Storytelling in Improvisation
The best jazz musicians create engaging, epic “stories” with their compositions and solos. If you’re starting out, though, you’ve got to practice “knock-knock jokes”…
I teach jazz improvisation to beginner musicians – sometimes absolute beginners. Even at this rudimentary level, one of the concepts I’ve been trained to emphasize is creating “call and response” (or “question and answer”) phrases. Recently, I’ve been taking this concept one step further – to ask my students to tell “mini-dramas” by using a basic pattern of tension (conflict) and release (resolution).
I’ll be honest, these exercises are the musical equivalent of knock-knock jokes – simple, formulaic, and familiar. To help justify these exercises, I’ve tried to find examples of musical “storytelling” in jazz improvisation.
It occurred to me that one way to vividly demonstrate this concept is to compare classic jazz solos with their adaptations into “vocalese” (adding lyrics to vocal, “scat” solos). Many instrumentalists are not huge fans of this approach, but I think for here it helps to hear the dramatic aspects of great improvisation.
The first example is the song “Freddie Freeloader,” originally off of trumpeter Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue:
In this version, vocalist Jon Hendricks and others reinterpret “Freddie Freeloader”:
Kind of Blue is one of the most popular jazz albums of all time – in no small part, I believe, to its engaging compositions and solos.
For another example, I turn to Wayne Shorter’s “Night Dreamer” (off a record of the same name):
In this version, vocalist Kurt Elling uses his highly poetic style of vocalese to reinterpret “Night Dreamer”:
Regardless of how you feel about these vocalists and their interpretations, I hope you are better able to hear the storytelling elements of the original solos.
For those of you starting out with improvisation, take heart – your knock-knock jokes will eventually evolve into longer, more nuanced stories.