Do you find yourself running out of ideas mid-solo?
If so, you're probably not alone.
Have a look at pretty good musicians playing on self-recorded videos on YouTube. You'll notice a pattern that looks like this:
The melody to the tune is impressively well played. The solo starts out strong. ...things pretty much go downhill from there.
What's going on here?
Well, first, the player has most likely studied the head note for note. Into the first few choruses the player is still copying some other player (sometimes predictable based on the tune.) Then, at some point the player goes to improvise. At that point, the true improvisation lacks stylistic congruence with what was played before it, and does not offer build.
The situation is even more extreme at jam sessions. Here, unlike a gig or rehearsed recording, the improvisor has very little control over the rhythm section, hence if he or she is unable to adapt to the groove and harmonic reality of the situation on the stop, the solo is doomed. (This is the type of player who sounds great in the studio, where multiple takes and punch are possible. This player will also sound great when working with his or her band, playing the same solo over and over, which, in itself is no crime: Pros playing different towns night after night do have the leisure of relying on stock solos.
O.K. so what if we want to be true improvisors, and be the type of player who just gets up there and amazes take-after-take/performance after performance? This is where we have to throw out the memorized/transcribed solos, and where all those etudes and pattern exercises are going to do very little for anything except for our chops.
So, what do we do next?
Well, first, you may have heard the story of Charlie Parker hand how he accidentally discovered bebop while "shedding" hours upon hours on end on Ray Noble's Cherokee. Really, this is where the essence of substantive/beneath the surface emergences. Master improvisers do not limit themselves to scales and patterns and stop there, and they certainly don't reproduce the solos of other players note for note. Rather, they explore the harmonization of the tunes, and use those insights to guide there solo. As the piano is an arranger's instrument, almost any top level soloist is going to have an ability to sit down at a keyboard instrument, and work out harmonizations. Once you're doing this, its impossible to run out of ideas, because each harmonic idea should be able to spawn dozens and dozens of improvisational choruses. At least once you get good at it.
So, how do I get my students good at this?
First, regardless of instrument, my students get keyboard training. They learn to take a tune, work through the harmonization, and as good ideas emerge, work them into good (dare I say) phenomenal chord melodies.
Second, we do bass counterpoint (regardless of instrument.) Elsewhere on this website you can hear me playing a bass line to Stella, while "free styling" in my right hand.
Third, we use this ability to play bass and chords to create our own play-a-longs, and practice accompanying ourselves chorus after chorus, further developing our ideas until they become manifestations of our creative understanding of the tune, not copies of some other person's solo. As we do this, ideas emerge, and eventually they become part of the bag we draw from when we perform. Following "The 12 Step" method, we develop ideas then "take what we want and lead the rest."
If you like this approach, please do get together with me for a lesson. I teach in person (in NYC) and online as well.