Book Review: How to Improvise

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Title: How to Improvise
Author: Hal Crook
Copyright: 1991
Number of Pages: 185

Difficulty Level: 4 to 7


Here’s a fifty / fifty mix of text and musical examples.

In How to Improvise, Crook offers a detailed regime which I have no doubt will make a great player out of anyone who follows his directions specifically the way he presents them. The subjects covered in this book are musically all encompassing. I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s plenty of “technical stuff” to work on here, but all of it is musically oriented.

There are five major sections in the book covering over forty specific areas of study (too many to list here). Some subjects covered include pacing, phrase lengths, rhythmic density, stretching the time, motif development, syncopation, over the bar phrasing and many more.

My Comments:

I remember a road trip to Austin with David Caceres when I had an opportunity to talk to him about his influences and studies. I wanted to understand how he became the player he is today. When I asked him what jazz books he has studied from, he said he didn’t use very many books except “How to Improvise” by Hal Crook. This was a huge contrast to my own background. I have studied from a great many jazz books, but I’ve never been even half the player that David is.

It was about two years later when I finally ordered Crook’s book from Jamie Aebersold. As I do with most books, I read it cover to cover first. then I went back and began doing all of the exercises. I had to modify the durations from those listed in the book because I simply didn’t have the time to invest the way Crook has it laid out. But even with spending only a fraction of the time on each exercise, an entirely new philosophy presented itself to me. Questions were answered and finally the last pieces of a complex puzzle were in place. I cannot over stress the impact this has had on my playing.

“How to Improvise” is different from every other improv method I’ve ever read in that it doesn’t deal as much with harmony and jazz lines as it does with how to actually develop a good sounding, musical solo. There are so many books available with scale patterns, bebop lines, ii V I licks and stuff like that. And I’m not saying that these things are bad. I’ve had success with them in my own playing. But something was always missing and I found that something in Crook’s book. Through How to Improvise, I learned how to use all of those scales and licks to put them into a good sounding solo.

Probably the coolest thing about this book is that, once you learn how to do the things he writes about, you then have the ability to be more economic with the material in your solos. I’ve heard so many people say that David Caceres “never runs out of ideas” in his solos. And the reason it sounds like that is because he doesn’t need as many ideas to make a good solo as most other players do. One idea can give him enough material to get through an entire chorus of a tune, simply by developing that idea instead of leaving it behind. And really, that’s how most of the best solos are anyway. Development is a key aspect of good improvisation. The irony is that it’s sometimes easier to develop one single idea – instead of having to bombard the solo with a constant flow of new ideas.

So, for the simple fact that this book covers an area in improvisation that no other books cover (to my knowledge), I have to say that I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who is serious about playing jazz.

The comments above were from the original review posted to my website over a decade ago. I still feel as strongly about How to Improvise today as I did then. I use concepts I learned from this book with all of my jazz students today. When I look back at my career as a jazz musician, I see my “coming of age” as being directly tied to Crook’s book.

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