Toolkit: Motif

Usually I have the first solo chorus in the quintet.  We try to put some overall structure into the song as a group, with a form incorporating all our solos together.  That sort of thing doesn’t have a detailed schematic, but we do think about it.  I often stay close to the melody or do something simple; that leaves room for the others to stretch their legs, and it provides a transition for the audience.

One of my tricks is to take a three- or four-note motif from the first bar of the melody and work it.  It’s relatively easy to do, and it preserves some sense of it being the same song.  For example, the song “Four” starts with five three-note phrases: three notes ascending three times (the same notes), three notes descending, and three notes ascending into a chord change.  Each is three eighth notes followed by an eighth rest.  So I’ll start with three notes ascending and go from there.  I can find three notes of a scale on any chord, so I’m free to think more in terms of the solo’s broader shape.  I’ll do several ascending, then instead of a descending set do a big jump to a low note and do more ascending.  That has the same effect of breaking the pattern.  I’ll leave out the eighth rest between two sets, then put longer and longer rests between the next few.  Then I’ll extend it and do sets of five instead of three (five makes a lot more rhythmic opportunities than four).  By then it’s pretty much time to wrap it up.  (Using a pattern this way is called a sequence.)

Now, I don’t know how much I buy into the idea that good composition techniques have a big effect on the quality perceived by the listener.  What does matter is that I’m confident in what I’m playing and can spare attention for structuring the chorus, looking at the audience, hitting some accents with the drums, or otherwise focus on the music beyond the technique.

When I don’t have the first chorus, I usually take something from the solo before mine.  That’s particularly effective when we trade off in shorter increments.  Listen to how these guys play off each other: Printup, Gransden and Gunn playing “Birdlike” at around 8:00 on this YouTube.

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Toolkit: What’s Wrong With the Melody?

A guitarist I knew used to wonder why players would whirl off into rainstorms of eighth notes whenever it came time for a solo.  “What’s wrong with the melody?” he would ask.

Actually, in a vocal band I usually play the melody straight if I have a solo.  Sure, I’ll decorate a bit, but the audience is either dancing or talking, and in both cases they want things to stay in line.  In a jam band, however, they already heard me play the melody on the head.  There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t repeat the whole form, but rather offer something new to say.

Still, it’s a good starting point.  If you’re new to improv, or if you just can’t get a handle on a song, play bits of the melody.  Take some liberties, insert something if you get an idea, build on it.  Do sexy music theory stuff like retrograde inversions.  Or just stay pretty close; at least you know it’ll fit, and we’re trying to play music, not impress anybody.

I was having trouble with St. Thomas, and this guy laid it out: GelZero on YouTube playing St. Thomas.  I don’t know who he is, but the dude knows how it’s done.

But to the original point, I want to hear a player put something of themselves into it, but I want to hear that from a player that is able to do the song as it is.

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