I’ve got a new 3QD piece out: An Improviser Is Born.
I think that musical improvisation is somewhat/deeply misunderstood, for more or less ideological reasons. That misunderstanding deserves more attention than I can give it. I’m inclined to think that, on the one hand, it’s related to the demise of improvisation in European Classical music which, for all I know, may have been, in part, a side-effect of pianos appearing in respectable middle-class parlors – “we” can’t expect all those amateurs to improvise competently. On the other hand, it may also be related to the fact that, in America, improvisation has been most closely associated with jazz, a music whose greatest performers were mostly African American. But, as I said, there’s more there than I’m prepared to address.
But I will offer an email I recently sent to a friend, Bob Krull, who is teaching himself how to improvise on piano:
Rick Rourke had a number of sax solos with Out of Control [a rhythm and blues band I played in for a number of years]. It seemed to me that once he’d developed an approach he’d play pretty much the same thing on each solo. I never talked to him about this, but I’d be surprised if he actually memorized his solo. Rather, I think he played what made sense and since the “forces” contingent upon for a solo remained pretty much the same, he played the same solo.
Joachim Berendt, The Jazz Book (1973), asserted that older musicians tended to play the same solo on different occasion. I took a quick stroll through my collection. Louis Armstrong played the same opening cadenza and same solo on “West End Blues” in 192X as he did in 1956. Cootie Williams did the same solo on “Take the A Train.” Coleman Hawkins on “Body and Soul.” Hardly a random sample, but indicative. I think bebop marked a change. Boppers are much more likely to play something different from one occasion to the next. But even there, I’ve heard very similar alternate takes from the same recording session. I once called Paul Berliner (Thinking in Jazz) and asked him about it. He said it made sense, but he didn’t really know; he hadn’t looked that much a pre-bebop solo practice.
I think the idea of a “true” improvisation is so deeply ingrained in the ideological superstructure of jazz that no one’s bothered to check it out. There’s a good dissertation of three in researching the question. Though, who knows, maybe someone’s looked into it by now.
But jazz is hardly the only music that makes use of improvisation. How much of what we hear in, say, Indian classical music or, for that matter, rock, is un-notated composition (pretty much the same from one occasion to another) rather that “make-up-again” improvisation?