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David Liebman /Jim Ridl: The Creative Process in Jazz

By Published: February 25, 2008
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Getting to the Source

AAJ: Another aspect of the creative process is the nature of its source. Many times, creative people tell you they don't know where the idea came from. It's as if they believe there's a source beyond themselves. Sonny Rollins told me that at a certain point, it's not him that's playing—something takes over. This source, whatever it might be, has different names in different disciplines. In psychology, we call it the unconscious. Literary people call it the Muse. Zen Buddishm calls it transcendence. And Western religion calls it God. But all agree that there's something beyond the conscious self. So I wonder, do you feel the inspiration comes from a source outside yourself, or you feel it's just you doing your thing, constructing something interesting' Like a furniture maker putting together a chest of drawers, and so on.

DL: For me, I actually wrote a tune entitled "Le Roi du Monde," and when you're playing you are indeed the "king of the world." In French, it doesn't mean that you're the feudal lord; it means you're on top of the universe. When you're playing, there's nothing better. Everything is what you want it to be. It's your horn, your group is doing great, it's coming from yourself, but it's also coming from elsewhere. Some of it is mystical, but some of it is nuts and bolts. All of that's happening when your playing. And for me, it never happens other than when I'm playing music. You can, if you want, liken it to the sexual act: there's that moment of ecstasy. Maybe that's closest to what I'm talking about.

AAJ: In an orgasm, however, it's an emotion, rather than a construction. One usually doesn't get the idea for a novel or a tune when having sex or at the moment of orgasm! [Laughter] If you do, you're pretty cool!

DL: Well, this moment of "king of the world" includes the orgasmic feeling, but it's more than that.

AAJ: It's a wonderful terminology, because the paradox is that you feel like a king, but at the same time you're a humble channel for something bigger than yourself.

DL: Yes, and that's when you can say that you're "king of the world." You need to be pretty high up in the first place, in order to look higher up. So that's the moment of playing that is mystical—but also grounded.

AAJ: So, healthy narcissism is a good thing.

DL: Absolutely!

AAJ: Let's hear from Jim on this.

JR: It often times runs the gamut. If I'm arranging music for someone, and I don't have a deep connection, then I'm creative, but more as a craftsman. In that sense, I'm not having a truly transcendent moment, yet I'm being creative. But once in a while, on some arrangements I've done, it has felt much more personal and therefore, even more compositional. It's as if I'm in a space where I can feel it, like I'm goin' for that third cup of coffee, I'm not conscious of time, and it becomes a whole other activity that feels like I'm spontaneously composing.

Now, when playing, there are times when I feel I'm in an amazing space. Not necessarily an out-of-body experience, but like Dave was saying, I'm aware that, say, this is a C-seventh chord, but I'm playing things on it that I've never done before. Now, where that comes from, man, I really don't know. Maybe in some ways we are blessed with a Higher Power—I'm not one hundred percent sure about that. But it can happen in the craziest places. Like I'll be playing a crappy gig where no one's listening, but I'll be so inside what I'm doing that I'm in a very creative space. But even better is when you're connected with your audience.

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On Improvisation

DL: I think that as improvisers—whether jazz or not—playing in the moment, we know more about it than anyone on the planet. Unlike the painter or the composer, the improviser is doing his thing in real time---like a race car driver! Athletes are also in the moment. But we improvisers make an art out of being in the present time.

AAJ: It just occurred to me that a side question might be why real time improvising came to it's height in jazz. Why didn't Beethoven do it, for example?

David LiebmanDL: He did do it. But we don't have recordings!

AAJ: So in a way recordings have a lot to do with the evolution of improvisation in jazz.

DL: That's the truth. Jim here could've been Beethoven. History says these guys were the baddest cats around. Bach was the greatest improviser.

AAJ: So the jazz idiom itself is not responsible for improvisation as such.

DL: Well, there is something in the rhythm, in the African roots, that facilitates the real time aspect. The groove is what facilitates the real time. I might say there's no groove in a minuet, but Beethoven might say, wait a minute, man, there's a real groove in the minuet—you just don't know about it. But what's important is that in improvisation you're calling on all your faculties at the moment, and it's a magical moment that's unlike anything else in the world. Composing is interesting in itself. I've written hundreds of tunes over the course of forty years, and I don't know how I wrote them.

AAJ: Do you have any take on why some excellent musicians can improvise and some cannot? One of the first things that inspired pianist Bill Evans, was when he discovered that he could make something up as he was playing, change some aspect of the tune. He was immediately an improviser. But you have classical musicians who are superb performers, and they can't improvise at all.

DL: It's fear—they're afraid to improvise. They're so used to reading what's on the page, and getting their security from it—what could be more secure than Mozart? The thought of improvising a cadenza, say, is so fearful to them, and I would love it if you, Vic, who is a psychologist, would explain why they are so fearful to do their thing.

AAJ: It's an anxiety disorder—a phobia.

JR: It's also a learned behavior. Historically, I think there was a lot of improvising done until the nineteenth century. Then, when the Romantic period began, it became this thing of playing totally what the composer wanted, being faithful to the original, and you didn't go outside of that. But when I think about the great pianist, Vladimir Horowitz, I understand that he was an improviser, and he did an awesome takeoff on "Stars and Stripes." If he would've stepped out and taken a cadenza and improvised on it, the audience would have freaked out.

But I do think there are a lot of closet classical musicians who are actually highly creative improvisers, but that trend is just beginning. There's getting to be a crossover between classical and jazz. For example, Keith Jarrett's work has many classical elements in his improvising. It relates so much to a classical European repertoire, which he knows well. But I'm surprised more classical cats haven't come out and done that.

AAJ: The classical musician would have to overcome a certain taboo against breaking with tradition. But you raise an interesting question, namely, what allows someone to compose in real time, to be spontaneous in the moment in a certain medium?

DL: I think it's cultural. And the Romantic image of the writer, the artiste, the composer, being the conveyor or emulator of the Supreme Being, "I am the performer of the master's works." Now the fact that Horowitz became famous as a performer is basically a later development. On the other hand, way back when, Mozart was hired to work in the court of a King or Duke. Bach was hired by the Church. They were fully functioning in their job, so to speak: composing, performing, conducting to meet specific assignments. Later, the composer and performer became two different professions, two different individuals. So, it's the society that gives you permission what you can do. For example, African cultures have no problem with improvising. The Chinese, on the other hand, follow the western traditions. Jazz comes out of the "melting pot" mix of cultures in New Orleans which said, "Do as you want." It has to do with freedom. And the African influence on rhythm happened to slip in, so we have what we call jazz.

AAJ: Well, maybe we could say it's 'both/and': the culture and the individual. But you really brought to my attention that the culture has a huge impact. In some cultures, the children are brought up to improvise, while in western culture, the kids are brought up practicing scales. In Africa, they might just give the kid a drum and say, "Join us! Here are some things you can do."

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