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September 1990 - Nightflying Column (Ampside Chat) - Improv
by Lee Tomboulian

What is improvisation? Is it an inspiration, no sweat, as in, "Man, you just play," or is it "composition in real time?"

If you are alive, you've been doing it every day, since childhood. The flutist Leslie Burrs used to tell kids, "If you're out on the playground, playing basketball, and the teacher tells you recess is over and it's time to come in, but you decide on the spot to do one more left-handed lay-up-- that's improvisation!"

Of course, in music it's the same. Anytime you leave what to do unplanned until close to the moment of action,that's improvisation: a series of choices happening so fast that there's no self-concious awareness of choice, there's only "doing". (The soloist is on the ride too.)

There's no time to verbalize each choice in your mind, so preparation in the form of knowing your materials (i.e., the chords, melody and lyric, if applicable) is a good idea, like knowing the rules of basketball before you play. Then we can access the stream of melody.

To develop that stream of melody, pianist Art Lande suggests this method. When you're by yourself with your instrument, get quiet with yourself and listen for an inner melody. When it is strong in your mind (it might take ten seconds or half an hour), sing or hum it. Let the song go on for a while, then find the pitch you're singing on your instrument and play the melody while still singing it. If you make a mistake, keep going. You can make a quick mental note of it, but if that stops the flow, correct the error and jump back into the flow. After a few minutes, stop singing externally, but keep the inner melody going.

I used to be bothered by the instrumentalists I listened to who sang or grunted along with thir playing. Then I noticed almost all of the great ones do it, keeping that inner flow going. Folks like Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, B.B. King, George Benson-- all are good company in this. (I wouldn't want to be at a dinner party with Keith, but that's another story.)

There are several viewpoints on the question: How important is spontaneity? Pianist Chick Corea says that it's overrated, that writing out a solo,then improvising on that , is a good way of ensuring coherence. He says logic and idea flow is more important, that planning ahead is okay. In agreement, saxist Jerry Coker makes the analogy of a lawyer, who thinks on his feet in the courtroom, but he probably has extensive notes, and knows the laws pertaining to the case. The great bassist Charlie Haden says this (courtesy of Guitar Magazine):

"What I do... [is] working from tonal centers determined completely by ear. I'm talking about complete spontaneity, and going from what you hear at any given moment, and you don't begin to know what you hear at any given moment until you start to get aquainted with yourself. To become acquainted with yourself and the way you hear is like finding your own fingerprints in music, and that evolution, that thing that happens, is different for every musician."

"I don't think that you ever completely finish accomplishing this. You do this for the rest of your life...Before you can ever play music with any kind of command or impact, you have to become a great human being, and part of becoming a great human being is learning about humility. In improvisation, when you're touching music in the moment and instant of improvisation, and it is happening in a very deep and meaningful way, you are able to see yourself in a completely different perspective to the rest of the universe, different from any other time in your life. It's in that moment that you are able to see yourself and your ego in true perspective, and the first thing you see is your complete and extreme unimportance and insignificance to the rest of the universe. After you see that, then, and only then, can you see your extreme importance to the rest of the universe. The one's got to come before the other, and it always does. When that happens, you see yourself in relation to the universe in a real way, the way that you really are, with humility.

When this occurs, it centers you in the rest of your life, if you draw on what you learn from improvisation, and carry it with you into the rest of your life. It's a very difficult thing to do, to sit across from someone and give yourself completely to them and listen to every word they are saying, without thinking about any of your own problems, and really respond to them, give them feedback on what they are saying to you, in a completely selfless way-- which is what happens when you really play music. The thought process stops, because if someone is thinking when they are playing, they're not going to be able to truly play. Everything is centered in your hearing, and you have the ability to play what you hear and feel rather than what you know."

"As you grow in experience as a human being and as a musician, you start thinking and feeling on the level of music, and you don't have to be bothered with.'Am I doing the right thing?' or 'What are they going to think of this?' That is behind you. You don't think like that any more. You don't react and respond to things on the level of academia. You have to find your own voice."

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