Eternal Life of the Digital Solo
At the start of a course on vocal improvisation/scat singing, one of the first things I ask my students is to discuss what, exactly, defines musical improvisation. The room usually goes silent for a few uncomfortable moments as everyone waits for someone else to stick her neck out first. Then they begin to toss out ideas, usually having to do with rhythmic variation or making up a new melody based on the written one – both of which are true, by the way. But the most succinct way to put it is to call improvisation spontaneous composition, period. You, as a musician, are tasked with instantaneously composing a new melody over the chord changes, whence the term “making the changes,” meaning simply using the existing harmony (“changes”) to improvise a new melody. And you have to do it in the moment, on the spot, just like that, no matter what else is going on around you. Right now. Compose. GO. And it better be good, or at least competent, or you’ll have a train wreck on your hands and the band will refuse to make eye contact with you at the end of the set.
No pressure, though.
To me, as a jazz singer, being a great vocal improviser has always been the musical grail; I believe that in order to be considered jazz musicians, we vocalists should be able to do like the cats and take a solo. (If you disagree, flip the paradigm: would you for a moment consider an instrumentalist truly a jazz player if s/he couldn’t produce a decent improvised solo?) And after years of study and countless hours in the woodshed and many solos sung, I’m still refining my vocabulary, something I don’t expect will end in this lifetime. Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, and Ella Fitzgerald – three singers whose styles couldn’t be more different but each of whom created a totally unique and instantly identifiable improvisational vocabulary – have always been my scat singing idols, but I’ve also transcribed lots of instrumental solos (Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis, to name a few) to analyze each musician’s approach phrase by phrase. This is music school 101, something every competent jazz musician does. But as I was recording my first album as bandleader/producer/arranger last month, I was forced to decide if I want to take any vocal solos and allow one (or more) to have eternal life, to exist in digital perpetuity for all time. No going back, no do-overs, no quarter. And I found myself resisting the idea thanks to that nasty little voice in the back of my head begging the question: can my spontaneous compositions withstand that kind of close (and repeated) scrutiny?
At this point in my development as an artist, I do feel, finally, that I have an improvisational style of my own; I long ago stopped imitating all my favorite vocalists and instrumentalists and simply repeating licks I learned over the ii-V-I progression, which is how I started and, frankly, how most jazz musicians internalize this stuff. And by the way, it’s the right way to start: find masterful artists you love and play/sing like them. Eventually, when the rhythm section starts comping and you’re up, the individual artistic voice you’ve developed will take over and you will tell your own story, replete with its own beautiful idiosyncrasies. But the question remains: am I going to allow my own solo(s) eternal digital life? Do you seriously think I’m giving away a spoiler like that before the album release? Stay tuned, my friends! :-)