Why Improvise, Part 3

Why Improvise, Part 3

Sadly, I’ll be missing the Underwood New Music Readings by the American Composer’s Orchestra this weekend because of my work schedule (performing with Judi Silvano on Friday and with Denman Maroney and Bob Meyer followed by pianist Sarah Jane Cion on Saturday). That’s a problem for professional musicians, not having the time to hear a lot of the music one would like to hear. I’m going to have a better time of it next week when I go to San Francisco to attend the International Society of Bassists annual conference. I won’t be blogging about it because it’s not as much about American music as it is about the contrabass. But I will be checking out some American music while I’m there.


The bass is an instrument that has played a seminal role in the development of jazz, our original American art form, though. Just about every “evolutionary” stylistic push has come from the interplay between that instrument and the drum set (the instrument that best exemplifies the genre). The differences of approach to bass playing by the likes of Foster, Page, Blanton, Prince, Brown, Mingus, Haden, Garret, Peacock, Sirone, LaFarro, Chambers, Carter, Holland, Williams, Jackson, Vitous, Johnson, Pastorius, Tacuma, Dresser, Schuller, Richmond, and Helias have defined the music of Armstrong, Basie, Ellington, Cole, Peterson, Parker and Gillespie, Coleman, Coltrane, Bley, Ayler, Evans, Davis, Davis, Davis, Hancock, Hancock, Weather Report, Weather Report, Weather Report, Coleman, Braxton, Motian, DeJohnette, and Defunkt. So there might be something coming out of the conference that will apply.


Thanks for the comments on part 2 of “Why Improvise.” While I don’t agree that interpretation is synonymous with improvisation, I do recognize that a grey area can exist in this regard. Spontaneous tempo fluctuations and dynamic shading could, in a very general sense, be considered a kind of improvisation. But I’m really looking at the whole-cloth performance of music that is not written down, that is made up on the spot. It can be structured or unstructured, but the content is not predetermined. I think that there are some musicians who improvise because “there is no alternative.” Some, like pianists Connie Crothers or Jason Moran, play music that is so individualistically significant that they are iconoclasts while others, like Kenny Werner or Mulgrew Miller, are personally distinct, but cover a wide range of musical situations.


All of the above are not only great improvisers, but also gifted composers. I haven’t asked, but I’m sure they would agree that improvising and composing are not the same things. Even if an improvisation leads to a new composition, the act of writing it down is not improvisation. And the act of thinking up a new work isn’t improvisation either, although thinking is certainly a vital part of improvisation. I can think about things to do on the changes to “All the Things You Are” for a year, but won’t have improvised anything until I’ve played it.


I’m starting to think that there might not be a lot of improvising musicians who are interested in engaging in this discussion. I’m hoping that, if that’s the case, they’ll read George E. Lewis’s monograph on “sociodidactism” and change their minds. Improvisation is best done as a group.

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2 thoughts on “Why Improvise, Part 3

  1. philmusic

    I have always said that composition is a matter of reflection and that improvisation is in the real time moment.

    Mr. Lewis, and his work, is no stranger to me. I can say that for myself as a free improviser I am an autodidact. I moved to Renwick street in the 70’s and found myself at 501 Canal street playing and performing with the NYC artists collective. Though perhaps it was Ray Nance who was my first mentor in another style.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s improv/composition page

  2. rtanaka

    Kind of disappointed that this topic didn’t generate more discussion, but that’s probably sort of indicative of where the classical music world stands right now in terms of its performance-practices. Most classical musicians won’t touch improv with a 10-foot pole, although there’s some signs that it’s starting to crop up in some schools so maybe the movement might gain a little more traction in the near future.

    It’s probably best to think of composition as a form of administration — to pull off a good performance the composer needs to utilize the rules and customs of the classical tradition to its fullest extent and arrive at a clear, repeatable result. Be professional and understand the roles and functions of each position in the ensemble that you’re working with.

    In improvisation, on the other hand, you’re basically figuring things out as it goes along and you’re at the mercy of whoever happens to be playing and whatever you happen to have around. To do good improv, you need good players who knows what to do without taking orders, compared to notated music where creativity doesn’t matter as much as long as the players are technically able. Finding these types of performers is 10 times harder, but the pay-off is that the music-making process is about 10 times more exciting.

    It’s not that one is better than the other, but as with a lot of things it just depends on what types of musicians you’re working with. I think there’s a lot of confusion right now as to when and where to employ the use of improv in musical contexts, but get to know your musicians well and there shouldn’t be too much problems I don’t think.


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