Improvising: The Big Picture

Improvising is composing on the fly.

Improvised music is created as you listen to it, on the spot, in real time. Taken in its entirety, an improvised solo may very well never have been played in exactly that way before.

Many of the songs in the Roseville Big Band's repertoire include sections that are intended for improvised solos. These sections include chord progressions that give the soloist the essential harmonic guidelines, such as this excerpt from the lead tenor sax part on "Dance to the Big Band Swing":

The part consists of hash marks and chord symbols.

Sometimes published arrangements include "suggested solos," written out to give the novice a starting point, as the publisher did for the Roseville Big Band's arrangement of Woodchopper's Ball. The Woodchopper's Ball solos you can hear in RealAudio on this web site were all created by the performers from the chord progressions, but others on the band's recording of Woodchopper's Ball use the arranger's written-out solos.

The part might also include the original melody with chords to give the soloist a further point of reference, as the publisher did for the Roseville Big Band's arrangement of Star Dust. On our recording, Linda Ness sticks close to the melody but improvises a bit of ornamentation and variation in the rhythm.

This contrasts with the remainder of a big band arrangement, in which the parts (or at least the wind parts) are fully written out and the only variation is due to the player's interpretation of the part.

It is worth noting that the rhythm section parts (piano, guitar, bass, and drums) very often contain long passages that only have chords and hints about what's going on in the rest of the band. Rhythm section players are then expected to improvise their parts, even though the trumpet, trombone, and sax parts may be fully written out.

In addition to solos that the composer has indicated are to be improvised or "ad libbed", an experienced performer can add a personal touch to a written solo based on the notes and the chords he or she hears in the accompaniment. Roseville Big Band soloists often do this.

Furthermore, we often ask one soloist to improvise briefly while the rest of the band sustains the last note of a ballad, even though the arranger hasn't indicated it. You can hear Mike Bratlie do this at the end of Star Dust.

It is unfortunate that some dictionary definitions of "improvise" contain the following incorrect concept: "to compose ... on the spur of the moment ... without any preparation." Any good soloist has prepared for the improvised solo on several levels. He or she has learned to play the instrument, has played other solos with the same chords, has listened to other soloists, and has rehearsed with the band to become familiar with the backgrounds and the overall context of the solo. Beyond that, a soloist prepares for a specific improvised solo before playing it, working out alternatives and sometimes even writing them down. (But then if the performer plays the previously-worked-out version, one could ask, "Is this improvising? Or is it a performance of a previously-composed solo written to give the impression of improvisation?")

When you hear a good improvised solo, it may be different in detail from others you've heard from this performer on this song, but there will be common recognizable elements of the performer's style and there may be exact duplication of some phrases.

Read the topics below to increase your insight into the process of improvising.

Topics in Improvisation
The Overall Goal of Improvised Soloing
Keeping the Listener Interested
Organizing the Solo
The Buddy System

This page was last updated
Friday, February 07, 2020.

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