I mentioned in my last Kamp blog that I was going to listen to Carole King's memoir, A Natural Woman, on the long ride home. Well, I did. Carole reads it herself and it is excellent in every way. I highly recommend it.
But coming on the tail-end of my Kamp experience, I was surprised as all get out to hear her talking about improvising! So I grabbed my car pencil and marked down the location on Disc 5 and have just transcribed, word for word, what she said. I think it's that important. (To keep things legal, I give a citation at the end of the quote.)
First of all, for you non-boomers, Carole King is a fabulous songwriter, piano player, and performing artist. Her album Tapestry is probably her most famous personal recording. Her songwriting credits are legion and include You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman (Aretha recorded this) and Come On, Baby, Do The Locomotion With Me (recorded by Little Eva, who was Carole's babysitter at the time!).
Here's the setting for this excerpt: Carole has just moved to Los Angeles and is living in Laurel Canyon, and her neighbor has invited her over to his jam session. Knowing that she is a musician he invites her to sit in. (I think it's mostly guitars, bass, and probably drums. This is the late 1960s.)
This is what Carole says. The italics and bold are mine.
"At first I was reluctant but he kept asking me to join them. When finally I did, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed playing with other musicians in a casual setting...At first I had trouble keeping up with the spontaneous turns the music took at jam sessions. But then I began to listen to the other musicians' musical motifs and respond with respectable figures of my own.
I found that the key principles were listening, knowing when to step out with confidence, and knowing when to play sparsely. Applying those principles, I was able to develop a fair number of licks that I could pull out of my musical kit bag at will. This gave me the security of knowing that even if nothing fresh or inspiring came to mind when I was called upon to improvise, at least I could play something...
I couldn't imagine any great jazz pianist or any another other extraordinary players such as Miles Davis or John Coltrane ever having to resort to Lick #27. Few things were as exciting to me as hearing musicians of that caliber create spontaneous magic on instruments they knew inside and out. The fact that I was doing a rudimentary version of what they did gave me great pleasure." [From the audio book A Natural Woman: A Memoir by Carole King, 2012. Disc 5.]
Carole is saying the same things that I was saying all week at Kaufman Kamp. Spontaneous improvising is about playing licks. It's not about playing melody.
This is a very hard concept to teach because, when we were jamming in the classes at camp, so many folks were trying to find the melody of the song. Don't get me wrong: Playing melody is a good thing. I believe in playing the melody! We just released a whole DVD by Ned Luberecki called Start With The Melody. You simply can't do it on the fly. And if you want to be able to jam, you have to do what Carole King did: develop your own bag of licks that you can pull out and play at will.
Notice two things that she said: "At least I could play something."
Improvised breaks don't have to be great, they just have to be "something." And the more you jam and work with improvising, the more cohesive and better-sounding these breaks will be.
Carole also said that her "rudimentary version" of what the more experienced jammers were playing gave her "great pleasure." I wish I could get you all to take "great pleasure" in your "rudimentary" breaks! That's why I was so proud of Roland, the beginning student who took a "rudimentary" break on I'll Fly Away at the student concert. It was "something." And it will get better.
Okay, I'm done for now. But this idea of improvising with licks is what will open the door to playing in a jam. Trust me. Believe me. And get to work on your Roly Polys. They are the first step.