March 24, 2011

Thoughts on Improvisation

The study of jazz has come a long way from the days when saxophonist Don Menza was a student at a State University of New York at Fredonia and related that the practice rooms were adorned with “No Jazz Playing” signs and only half jokingly added that practicing jazz was considered a felony, playing Dixieland was a misdemeanor. We can witness the many and varied approaches to teaching a skill that had previously been passed on for many years through listening and imitation. Jazz theorists have codified and analyzed the art of improvisation to a point where it is possible to put a name and justification on almost every lick and phrase. Yet there has always been a mysterious magic to what great soloists do. Countless artists have created lasting extemporaneous musical statements long before modes, enclosures and symmetric diminished scales were considered part of a jazz musician’s vocabulary. In my role as director of the Hamilton College Jazz Archive I often asked interviewees to try to relate their thought process during improvisation. The following are excerpts taken from those interviews.

Clark Terry is a true statesmen of jazz and has long believed in the value of jazz education. Clark was interviewed in 1995 by his friend the late Joe Williams. Clark responded to a question about the role of music theory in creating an improvised solo. He takes us back to a time before musical terms were labeled and intellectualized.

Clark Terry

Clark Terry: You have to remember that years before people who came into this field, years before they knew anything about theory or harmony, composition, counterpoint, etc., they gave in to their feelings. And they were indulging in, for lack of a better term they called it “get off.” This is long before the term “improvisation” was coined, pertaining to playing music. They used to call it “get off,” which simply meant that the first chorus you played a melody, and thereafter you’d use the melody as a guidewire to simply superimpose extemporaneously a melody around this given melody. So you “get off” the melody. Even then the guys were giving vent to their feelings and expressing themselves and they would use certain things that would help them get from point A to point B. First of all the one thing that we teach our students today regardless of how much theory or harmony or composition will get in their brain, they’ve got to know when to use it. They’ve got to listen for when to use it or how to use it. Heads loaded with something they don’t know how to use it, don’t know where to use it or when to use it. So this is a lesson that we try real hard to get our students to understand. Back in those days, they didn’t know anything as you mention about these technical terms. They had nobody around to teach it. But they were determined to give in to their feelings and express themselves, and “get off.” So what’d they do? They played the Blues as the main vehicle, and they played the standard tunes, and then superimposed melody around it. But on the Blues they figured out a good way to give vent to their feelings is that somebody had to change the melody, even without knowledge, to figure out, there’s the tonic, that’s the one; then you go up the scale, one two three, that’s the third, they’d lower that a half-step, that’s the minor third; you go up one, two, three, four, five, lower that, so you’ve got a tonic, a minor third, a flatted fifth, and they didn’t know then that it constituted a half diminished. All they knew is they called them the “blue notes.” “Man you’ve got your blue notes?” “Yeah, baby I’ve got ‘em down, I’m working on F sharp now, I’m going to have that tomorrow.” …. Now you can’t pick out more beautiful and important notes in playing the Blues than those three. Then you go into your seventh. That’s all. Just that one note, those two notes or those three. Because after a while they begin to hear all of the relative notes that constitute the scale, and then they’re going to hear the four, they’re going to hear the flat five, some people call it the augmented seventh the flat sixth, the major seventh, they’ll hear the whole scale then. But after a while they’re going to be involved with playing those blue notes. The tonic, minor third and the flatted fifth, and they got it.

Bill Charlap

Bill Charlap grew up in a musical environment well after the era that Clark Terry describes. Music is often called the universal language and he finds the use of language an appropriate metaphor in describing his thought process or lack thereof when improvising. He also emphasizes the importance of listening to the sounds and the space that surround you in any given situation.

Bill Charlap: One should not be sitting there doing analytical thought when you’re improvising. It’s like language. You don’t think about the next word you’re going to say, you don’t think about how to spell it or what that word is, you just say it. It’s the same for me at the piano. Same for any musician worth their salt as a jazz musician. You think a phrase and you play that phrase. I don’t think, gee that’s the third, that’s the seventh, that’s a dotted eighth, sixteenth, there’s a whole rest here — all the technical things. … I hearken it to language because in language you have to know how to conjugate, you have to know how to speak properly, how to get your ideas across in many different ways. You might say I walked up the mountain, and you might say I slowly walked up the mountain and then I ran and then I stopped and I took a rest, I had a ham sandwich, and then I got to the top of the mountain. There’s a lot of different ways to get there. And I know many different ways, just as you would in a conversation, but you don’t think about it, you just think of what you want to express. That’s the best analogy I can give for what happens when I’m improvising. Behind it is a great deal of knowledge and experience and the ability to listen. The most important thing is to listen to the players around you, or if you’re playing solo, to listen to the air. Listen to the space, and listen to what the space needs. And if it doesn’t need anything, don’t play anything.

Ken Peplowski

Intuition plays an important role in creating your own sound, according to saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Peplowski. Ken also belongs to a younger generation of jazz artists who had access to the growing body of codified information about how to play jazz. His advice on the subject of jazz theory is basically, “learn it then forget it,” a phrase that most teachers would find difficult to pass on to their students. Ken speaks about dealing with “mistakes” and the opportunities they may present. He compares the best improvising to a mystical experience.

Ken Peplowski: A big part of improvising is forgetting what you know and just using your ear and going on intuition. Because sometimes they get very hung up in the schools on, if you have this chord you have to play this pattern over it, this is what John Coltrane did when he played. But the reason why those musicians were famous and why they were so loved is because they were individuals, with their own style and their own sound. And you have to encourage students to explore on their own also. It’s great to learn all this stuff because any knowledge is good knowledge. The trick is later to forget that. It’s like things you feed into a computer and then out comes something else. Whatever you read or whatever you live, it all comes into your music. So you can’t sit there while you’re playing and think about every single chord and what can I play over this? Because the best moments when you’re improvising, you’re actually — I hate to say this — but it’s almost an out-of-body experience. You can actually listen to yourself playing. You’re just sailing through the changes and saying oh, hey, how did I play that?

Monk Rowe: And how do I get out of something that I didn’t mean to play? Did that ever happen to you?

Ken Peplowski: Yeah. Oh, of course. In fact sometimes you can do that. You play little tricks on yourself. You paint yourself into a corner and then you try to get out of it. But as Dizzy Gillespie said one time, “you’re only a half step away from salvation at any given moment.” Because when you look at a chord and you look at extensions of the chord, you keep adding thirds onto the chord, you have every note in the chromatic scale anyway. So it’s all how it comes out at the end, how you resolve a phrase. So to me the object is not to think about every chord as an individual thing, but the whole thing is a big picture. And your object is to get from point A to point B and tell a story and have a flow to it — a beginning, a middle and an end. And getting back to the schools, that’s what I try to bring to the students, to show them how they can maybe assimilate these bits of knowledge they have, and try to find their own way of negotiating these chord changes, not forgetting the knowledge that they have. It’s important to learn that stuff but sometimes individuality is not stressed enough.

Ken is not the only player to attest to this feeling of being a conduit of the music. In a 1994 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Sonny Rollins stated that “There are some occasions where I can stand back and listen to myself play. I’m just the person standing there, moving my fingers. Certain times it’s an out of body experience.”

Joe Wilder

Trumpeter Joe Wilder is the consummate professional and a musician who has performed at the highest levels of classical and jazz music. He echoes Bill Charlap’s comments about the importance of listening and reacting to your musical surroundings and reminds us that a bit of mental preplanning can go a long way in creating effective improvisations. When asked about his thought process he offered his own connection to language and added an athletic metaphor.

Joe Wilder: These things come to you automatically. I mean usually if I’m going to play something while someone else is playing, I’ll try to think of something that I would like to start, to introduce my solo with, and it’s something that’s relative to the nature of the piece itself, and something that fits kind of harmonically with what’s going on. And I usually try to think about that. And I also think it’s just — improvisation it’s like giving a speech or something like that. You have a subject, and your interpretation of it may differ from mine, but it’s still basically the same subject so that’s a theme that you’re improvising around. And you try to play something that enhances it, and also adds a little different flavor to it. So you don’t come in and play exactly what the person played before you. You may even extract some of what he played as a lead in to what you’re going to do, so you get that dove-tailing, and it’s like passing the baton in a relay race. You do it smoothly. You’re running and you pick up the same speed as that person whom you’re going to accept the baton from or pass it to, and you get that smooth transition. If you listen to a lot of improvisation in different groups, they have that smooth transfer from one to the other. That’s the way it comes off.

Dan Barrett

Most serious students of jazz hope to make at least part of their living by playing it. Those of us who are practicing musicians know that what you would like to play and what you need to play are not always the same thing. Trombonist and arranger Dan Barrett is a frequent guest at jazz events across the country and a recording artist for Arbors Records. When asked about what students should practice in their study of jazz he offered some practical advice:

Dan Barrett: I would advise [students] that in their practicing as they’re playing scales and as they’re playing exercises and trying to improve their technique, I would take about 25 or 30% of that time and use it to study songs. And go out and buy sheet music, not just lead sheets with the chord symbols, but shell out the bucks that it takes and go out and buy Cole Porter songs and go out and buy Gershwin songs. And look at them and look at the piano parts, even if you don’t play piano. And it takes forever, I mean if you’re not a piano player, but it’s worth the effort to sit at a keyboard and hear how those inner voices move. And if the student spent a little bit of his practice time, doing that, analyzing these songs by these great songwriters he’d learn how to construct a line. Because after all these are great composers. And what we’re trying to do in jazz ostensibly is to compose, even though we’re composing spontaneously. And I think what better way to learn to compose then examining music by a great composer. So not only would you profit from that knowledge that you can gain by analyzing that music, but also you’ll learn these great songs. Once student said “well this is all well and good, but when are we going to get into the Lydian modes and all of that?” And I say, “somebody else can teach you that better than I can,” and I said “I think any knowledge is good.” And I said “it’d probably benefit you greatly to know about that. But I’ll tell you something. Playing in clubs, I’ve received five dollars here and there to play ‘Body and Soul’ and I’ve received ten dollar tips to play ‘Stardust,’ but I don’t think I’ve ever made a dime to play a Dorian mode or a Lydian mode. So it’s great to know about that stuff, but I think you’d be better off and stand a much greater chance to make a living in a fairly competitive business if you learn these songs and learn them correctly, so you make people happy.

Dan reminds us of the value of studying great and memorable melodies. If we recognize that one way to look at improvising is “composing spontaneously” as Dan states, or “superimposing a new melody over the original” as Clark Terry states, then we might well ask what makes for a good melody.

Slide Hampton

Trombonist and arranger Slide Hampton offers his opinions on the subject of a good melody.

Monk Rowe: What to you makes a good melody?

Slide Hampton: Well like anything else, [it’s] the construction of a melody. The way that it resolves naturally from one note to the other. And of courses you know you have a lot of practice in that all of the great people that came before you that wrote melodies. There’s so many great melodies that started I don’t know how long ago, a thousand years ago even maybe. But to have a melody that a person can listen to. I thought about that recently — a melody that a person can listen to that they never heard before but they still can appreciate it and enjoy it. The beauty of it. Of course you can always enjoy a melody that you know, if it’s something that you like. But to be able to play a melody or to write a melody or compose a melody that people can listen to and say yeah I like that, although I haven’t heard it before. I think that’s one of the things that — the standards that I try to look for in playing or writing a melody.

Conveying the idea that an improvisation can be melodic and enjoyable to listen to may be the most important lesson a teacher can impart.

Bill Watrous

Thoughts from one last interviewee here include two brief statements from trombonist extraordinaire, Bill Watrous. A number of years ago I had the great fortune to be able assemble an all star group to record “Jazz Life” which contains some of my own compositions, and Bill Watrous and trumpeter Wendell Brunious are on the recording. In one instance, on a tune they had never seen, they were able to pull off a seamless transition between solos that reminded me of Joe Wilder’s description of that moment soloists face. The tune is entitled, “Beyond Category” and was written for Clark Terry. There are eight bars from Wendell followed by another eight from Bill.

In addressing my question about improvisation, Bill referred to that 16-bar moment in an interview which was conducted in March of 1999, on the day after that session.

Monk Rowe: Is it possible for you to describe to a younger player what you think about when you improvise? Is it the chords that are behind you? Are you thinking about what you played six measures ago and where you re going with it? Is it possible to put that into words?

Bill Watrous: I’m thinking ahead frankly. And what I’m basically doing is I’m thinking counterpoint as I’m going. And I’m listening to the textures that the rhythm section is putting out. I’m listening very carefully to the bass and drums and the piano and trying to get a mattress to bounce on so to speak. And if everything is planned, understandable, that’s coming down, then it’s not difficult, no problem at all to just close my eyes and go and play. It’s the same with Wendell. Both of us played on one of those tunes that you had the other day, when it was not clear who was going to play, and the changes weren’t necessarily—

Monk Rowe: I was blown away by that.

Bill Watrous: Both of us just closed our eyes and just went with it. See if you blunder ahead all the time, you’ll never get anything. But if you play a little bit and then stop for a second and listen to where it’s going, and go there, there’s no problem. That’s the secret in that stuff. But people that are trying to have this constant ongoing flow, you can’t have an ongoing flow if you don’t know where the heck you’re going.

Monk Rowe: To go there, as you say, you need to have spent some years developing your ear.

Bill Watrous: Oh yeah.

Monk Rowe: What do you suggest to players to do that?

Bill Watrous: I would suggest this: I would suggest that they take those Abersold CD’s and play along and put them on, even if they don’t know the tune, and just try and feel their way through there, not getting into a panic but just going where they suggest that you go. And if you listen, if you really honestly listen, and have the ability to listen, of course that has to be developed too, ear training is one major part of this thing, if you can teach them to hear a tone and produce it on their instrument, and then hear a series of tones and do that. And if you equate what you hear with what’s coming out of your instrument, it makes it a lot easier. It makes it a much simpler job than if you’re just shooting in the dark. You have to close your eyes. I tell a lot of young players, don’t have your nose dripping on the paper man, listen to what this thing is doing, close your eyes and get into the capsule and go there. Just let your ear and your feelings sort of take you someplace. It’s worth trying. And I always get people to try to do that.

I have heard a number of artists suggest that students get their noses out of the music but that’s the first time someone has said they should stop dripping on it.

Lastly, Bill addressed the issue of “playing outside” or “playing free,” phrases that I personally feel are too frequently used to justify unfortunate note choices. I’m reminded of Dizzy Gillespie’s description of an unwanted tenor player nicknamed “The Demon,” who dominated jam sessions at Minton’s. Dizzy described him as “the first freedom player — free of harmony, free of rhythm, free of everything.” Bill was addressing a question about the times when he himself might go outside “it” — in Bill’s case “it” meaning the song and its chord progression.

Monk Rowe: Do you feel compelled to bring it back in?

Bill Watrous: I keep it in sight. While I’m doing it I keep it in sight all the time. Because I feel that if you don’t do that then you’re just everybody. I really believe that. I think that if you’re going to play outside, you better damn well know where the inside is while you’re doing it and keep it in mind and have at least a smattering of an idea as to where you’re coming from. If you’re going somewhere, you better have roots. You’ve got to have them. I think you really do. Yet there’s a lot of players that absolutely don’t care. They have no roots, I mean there’s no anchor anywhere, and they don’t want one. You’ve heard them, you’ve heard these type of players that just ramble on and they hope for a series of happy accidents. And sometimes you get them.

He obviously feels that a sometimes series of happy accidents does not cut it.

I think many non-musicians or even non-improvising musicians have the impression that after they state the melody jazz performers just proceed to play anything they want. But only in what is called “free jazz” is that even close to the truth. Improvising — making it up as you go along — in the context of most jazz performances is accomplished within a fairly structured framework. The improviser first needs to be aware of the time, the beat and the rhythm, or even the most astute note choices will sound off. Even if an improviser chooses to create phrases that seem to conflict with the steady beat — to “play against the time” — they are acknowledging where the time is. Secondly, the soloist is trying to choose from a pallet of notes that match the chords. Depending on the number of chords per measure and the tempo of the song, this can be a daunting task (think Bebop!). Again, the improviser may choose to play “outside the chord” but in doing so acknowledges what is inside. As Bill Watrous said in the last excerpt, “if you want to go outside, you better know what’s inside.”

Also, the soloist is trying to “get off” the melody but has to be aware that the melody was written within a defined and repeated structure — typically a 32-bar AABA form or a 12- or 16-bar Blues. Losing sight of this may find you committing a classic faux pas, ending your solo in the middle of the form thus garnering a mystified look from the bandmates, who know where they are in the structure.

For me, improvising is a type of problem solving (not a particularly romantic description I admit). But if the “problem” of creating something new within the aforementioned parameters is solved melodically and memorably, the romance will come along with it.

My favorite improvisers have had this rare ability to spontaneously create mini-melodies, licks or phrases that somehow sound just right for the moment. There really is no explaining it, for that is what makes it magical. A well known jazz method declares “Anyone Can Improvise.” Maybe. And perhaps anyone can sculpt a marble statue, compose a sonnet or choreograph a pas de deux. But what elevates the very few into that rare place that makes us pay repeated attention? What inspires us to imitate their innovation? If someone figures out what exactly that is and codifies it, I would rather not know. I would rather keep the magic unexplainable.

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