How to Improvise

How to Improvise

Something I find problematic about improvising music is making choices appropriate to the context of the situation while satisfying the need for self-expression or, more generally put, the need to make what one thinks of as music. The nature of the marketplace often renders developing strategies for striking a balance in negotiating one’s inner and outer realities challenging to the extreme. Situations where the group has rehearsed or where the performers know each other well can make things a lot easier.

This was the case in a memorial concert I was asked to put together a group for. The program for the memorial was determined by the deceased’s family, with additional music spontaneously arrived at while people were arriving. I picked a group of musicians that, bar one, I have known and played with over several decades, but they had played together seldom, if at all. We had a one-hour rehearsal the day before the memorial to look over the material we didn’t know by heart (the program was made up of “jazz standards”). The concert went extremely well, even though I brought in an arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” that we rehearsed during the 15 minutes we had while the drummer was setting up his equipment (which had a fantastic bit of improvisation to it: since he left his cymbal stands at home, he improvised one out of his music stand. I hope he patents it!) Familiarity between the group’s members and its leader (me), coupled with the emotional import of the situation maximized potentials for success.

This wasn’t the case later in the evening when I played with a trio at a local jazz club. Although the music was good, we had only rehearsed as a group over a year ago and have only played together twice since (I was subbing for the regular bassist). The other two performers are expert improvisers and they had well-written charts for most of their original material, but they had just finished recording a CD with their regular bassist (who’s playing I’m not familiar with) and the group’s leader was calling a lot of “standards” that weren’t in his book. The situation’s sense of immediacy made things uncomfortable for us all, even though we played well and those who were listening liked what they heard (which—contrary to popular belief—is important to most improvising musicians).

Musical improvisation is often considered a kind of spontaneous composing. That could be if composing were done by committee, with each voice written by a different person. But the necessity to compensate for what someone else plays makes the notion of improvisation antithetical to that of composition, which is divorced from the performance milieu by many degrees. Still, the best improvisations arise from situations where a degree of control is exerted unifying improvisers’ strategies. This control can be a chord progression that everyone follows (as in a “jazz standard”) or a set of directions that everyone refers to (Act of Finding), or a composition that includes sections—measured or unmeasured—for improvisation (the music of Cynthia Hilts’s Lyric Fury). Very seldom have I heard or experienced music where no constraints, other than a time to start and a time to stop, produce quality music. But groups like Tom Rainey’s “Pool School” trio or Herbie Robertson’s “Freak Lip Kill” do it, and the results can be extremely satisfying.

I am primarily an improviser who also composes and arranges. I’m very interested in how the art of improvisation is viewed by people who are principally composers, preferably composers who don’t perform.

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