Great Improvisers Are Great Composers – Here’s How You Can Be Both

I believe that writing can be a great shaping and determining factor in your development as an improviser. In my case, towards the end of college, I had developed a be-bop vocabulary after being inspired by Bird, Cannonball, Stitt, Phil Woods, Charles McPherson and others.

However, while I was able to play somewhat in that context, I was also starting to become fascinated by late Coltrane, Miles’ groups in the mid to late 60’s, Joe Henderson, Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker’s incredible harmonic and technical contributions, Scofield, Lovano, Jaco, Wynton Marsalis’ small group recordings and writing, and the line playing and harmonic concept of Alan Holdsworth, among other influences. In short, what I knew how to play was no longer what I was hearing. It’s pretty common and probably happens many times to improvisers over the course of their development. T.S. Eliot once wrote, “…one has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it.”

A Chance to Reshape and Chip Away at Your Established Patterns

So the question then becomes, “What am I hearing and feeling now and how do I get at it?” Obviously you work on the things mentioned in this book; the scales and their application over harmony, tunes, etc. But sitting at the piano with pen and paper and recording yourself is perhaps the best way I know of to slow down, develop and crystallize your musical thinking. If you’re playing a gig, or even a session, you want to make the changes, and you want to use your strengths. But unless you’re a pianist, you don’t have licks to play at the piano, and if you’re alone you don’t have anybody to try and impress. (Of course, you don’t really want your playing to be about trying to “impress” anyone when you play, so much as expressing what it is that you have to say.) And writing gives you the chance to experiment, reshape and chip away at your musical thoughts and vocabulary in the way a sculptor or painter would before showing their work. Creating in the moment is one of the most exciting and compelling things I can think of, and to me, there’s nothing more inspiring than hearing great jazz musicians do just that. But it’s an odd paradox that jazz musicians don’t get to experience the kind of long term creative process and development over a more extended period of time that many other artists do without composing and arranging.

And just as importantly, as you start to write you also start challenging and teaching yourself how to play on some sounds that speak to you and are perhaps beyond your current language at your instrument, whether it’s pitch cells, polychords, chromatic playing or anything else.

Getting Started

Arrange a standard – reharmonize it 2-3 ways, change the key or time signature, add an intro, interlude and coda, write a counter line, a 2nd solo section, try to make every “A” section different on an A-A-B-A tune, etc. These same techniques will then inform your writing on your original compositions. Write a new melody on a set of changes you like to play on (also known as a contrafact), or write an original. It can be at or away from a keyboard- it’s a good idea to try some of both. You may be surprised at how challenging it can sometimes be to play on your own music! But that’s when you know that you’re really growing and stretching your vocabulary. In the poem I quoted earlier, Eliot’s “East Coker” (part four of his “Four Quartets”), he goes on to say in the next line, “And so each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate…” You’re always going to be balancing between what you can say and what you’re reaching for. Regardless of your style and aesthetic, your willingness to take risks will only inform and strengthen your ultimate decisions.

Taking it Further

For this lesson, write three contrasting pieces. Arrange a standard or jazz composition with the above suggested techniques- intro, coda, etc. For the 2nd piece write an original. Try to use some of the same techniques you used for the arrangement to develop and stretch the form and content of the piece. And also remember to write on at least 2 staves.

That way you can experiment with the instrumentation by having the piano player double a bass line, or a horn player double a counter line, etc. And the 3rd piece can be anything you like and go any direction- a through composed saxophone or string quartet, another original or arrangement, something for a different instrumentation from what you’re used to, a chorus of a big band chart – (Though you might want to first try reading “Inside the Score” or “Jazz Arranging Techniques” by Gary Lindsay). But my suggestion is that you try to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’re a be-bopper, leave those sounds and shapes behind and think modal or free. If you come from a more free, out or modal approach, think about Ben Webster playing over a Strayhorn ballad. But for the long term, the main thing that I want you to do is to get into the habit of setting aside time every day to write.

This assignment could take a few days or several weeks, but as every composer and arranger knows, a deadline can help you to finish things. So write out these three contrasting pieces in no more than three weeks.

To learn more about Jon check out his website at

Dive Deeper with Jon

  • Students get a free 30 min. Skype lesson with the purchase of the Artistshare Improviser Lesson Participant Offer. It has two books for all improv students, a short lesson on saxophone sound, Audio and video lessons, a CD, and lots of other content including interviews with Maria Schneider, Mark Turner, Phil Woods, Jim McNeely, Steve Wilson, et al.
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  • Students get a free 60 min. Skype lesson with the purchase of my Complete Artistshare Participant Offer, which includes all the above, plus a book of compositions, some composition lessons, as well as 3 CDs and 2 Live Concert Downloads, including, Aaron Goldberg, Mike Moreno, Bill Stewart, Joe Martin, Johnathan Blake, Mark Turner, Joe Bagg, Mark Ferber, Bill Campbell and Bob Hart
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