If you are the creative, spontaneous type of musician, you definitely have an advantage over the analytic or practical type of person. You are more able to create lines than the musician who is more characteristically able to re-create music from the page. I am not trying to convince you that there are no musicians who are able to do both (create and re-create music) for there are many. Wynton Marsalis and Allen Vizzutti are two very gifted trumpet players who are able to bridge the gap between the creative and the re-creative side of music. Unfortunately this honorable fraternity of musicians is not as numerous as most people think.
Step one to better jazz improvisation- Listen
There is no better way to learn how to improvise than absorbing the art through regular listening. How much you listen will determine how fast and how effectively you will be able to improvise. It is best to begin with the type of jazz you most enjoy listening to. If Dixieland is your bag, start collecting the best recordings from this area of jazz. If funk is your thing, start collecting the funk bands and musicians that you most respect and enjoy listening to. Once you have a fair collection of the jazz style you like best, start pulling out the musician and his/her best solos from that style.
Now that you have isolated your favorite musician and can pick out their best solo, you will now have to start the hard part of your assignment, i.e. transcribing the solo to paper. Before you put pencil to paper, you might want to check on line to see if your musicians solo has already been transcribed by someone else. For an example of what you need to do, I will walk you through a search to give you an idea as to where to begin. One of my favorite jazz musician is Charlie Parker. One of his best solos was done on the tune “Perdido”. So type in Charlie Parker transcriptions and you find this site- Saxopedia. That was easy but you might want to do a solo which is less common and that is where the search really gets tough. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you have to do all the transcription yourself. That takes a lot of time but let me suggest how you can make the difficult a little easier.
How to transcribe existing solos
The easiest way I have found to transcribe solos is to download a free recording program called Audacity-http://audacity.sourceforge.net/ . Once the program has been installed, you will have to read the instructions on how to import audio recordings into the program. If you have trouble taking the time to read the instructions (and we have already determined that you are a click and see what happens type of person) you can view many informative videos on YouTube which will show you how the program works. Once you have your solo imported in the program, highlight a small portion and under the heading effects at the top, click on Change tempo. Slide the bar over to -30% and play it back. What you are doing is slowing the speed down to the point you will be able to write the notes as they are played back. You will have to experiment with the speed until you are comfortable listening and writing. Work with short phrases at first and remember that what is highlighted is the only section that you will be working with. Start with short phrases at slow tempi and you will quickly get on to the process.
What to do with transcriptions once you have them written out
Now that you have one of your favorite musical styles, favorite musician, favorite solo written out, the next job you have is to practice the transcription until you can play it from memory. This will also take some time and the closer you can get to replicating the notes and the true feel of the solo, the better improviser you will become. Some people have said that copying a solo is cheating and to that I would remind them “that was exactly how the great composers learned their skills”; copying the works of earlier great composers. Within every solo there are patterns which repeat at different intervals. Try to isolate these patterns and begin to practice them starting on different notes. Once you can play these patterns in any key, start applying them to different sections of your transcribed solo.
When listening to different musicians as they improvise, you should start recognizing their signature licks. If you recognize them and like them, start using them in your own solos. It is a fact that we all copy licks from better musicians just as comedians use jokes from better comedians. It is a way of life. Copy the best from the best and make it your own.
After you have collected transcriptions for your favorite musician, begin to branch out to other players until you can get a feel of what they are technically doing in their solos. Remember that your solos will be constructed from elements you have recognized from others and when you have built your arsenal of licks to the point that you can draw on them for reconstructing your solos you are on your way. All that is necessary now is time and devotion.
Remember that this approach to improvisation will be much different than your counterparts who learn improvisation from memorizing scales and the application. Your strengths are in the ability of recognizing and implementing riffs and licks which appeal to your musical tastes. You will have a better feel for improvisation and the modification of known patterns where as your counter parts will build only on practiced patterns and scales as applied to chord changes.