Collective Improvisation

I was listening to Oscar Peterson’s rendition of “You Stepped Out of a Dream” (which I have been unable to find on YouTube, sadly) from his album Tristeza on Piano, and I decided to look up a lead sheet, which I then found in my Real Book Volume II. And, apart from some very rough rhythmic elements, I saw no similarity whatsoever (chords I don’t know, I can’t distinguish those very well by ear).

Now this is obviously due to my own ignorance. But what happened in the transition from the simple melody line to Peterson’s recording, and why didn’t it end up sounding something like the Dexter Gordon Quartet’s rendition, which, as far as I can tell, follows the lead sheet I have almost literally note by note?

I know I’m being horribly vague here, and for that I apologise. But nonetheless, I hope a kind and insightful soul will be able to shed some light on this for me.

Much appreciated,


Jazz improvisation is ‘variations on a theme’, but we could also say ‘variations on the elements of a theme’. In other words, the five basic elements in music/jazz- melody, harmony, rhythm, lyric and form – can be improvised or altered, but at different levels and in different ways in a performance.

As a singer, I begin creating an arrangement by choosing a rhythmic foundation: tempo, style (swing, ballad, back-beat, latin/Brazilian), intensity. The drums and bass work in tandem to form a pattern that I will sing over.

Next, I look at the harmonic progression, and explore alterations. For example, a song can follow the basic diatonic circle (C Am Dm G7), or I can use chromatic reharmonizations (C Eb7 Dm Db7, C Eb7 Ab7 Db7, C A7 Ab7 G7). The original melody and harmony is always a starting point.

Next, as a singer I must decide how much weight to give to the lyric. Is the lyric a ‘throwaway’- used merely to state the basic theme, open the song to improvisation, then revisit the lyric at the end (to remind us of what song we’ve played!)- or do I want to give the listener a chance to really hear what the song says (or rather, what I want to say through the melody and lyric)?

My answer to this question will influence how I choose to approach each of the elements of the song.

I can also choose to alter the lyric (addition/deletion, verbatim or embellished, repeating or holding certain words or phrases), and using the voice to convey anger, wonder, excitement, seduction, fear, frustration, resignation, love, lust, joy or just sound for its own sake…

Lastly, form gives shape to the performance. I might begin with a rhythmic groove or a melodic riff, and use it to signal the end of a section. Maybe an interlude could be inserted, a vamp might be used towards the ending, or various jam-session devices (trading fours, stop choruses, changing rhythms, changing keys) can spice things up.

And that’s just from the perspective of a singer/soloist. The piano and bass and drums have their own way to contribute to the performance. Jazz, then, is more than improvisation – jazz is collective improvisation, each putting our two cents in, considering the input of the others, leading, following, suggesting, constantly shifting, often holding to an idea or pattern, while the others swirl around your still point.

It would be a good idea to do some ‘comparative listening’ – pick a song, and check out several different versions by various artists (singers, players, big bands, small groups, solo, duo). You will have a clearer picture of how a musician or group personalizes a performance.

© 2014 by Scotty Writes Music