Jack Reilly: Making the Most of the Gift of Life
AAJ: It has been said that improvisation is the instantaneous art of faithfully translating musical ideas formed in your head to actual sounds played on your instrument. Exceptional improvisation is accomplished by freeing yourself from the confines of your musical history to the extent that you must createnot copy or emulate from what you have heard before. Is this a fair statement?
JR: It's spontaneous certainly because that's what improvisation is defined as, but it's the art of sitting down with your instrument and inventing something for the moment. It's not something that you see ahead. You go with the flow. The idea at the moment. The more you know, the more you're accomplished on your instrument; to me the higher and deeper you can go when you start to improvise. If you want to divide improvisation to modal, tonal and atonal, then you have three different periods of jazz and classical music to draw on. Yes, you kind of draw on the spirit of each era when you improvise. I'm thinking as a pianist. The goal is to get beyond, go to something fresh and new. I think you have to walk through the eye of the needle to do that.
Lennie always said, "Don't worry if you play something that someone already played, that you've heard and it comes out like Parker or it comes out like Earl Hines, don't worry about that. You have to go through that." I just thought of that now; I haven't thought of that for thirty or forty years. That advice stuck with me. Guys would learn stuff and they think they're improvising and they're not. I know some well-known up-and- coming young lions, pianists who don't move me at all but they're fantastic players. None of them did do a freeform thing. They just play the song form.
AAJ: As a teacher, how do you instruct your students how to best accomplish this?
JR: Very slowly. When they approach improvising, whether it's blues form or boogie-woogie up to swing or even Lennie; he played a blues, a Requiem for Charlie Parker ...pretty far out. Whether it's the American popular song or whether is free form... I start with teaching them how to hear a melody and the second note takes you to the melody. If you hit one note there's emptiness; as soon as you hit the next note you have to take it somewhere. That's what you start teaching someonehow to create spontaneously, whether it's on a chord progression or scale or the interval you just played.
l:r Jack Reilly, Steven Keough, Dave Green
AAJ: If, in fact, real improvisation can only be achieved when the artist frees himself from the collective musical memory of the past, then is freeform jazz the only genre that truly creates with no attachment to what has been played before?
JR: No. I can teach you how to improvise on a song that's very free. Where you are not as locked to the harmonic structure, but you could also absorb the wholeLester Young or Coltrane or Stan Getz style, and you [would not] imitate it, but play the spirit of that and it can be different, it can be really satisfying to you. The artist always looks to go further. If you can imitate a certain style yet be free within that and not play the same patterns all the time, it doesn't interest me, but people do it.
If you ask me has improvisation slowed down composition, I would say no. Improvisation is what it is and composition is editing. Improvisation has not slowed down composition, and a lot of big names say they're composing. They are not. They're improvising. That may be a semantic closet. Composing is a slow process. It's an ongoing meditation period as the piece evolves and as your vision comes to light on the paper, then it comes to life when it's played. I believe a composition is stillborn until it's played.
AAJ: If music, at its core, is a means of communicating ideas and feelings, then when you perform are you communicating to both your fellow musicians and to the general listening public?
JR: Yes, if you say they're communicating feelings. They're musical ideas. If you tie it to a spiritual or religious idea, or a political idea, then you lower the whole expression, the expressiveness of music. Yes, if you communicate first with the players than it carries to the audience.
AAJ: What are you trying to communicate and is it intentionally multi-layered to address these two different listener expectations?
JR: For the musicians, I don't think it is. For the listener, it is. It's multi-layered for the listener, because if he goes to hear the artist seven nights a week he'll get another message the second night, then the third night. Recordings for the buyer can be the worst experience because you're hearing the same things over and over.