Wow, are you really making that up? (The Art of Improvisation)

I remember when I used to listen to BB King and Robert Cray as a teenager, I would try and mimic the guitar tones I heard, the phrasing… and I started to fit the phrases into the scale positions I saw in books… so I was using my ear and a bit of theory. I think that’s pretty typical for the way a young improviser learns. You are in effect learning a language with vocabulary and rules, but more importantly, with sounds.

Language and music have a lot in common. There are situations in language where we make it up as we go along (in conversation), and there are times when phrases are prepared in advance (a speech). But even with a conversation that might seem to just happen on-the-spot, the two speakers would be constantly referring to things they have in common, things established in the past – those things draw them together, a type of bonding. So the amount of “new material” in a typical conversation is limited. In the same way, musicians jamming together will look for common ground, they will rely on conventions that most musicians of a certain level are familiar with, like a 12 bar blues. The improvising would not only be the solos, but the way the chords and rhythm are played.

In performance
Like a stand up comedian prepares his act meticulously but appears to speak spontaneously to the audience, a jazz musician improvises after 1000s of hours of practising phrases, different combinations over different structures. Rhythmic practice is also very important, maybe even more than melodic practice. A piano, saxophone or guitar solo can be like a drum solo, but with notes! And just like a comedian, an instrumentalist needs confidence in delivery. If you look confident, you can play anything!

Also, as a stand up comic will have to keep the flow going, keep the energy level going to keep the crowd interested, an improvising musician must keep the rhythm and energy of the solo flowing. He/she will draw from previous experience soloing in a similar environment. If a “bum note” is made, one that doesn’t seem to fit or sounds wrong, the improviser will then work to make it sound right… you can make it appear that you “meant it”. Perhaps a bit like when an actor misremembers a line and then improvises from that point to make it seem natural.

Perception towards improvisers
Sometimes when I’ve been teaching people the background or theory to jazz improvisation, I find some students (even ones with years’ experience) are surprised there is so much theoretical background to the solos musicians like Charlie Parker created. I often hear “I thought they were just making it up, feeling it.” This attitude probably comes from the image of “free jazz”, those quite uncomfortable, often disturbing sounds created by some musicians in the 1950s and 60s (bored with the conventions and safety in regular jazz harmomy). They appeared to play notes at random, often associated visually with a type of Modern Art, random strokes of paint across a canvas. Perhaps that encouraged people’s belief that jazz musicians just turn up and play, and have no discipline or refined methodology. Anyway, in either traditional jazz, bebop (Parker’s style) or free jazz, that’s clearly not the case- there are scales, chords, harmony or a conscious absence of these elements. Jazz musicians have also borrowed a lot from classical theory, and we see a lot of experimentation both in 20th Century classical and jazz music. Perhaps the tendancy to improvise in jazz comes more from the African input into American music. (There again we see improvisation in Celtic music and many other folk forms around the world)

Can’t be good at everything…
Often it seems that a virtuosic improviser doesn’t have much to say composition-wise. Maybe that’s because they spend most of their time making sure they can solo over any musical context, which hones certain skills, but perhaps they have less of a sensitivity of space for that reason, that they’re always filling in gaps with notes. The successful composer/ songwriter often has the other problem, their soloing ability is limited because they’ve not spent the necessary 1000s of hours practising scales and phrases. Also of course, people will gravitate towards what they feel they do best. A good example of a bandleader/ composer with vision would be Miles Davis. He seemed to know how to create space, create a new musical context that his colleagues could then improvise in. Miles himself never seems to have been particularly lauded for his own soloing, but maybe that’s because the landscapes he created superceded his soloing power. On the other hand, an jazz virtuoso like Oscar Peterson has not generally been known for his compositions but for his technical mastery of the piano. I’m sure jazz fans can now give me a list of those who were great at both…

The Electric Guitar – a symbol of rebellion?

Examples of Rock Rebellion… NOT!
-Brian May on the roof of Buckingham Palace 10 years ago, or his strutting in the London Olympic Closing Ceremony.
-Roger Daltrey and The Who receiving the Kennedy Center Honors award from George W Bush in 2008.
-Mick Jagger and Jeff Beck performing at the Whitehouse, then Obama joining in on vocals over a blues. Who feels more honoured?

Often parents contact me now saying their sons of 7 or 8 years old want to learn to play the electric guitar. It’s easy enough to get a small electric guitar and amp from Argos. But why?

Maybe it’s my own preconceptions, but I want the electric guitar to symbolise something adult, or at least a transition between childhood and adulthood, a rite of passage… i.e. teenage years. But then it’s impossible to capture what those teenagers in the 1950s and 1960s lived when they picked up guitars and wrote songs at their friends’ houses, like Lennon & McCartney and countless others did. Now we are in a different age, and the electric guitar has gone through several incarnations.

When I was listening to the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix as a child, I was already the next generation on from the previous fans, as that music was all over in 1970, and I was born in 1972. By the time I picked up the guitar it was the mid/ late 1980′s and the Sixties seemed a world away from the increasingly Stock-Aitken&Watermanised studio-produced pop that was dominating the UK charts. We are now 25 years on from then… so by now, what does the idea of rock music represent?

The symbol of the electric guitar is now a commodity… I can buy into rock by putting an electric guitar round my neck (and possible a cheesy Kiss/ Aerosmith wig!). The rock ‘n’ roll of the 80s (already tired in the days of Bon Jovi) has now become a parody of a parody… so we see bands like The Darkness (these days classified as Glam Rock) and adverts on the TV making fun of the big hair and over-the-top stage antics. Of course this ties in with the tendancy the British already have, of making fun of themselves! So the image of the overly made-up rock star on stage, down on his knees playing a 1000 mile-an-hour guitar solo is now a well-worn cliche… but we still want to do it!!

Stateside we can see similar phenomena in films like Jack Black’s School of Rock.and to some extent, in the talent shows like American Idol. These days it would also be normal to have a School of Rap, School of R&B, School of Jazz. All can be packaged. I imagine a futuristic multiple choice where a computer-generated voice requests… Press 1 to be a Rock God, 2 to be Eminem, 3 to be Soul Diva/ or R Kelly, or 4 to be big band Andy Williams crooner.

Of course nothing shows us that the electric guitar is a commodity more than the game with plastic instrument and other add-ons supplied, Guitar Hero! I suppose it’s that all-inclusive roleplaying mentality, like Karaoke… you can have a piece of the action without really being able to play. I can play the guitar well, but I struggle with Guitar Hero… the different coloured buttons confuse me!

Oh I forgot, there are Air Guitar championships. But just Google it. Enough said.