Improvisation: The Spirit of Jamming

To the formally trained musician, "jamming" might sound a bit mysterious, undefined, or even intimidating.

Most schooled musicians study and practice reading and playing the notes that are placed in front of them. Ensembles, big bands, symphonies, and orchestras could only make music together (that sounds good) if each instrument's part is meticulously notated and performed as written. Could you imagine sixty musicians simultaneously making up their own parts?! No doubt, it'd be a sonic calamity.

There is a proper time and place for improvisation in some forms of music - also, with acting, artwork, and in life. We all do a little bit of this ad-libbing each day. When were you last asked, "How are you doing"? Your answer may contain a detailed, overly honest account of your state of being - or (like me) an edited, brief version of my current condition. Either way - you are spontaneously formulating an answer to the question. "I'm doing OK - how're you? 

The words "jam-session" or "jamming" are more commonly used with Rock, Blues, Country, and Pop music players. In Jazz, words like improvisation, free-form, and even "blowing" are used. I began learning the art of the jam when I was a young teen. Some of us budding musicians from high school would gather at each other's houses to experiment with common chord progressions and rhythms. One jam tune that I remember revolved around an A minor chord. With very limited or no music theory, each of us, when our turn came, was required to perform as much instrumental improvisation as possible using only the notes A, C, D, E, and G - and sometimes flattening the fifth to Eb (this would form a basic blues scale). My brain and fingers were forced to explore as many different ways to use these notes as my abilities would allow. I could only imagine what my contribution on keys sounded like - but this was the beginning of my love for improvisation.
Me and my jam buddies (Chris Sharp on bass, Mark Doty on drums) performing at our High School graduation ceremony.

Performing with my high school jam buddies at our graduation ceremony (Chris Sharp on bass, Mark Doty on drums).

A, C, D, Eb, E, and G may seem like just a few notes, but there are endless ways to use them in different combinations, timings, and accents. Improvising over more complex chord progressions (like in advanced jazz compositions) requires a higher skill with scales and harmonic knowledge than with simpler three or four-chord progressions. Try "jamming" over Waltz for Debbie - not easy for a musician who lives in the popular music world.

Session musicians routinely create signature lines, fills, and solos on the spot. Many of the intros, fills, and solos you hear on your favorite records were likely spontaneous performances captured in the recording studio. Of course, some were not. Most all string and horn lines are arranged and written out before a recording session. Solos, on the other hand - hopefully were improvised. I say hopefully because, in my experience, the magic usually happens when an accomplished musician is free to stretch beyond any notation or strict instructions. I've seen this kind of freedom lead to a much better sounding and heartfelt track more times than not.

An impromptu G blues jam at soundcheck with session legend Jim Horn.

If you'd ask me, "When was the last time you were at a jam session?" - I would answer that I am kind of at one every day. Whether laying down tracks in the studio or performing on stage, I strive to take chances whenever possible. Sometimes it works - sometimes, it does not. And yes, sometimes a Take 2 or... a Take 5 is needed. It is the process that matters. The results can be amazing.

The next time someone in your band calls a song in A minor - try adding some B notes to the scale - maybe some Fs, F#s, and G#s too! Some experimentation may be required - but you will find new sounds, moods, and places to put your hands.

In my musical world, the spirit of jamming is one and the same as the spirit of expression, the spirit of creating - and the spirit of living.

Happy jamming my friends!

 Jamming with Travis Tritt on the Burning Thunder tour.

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