Improvised Soloing: Keeping the Listener Interested

A well-organized solo helps you communicate with your listeners. Organization includes both the musical material of the solo and its end-to-end structure. For the musical material, follow one principal guideline:

Keep your listener interested by incorporating
both predictability and surprise into your solo.

The listener is constantly making predictions; actual infinitesimal predictions as to whether the next event will be a repetition of something, or something different. ... As nearly as we can tell ... the listener must come out right about 50% of the time—if he is too successful in predicting, he will be bored; if he is too unsuccessful, he will give up and call the music "disorganized".

--- Richmond Browne, quoted in Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker, Prentice-Hall (1964), pg. 15

How you add the element of surprise can make a difference. For example ---

Rhythmic variation is a good surprise. For example, you might change a straight rhythm to syncopation or anticipate an entrance by half a beat.

Playing notes that don't fit the chord progression is usually not a good surprise. Of course, if the chord is C major, playing an A (implying a C6 or C13 chord) or Bb (implying a C7 chord) may be fine, depending on what follows. Similarly, playing a non-chordal tone and resolving it (such as D resolving to C) might be fine, too. But if the chord is C and you dwell on a Db arpeggio without resolving it, most of your audience will think you simply missed a key change.

Dynamic variation is a good surprise. Just as a school teacher gets attention by whispering rather than trying to talk over a noisy class, the soloist who suddenly changes from a medium dynamic to pianissimo gets the listener's attention. Within a set of repeated notes, adding a crescendo or accenting selected notes adds interest.

Space is a pleasant surprise. Linearsoloswithoutanyrestsaresortoflikelongsentenceswithoutanyspacesorpunctuation.

In big band improvising, the overall song form is already determined, and that in itself provides a measure of predictability. For example, two of the most common song forms are the 12-bar blues, organized into three groups of four bars each, and the 32-bar song, with an AABA form. Knowing the overall form can help you interpret the song for a listener.

Topics in Improvisation
The Big Picture
The Overall Goal of Improvised Soloing
Organizing the Solo
The Buddy System

© 2001 by Glen Newton

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

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