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  Improvise better solos

Greg Vail

How to improve fast on sax solos, Pearl of Wisdom.

Pearls Of Wisdom

You are only a half step away.

I was in High School, trying to learn how to play Jazz and Improvise cooler solos.

Now, I am pretty old and the stories of how things were a long time ago become an ‘old mans story telling style’ at some point.

When I was in High School kids could actually PLAY. We had a year round Orchestra, beginning band and Wind Ensemble, 3 Jazz Bands, and a huge Marching Band that alternated with a full Concert Band second semester. Everyone doubled and owned 2 or more instruments they could actually play.

There was one great Tenor Player that was 2 years older than me and was simply amazing. This guy is still playing, still kills me on old school, real tenor playing, and is all the more amazing 25 years later.

His name is Doug Web and those who have seen his name on tracks and movies know he can play; seen a live show and you know he is scary good.

I hope this does not end up sounding anticlimactic because Doug really did say one thing that was in my head all thru school. This Pearl was the single most helpful and challenging advice I remember before College.

Doug kinda liked me and would just try and help when I was around, kind of treating me like a little brother. One day we were playing, soloed right after each other toward the end of a rehearsal, and I ended up standing next to Doug while putting our Saxes away.

Doug looked over at me and said, “You know the difference between me and you?”

I just looked as he interrupted my mussing with, “When you play, everyone knows you screw up.” He motioned with his body an all too familiar sour face and shrugged shoulders.

He, on the other hand, knew he was no more than a half step away from a great note at any time and was learning that ANY note worked if played with confidence. If anything sounded bad and he could not get it resolved, he said to just play it again 3 or 4 times and it will sound like a cool ‘out thing’ or it would resolve itself as the changes moved forward.

I thought Doug was soooo much better than I and he told me it was all in my head, not my technique. I started trying everything he said.

I started trying to play random runs and notes, making it resolve at the end of the line with the “never more than a half step away” rule.

I started repeating the weird note I ended on until I could figure out where to resolve it.

I also started playing louder, with more authority so whatever I played sounded more ‘right.’

I then kept practicing my scales and chords to be able to play licks that did work when playing changes.

My playing improved 100% and when I graduated from High School I was awarded the first annual Doug Web Award which became a tradition at my High School for years to come.

Thanks Doug for teaching me to play with confidence, that you are only a half step away from a primary chord tone or extension, and giving me a Pearl that was in my head every time I played a solo for years that followed.

I teach this to all my Improve students. Play out and sell whatever you play with aggression and proud body language. Recordings don’t show your body language but when playing in band live, don’t make faces and shrug your shoulders and all. A lot of people would never know which notes you played in relationship to the changes but will know you thought you sucked and figure you must be right.

As you develop your jazz vocabulary, you can replace the crap with cool stuff. While you are learning, you need a game plan that makes the crap sound better. As you learn more about changes, chord extensions, substitutions and tension/resolution, you will begin to understand that anything goes and it’s all about the emotion and attitude and less about the 1,3 and 5 of any chord.

It takes years to become a great jazz player, but it takes a PROCESS you can UNDERSTAND and USE to sound better tomorrow.

Want to see improvement like yesterday? Realize that there are NO wrong or right notes if you can learn better how to use them and/or resolve them.

Doug did give me many more Pearls before I lost touch with him for 10 years or so.

Doug introduced the whole concept of Jazz Vocabulary in relationship to harmony and licks. He seemed to have 10 different things he could do on a turn around and I had like 1 and a half. Doug could also take 20 choruses and not sound like the same basic solo 10 times. He got me listening to real jazz and transcribing great solos for ideas from the giants.

The goal is never going to be B.S. The goal is to understand the process and get into the learning system. Both parts are important; learning more and selling what you can do already.

Thanks again Doug Web for this wonderful Pearl Of Wisdom and all the mileage I got it!

Greg Vail Email Contact --