The last of three parts on music.
We are talking about improvisation as a method for working with or being in groups – developing a set of practices that refine one’s ability to think on one’s feet and to see full opportunities in small hints (Blake’s “world in a grain of sand“). Improvisation, especially in a collaborative environment, produces material that would never otherwise arise.
And yet, it is worth pointing out that great improvisation is not simply making stuff up on the spot. Consider this from Becker’s essay:
When I used to play piano in Chicago taverns for a living, I dreaded the nights when guys who had been playing dances would come in, after their jobs had ended, to sit in with our quartet. In a traditional jam session, we would play well known tunes and everyone would have a turn to solo, improvising on the chords of the song. Why did I dread it? If there were, say, four horn players sitting in, in addition to our own, every one of them would play the same number of choruses. If the first player played seven choruses of “I Got Rhythm,” the other four would all play seven; I would have to play seven, whether I felt like it or not; the bass player, if his fingers help up, might play seven, and the drummer too; then people might start trading four bar phrases ad infinitum. That could easily add up to sixty thirty-two bar choruses of a song whose harmonies are not very rich (I was fond of songs, like “How High the Moon,” that had what we called “interesting changes,” harmonies that changed frequently and departed from the original tonality). Remember that the pianist mainly plays accompaniment for all these choruses and you can see how someone who had already played for several hours might feel like falling asleep as the procession of choruses–not very interesting ones, usually–went on interminably.It wasn’t always that bad. Once every several months, a lot of things, varying more or less randomly (although my colleagues and I often went in for theories that involved phases of the moon), would come together right, and the results would be extraordinary, we thought and felt. Usually that didn’t happen, and everyone involved was bored, not only listening to the other players’ choruses, but even to their own.Why was that? For one thing, most improvising was not quite so inventive as the language we used (and that most people still use) made out. In one way, it was in fact spontaneous, created at that moment, and not exactly like anything anyone had ever played before. But, in another way (as Paul Berliner has amply demonstrated), every one of those seven chorus solos was basted together from snippets the players had played hundreds of times before, some they had come on themselves, many slight variants of what he had heard on records (of Gillespie or Parker or Getz); among these collages, especially when it was late and we had heard it all over and over again already that night, one of us might do something that sounded to our ears really different and original, even though it might well be something we had spent a week working out in privacy rather than something invented on the spot.
Soloing in this context, the height of improvisation, does not happen out of the blue. The preconditions for excellent improvisation include:
- Practicing options and thinking about how they might work in performance
- Studying material and knowing the tradition and context of what you are doing.
- Being aware of etiquette of improvisation and understanding when to give an take.
- Being grounded in theory so that your improvised contributions make sense within the field of meaning.
In short, improvisation demands a set of highly refined personal practices that create the conditions for a perfect eight bar solo. The material payoff is miniscule in proportion to the amount of preparation, but the quality of the result can often be extraordinary, wildly out of proportion to any investment in practice.And there is another condition to take in account too, and this is tremendously overlooked. Improvisation happens on a ground which is prepared and maintained by tedious repetition and grunt work. The pianist endlessly comping chords is actually holding a harmonic space open for the freewheeling contributions from the soloist. This work is critical and it is hard. It is hard to sit through the slog and remain in the background. One wants to do something different just to keep things interesting, but to do so would change the field for the soloist. So this is the last practice of improvisation, the accompanist’s yin to the soloist’s yang: quietly maintaining the filed of play, holding space, inviting contributions and allowing people to be free while you remain both fully present and totally invisible.
In planning, facilitation and all kinds of group work, this lesson is perhaps the most important. It allows for a quiet space to be opened amidst the noise of messy brainstorming and creative endeavour. In every high performance engaged in generating amazing things, there is someone patiently comping the chords.