motivic concepts fall into the melodic category. Playing the motif backwards [Ex. 8] is a common technique in classical music. Along those lines, Ex. 9 reverses the interval sequence of the original motif to create a new line. Instead of descending by a fourth, we ascend by a fourth and continue in that fashion. Every line has a shape, and a great motivic development idea is to preserve the shape of the line (where the ups and downs are) but change the size of the intervals [Ex. 10], either making them larger (bigger leaps) or smaller (more chromatic). 

Once you have an understanding of these elements of motivic manipulation and development, practice them in isolation so they become natural to your ear. Then you can begin to combine them, like in Ex. 11, reversing the motif and elongating the rhythms. Motif development is one of the most fascinating and beautiful topics in all of music, and is a lifelong artistic pursuit. Think of these as compositional techniques that can be applied to improvisation and remember that they exist to give your solo greater clarity, not more complexity for complexity’s sake. Study hard and study slow, and may your wandering lead you to deeper places. Jazz hard.

Jake Hertzog is the jazz ambassador to the non-jazz world. Send your questions to Jake’s latest release is Evolution [Buckyball].