Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Split Second Creativity

Madhav Chari, perhaps India's most erudite jazz pianist, continues his exploration of jazz basics, this time looking at improvisation.


One of the guiding features of Jazz is the process of improvisation, the creation of music in real time. In other words what a Jazz improviser does is compose music instantly, requiring a unique synthesis of mind, body, emotion and spirit, and a thorough knowledge of the Jazz music form.

It sounds like magic. It is magic when the musicianship is outstanding, when the musicians on stage are reacting to each other and having a spontaneous dialogue with each other, within the parameters set by the music form. In India we already have instances of improvisation in Carnatic and Hindustani music.


However Jazz music, more so than any other music form in the world, has taken the process of group improvisation to another level altogether. The organization of the group is more democratic, and closer to the ethos of American culture at large, which in spite of its flaws is still the most democratic culture on the globe. The performance of Jazz music on stage echoes this egalitarian perspective.

Democracy in Jazz does not mean anarchy and chaos. It means that all individuals on stage have perspectives that are valid, but there is still organization within the music and the group, that does not make it into a free for all “I am expressing who I am no matter what anyone thinks” adolescent exercise. What it means is that the individuals on stage have to learn how to listen and listening is the most important foundation for improvisation. A true dialogue cannot exist without listening.

Say you have four musicians on stage, a saxophonist, pianist, double bassist, and drummer. In the performance the saxophonist is the designated leader of the group. But in the course of the actual performance, any of the four musicians can become the lead improviser, and the other three have to support the leader according to the conventions of the music form. Who decides to lead arises from the ability to listen to each other. Occasionally the leader of the group may give cues that indicate the sequence of lead improvisations or certain sections that have to be played together.

Also a lead improviser is fed by all or some of the musicians on stage, so it is not accurate to say that the other musicians serve as some sort of backing track to the lead improviser. Improvisation is a process of continuous dialogue with other musicians on stage within the conventions of Jazz music.

When a musician improvises, it is actually erroneous to say that everything in the music is spontaneous and created instantly. Musicians learn the vocabulary, grammar and idiomatic nuances of Jazz music with technical expertise on their instrument, that becomes the foundation for the dialogue. This is similar to learning how to speak English with its idiomatic nuances and being able to spontaneously converse with a friend in real time on a topic of your choice.


So schedule a relaxed evening at home after dinner with or without some friends on comfortable armchairs or couches, with a glass of wine, cognac or your favorite single malt, or any other liquid refreshment of your choice, and listen to two great recordings “Serenity” and “Anniversary”, recorded live on the same night in a Jazz club in Copenhagen over twenty years ago by the great saxophonist Stan Getz. The recordings also feature outstanding New York musicians Kenny Barron on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums, and are models of spontaneous group interaction and good taste. Two hours of magical improvisation by some of the greatest Jazz masters is an evening you’ll never forget!

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