By Simon Currie
What is improvisation?
My definition of improvisation is, making decisions of what and how to play, using scales, chords, riffs, licks and motifs.
The difference between a riff and a lick is the way it is played. A lick is a single pre-learned phrase used once or twice, a riff is the same thing played over and over again throughout the sequence of music.
For novices to start improvisation with scales and licks, or even a pentatonic scale will seem very hard. (There are many types of pentatonic scales, but the basic major one is that formed by the five black notes on a piano, or C, D, E, G, A in the key of C-major.)
There are so many ways you can play those notes, and other factors include timing with the band and style of playing. I have found after many years of teaching beginners, that initially reducing their choices to three or four licks works very well (more on that below).
What creates the sound of jazz?
My answer is tension and release; playing a wrong note at the right time and moving to a correct note, so the ear briefly doesn’t like it but is soon appeased with the expected note. Here is a sample of a famous tune by Henry Mancini called The Pink Panther.
As you can see by this example in G minor the ‘wrong’ notes are off beat, resolving to the correct note which is the one in the chord. The overall sound is pleasing but uses notes that would clash if held for longer.
Jazz & Blues Improvisation for Beginners
Teaching a student four simple one-bar blues licks in a call and response manner, then asking them to play those three phrases in their own order, even playing the same phrase twice in a row, will gently introduce the student into making a four-way decision on which licks to choose. Inevitably, the performance of each phrase will differ from the original, but will still work and sound good, building confidence.
Adding four more licks gives another level of decision making, then adding some two-bar licks will mix things up. Some will be remembered and others forgotten, so a basic level of improvisation will be achieved!
Here are a few easy blues licks to start you off, and a call and response video showing you how to play each one, with some great backing tracks.
Blues Saxophone Licks
These licks are based on the G blues scale.
Learn by playing them round and round so they become fluent, like a riff, and the most important thing is to memorise them, so they will become second nature, just like talking!
Next time, using the Blues Scale with your licks.