Jazz Composing. How composing can keep you out of trouble.

How Composing Can Keep You Out of Trouble

That’s right – Jazz Composing can keep you out of trouble.

How CAN composing keep you out of trouble? If you’ve followed this blog then you know this is mostly about improvisation tips. But, composing can help you with your improvisation too. I’ve heard it said (and repeated) that composing is improvisation that you can edit along the way (wouldn’t it be nice to edit our improvisations in real-time? Maybe someday…).

I recently finished a new composition called Dad’s Game that will most likely be on the JKQ’s next album later this year. I wanted to show how I composed it and how I use the idea of “improvisation that you can edit.” If you want to check out more on how I compose you can check out that series HERE.

I usually start with a blank sheet of staff paper (good old analog paper), piano, and Finale open on my computer. There’s no one way to start composing and I don’t do it the same way every time, either. In the case of Dad’s Game, I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago and had a specific rhythmic figure over a Latin-feel. This is the initial sketch:

jazz composing

From there I sat down with the piano and improvised various chord combinations over the rhythmic vamp. I eventually locked into what I believe was what I heard in the middle of the night (I probably should have taken better notes, but I was half asleep). After deciding on the progression I wanted to come up with the B3 organ’s left hand figure over the vamp. This is where having a strong idea of targeting concepts helped keep me out of trouble (or I could have been spending more time finding the right sound). I knew what notes I was aiming for within the rhythmic figure and it helped me come up with the final idea. Here’s the final sketch (in treble clef):

jazz composing

When you improvise in real-time you must have a system of navigating the chord progression. I’m a BIG proponent of targeting (not sure what I’m talking about? Check more out HERE). When you compose, you will use the same process albeit much slower. You get time to think about your various targeting, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic options and change them if they don’t sound the way you want (i.e. you get to edit). The more you do the composing process the more solidified they become in your mind. That comes out in your playing.

  • How would you suggest to get started on this?

If you’re just starting out I would suggest writing out a chord progression you’re working on. Write out the guide tones or other targets. Compose a line of nothing but quarter notes. Play it back. Does it sound interesting with just the quarter notes? If not, edit it until it does. Once it does, add eighth notes. Sound good? If not, edit it. Once it does, alter the rhythm. Continue, rinse, and repeat.

This is an area I cover with my improvisation students (on Skype and in-person lesson). If you’ve used this process or found it helpful, please feel free to share how you compose to help your improvisation in the comments below OR feel free to share this with the social media buttons!

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog/post. If you’d like to learn more; check out the online school.



About the Author jasonklobnak

Jason Klobnak is a versatile trumpet player that has been performing as an active musician, author, clinician, composer and educator. His band, J's Ruckus, is Denver's blend of Post-Bop, Soul, Gospel, and Hip-Hop. They perform infectious and up-lifting originals for audiences hungry for a memorable live experience. J's Ruckus released their latest album, Suck Less, in March of 2020 and their first EP, Sermons, in July of 2019. Both were recorded live in front of an audience. Suck Less was recorded to a packed auditorium at Arapahoe Community College's Waring Theater in Littleton, CO. Sermons was recorded in front of a sold out crowd at the Soiled Dove Underground.  The JKQ (the Jason Klobnak Quintet/Quartet) is Mr. Klobnak's Hammond B-3 centered groups. The JKQ released their third full-length album in March of 2018 called Friends & Family. It has been very well reviewed, on numerous Top 10 lists for Jazz radio stations across the country (including Denver's KUVO 89.3FM which named it May 2018's CD of the month), and in Jazzweek's Top 100. Each composition was written for specific family and close friends (that might as well be family). Their second album, New Chapter, was recorded in part thanks to the Pathways to Jazz Grant from the Boulder County Arts Alliance. In 2015 and 2016, New Chapter was in the Top 75 on the Jazzweek charts and on the Top 10 playlists for over a dozen radio stations worldwide. Their first album, Mountain, Move made the Best Recordings of 2013 list from AllAboutJazz.com by C. Michael Bailey. His very well reviewed Christmas single, Hark the Herald, in 2016 as part of a creative project with musicians James Roberson and Nathaniel Kearney Jr. Besides the JKQ, Mr. Klobnak is a B.A.C. (Best American Craftsman-custom trumpet), Denis Wick (mouthpiece and mutes) and Westone Audio endorsed artist (ES20 and Tru Customs). Mr. Klobnak has played and recorded for numerous groups ranging from jazz, soul/R&B, indie-rock/pop and gospel. In addition to performing, he has also written two improvisation-based books called Targeting: Improvisation With Purpose and Breaking the Monotony and is currently an adjunct professor and brass instructor at Arapahoe Community College. Mr. Klobnak holds a bachelor degree from Drake University (Des Moines, IA) and a Master’s degree from the University of Denver, Lamont School of Music (Denver, CO).