For decades, jazz educators have been using play-along recordings to help students practice jazz improvisation. These recordings have been a huge success, helping students learn jazz standards, practice jazz styles, and providing rhythm section backing tracks to help with improvisation. The problem with these traditional tools is that students can struggle to make the leap from a simple melody to improvising over a complete tune. Even if a student understands the chord-scale theory involved with each individual chord, solos over complete progressions can sound forced or boring – patterns, not solos.
Students at this level should have a step between basic single chord exercises and complete tunes. They should practice “mini-progressions” – 2 or 3 chord patterns that are common throughout jazz. Obviously, students have been told to practice II-Vs for a long time, but not every tune is only II-Vs. The number of variations in jazz are huge – some II-Vs have Trane changes, some have tritone subs, and some are common in Latin styles but not in swing.
Practicing all the variations usually comes down to learning so many tunes that things become second nature, but in the meantime students can benefit from practicing these progressions as though they were technical studies or etudes. Even though these situations are canned, students should avoid running patterns and actually improvise along with a live rhythm section – vamping the chord progressions that need work rather than complete tunes. Learning the harmonic vocabulary of jazz while also practicing the composition and style required to improvise means that students are learning complete harmonic concepts (“how to think”) rather than one tune (“what to think”).
This is where traditional play-alongs don’t offer a complete solution. The accompaniments these tools provide are so important for helping students with style and feel, but typically aren’t included for exercises or short progressions seen over and over again in the repertoire.
The Latest SmartMusic Repertoire release included two new method books from the MakeMusic Improv Series, which are designed to address this problem. The first has basic melodies in a number of styles to help students with time and feel without requiring improvisation. The second has studies designed to help students progress to complete tunes by offering loops of common II-V, blues, and rhythm changes variants. Students can loop these common progressions and even change styles or choose which accompanying instruments to hear on each exercise. Tritone substitutions, for example, can be practiced over a montuno or over a swing feel, reinforcing style while also building confidence with this common II-V variation.
Both books include accompaniments made with PGMusic’s Band-in-a-Box accompaniment software. Because the accompaniments use real musicians, students will find them more inspiring to play with than MIDI files, and they can help students hear what it would be like to play these styles with a live rhythm section. You can access these method books by clicking on the “MakeMusic Improv Series” tile in carousel on the SmartMusic Home Screen:
Let us know how these exercises are working with your jazz improvisation students in the comments section below.
In addition to his role as MakeMusic’s social media manager, Ryan Sargent is an active teacher and performer in the Denver-Boulder metropolitan area, and a member of the music faculty at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.
A graduate of Baylor University, he has studied jazz composition and improvisation with Art Lande and Alex Parker.