A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a technique used by John Ellis where he picks up the last note of a phrase to begin his next. I’m sure we’ve all heard this before: one soloist ends on a long note, and the next soloist uses that note as a springboard for their own improvisation – check out Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley on Milestones for a great example. I think of this technique as melodic dovetailing; it’s effective at drawing parallels between what has happened and what is to come. Rather than two disjointed phrases, you have a very clear question and answer relationship. Obviously, you don’t want to overuse this technique, but it can create great moments of continuity (especially for casual listeners) in a solo that may otherwise tend towards stream-of-consciousness. I prefer to think of this game as two-sided: melodic and rhythmic.
Miles’ use of this Dovetail is about as perfect as you can get. He restates the melody almost identically that ends Cannonball’s solo. As Miles’ solo continues, he uses Cannonball’s phrase as a point of departure for much of his solo that follows. In fact, if you listen to the end of Miles’ first bridge, he uses the same phrase again. Miles was a master of thematic, purposeful improvising, and is still the first place I go when I need inspiration for thematic development. When I present this concept to my students, they usually feel pretty intimidated; after some brief explanation, they understand more fully, are off and improvising themes by the end of the lesson.
We start with connecting one note – specifically, the last note of a phrase to the first of the next phrase. It doesn’t matter at this point if the preceding note will fit into the following harmony. The idea here is simply connection from one phrase to the next. As they get comfortable with just the last note of the phrase, I introduce the idea of using more space between the two phrases – connection over a longer interval. From there, we take longer and longer pieces of the melodies. I find this beneficial for my students in two ways: Firstly, they’re immediately immersed in motivic thought. Whether or not these first motifs are the coolest in the world, the student finds satisfaction in connecting phrases effectively. Secondly, students are more engaged in the notes they play, not simply wiggling fingers (a common pitfall for young improvisers). Because they need to remember the notes they play in order to repeat them, they give more thought to the melodies they create.
This concept is one that I haven’t found many examples of – partially because it’s harder to hear, and partially because it’s not executed as often (by non-drummers). I studied a lot of Michael Brecker in college, and learned a lot from his approach. He’s probably one of the main reasons I think more rhythmically about improvising (he was quite an accomplished drummer, and has a rhythmic language all his own). On one record, Time is of the Essence, Brecker brings in three drummers to play with his organ quartet: Bill Stewart, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, and Elvin Jones. If you take a listen to most of the record, Brecker’s melodies have been steeped in rhythm, most likely thanks to the presence of the three master drummers. Listen to “Renaissance Man” around the 2:30 mark. After a quick flurry of notes, Brecker ends the phrase with two eighth notes. As he continues on, he repeats the rhythm a couple of times before modifying it. After he modifies it, he plays another brief flurry of notes and ends that phrase with another modification of the two eighth notes. As he goes on, he plays yet another brief flurry of notes, ends the phrase with another modification of our two eighth notes, and then begins another rhythmic dovetail with a new end of a phrase.
As I mentioned, this technique is harder to hear, but adds a great deal of variety and has little to do with melody or harmony, which I find helpful for young improvisers. Brecker’s example is a good one to see where this concept can take you if used creatively. For my students, I treat this much in the same way as I do melodic dovetail: Come up with an interesting rhythm at the end of your phrase. Begin your next phrase with exactly the same rhythm. The notes can be different, as long as the rhythm happens the same way. As students get more comfortable, they recreate longer and longer phrases, based purely on rhythm. This, again, gets students paying closer attention to the solos they play, and more importantly, to how they end their phrases. Many times, I hear young improvisers simply trail off or end abruptly when they run out of air. This method helps to give finality to a phrase of music and helps students feel confident from beginning to end of a phrase.
Hopefully this will give you some new approaches to try with your students (or perhaps in your own practice). As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts about these techniques and your success (or lack thereof) with them.
Take a look at the examples I’ve discussed here.