How to develop your sense of jazz phrasing

Do you ever think about phrasing while you’re improvising jazz?

If you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve never had to and your piano playing always sounds fresh and inspired. And if you’re one of the “unlucky ones,” you overthink the process and feel stilted because you don’t “understand” phrasing. (Ironically, this approach is what’s holding you back in terms of soloing.)

For most of us, the best approach is to listen to a lot of jazz and absorb the way our favorite musicians play phrases, and then to simply let it come out in our own playing, getting better and better over time. Without rushing the process. And yes, at times it’s helpful to analyze phrasing when we need to do so. However, it’s important to try the “learning by osmosis” method first, since that’s how we best learn our native language and it’s how we get the sound of jazz in our ears.

If you’ve been doing my 31-Day Jazz Piano Workout for Beginners Challenge, the beautiful thing is that we’ve been addressing jazz phrasing in a big way already, right from the one-note improv in Day 1. By listening to me and watching me play phrases, and by trading 4s, you’ve been absorbing the jazz phrasing in a more effective way than by thinking about it. After all, none of the greats from the 30s-60s ever had to learn jazz phrasing in the beginning stages. It was all around them and they had been absorbing the jazz rhythm from their childhood. And if there was someone who heard a different type of phrasing, like Dave Brubeck did while growing up on a California ranch, then this contributed in a positive way to his individuality as a jazz musician. But yes, on the other hand, we should follow whatever interests us as musicians, and jazz phrasing is a fascinating subject.

In Day 16 of the Workout Challenge, we improvise over the chords to the Miles Davis standard “So What,” alternating between the Dm7 and Ebm7 chords. For many people learning this tune, the biggest challenge is keeping track of where we are in the musical form. On the surface, it’s just a basic AABA form. But since we stay on the Dm7 chord for so long, it’s really easy to get mixed up and lost. (It took me about 5 years to feel comfortable playing over the changes to “So What!”)

To help you get there faster than I did, I lead you through the process of thinking in 4-measure phrases, and then beginning to “feel” them in a way that will help you keep track of where you are in the tune’s form. It’s a very practical approach and as you jam together, you’ll find that your jazz phrasing becomes better too.

Day Sixteen: 31-Day Jazz Piano for Beginners Workout Challenge

And if you want to start at the very beginning, with a lesson from the great jazz saxophonist Sidney Bechet, here’s where the Yellow Brick Road to jazz phrasing begins:

Day One: 31-Day Jazz Piano for Beginners Workout Challenge

I’ve also posted a new Journey Through The Real Book video, on the jazz standard “I Should Care.” This important tune was a big favorite of the beboppers and on the video, I share a fun and insightful Gerry Mulligan story from the time when I was his assistant in 1987-88.

I Should Care: Journey Through The Real Book #166

As always, I wish you the very best with your music and I hope to help you in any way I can.


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