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What Is Saxophone Improvisation?

Saxophone improvisation is a common feature in jazz music.
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  • Written By: A. Leverkuhn
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 24 July 2014
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Saxophone improvisation is a specific kind of technique and musical implementation of this brass woodwind. The saxophone is a common horn in many genres of music including big band, jazz, blues, salsa, as well as other kinds of world music. Musicians who do not read from sheet music, but instead make up their own riffs, flourishes, and musical progressions, are said to be practicing saxophone improvisation. This sort of saxophone work is useful in many live performances, as well as in various studio presentations of songs that include saxophone elements.

One issue with improvisation, and saxophone improvisation in particular, is that other musicians in a band must “make room” for this musical event. This requires setting aside specific bars of a song for saxophone or other horn improvisation. Musicians must commonly understand when the saxophone improv will start, and when it will end.

Saxophone players face other challenges with improvising on this horn. One of them is the accurate use of phrasing, or pacing the music in order to make it complement the overall song or piece of music. Another is achieving a complementary tone, making sure that the horn does not drown out other instruments, and that its sounds resonate well within the general composition.

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When a saxophone player begins the saxophone improvisation, that person has a lot of choices and opportunities in deciding how to progress a musical melody. Skilled musicians can build elaborate saxophone solos or improvisations that are extremely impressive to many listening audiences. Although the range of options for sax improvisation is vast, the saxophone player must be sure to resolve the improvisational solo at the end, so as to fit into the overall key of the song. The resolution must also fit into the timing, and “keep time” with the rest of the band.

Because so much of saxophone improvisation is intuitive, those who teach this musical skill often rely on complex ideas that blend elements of music theory with elements of logic, dexterity, and rhythmic coordination. For example, a teacher may use ideas like “chaos” and “synthesis” to build improvisation skills in students. Likewise, mastering improvisation on this horn can necessitate the understanding of advanced timing concepts, as well as a lot of technical, physical discipline with drilling, note scales, and similar activities on the horn.

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