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Synth Sense

Improvisation. You know, making it up, off the top of your head. Of course you can do it.

What's wrong with making it up? Andy Honeybone says nothing (is).

Let me present some views on improvisation. Musicians often seem either heavily into it, or avoid it like... the lurgy. The reasoned view that improvisation skills are just one facet of a rounded musicianly talent does not seem to hold true. Why are many players wary of the spontaneous?

There is a common misconception that improvisation is all the fault of a rather grubby form of music which begins with the letter J and ends in a double Z. Okay, there is more than a passing connection, but Elgar's "Enigma Variations" arose from the composer's improvisations at the piano, and that's just one of countless classical examples.

And what about Heavy Metal guitar solos, or Country and Western instrumental breaks? Are these displays of virtuosity simply regurgitations of material previously worked out, or is the guy playing it the way he feels that night? Even if the solo was highly planned, did that forward scheming still have roots in earlier improvisations?

But what part can improvisation play in pop music? With the exception of brief ultra-high sax solos, current pop is practically devoid of any obvious displays of virtuosity. That is not to say that keeping a steady rhythm or repeating a bass figure with absolute precision is undemanding. It's rather that these tasks are perceived as a background to the vocal. Soul/funk styles are more amenable to the inclusion of solo space and a real piano over an electronic backing appears an evergreen combination. For these last categories of keyboard persons and all you closet jazzers, here's some further thoughts on how it's done.

What follows is a necessarily personal view. Accounts of the process of improvisation range from the intensely cerebral to the dismissive "play what you feel". Those who adopt the intellectual approach may be covering fears of their own lack of "feel' while the more brash "cards close the chest" types may be trying to avoid their bluffing being found out.

Given a favourable reverberant environment, it appears only natural for a musician to burst into song. The chances are that the melody will be improvised. As vocal artists such as Bobby McFerrin well know to their cost, public acceptance of improvisation is infinitely greater if the sound emerges from an instrument. The basis of improvisation for an instrumentalist is therefore a bridge between the melody in the mind and the mechanics of the instrument. How this bridge is built is impossible to quantify but it would appear that even in the case of particularly good improvisers, the linkage is imperfect and the melody is influenced by physical aspects of performance — the easy ways to move your fingers.

Because it is so difficult to get people to talk sensibly about improvisation we find that most tutors concentrate on traditional skills, or present pages of II V7 progressions and the like. Ear training is a favourite starting point so that you can associate perceived musical intervals with their positions on the keyboard, or whatever. This facility is undeniably useful but is only one possibly optional part of the necessary tool kit. The development of vocal skills in singing favourite solos is also preached.

The nitty-gritty of the subject is rapidly approaching. The question is "can anyone improvise given enough ground rules?". When an article in the American "Keyboard" magazine proposed that everyone could improvise, a dispute arose with Oscar Peterson who denied that this was so and blamed this view for the number of second-rate performers.

Given a good knowledge of chords and scales, it is possible to "improvise" a melody over a chord sequence by picking chordal tones and passing notes and throwing in idiomatic rhythms. Given a good ear and memory, it is possible to "improvise" a melody from fragments of other peoples' solos. Whether these correspond to true improvisation or whether that demands genius is not a question I could hope to answer. Most likely it's a subtle blend of all of them.

But improvisation is a multi-level process. The inner mind might be coming up with the melody but there are other voices having their say. For example, something has to dictate changes in mood or style as the improvisation progresses. Some part of the brain might be reminding you that a Herbie Hancock octave tremolo might be effective at some point. Further self-criticism may be goading your endless repetitions or lack of invention.

At this point in the piece, the editor's guiding words loom large in my mind; "Give them something they can go away and try," he says, and it's wise not to disagree. So this is what you do. Listen to some solos. Anything you like from Mrs Mills to Cecil Taylor or It Bites. Analyse what's going in on terms of where the melodic material may have originated, what rhythms are being used, the texture of the solo, whether it reaches a climax, etc, etc, then learn to sing the solo. Work out the chords that are under the solo and then, preferably from memory, find out what the solo looks like on the keyboard. If you can manage the chords with the left hand then put them in and observe which notes go well with particular chords. The last step is to create your own solo over the same chords by using the associated notes in different orders with different rhythms. You might even come up with an original tune.

In a pure jazz context, improvisation could be described as the ingredient which turns a 32 bar standard chorus into a 20 minute epic. Jazz has more than its share of critics who argue that spontaneity is no substitute for calculated composition. I've used the word "calculated" deliberately because to counter the last attack I would suggest that there are many 20 minute "Classical" epics which use every compositional device under the sun (ie sequence, inversion, fugue, etc) to wring the very last drop from one eight bar melodic fragment.

Improvisation has generated jazz classics such as Miles Davis' solo on 'So What?', and the tune 'Moody's Mood' (George Benson et al) comes from a solo by James Moody to 'I'm In The Mood For Love'. Both these examples, along with many others, have had vocalese lyrics set to them. Charlie Parker's legendary alto break on an out-take of 'Night In Tunisia' was considered so outstanding as to be separately issued on record. Admittedly, the results of improvisation in general are a very variable quantity and it would be hard to deny that the mediocre far outweighs the inspired. But this gamble is the very life of the art.

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Nov 1986

Feature by Andy Honeybone

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