Just what happens when a group of keyboardists get together to improve their improvisation chops?
It's a hard life at the workshop for the modern keyboard player. Andy Honeybone attends, for us, the cutting edge of fiddling about.
Cold and cavernous, the local Arts Centre was the venue for an improvisation workshop. My presence was dictated by the same kind of perverseness that makes people take up jogging or eat brown bread — it would do me good. Besides, such things ought to be supported and you never know who you might meet.
The place was hardly packed, the participants only just out-numbering the band that were running the session. My eyes were drawn in the direction of the keyboards — a Roland RD1000 sampled piano and a Bechstein grand (the former resting on its custom stand, resembling a stripped-down Dalek). The top of the Roland was littered with 3.5in discs for a Mirage sampler, rack-mounted at knee-crunching height.
The atmosphere was as you might imagine a lonely-hearts club to be. Each of us had to give an account of experience, ability and musical preferences. There may only have been a few of us but our aspirations covered the whole jazz spectrum.
The opening address was, in my opinion, a bit heavy for 11 o'clock on Saturday morning. In so many words, we were called a bunch of bimbos for turning up and expecting that there were any short cuts to musical proficiency. This obviously struck home because a fairly animated exchange was soon going on as we, the accused, tried to defend our positions. Things came to a head when the guys out front issued a challenge. It was to improvise on a Cmaj7 and F two-bar riff using nothing but the C major scale.
After an illustrative blow, it was our turn. We tried. The results were too concordant to be described as chaos but with drummers being swapped and no clear soloing order, the piece had no direction and none of us felt confident enough to do anything about it.
My fellow pianist was criticised for his posture at the keyboard. Posture is vital for a good sound. Sitting too far back on the stool means that you cannot obtain the best leverage to extract the maximum dynamic from the piano. Playing with the wrists too low means that the wrong muscles are being used and that the crisp attack given by the fingers "pushing off' is lost.
A more general criticism of the first improvisation was that the solos were either too constrained and lacked interest or were undisciplined and used notes outside those prescribed. Players who practice alone can lose a sense of space in their solos and resultingly are over busy. None of us chose to refer to thematic material in our improvisations and a drummer who completely changed the feel was given a strong dose of verbal.
Parts were then hastily scribbled for the old standard 'All Of Me' which was to be given swing, Latin, and rock feels in consecutive choruses. There was an immediate problem. I know this might sound like one of those stories where a man goes to a doctor and asks about some dodgy symptoms that his 'friend' has, but the problem was that a keyboard colleague couldn't think fast enough to play some heftily extended chords given their symbols. Regular readers of this column will probably be sick to death of monster chords so, more practically, the advice was not to let big chords scare you. The fundamental triad on which they are based is more acceptable than a gap.
Of the three styles, everyone seemed to have a favourite, one to get by on, and a black spot. The piece suffered from the same organisational problems as the first but everyone seemed happier to be playing a chord sequence rather than a two chord vamp. The cyclical nature of the piece gave another comment from our mentors: the first bar of the repeat (of an eight bar phrase) is bar nine, not bar one. In other words, don't restart your solo right back at the beginning again just because the chords have come round again — play over the join and keep building.
Late back after lunch I found the lads heavily into 'Blues In F' with all the morning's tuition apparently unobserved. Perhaps that's unfair because I've noticed before that a band that you've dismissed as dire seems to sound great when you sit in with it.
I asked the band's keyboard man if he felt that, to become a fluent improviser, there could be an alternative to a heavy diet of scale and broken chord studies. He joked that it didn't suit him to think so, but admitted that his analysis was necessarily retrospective. His own progression was from childhood lessons, through Jimmy Smith records, to working in bands. He was concerned that he did not give the impression that his solos were endless regurgitations of scales. The notes were just under his fingers when he needed them. Your improvisations can only be as good as your technique will allow.
The afternoon continued with a written arrangement with a nasty whole-tone riff that showed up the need for economical fingering. Things were beginning to swing a little more as we became less edgy.
So, just to rock the boat again, the next piece was alternate bars of 7/4 and 6/4. Finally, a wind-up 12-bar but in A major to really make us think.
And that was it. A day of musical banana skins, uncomfortable situations and endless barracking. The things you have to go through for journalistic integrity.
My thanks to Full Circle in general and Paul Flush in particular for a day to be remembered.
Feature by Andy Honeybone
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