Improvisational music comes in many varieties. From free improvisation; which has no pre-written reference, to more traditional jazz; in which the form, harmonic progression, and melody serve as a starting point for spontaneous music making. In this essay I am offering some thoughts on the latter, that of learning a traditional jazz piece for improvisation.
Learning left and right hands independently
I began memorizing my left and right hand parts separately after reading The Primacy of the Ear, by Ran Blake. As Blake describes, learning each hand alone allows for independent playing in either hand, which allows for easier improvisation. Both melodic and harmonic substitution become more fluid when the materials are learned separately. I begin by learning the melody, and then learning the harmonizations as written in the chart.
Singing the melody at the piano
A second habit that has helped me to learn new music for later improvisation is singing the melody while playing the harmonic accompaniment. Not only has this helped me to play the phrase more authentically at the piano, but has also helped me to learn the melody when playing my other instrument, the trombone. I have been told that saxophonist Phil Woods was an advocate of learning one-line playing by playing and singing the melodic with piano accompaniment.
Listening to multiple recordings with the score
The most important lesson that I have learned from my jazz musician friends is the importance of listening to recordings. The idea of manuscripting solos is a little different from the idea of manuscription in classical training. Although some of the jazz musicians I have spoken with literally write-out the solo lines taken by their favorite musicians, many use the term manuscripting as memorizing the solo line on your instrument through repeated listening. This practice has also enhanced my enjoyment of listening to artists whom I have played their solos.
Writing out my own score
This is another practice that I have learned from multiple jazz musicians. There are some variations as to how folks go about this, but all include writing out chord voicings and harmonic substitutions as a part of learning a new piece. Some do this by ear, others use a lead sheet as a reference. The habit that I have developed begins by hand manuscripting the melody and chord symbols as a two-stave piano transcription. I then write out my harmonic voicings in either whole, half, or quarter note movement. Later, after I have learned the harmonic material as written in the score, I add my own harmonic substitutions. I do not use these hand-manuscripted charts when playing with friends, only as a way of learning and recording down my ideas. This has proven to help in memorization and reharmonization of the new music I am learning. Writing out a sparse voicing option is useful for comping.
Playing modes and arpeggios of the piece
Lastly, I have gotten into the habit of playing the modes (chord scales) and arpeggios of a new piece in time. This idea was taken from the Jamie Aerbersold method books. It is another great way to become familiar with the chart and free from what is written. It is also a pleasant way to practice scales and arpeggios, by practicing a different piece in each major or minor key.
Making the music my own has been the primary focus in the process of learning new tunes. Learning left and right hands independently, singing the melody line with harmonic accompaniment, listening to many recordings of the piece I am learning, writing out my own scores, and playing the modes and arpeggios of the piece has enhanced my ability to improvise as well as to accompany others. This process is different from that which I used when learning classical music. The nature of the music is different and this requires its own, unique, approach.