Improvisatory Skills

For the last week and a half, my wife Francesca and I have had the honor of part-time hosting a poet and performance artist, Lisa Alvarado, who is moving to our fine city. We went to a poetry reading by Martin Espada, John Murillo and Virginia K. Lee at Cave Canem and I was so impressed with what I heard that I couldn’t come up with an idea for this week. I went as far as to go to the late night jam session at Cleopatra’s Needle, but could only come up with these fragments: “Improvisation vs. non-improvisation,” “Shared experiences in each with audience?” “Pathos vs. Ethos,” “Three kinds of American music and their principal sociological makeup: Can there be experiential equivalence between the three?” Not a hopeful sight to see when I woke up this morning. But while I was going through my inbox I saw that a singer I know, Elli Fordyce sent me a link to a TED talk that glued it all together. The presentation, “Your Brain on Improv” is by Charles Limb, a doctor and pianist who made a research project out of taking another pianist and a free-style rap artist and using a functional MRI to map the blood flow in their brains while they were improvising.

This isn’t a new experiment and the TED clip was from last year, but one of the comments on the blog that was included in the email I was sent disturbed me deeply.

This is so awesome. But one thing I want to mention about jazz improvisation along with free style rapping is that it isn’t just completely a purely creative process. I studied music in college and I know a lot of guys who were in the jazz program. Jazz improvisational skills are taught by learning licks and solos. It’s about building a mental catalog of phrases and patterns that you can then use and modify. I imagine the same process applies with rapping. Creation is more about emulation and modification than just pure originality. Not to say that originality is not possible, but when you hear these guys playing jazz on the keyboard, these are skills that were taught.

This is so wrong. “Jazz skills,” like most non-Western art music are traditionally developed through group interaction. It’s true that there are certain melismatic “licks” that define the genre and, when properly employed, can resonate with the musician’s audience and learning solos is a time-tested way to learn and develop a phrasal vocabulary and style. But the “mental catalogue” that the blogger refers to is rarely thought about during a performance and is probably done more in afterthought than in premeditation.

Probably the preeminent example of this is found in the historical overview of John Coltrane’s solos. When he began his recording career, one hears his use of phrases borrowed from the solos of others, but during the 1950s, he began incorporating and developing more of his own motivic inventions to the extent that by 1960, the only solos he quotes are his own. It’s as if he listened and learned so many of others’ solos just in order to have a firm grasp on what to not play. Joe Henderson was the same way. He would go as far as to raise his saxophone’s bell over his head and quote large tracts of Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Ornette Coleman solos that were inaudible to almost everyone but his accompanists and then lower it back to the microphone and play what was more recognizable as his own sound, style and vocabulary.

I remember that nobody “taught” me to play the guitar until I had figured out how to follow along with the radio. Then I was offered lessons with Jerry Hahn, who basically taught me how to read tabular notation, construct chords from letter-name symbols, and the PIMA system of finger picking. When I studied bass, I was taught how to hold the instrument. My jazz “lessons” were about oral history and what the important recordings to listen to were. As for how to construct solos, I was told to “play what you sing.” And learning a solo wasn’t done by writing it down. You learned it by playing along with the recording until it was memorized. Improvising is not about “emulation and modification,” it’s about invention. At best it’s about discovering what sounds good to you when you play it and then inserting it in an appropriate situation. I invent bass lines by using traditional harmonic voice-leading and listening to what everyone else is doing. When I play with my peers, we are in a continuous and multi-faceted dialog with each other.

This communal aspect of improvisation is explored superficially in Limb’s video. He “trades fours” with the pianist in the MRI, alternating four-measure phrases over a blues progression. But the subject is still playing simultaneously with a recording that he heard before the experiment began. He doesn’t get to interact with his accompaniment, only play over a static one. This limits the sense of engagement one gets when playing with people. When Limb tests his freestyle rapper, the artist in the MRI is randomly given words to reset his improvisation from. The thing that impressed me about this was that the rapper’s visual cortex was engaged, even though his eyes were closed. This is more like the kind of situation that a jazz musician experiences in “the wild,” not the solo piano improvisation by Keith Jarrett that Limb uses to describe jazz improvisation (although, judging from his wandering eyes and vocalizations that Jarrett is engaged in pretty serious synesthesia during when he plays solo piano).

One of the conclusions that Limb comes to is that science has a lot to learn from art. I would suggest that a lot could be learned about the creative process by interviewing his subjects about what they think about when they’re playing. Paul Berliner did this in his book, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (U. of Chicago, 1994). In it, he interviews some of the best jazz musicians in New York and allows them to talk about how they learned to play. I think that Limb’s experiment really shows how dangerous it is to try to explain the nuts and bolts of human culture by monitoring isolated acts of culture making, which are processes of social interaction over sometimes long periods of time. It really shows how divorced from the community the academy can get.

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One thought on “Improvisatory Skills

  1. Elli

    First, thanks for the mention, Ratzo! Having just watched the video from TED Talks that you spoke about, for the first time, I loved seeing your take on it. And I’d like to go on record as saying that you are one of my favorite and most exciting improvisors. I’ve never seen (or sung with) you when you were not excited about what you were playing, really present and listening, contributing on a high energy level as well as immense musical expertise to the musicians and audience. It’s always a supreme pleasure and you might have noticed that whenever I have a gig, you’re my first-call bassist. We go way back, you and I, and I’m always amazed and delighted, especially with your solos. I know the audience is in for a treat if Ratzo is on board.

    Best,

    Elli
    http://www.ellifordyce.net

    Reply

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