Jazz in Mud Season(originally written February, 1992)
It's always struck me as more than a little bit strange that jazz performers exhibit such originality in the pitches, rhythms, and textures they improvise and yet seem so uninterested in applying their creative talents to the form of their improvisations.
Turn on the radio and the form of your average jazz performance remains in a 50-year old rut. You know the formula: 1) everyone plays together; 2) a series of individual solos, often in a hierarchical pecking order; 3) all come together for the ending.
Does this lack of originality bug you? Just off the top of my head, here are some alternatives:
- start with a single instrument alone, on the next chorus add an instrument to make a duet, on the third chorus a trio, and so forth until the ending, which would be the first time all would play
- reverse this idea, going from the entire ensemble improvising together to just one at the end (like Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony?)
- chained duet solos -- first chorus piano & bass improvising, then on the second chorus just bass and sax, then sax and flute, and so on
- try putting the theme in the middle of the piece rather than at the beginning and the end (in John Coltrane's "Countdown," he cleverly begins with a florid improvisation and you don't hear the simple, skeletal tune it is based on until the last chorus
- you could experiment with changing the measure-length of the choruses as the improvisation progressed; you might start with a 12-bar blues, but then compress the solos into 10 bars, 8 bars, and 6 -- or even try odd-numbered length periods!
Surely if I can come up with these ideas after just 15 minutes of thought, jazz professionals could do even more to take the "formula" out of form and tow us out of this rut in jazz's extended mud season.
Well, what do you think? Can you come up with interesting ideas for jazz forms of your own (that still allow for improvisation)? Tell me about contemporary jazz performers who aren’t falling into this rut and are using their creativity in this area of musical form. I know they're out there, they just aren't (for the most part) getting onto radio stations in my area --so who are your favorites?
E-mail me your comments and I’ll post excerpts from the most interesting replies right here. Please include, if you are willing, your name, town, and country. (However, to safeguard your privacy, I will not post your e-mail address.)
Comment from Bill Pfaff, Haverhill, Massachusetts:
re: "Trapeze," his duo guitar improvisation ensemble
Bravo! When Whitman [Brown] and I first started to play together, (both after a 10 year period of only composing and study of the Ph.D. variety), it was no longer than 3 minutes into the first tune that he said he couldn't go on..."Bill, I've been playing these songs for twenty years, what would you think of playing free improvisation?"
We share a certain "conservative" aesthetic, a big reason we can do what we do: beginning-middle-end. I suppose without that, projecting a sense of unified purpose would be impossible. After that, harmony-counterpoint-phrases. Our musical selves react spontaneously and build... The mystery and beauty is that so much of it happens independent of our immediate awareness of it. Sure in a piece composed over a period of time - a paraphrase of Matisse comes to mind - the work is 'representative of a state of mind.' Good, it has a different depth. Phrase relationships are more intense and far-reaching. Harmony maybe extended more elegantly.
But for Whitman and I, both trained as jazz improvisors at an early age, we can be music now. No one I have ever heard says: "Improvisation is America's gift to the world!" It is part of it all: Bluegrass to Trapeze to Cage. Ragas, percussion orgies: other worlds embrace this gift. Americans remain suspicious. Maybe that is why the form of the average jazz "composition" is a wagon wheel in the mud, why a concert experience of it often becomes a matter of simple contrast: will the wildness and upbeat tempo of the past two tunes be contrasted now by a slow ballad, or, will the wildness continue unabated??
Historically, the reason some jazz musicians are revered is because they stretched an aspect of the art. Parker's melodic invention, Fitzgerald's vocal techniques, Pass's guitar solos. Just like in any art medium, the easist thing to be taught and learn is the proven. Yesterday's nuggets. It is implied that the practitioner internalize, reflect, question and go on. Over the years the diverse results have not been an easily marketable item. Somehow an audience has to be cultivated, educated and appreciated.
For me, the "Trapeze" opportunity has been enormously helpful in connecting us with an audience. People attend and are pleasantly surprised. The guitar is an instrument they know. One can gauge from something one knows. They are less intimidated perhaps.
Finally, I am glad to be making high quality recordings of that aspect of my musical personality. It is an aspect of me that is me...my lifeblood on the strings... Whitman's encouragement has helped me see who I am as guitarist...an extended technique free spirit. The twentieth century closes; music recordings preserve souls. Mine, too.