Co-Improvisation: Explaining the Magic

Victor L. Schermer By

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When we listen to great jazz performances, we pay most attention to the soloists, some of whom become our musical heroes. In that respect, jazz is an affirmation of the individual, the uniqueness and liberation of either the "free and joyful spirit," of whom there was none greater than Louis Armstrong, or the arduous struggle of the existential hero to become free, a musician whose inborn talent and valor met the awesome challenges of life and music. Perhaps the most powerful example of the latter was John Coltrane, who was naturally endowed but experienced obstacles and defeats, constantly practicing, learning, and growing musically and as a person, and who was eventually able to express the most profound elements of the soul and spirit at the level of the greatest novelists and poets.

Yet neither Armstrong nor Coltrane was a rugged individualist. Both were aware that "no man is an island" and benefitted greatly from the bands they played in as well as the many other "voices" they encountered in the course of their lives. While we treasure our heroes, we often forget that jazz is primarily a collective phenomenon. Jazz is nearly always expressed in a group, by a group, and for a group. Jazz is the most interactive, interpersonal art form. Not only are the best jazz musicians continually listening to each other, swapping notes, and co-creating styles and traditions; they are in concentrated contact with one another as they perform. Every note that comes out of a jazz musician's horn is a reflection of what is happening in the group.

At its height, such collective efforts may result in a co-improvised "composition" with as much beauty, complexity, and aesthetic vision as if it had been written in advance by a great composer. Miles Davis, in particular, exemplified this reality. He chose his co-musicians specifically to achieve an ensemble effect and to nurture each others' playing. Each phase of his work, from bebop to hard bop, cool jazz, post-bop, jazz fusion, and beyond, was fueled by and associated with the groups of musicians he chose for that purpose. And it was repeatedly noted by himself, his musicians, and record producers how Davis inspired and took stimulation from the creativity and interactions of his bands. Davis was known to be an iconoclast and egotist, but he was also a generous and giving creative force with his bands.

The Interplay between Members of the Jazz Ensemble

A jazz performance is one of the most complex, intensive, and rapid-fire coordinated group activities. Verbal communication is slow as molasses compared with musical interactions. For example, when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker collaborated in their early forays into bebop, not only did each have to master newly invented complex melodies, rhythms, and chord changes, they had to play the melody as if they were one instrument, and their solos had to bounce off one another perfectly to give the impression of a continuous line. Their rhythm sections had to know all the weird changes, maintain a coordinated steady beat, and complement the horn players without overshadowing them. All this had to happen at breakneck tempos. Moment-to-moment, on a gigabytes-per-minute basis, the actual information "download-upload" exchanges between the musicians in a high-functioning jazz group is possibly greater than it took NASA's flight and ground crew to put a man on the moon. (Admittedly, this theory awaits the definitive test by a high-tech jazz astronaut. LOL). It's impossible for most listeners to follow all the musical connections that develop moment-to-moment in a jazz ensemble, although we feel the excitement of it in our heart and gut, and some would say, our soul.

In large part, it is this group interaction, which takes place on and off stage, and further networks into the wider musical communities and traditions, which accounts for the "magic" of jazz. Indeed, no magician (or sound engineer!) could duplicate the prestidigitation that occurred when, say, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet worked in tandem, immediately incorporating what they just heard into their own variations. Or when Count Basie hit a couple of notes on the piano, pulling a perfect storm of swing from his band like a rabbit from a hat. That's the group magic that brings us to the edge of our seats, drawn totally into the rhythm and sensation of the music. And like the most impressive magic tricks, the cohesion and synchronicity of the jazz ensemble is the product of endless hours of experience, work, and interaction by dedicated musicians.

Even when one of the musicians takes an extended solo, careful listening will reveal that they are co-improvising with their rhythm section. The drummer spontaneously chooses cymbal or snare drum to conclude the soloist's phrase; the bassist shifts chord progressions, intensity of sound, and high or low registers in response to the soloist. Conversely, the soloist is driven by the drummer's rhythm and the bassist's lines. Gerry Mulligan said he always listened to the bassist rather than the drummer for the rhythm. That way, he could hear melody, rhythm, and chord progressions all at once. If you listen carefully to his recordings, for example "Lines for Lyons" (Butterfly with Hiccups, Limelight, 1964), his solos are often counterpoints with the bassist. It could be forcefully argued that everything in jazz is explicitly or implicitly co-improvised.

While there is considerable merit in simply enjoying the magic of jazz rather than analyzing it, it is revealing and enlightening to think about jazz ensembles in terms of, not only their musicology, but also how their brain activity and group dynamics might explain what is happening. We can think about how the brain sets up the interplay and the ways in which leadership and rapport emerges. And conversely, we can consider what jazz groups might teach us about our groups in daily life, whether in the family, friendships, the workplace, or at a party.

Scientific Research on Jazz

Recently, some psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to investigate how jazz musicians function. Much of their attention thus far has been addressed to the nature of improvisation, for example studying recurring patterns in transcribed solos, or, more recently, using brain scans like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to see which parts of the brain are turned on and off when a musician improvises as opposed to when he plays from a score.1 [See end of article for numbered references.] Interestingly, musicians don't think a lot when they are improvising. One of the main findings of the research has been that during improvisation, some of the cogitative (consciously thinking) parts of the brain become less active, which means the musicians are not so much actively planning their next moves as they are allowing automatic, spontaneous responses to take over. It's amazing how brilliant and innovative some improvising can be without any conscious intent to do so. (Of course, a lot of thinking and planning does go into woodshedding and discussions in advance of the performance.)

Most of the scientific research, however, has been done only with individual musicians. While the scientists don't yet have the technology to observe the brain scans of a whole group in an actual performance, psychologists have garnered sufficient knowledge of group interactions to begin to describe the social and neuropsychological underbelly of the jazz ensemble. Let's consider how some of this knowledge might shape up. Again, we will focus on the phenomenon of co-improvisation, what the musicians refer to as the ongoing non-verbal "conversation" between them.

Co-Improvising as a Form of Human Conversation and Play

For musicians to improvise in response to one another successfully, they must bring together the following ingredients:
  1. a common knowledge and experience of the music (a musical culture);
  2. the ability to multi-task, to listen and play at the same time, staying in the moment while anticipating next moves;
  3. rich musical imagination and the capacity for spontaneous generation of apt musical phrases.

Ella Fitzgerald's scatting was a prime example of all three. Her musical vocabulary incorporated all the idioms of her day: swing, blues, the American Songbook, bop, and cool. She excited audiences through her spontaneous flow of phrases that were in synch with her bands and her audiences, and on one occasion (Ella at Juan-Les-Pins, Verve, 1964) at an outdoor festival in the south of France, she scatted around the sound of crickets hovering around the stage! (She made up a song called "The Cricket Song" on the spot!) She instinctively grasped the jazz idiom to the point where she could engage in memorable duets with Louis Armstrong, Joe Pass, Oscar Peterson, and a host of other greats as if she had worked with them all her life. Fitzgerald could have given many instrumentalists lessons in how to co-improvise, and on some occasions she unabashedly did so! One time, she stopped her accompanist, pianist Tommy Flanagan, on the spot, and told him to change his whole approach! She was very polite about it, but Flanagan never forgot the lesson.

The extensive talent and work required to attain the musical rapport sufficient for co-improvising means that only a very few will be able to sustain it on a high level. That is one reason why the most dedicated players form long-lasting ongoing groups to develop sufficient synchronicity with one another's playing to achieve their full potential for co-improvising with mutually transformative understanding of what they want to express. For this very purpose, saxophonist David Liebman has maintained an ongoing group, with periodic personnel changes, for over four decades, a group which has been responsible for many innovations, beginning with the groundbreaking album, Lookout Farm (ECM, 1973), which was quintessentially a collective co-creation of the entire expanded ensemble.

However, what is often overlooked is that, although musical know-how is essential to good playing, co-improvisation, in a fundamental way, resembles and is learned from everyday conversation and spontaneous play. Jazz in many ways is a transposition of daily life into music. Human relationships have their own "music" that involves body language, inventiveness, and responsiveness to one another. There's a playground near my apartment where I sometimes stop to watch the kids moving around the swings, sliders, and climbers improvising games and leading and following each other's movements while hollering chants and shouts that seem to be their own private language. It has a rhythm and dynamics all its own. A jazz group is not so different from children at play.

Such co-improvised play is less obvious in adult conversation, but it's there all the time, although too often inhibited by social norms. It's most obvious when people exchange jokes, or, conversely when people come together in an emergency situation and work together to save the day. Jazz is just like that. Even the sonata form of music: exposition, development, and recapitulation, may derive from the way people work and talk with one another. They identify a common problem or topic (exposition), develop the implications and possibilities (development), and then review what has taken place (recapitulation). As Leonard Bernstein argued in his famed Norton Lectures (The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, Harvard University Press, 1961), music has all the characteristics of a language. Jazz co-improvisation entails the ability to invent phrases on the spot, engage in a meaningful "conversation," and bring it to a common conclusion.
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