More on “How to Improvise”
I’ve been reading about the process of reconstructing a historically significant concert for a modern performance. The effort of finding period instruments and performers who can play them, studying extant scores and supporting literature and conferring with the research of like-minded experts seems like an arduous one. I found myself reflecting on Mendelssohn’s mounting of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and how its realization was reliant on a certain amount of editing and re-orchestration. Gunther Schuller’s unveiling of Charles Mingus’s Epitaph also crossed my mind, although, in this case, access to many of the composer’s friends and colleagues was possible. The event I was reading about was Maurice Peress’s recreation of the legendary Aeolian Hall performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, when Gershwin himself played the piano to the ripieno of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. I found it in the conductor’s book, Dvořák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots (Oxford Press, 2004), that he recommended to me. I want to thank Mr. Peress for the recommendation because, despite the amount of documented disdain directed at Whiteman’s music, Gershwin’s masterpiece falls far from the adjectival category I used to describe the work of the “King of Jazz.” So, here and now, I retract my assessment of everything that Paul Whiteman called “jazz” as “drivel.” Even though Rhapsody in Blue is anything but jazz, it is also anything but drivel.
Another perk that the reflection on this research gave me is that it has made me reconsider the kind of preparation and the arduous efforts that improvising musicians bring to their work. I know I wrote about this subject in a previous entry, but now I find myself comparing the kind of research, study, conference, practice, and attention to equipment issues that improvising musicians indulge themselves in with those of the musically literate genres (to borrow a term used by Amiri Baraka when he was known as LeRoi Jones). This reconsideration was inspired by a late-night mixing session of music in equal parts composed and improvised that was recorded last month.
Decisions are often made in the witch’s cauldron of the recording studio about what takes, or parts of takes, to include in a final product. More often than one might imagine (or admit) the result is an entirely new work, almost unrecognizable from the original versions that were butchered to construct it—a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, both grotesque and beautiful to behold. But more often there is just the process of listening, altering and da capo that one, especially the engineer, hopes isn’t a Sisyphean endeavor of improvisation à la Mandelbrot.
While we were playing with levels, panoramic schemata, equalization settings, cross-fade adjustments and the like, I thought about the year’s worth of rehearsals that went into the date, the amount of solitary practice dedicated to finding strategies to play music that will—by design—never be mastered, and the amount of work that went into composing it. Then I compared that with what I do for any “gig”: making sure that I’m up on the chord progressions and instrumental techniques I’ll need to play in a situation where little other than bare frameworks are provided (frameworks that will, in large part, probably by replaced by ones not practiced); the preparation to sight read a new work, or learn a piece by ear, in performance—it almost seems nerve-wracking.
I would like to hear from fellow improvising musicians, of every stripe (or square), about some of the things they do to prepare for various kinds of performance situations. For instance, if I’m going to play an evening of bebop, I tend to practice at home on the electric bass. I might read through stuff in my library or work on chord progressions that I know I’ll be playing. If I can, I’ll do that for a couple of days before, along with my regular routine, which is pretty irregular. I might play through the chord progressions on the piano or guitar and then, right before I’m ready to leave, I might spend 15 to 20 minutes warming up on my upright bass (if the neighbors don’t complain—and, occasionally, when they do). That warm up might be just “walking” through alternating choruses of blues and rhythm changes that modulate through all the keys, or it might be playing the melody to a tune. Sometimes, I’ll play along with the television or radio (helps keep the ear sharp). Usually, I listen to anything but bebop, though. But I can’t say why.
I think that what we do to prepare are the initial stages of how we improvise and could be of interest, or even value, to someone reading this blog. I, for one, am looking forward to reading the comments.