Improvisation is the act of spontaneous rhythmic and melodic composition within a piece of music. Occurring in genres as distinct as jazz, gospel, blues and R&B, the performer essentially creates a melody on the fly. Vocal improvisation can be executed by inventing an entirely brand new melody, and/or creating variations on the written theme as the chord changes glide by underneath. It is one of the greatest elements of musical freedom, and the feeling of expressing oneself by instantaneous composition is unparalleled.
The general principal of improvisation is to first establish the melody of the piece. Let’s use the simple tune “Happy Birthday” as our foundation for this lesson.
First, sing through the original melody in its original time signature.
Obviously this tune is very familiar to you. Now, take this same melody and adapt it to a jazz swing feel:
The swing groove is driven by the underlying swung eighth note feel. The first and third eighth notes in a triplet pattern are used to create that unique swing groove. Notice in example 1.2 that the majority of notes are comprised of quarter and half notes. While these rhythmic values are used occasionally in swing, and standards from the Great American Songbook are often written with quarter notes and half notes, they are meant to be adapted to swung upbeats: where eighth notes typically fall.
Sing through this next example of “Happy Birthday” as a seasoned jazz musician may interpret it:
There are a few things to note about this example. First, take a moment to observe the differences in rhythmic values. How did the performer manipulate the downbeat rhythms from the original melody?
Next, you will notice a chromatic passing tone in measure 5. These types of notes are extremely common interpretation tools within the jazz idiom.
Finally, take a look at the text. Notice the “oh”’s and “ah”’s interspersed throughout. As a vocal improviser, we have the liberty to artistically add stylistically appropriate lyrics to the written lyrics. These added lyrics are used to add definite pitch rhythms to propel the song forward. Some examples of the most common lyrics used as improvisational tools include: “yeah,” “hey,” “alright,” “well,” “oh,” “ah,” “uh huh,” “you know,” “let’s go,” “come on,” “woo,” and “baby.”
Now that you are comfortable singing the eighth note swing version of “Happy Birthday,” sing through this next example that contains swung triplets and even more chromatic passing tones throughout:
In example 1.4, pay attention to the melismas (a sequence of multiple notes that are sung with the same syllable) that appear in measures 1, 5, 7, and 9. Concentrate on precise articulations and intonation of each note as it passes through.
Swung triplets are tremendous tools to incorporate into your jazz vocal improvisation techniques. They are the driving force of all swung music, so they will undoubtedly give your improvised solos a substantial sense of forward motion.
Now that we have multiple versions of the “Happy Birthday” melody down pat, let’s begin our assessment of the melodic elements of scat soloing.
The first step of vocal improvisation is to understand what chord scales you should use above each series of chord changes. “Happy Birthday” is a fantastic song to begin learning how to improvise with, as it essentially contains three chords: I-IV-V, throughout.
Before singing through these chord scales, let’s begin by identifying the corresponding scales with the various seventh chords that appear in Western music:
|Major 7th chord||Ima7||Major scale|
|Major 7th chord||Non-Ima7||Lydian scale|
|Minor 7th chord||imi7||Natural minor scale|
|Minor 7th chord||Non-imi7||Dorian scale|
|Dominant 7th chord||V7 function of Major key||Mixolydian scale|
|Dominant 7th chord||V7 function of Minor key||Altered scale|
|Dominant 7th chord||non-V7 function||Lydian b7 scale|
|mi7(b5)||iimi7(b5)||Locrian natural 9|
Now, take a look at the syllables used. The syllables “DU VEE DU VEE” are great starting points to begin creating scat syllables. To begin speaking the language of scat, just like the way we learned how to speak, it is crucial that you listen to all of the great scat singers of the 20th century and beyond. Engulf yourself in the music of Louie “Satchmo” Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Leo Watson, Connie Boswell, Mel Torme, Slim Gaillard, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Leon Thomas, Al Jarreu, Urszula Dudziak, Lauren Newton, Jay Clayton, Bobby McFerrin, Kurt Elling and so, so many more.
Continuing with our scat studies, sing through the triad outlines of each chord change:
While vocalists cannot on their own realize chord changes, it is crucial that we understand the compositional make up of the chords that sweep by underneath our soloing. In order to do so, we first must sing this triad outline: the first, third, and fifth scale degrees of the chord.
Next, we shall expand the basic structure of the chords by adding the appropriate seventh scale degree into our chordal outline. In a similar fashion to example 1.7, sing through example 1.8 with crisp clear accuracy:
Now that we understand the basic seventh chord outlines of this piece of music, let’s dive even deeper and sing through all of the possible extensions from each chord. If you have studied chord extensions before, you will recall the typical extension notes of a seventh chord include the 9th, #11th and 13th.
Sing through these triplet rhythms and outline each extended chord. Take it slow at first, and then build up to the specified tempo marking.
Remember: Before singing, always look ahead and think about the appropriate places to take a breath. Using your full breath support is crucial when singing a piece with many consecutive eighth notes.
Notice the new syllables “shu be du be.” Concentrate on your diction and let the syllables roll off the tongue. It is helpful to picture yourself performing these notes as a trumpet player; letting the text of each note flow right into the next one in the same way the notes from a horn do.
Sing through the following exercise containing downbeat passing tension tones.
Now that we are comfortable singing through nearly every possible aspect of the chord changes of “Happy Birthday,” it is time for you to create your own unique scat solo.
First, sing through the melody, interpreting it in any stylistically appropriate way you see fit. Use swung rhythms, triplets and chromatic & diatonic passing tones.
Then, use the scat syllables of your choice to spontaneously compose a brand new melody. Use the original melody or “head” of the tune as your starting point and musical foundation. Rely on every motif, riff, lick and line that you’ve heard before. They lie in the deepest storage boxes of your musical memory and they will guide you along the way.
You may sing through the melody, perform your scat solo once or twice through the form, and then sing the melody again. You may also sing through the melody with a partner, and then take turns improvising through the form; finally singing the melody once more together. Express yourself to the fullest and have fun!
Remember: If you land on a funky note that may not exactly “fit” the chord, you are always a half-step away from salvation.
Wynton Marsalis, one of the great jazz musicians of our time, performed “Happy Birthday” at a clinic in Marciac on August 4th, 2007. He demonstrated the endless possibilities for soloing over this simple song form, and created a spontaneous improvised composition over the chord changes.
Perform the following transcription of the first two choruses of Wynton’s solo with a partner. One vocalist should scat the solo using the provided syllables, and the other should sing the traditional “Happy Birthday” melody underneath the solo. This may also be performed with the aid of piano or guitar accompaniment.
First two choruses of “Happy Birthday” by Wynton Marsalis
Whew! If you've made it this far, I guarantee that when your family sings "Happy Birthday" at Uncle Rodney's party this year, your improvising will earn you the "life of the party" status that you so greatly deserve.