Advice · Education

How can we develop jazz vocabulary?

An article by Darren Lloyd of

What have our favourite players practiced to sound so great?

What secrets have they learnt to improvise so melodically and effortlessly?

Well, I can tell you from personal experience of working and studying with many great players is that they have developed their jazz vocabulary!

A great way to do this is by listening to the greats of the music.

As Clark Terry used to say – Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

Many of the wonderful players that we listen to have taken jazz vocabulary and made it there own, sometimes by adding other great players’ in fluences or by practicing language and vocabulary so much that they start to hear their own things to play. The more you develop the skills of practicing vocabulary, especially in all 12 keys, the more you develop your own aural skills and imagination. Developing the skill of instantly being able to play what you hear in your head is what every musician wants but how is this achieved?

To hear wonderful jazz phrases in our heads, we must practice the language or vocabulary of the masters of the music, if we don’t, we can still improvise but it has a real chance of not sounding authentic!

If you are new to improvising and developing your aural skills, here is an exercise you can start doing straight away to develop

1. What you hear
2. The ability to play it.

I would recommend staring off with extremely simple tunes, like a nursery rhyme! I have created a short YouTube video on this subject using ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ as the tune to practice.

Try and play it, starting on various different notes (all 12 keys would be best). At first it may prove quite a challenge, especially in the more unfamiliar keys!

By doing this, you develop the ability to play what you hear in your head!

The next thing to do it to try and learn (really well) either a simple jazz tune (when the Saints is pretty simple) or if you feel you are ready, learn 8 bars of your favourite solo by your favourite player! This is the imitate part! Play it over and over until it is very easy! Next, either chromatically or in a cycle of 5ths or 4ths (depends if you are going up or down), learn it fluently in all the other keys! This really well prove to be frustrating at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes, especially if studying one player.

Once you have learnt an 8 bar phrase, keep going until you can play the whole solo. You don’t have to play the whole solo in all 12 keys, just the parts you really like. This is the assimilate part! By building up an armoury of phrases & vocabulary, you will always have something to play, the more you have, the better your solos will be. Especially by working out why some phrases sound so good.

Once you have practiced and can fluently play lots of your favourite phrases, analyse them, work out why it sounds so good. This is the innovate part. What is it about the phrase you like? Could it be rhythmic, melodic…? What ever it is, try to create your own phrases using the techniques that they have! This will help us to not simply copy and paste other musicians licks, endlessly into out own solos! There are many that do it, try not to be one of them!

For me, the best jazz musicians are those who play beautiful, endless melodic phrases without (it seems) ever playing licks! Why do they sound so good? Well they are still using the vocabulary that makes jazz sound so great, they are just so imaginative and have endless creativity! They also have wonderful ears and play/outline the changes very well. If you listened to a solo of Clifford Brown with any rhythm section, you would still hear the chords being outlined in his solos! The same with Chet Baker, Bobby Shew, Blue Mitchell, Chuck Findley, Warren Vache……

If your current ability is not up to playing the music of these amazing players, I have created jazz etudes, with the beginner/intermediate player in mind. Jazz etudes, written over famous chord sequences (jazz standards) and in different genres including, dixieland, bebop, standards and latin (bossanova).

When we are learning the phrases, we are learning to speak the language of jazz, the correct grammar if you will. We want to make sense when we solo.

This is a music that takes a lifetime to master. We should be constantly challenging ourselves with different ways to approach our practice of improvisation and solos.

I don’t know when it happens but there does come a time when you do start to hear authentic things in your head. The more you practice and the more you listen to the and study the greats of the music, the more chance you have to create beautiful sounding solos yourself.

Just remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day and you have your whole life to work at this wonderful music! Be patient with yourself, seek out great players and teachers to learn from, transcribe solos and work your favourite phrases into your own playing, try to play together with other musicians too (ones that are much better but supportive if possible). You should also learn to spell out the chords and scales on your instruments too, this will prove invaluable in helping you to get around the chord changes.

I hope you find this article informative and helpful.

Warm regards, Darren Lloyd


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