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Forward Steps in Melodic Soloing

The evolution of the concept of melodic soloing

You will sometimes hear one player say of another, “Her solos are really melodic.” We intuitively value improvising in a melodic fashion. I want to talk in the next two columns about how this concept is evolving in jazz education.

If you have ever asked yourself any of the following questions, you may find this topic very interesting: What should I play in my solo? How do I keep coming up with new ideas? How long can I stay with one idea? How do I develop it? When is it time to move to a completely new idea? What makes a solo compelling for a listener? How do I make my solo interesting through the whole thing?

Keep these questions in mind, and let’s begin by looking at a little history of jazz education, and then we’ll look at how the focus is shifting with a larger spotlight on melodic improvisation.

Formal college-level jazz education has been around a relatively short time, with interest beginning to take shape in the late seventies. This interest was often slow in growing, as many academic programs showed resistance to both jazz and guitar as serious artistic pursuits. Conservative academics tended to look on jazz, and especially jazz guitar, as less desirable stepchildren that did not deserve to be even close to the esteemed place of classical music. That old order is rapidly changing, and jazz and other degree programs in guitar are finding acceptance as legitimate courses of study in the arts. The teaching methods and emphases within these programs are rapidly evolving as well. The early days of jazz education taught a rather pedantic approach to playing the music: “Outline the changes.” “Play this scale over that chord.” “Use this technique to play outside.” “Practice scales.” This intellectual approach to a form of music that was meant to be emotionally evocative is thankfully starting to run out of gas.

In the recent past, books with scale studies and rote patterns have been almost infinite in number. This represents the prior focus on the analytical approach to the music, which tends to be mechanical in playing the right notes against whatever chord. In contrast to that approach, I found a recently written book that I think represents a new trend and a new focus in jazz improvisation, and gives new direction to teachers. The focus is on melodic improvisation and the actual ways one can develop this ability, as well as on improvising meaningful melodies—as opposed to simply outlining the harmony with scales and arpeggios.

Brian Kane’s text, Constructing Melodic Jazz Improvisation, is a breakthrough in this area, getting young players focused on melodic intent rather than playing scales and licks. Kane discusses all the aspects of improvisation that can help move a player’s solos to a new level of meaning: how to develop a solo from start to finish; to be intentional about phrase length; to have melodic intent in a solo; use of techniques that can develop an idea; expanding one’s melodic memory so that previous ideas can be replayed; use of repetition and development of motifs; effective use of rest space; use of inflections to help develop a personal style; and many more innovative, intuition-building ideas. Emphasizing these techniques results in a totally different feeling in the solo—one that focuses on a communicative style. After all, isn’t that our goal, to communicate something meaningful in the music that can move people through listening?

Kane focuses on the 12-bar blues form to practice these techniques (with a CD play-a-long). And while the text is aimed primarily at players who are early in their career, I found the ideas so coherent and meaningful that I believe even experienced players who want to refocus on the craft of creating melodies—would also find this to be a highly valuable resource. Kane’s approach can help players from many skill levels craft more meaningful solos.

When you want to change something about your life (in this case, learning to play more meaningful melodic solos), put your energy in that direction. While you’re waiting for Kane’s book to arrive, conduct a web search for discussions as to what other players are doing to advance this skill. Use search words like melodic development, melodic improvisation, etc. Listen with intent to classic jazz recordings with regard to development of melodies—specifically, where the masters repeat ideas, develop them, make sequences out of them, invert them, and when they move on to a new idea. You can chart an entire solo to study the ways it developed—pay attention to how the contour of the solo unfolds and creates greater excitement by the end. Talk to other players you know about how they advance this skill. Focus more on memorizing melodies rather than playing scales (some advanced players believe scales should not be practiced at all). Above all, maintain persistence in advancing your melodic craft—it will pay off.

Exciting stuff! Come back next time for more in-depth work on melodic improvising and a review of a second text that tackles this topic.

Jim Bastian
A clinician and jazz educator, Jim Bastian is a ten year veteran of teaching guitar in higher education. Jim holds two masters degrees and has published six jazz studies texts, including the best-selling How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines for Guitar (Jamey Aebersold Jazz). He actively performs on both guitar and bass on the East Coast.