by Russ Nolan

Jazz Composition and Improvisation: Two Speeds

Composition and Improvisation are one and the same, just at different speeds. Composition is Improvisation out of time and Improvisation is Composition in real time. Every piece of music is a penned improvisation and every improvisation is a spontaneous composition. Thinking of it in these terms will bring clarity into one’s solo as they focus on making a statement through melodic development. After all, why do we enjoy reading books or going to movies? If they are good, it’s because they tell a good story and involve their audience. ‘Telling a Story’ in Jazz doesn’t mean you have to play a ton of notes and have brilliant technique on your instrument. Mastering one’s instrument and jazz theory are only means to a musical end.

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy Gillespie

Shaping a Jazz Solo

Dizzy Gillespie once conveyed the idea that once he could play the changes, the challenge became which notes to leave out (”It’s taken me my whole life to learn what not to play”). Most music college graduates can play fluid changes, have pattern and scale knowledge, etc. but do little in the way of shaping a solo. They cram their solos full of slick patterns and elaborate ideas rather than making more use of the material they already have in a creative way.  It can take many years to develop one’s own voice, but the most memorable musicians are defined by their compositional approach to their improvisations.  Wayne Shorter easily comes to mind, as it is hard to think of his playing without thinking of his compositions. A memorable solo is one that communicates to the audience that you love playing and it’s shown through passion, good time feel, good rhythm, and melodic development.

We will explore an example of this in Part 2.

Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter


Russ Nolan New York Jazz Educator and Clinician

Russ Nolan Jazz Blog


  1. Thank you, Bobby, and right back at you! Russ

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