Less is more effective

Hey Improvisers,
Perhaps my favorite line from my book, The Inner World of Piano Improvisation, is:

“Everybody wants to sound like Miles Davis, but no one wants to play fewer notes.”

I love that line, because it’s so true. Whether we play rock, jazz, pop, blues, or classical improv styles, we’ll sound much better if we simply play fewer notes.

However… playing less notes is usually the last thing many pianists want to do. Why? Because they don’t trust it. It feels more trustworthy to string together all the licks they’ve been practicing, or to ramble on and on with run-on musical sentences.

Miles Davis did it differently, because he trusted something else. He knew that if he left silence between his phrases, the rhythm section would groove more. And if the rhythm section grooved more, he’d sound better as well. He also knew that he didn’t have to play during those moments when he didn’t have anything to express. He knew that if he simply listened to his musical imagination for a few seconds, a new note or phrase would pop into his head and he could play that. If you listen to Miles improvise (after his apprenticeship with Charlie Parker), you’ll literally hear him “waiting” for each new phrase to appear. He’s listening, and it’s a marvelous experience to listen to him listen.

I remind myself of these concepts every single time I perform. Last night, for example, I went to an open mic to try out some new arrangements with the vocalist Juliet Ewing. Juliet and I are creating a program of George Gershwin’s music, and we’re enjoying the process of playing each new arrangement before a live audience. I’m having fun listening to the other musicians who play at the open mic and participating when I can during the evening.

After hearing some wonderful jazz, rock, and folk performers each play their allotted two songs, it was tempting to get up on the stage and try to “wow” the audience with a million fast notes.

Instead, I took a deep breath and reminded myself to trust the process of leaving space. Giving the rhythm section room to breathe. And listening for the next phrase.

Here’s the video from the performance:

I’ve Got A Crush On You

If you want to improvise better, try playing less notes while feeling the underlying groove. After you become accustomed to this process, whole new musical worlds will open up to you.

Enjoy the journey and let the music flow!


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