Improvisation, Part 1-2
Happy New Year everyone. Hope 2000 was as great a year for you as it was for me and I hope 2001 is even better.
The following is a letter from an AAJ fan with some questions about scales and improvisation. I was asked to try and wrestle these questions to the ground and turn the answers into an article (or two). Check out the letter:
I have a question, which might make a good topic for an article - maybe. In an old interview with Frank Zappa I read a while back, he talks a bit about his guitar playing and some of the nuts and bolts of his group's improvisations. He makes an interesting remark about how in an improv; the soloist (i.e. Frank himself) might think, "let's play a mixolydian scale here" at the exact moment that his bassist might think, "oh, let's play a diminished scale here". Basically he's saying that this would not be a desirable effect in his guitar solo pieces and that coordinating the harmonic setting/events of the improvisation is an important part of his performances.
Now, I fully realize that 'way out' kind of jazz would be full of clashing harmonies as Frank is describing...in fact, consonance may even be something freer players would want to avoid. My question is at what point in jazz do we start to hear players no longer playing in complete 'scalar agreement' with one another? I'm not talking necessarily about total dissonance or atonality or bitonality...I'm talking about one guy playing mixolydian and another guy playing dorian with the same root, possibly by 'mistake' during an improv. (Also, let's exclude from discussion any incidental use of chromatic scales...)
Did this kind of thing happen in pre-free jazz? Or did it happen later? When a hard bop group saw Cmaj7 on the lead sheet, did that mean they could only play one set of notes at that chord change? Or did Cmaj7 imply a number of possible scales (with a C root) from which each player could play from, regardless of what the rest of the band is doing?
Michael, a rock guy trying to expand his horizons
Well Michael, where to begin?
First I want to say it's great that you're trying to expand your horizons (always a commendable endeavor) and I hope I can shed a little light on your new path.
First lets back up a moment and look at how musicians learn to improvise. I myself see two main ways. Let's call the first way the Charlie Parker method of learning to improvise. I'm sure Mr. Parker practiced, especially when he was younger, but his main way of learning was simply through experience, by listening to other great musicians around him. Through his incredible ears and gifted depth of creativity he picked out the hip ideas that other musicians were playing and then added his own to make those incredible new lines of his. He wasn't thinking a lot about scales or harmony, though of course he knew about harmony. He was mostly using his ears! The second way that a musician can learn to improvise let's call the John Coltrane method of learning to improvise. Trane was the opposite of Bird. He didn't stop practicing and studying. He slept with his horn so that he could start practicing the moment he got out of bed. He practiced on the breaks at gigs and every other free moment he could find. He was a searcher. He searched for new scales and modes from all over the world. He studied out of violin books and harp books. He used the Slonimsky book of scale patterns. Trane learned by studying as well as using his own incredible ears!
So we have two very different ways of learning the mechanics of improvisation but, and here's the big but, when Bird or Trane got on the bandstand to perform neither of them spent much time "thinking"! In performance they were both in the same state of incredible self-awareness. The mechanics became unimportant on the bandstand and the emotional side of their improvisations took precedence. They played from their heart and soul. This is the key to their greatness. They both had an incredible natural gift for being able to open themselves up to their inner creativity and let out their amazing ideas with wonderful ease, excitement and wonder.