Recently I was asked to contribute some text to the Bennetts Lane Jazz Club weekly email.
In case you didn't see it, here it is:
Improvisation is often viewed, rightly so, as dealing with elements of the unknown. While that’s not the whole story, it remains clear that the idea of musicians ‘making it up on the spot’ often puzzles, even terrifies listeners.
However, when we consider our existence in the world: our actions, interactions, thoughts, conversations, we can see that improvisation is something we do every minute of every day. It is, in fact, the antithesis of improvisation, the faithful reproduction of a musical archetype down to the smallest detail, that is a much more alien concept when compared to how we lead our day-to-day lives.
Don’t get me wrong: our lives have structure. We go to work, buy food, hang out with friends, head out on the town. What I am talking about is much more closely related to our existence: it’s how we speak: with a learned language we assemble to communicate to others, how we walk on the street: constantly adjusting to navigate the ever changing landscape ahead/behind/to the side of us, it’s why many of us enjoy sport, or films, or books: we love the unknown, the unpredictable, the fact that anything can happen.
Really, all of us, improvising musician or not, deal with improvisation all of the time in our lives; it is not only how we live, but also why we live.
Language is still one of my favorite analogies for improvisation. A child learns to speak by imitating others. We speak everyday using a language that allows us to express ourselves to others. We have developed this command of language through countless hours of practice and performance. As adults we are (hopefully) no longer at a stage of learning phrases verbatim, relying on faithful reproduction to communicate some banal idea (“the dog has a bone”, “the weather is nice today”), we throw language around, using complex concepts as puns, pop references, irony and double entendres, all in the name of fun and communication.
Substitute the language of music for words in the above description, and this is my understanding of how musicians learn, refine and use the art of improvisation in performance. It is what fascinates me about music. I am forever eager to expand and refine my vocabulary, and trust you’ll be there to bear witness to adventure.