Collective Improvisation in Big Band

Dr. John Reynolds 

One of the real challenges a big band director faces in daily rehearsal is how to get all students improvising. Truthfully, Jazz ensembles in which each member is a proficient improviser swing harder because each individual has done so much listening. Let’s face it though, not every member of the Jazz ensemble is equally excited about learning transcriptions and shedding ii – V licks. So, how can we as directors spurn interest and get everyo ne involved in improvising?

One exercise that I’ve found useful is a call and response model. The caveat is that each call and response must be identical and fall within a specific harmonic framework. For example, I will have a student play a 2 – bar phra se using only notes from the Eb blues scale. Then the remainder of the ensemble is tasked with figuring out what phrase was played in real time and repeating it verbatim. Here’s the catch – the student playing the original phrase must repeat this exact phrase two times. This achieves two goals. First , it forces the student to be creative within specific confines. Second , the student is forced to think about what they are playing, rather than simply playing any random assortment of notes that comes to mind.

Once both the student and the ensemble complete the 3 phrases, we move to the next student. Typically, students new to this exercise will play notes outside the boundaries . When that happens, stop and ask them to pick a new phrase and start ag ain. It’s helpful to remind the students not to play overly complex phrases that they cannot remember. They will be surprised with how hip some of the simple stuff they come up with actually sounds. Usually the ensemble will struggle hearing the improv ised phrase the first time, but most will be able to replicate the phrase on their instruments by the third pass.

What about the drummers? How do we get them to think melodically? This exercise actually works great for them as well. I have my drummers keep a swing ride pattern and hi – hat on 2 and 4 while the improvised phrase is being played. Then on the response, they play with rhythms on snare and/or bass drum. This helps facilitate independence and coordination, which is a much – needed skill for dev eloping drummers. Additionally, they can scat the phrase, which helps to develop their ear.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this particular exercise as it can be expanded to include different harmonic constraints (Mixolydian, Dorian, Diminished, etc.) as well as different phrase lengths. Additionally, I’ve found that students want to develop creative and hip phrases within the boundaries to stump their fellow classmates. It often turns into a fun challenge between students, one in which they are bei ng challenged to use their brains, ears and chops simultaneously.

Dr. John Reynolds is the Director of Jazz and Orchestral Studies at San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts and Adjunct Professor of Jazz Studies at Grossmont College.