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.

The band formula… what works? Case study: Level 42

What makes a band click and strike a chord that resonates with many people?

Case study: Level 42!

Even though Level 42 still plays in some form, I will use the past tense as I’m interested in their 1980′s legacy.

Mark King, he would admit himself, is/was not a great singer but he’s always been able to sing with confidence, and in tune! His main skill was playing the bass, I would say he was peerless in his rhythmic slap style. His bassplaying, singing, his enthusiasm and most of all, his acceptance and relish of being the front man of the band really showed.

Mike Lindup: A refined falsetto voice complimenting King’s gruff tones. A great keyboard player (Guildhall graduate), he looked like he really had freedom to do his thing, they all clearly loved the jazz fusion they’d been listening to in the 1970s: Return to Forever, Weather Report, Miles Davis. His Jan Hammer-style synth solos and comping gave the band that fusiony sound right from the beginning of their jams and first recordings in 1980.

The Gould brothers, (Phil-drums, Boon-guitar) took a back seat on stage, but were very good players, especially Phil Gould, highly respected for his tasteful, musical playing. Again, these two were key to the success of the band because, though they didn’t make a big deal out of it, they wrote most of the lyrics, and so the concepts and subject matters of these songs were theirs.

The 5th Beatle: Not George Martin, but in Level 42′s case, Wally Badarou (France/Benin) co-wrote and played keyboard on many of their tracks. It’s hard to know exactly the extent of his influence, as he’s one of these producers who likes to do things behind the scenes and not take the limelight.

Level 42 is one of the few bands (or only band?) to have incorporated jazz fusion lines and melodies into their pop hits, without anyone noticing… normally these phrases would be edited out as being unnecessary for pop tastes, but not with L42. For example, one of their biggest hits “Hot Water” starts with a bebop/blues style riff with rhythmic displacement (muso-talk!)… and they play this even to a mainstream Wembley crowd!

Intellectual subject matters that seemed to go in direct opposition to the bouncy funk beats slapped by Mr King… e.g. Kansas City Milkman- “I’m just a common man, of that there is no shame, is there?”; Running in the Family- “Like a dream within a dream we’re all somewhere in between”; A Floating Life- “Shed your tears for a shallow dream/Let your cry be a primal scream/A song through the mists of time/ A serenade to your concubine” …and what about this, from World Machine: “Teachers teach and preachers preach of spiritual evolution/But this big I am from Uncle Sam just adds to my confusion”!

Watching the 1986 Live at Wembley concert, there’s almost a yob, football crowd mentality about cheering Mark King on with his slap bass solo, like a macho thing… “Go on Mark! Give it some Mark!” I don’t think anyone else has pulled in that type of reaction for slap bass solos in front of a mainstream audience (maybe Flea from RHC Peppers). In that solo, you can’t actually hear the notes he’s playing, just the percussion, but that doesn’t matter, it’s entertainment!

It’s hard to define what pulls in a crowd at a certain point in time. Level 42 somehow hit the zeitgeist in 1986/7, their album Running in the Family was their biggest album by far, with singles doing well all over the world. They managed to bring funk, jazz, intellectual (if a bit pretentious) lyrics, football crowd style adulation of the bass guitar, and pop sensibilities together into a successful product.

They then went over the edge in my opinion, the original essence of that jazz fusion sound was lost, and the music just became regular pop schmaltz. Two of those unique ingredients of the original successful recipe, the Gould brothers, left the band after making Running in the Family, and it showed, as session musicians Gary Husband, Alan Murphy and others came in to fill the gaps. The new guys were great players but didn’t have that X factor that had made the original band formula work so well.

I wonder what some of those great basslines Mark King played would have sounded like with some great soloists of the 80s improvising on top… like guitarist Pat Metheny or saxophonist Michael Brecker…? Well it probably would have stayed in some vault, stored as obscure jazz! That’s why Level 42 was a winning formula for more than 5 years…

Moral of the story: Use the strengths and resources of everyone in the band and don’t worry if you haven’t heard that mix of elements before… “If it ain’t broke…”