Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Improvisation Kick Start: Writing Out A Solo

Writing out a solo does two things for me. One, it helps me memorize the changes of an unfamiliar song quickly, and second, it gives me the chance to develop some ideas more carefully than I otherwise would be able to. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather be improvising, and I'm usually happier with the more spontaneous feel of an improvised solo. However, writing out a solo for practice purposes gives me a chance to dig deeper than I usually would into a certain concept or number of concepts. By the way, this isn't an original idea at all. Lennie Tristano had his students writing out exercises back in the 1940s, and the Lee Konit'z tune, "Subconcious-Lee", actually started as one of those exercises.

What concepts be those? Well, for this example, shown below in tenor key, I combined polyrhythms with bebop over the changes of "All of Me."

Here is a clip of me playing the exercise - All Of Me Etude Ben Britton.wav

I concentrated on repeating polyrhythmic groups of 3s and 5s, and to illustrate how deeply you can explore a concept in one chorus here is the full list of polyrhythms: a repeating pattern of 5 eighth notes in measure 7, a repeating pattern taking up 3 quarter notes spanning from the last 2 beats of measure 7 through the down beat of measure 12, a repeating pattern of 3 eighth notes in measures 13 and 14, a repeating pattern of 5 sixteenth notes starting on the 2nd sixteenth note of the last beat of measure 21, a short repeating pattern of 3 sixteenth notes starting in the middle of the first beat of measure 23, and finally another repeating pattern of 3 eighth notes in measures 27 and 28. Mixed in with all that is some bebop language, chromatic voice leading, and rhythmic shifting, which just kind of found its way in there while I was writing.

After writing out the solo, I practiced it for a while. I actually practiced the hardest parts away from the horn while driving in the car, just memorizing the lines and thinking through them at tempo. Now, I'm at the stage where I'm improvising and experimenting with different polyrhythmic ideas using ones similar to those I've written out as well as delving into unfamiliar territory.  Next post I'll talk about the next stage of the process which is carrying the that heavy experimentation, which musicians sometimes feel more comfortable doing while writing, into improvisation.

For anyone interested below are links to high quality PDFs of my exercise on the changes of "All Of Me" for tenor, alto, and concert.

All Of Me Exercise for Bb instruments - PDF
All Of Me Exercise for Eb instruments - PDF
All Of Me Exercise for C instruments - PDF


  1. Good information well laid out.

    Nice playing too!

    Thanks for taking the time and effort to share this.

  2. Just curious, is this more about exercise or creating a nice solo that 80+ of your audience can groove to?

    I am called upon to place lead tenors on occasion and some of the best players love the complex melodies and altissimo challenges more than feeding into the energy of the crowd. They want the music to be challenging more than they want it to be a good listen.

    In the right crowd of predominately musicians, this is killer stuff. But what about the average listener.

  3. I think we all have to make our own judgement calls about what music appeals to us and what audience we are playing for. I am sympathetic for the audience and i certainly hope they enjoy my music, and im certainly not trying to be complicated just for the sake of being complicated. I write and improvise music that appeals to my ear first and foremost. In an exercise like this i want to challenge myself. Its a chance to grow.

  4. Hey Ben,
    Sounds good and thanks for sharing your approach. Like Jim's saying though, it probably requires a bit of familiarity with jazz, which is definitely the case with some audiences.

  5. Thanks Neal. You are definitely right. People would have to be interested in jazz to identify with the playing in this exercise. It was written as an exercise though, so naturally it wasn't meant to be an audience pleaser.