The Art of Jazz Improvisation-Communication

I was browsing the internet this morning when I happened upon these two amazing videos below.  It struck me that as teachers and students, we are so often teaching jazz improvisation in a one dimensional realm.  We talk about scales, licks, chords and patterns. We go home and practice by ourselves with our play along tracks or Band in a Box only to repeat the process a week later.  This will go on for months and maybe years without us playing with other musicians………..

What is often missed in these teaching moments and lessons is learning about communication in regard to jazz improvisation.  Being in the moment and listening to another player and then responding.  Letting all thoughts of licks, patterns and scales go and just communicating effectively.

When I am having a deep conversation with my wife or one of my daughters, the only thing I am thinking about is hearing what they are saying, understanding what they are saying, maybe reiterating what I think they mean to make sure I understand completely and then responding.   I’m not thinking about my words or using a new sentence I am working on or impressing them with my new word I learned.   I’m not thinking about acting cool or how I look.   I’m not worried about what they think of me or impressing them with how smart I am ( although admittedly sometimes we all do these things while we should be listening but that is not ideal……).  Ideally,  in a great conversation we let all these things go and we are focused on listening, understanding and responding.

It’s the same with jazz improvisation.   These two videos below are great examples of this in my opinion.  I see a lot of listening, call and response, interaction and even emotions.   It has a feeling of being in the moment and the performance one of a kind. Never to be repeated exactly like that ever again.

Communication is what jazz is all about.  The interaction, the back and forth, the ability to have your direction and next phrase changed in the moment by something you hear. You had an idea of what you were going to play next but in that moment you hear something that wipes that idea from your mind and without hesitancy you are going in another direction.

Playing your licks effectively and using the cool concepts you practiced all week feels great.   There is no denying that.  Honestly though, isn’t that good feeling and joy short lived?

What is deeper and more meaningful is to play a solo with others and to be brought on an unexpected journey.  You don’t know where the solo is going or where it will end but as you travel through it with other musicians you are all surprised by where it is going and what might be next.   You are all listening attentively because the journey is so unpredictable and interesting.

Yes,  you will mix in some of your vocabulary and licks but you pass over those without a second thought. You can play those in your sleep.  What you pay special attention to is the dialogue.  The rhythm the drummer just played, the interesting chord the piano player just played, the line the guitar just played during a moment of space in your solo.  A line that you never thought of or imagined.

These elements are all there speaking to you to respond, to add to and to complete.  When you do so and play something brand new for you but fresh in that moment, that is when you feel the excitement and joy that is far deeper than that of successfully playing a lick you practiced.  The latter was a lone success for you perhaps but the former was something the group as a whole created in the moment.   Everyone had their input and something that can never be repeated exactly like that again was created.  That joy, excitement and creation is what jazz is all about!

Check out these videos below and see if you can sense and feel these moments yourself.   I love it!  I would take one moment like these over a hundred of the best played jazz licks perfectly executed……….Enjoy!

PS.  For a lesson on practicing communication if your stuck at home alone check out my video lesson Learning from the Greats……….Great way to practice…BUT the sooner you start playing with other people the better!   Doesn’t matter what level you are at so don’t use that as an excuse.   Find other people to play with……….Trust me!

Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau-Oleo

Joey Alexander Trio-Maiden Voyage featuring  Chris Potter (I believe Joey Alexander is 13 here.  Wow!)

Steve About Steve

Steve Neff has been playing and teaching saxophone and jazz improvisation around the New England area for the last 30 years. He is the author of many effective jazz improvisation methods as well as founding the popular jazz video lesson site


  1. Great thoughts Steve!! I’m 100% with you!! GREAT POST!!


    Thiago Ferté

  2. Thanks! They let the spirit flow. Never to be duplicated.

  3. Avatar Anthony Ferro says

    Genius.Blissful. Loving peace. Thank you Steve.

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