“Mr. B.G.” (written by Yoko in tribute to Benny Green)
I’m sure when I first started playing piano at the age of four I must have been improvising because I had no idea how to read music. I didn’t know what a scale was. I didn’t even know middle C. I remember playing all day long because I just loved it. I wish I could remember what I was playing at that time, or even better, I wish I could hear it.
I have a lot of jazz harmony knowledge, and my perfect pitch allows me to hear everything, but there is something to be said about just knowing the music in a mechanical way. I’ve studied all the jazz theory. When one of my Berklee students asks me what I’m playing, I can demonstrate but I also have to be able to explain the concept and theory behind it. You have to know your scales, keys, chord scales, modes, tensions, substitute chords, reharmonization, etc. I agree it’s all useful and necessary knowledge to be able to improvise.
When it comes down to real improvisation, I always think the most important thing to do is transcribing solos. This is the one thing that I know that has helped me the most. I’m not talking about playing a solo already transcribed in a book, I mean actually transcribing it yourself. It’s a difficult process at first. There’s a learning curve though and you get better at it the more you do it, which I think is part of what helps you to improve at improvising.
I recommend for pianists to transcribe both right and left hands. I hear lots of pianists who have obviously taken note of the right-hand single lines the masters of this music have played, but the left hand is often wrong. It’s really important to have the left-hand chord voiced in a way that supports the tonality of the right hand improvisation, and the same goes for the rhythm and timing. If any of these aspects are off, it can clash. The right hand is the focus of most pianists when it comes to
improvising, but I really try to focus as much on the left hand in my teachings. I think it’s necessary to make the whole thing work.
You can’t just go out and play transcribed solos that you’ve memorized though. That’s not improvising either. When I first started I used to take a standard tune and transcribe a lot of different pianists playing the same song, like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, and even horn players like Charlie Parker. Then I would write out a solo with 2 measures of Oscar, 2 measures of Bill Evans, 2 measures of Charlie Parker, then 2 measures of myself. I actually wrote down my own improvisation. I would do this in a random order.
Eventually the transcribed solos were being taken over more and more by my own improvised phrases. For me, it was a great way to learn the necessary vocabulary. When I first started improvising, I had nothing to say myself because I had a limited vocabulary. Going through the process of transcribing — figuring it out myself and writing it down — filled my ears with phrases and a vocabulary that stuck with me. I think I became a better improviser because I had a lot more to say.