from the 2013 montreal jazz festival
THE LONG AND WINDING jazz SOLO
ROBERT J. LEWIS
profess to be lovers of music, but for the most part
they give no evidence in their opinions and lives that they
have heard it.
Henry David Thoreau
you play the music, it's in the air.
It's gone. And that's true. But when you record it,
it comes back to haunt you.
you find a note tonight that sounds good,
play the same damn note every night.
is it that attracts music lovers to jazz (improvised music)?
Is it the loose structure, or the beat or the notes and melodies
we have never heard before and will never hear again, unless
the performance has been recorded; or is it the musician's
uncanny ability to spontaneously translate feelings that inform
the notes into the language of music? Perhaps it is his audacity
and courage -- daring to play without a script; to make it
up as he goes along.
know at the turn of the 20th century, in New Orleans, musicians,
rather suddenly, developed a liking for improvising. Why did
playing it safe or reading from the page fall out of favour,
resulting in the advent of an entirely new genre – jazz
(and blues) -- which represented an entirely new way of thinking
exciting and unexpected were the compliance and respect accorded
to improvisation that The Standards, from 1920-1950, most
of them written for musicals, were taken over by jazz where
they have arguably received their most memorable and lasting
treatment. More recently, while much has been written about
the influence of rock on jazz (and not the other way around)
resulting in the birth of fusion, rock music, especially in
its heady early years and directly influenced by jazz, incorporated
the equivalent of the jazz solo into its template. In the
hands of its most gifted proponents (Hendrix, Zappa, Page,
Beck, Santana), the high octane solo became the focal point
of every rock concert.
better understand both the challenges, possibilities and limitations
of improvised music, let us imagine we have read a life-transforming
book that we want to recommend to everyone we know. So we
call (or text) our family members, then our circle of friends,
and to the best of our ability
we try to make the case why they should read the book. If
we agree that practice does indeed make perfect, the language
and arguments we bring to bear in our recommendation will
improve from one call to the next. We note that prior to every
call, we know what we are going to say, but we don’t
know exactly how we are going to say it. However, by the time
we have recommended the book 20 times, we will have weeded
out the least persuasive arguments and will be following a
somewhat fixed order of presentation as it concerns the development
of our ideas. Because they cannot be improved upon, over time,
we may find ourselves repeating certain turns of phrase and
locutions, and even entire sentences verbatim. However, at
the end of the day, we will acknowledge that no matter how
eloquently we express ourselves in speech, speech cannot compete
with the written version of the same. Even the most eloquent
of speakers, such as the late William F. Buckley, must concede
that whatever he writes will invariably be more polished and
refined than what he has said because he will have had time
to ponder over, rewrite and improve each and every sentence,
a luxury spontaneous speech does not permit.
analogy, when a musician begins his solo, he knows in general
what he wants to play (the theme or motif he will be re-interpreting),
but he doesn’t know how he’s going to play it.
But like the recommender of the book, after 20 rehearsals
he will have a better idea of how the solo will unfold. Over
time, he may become settled on the general ideas he wants
to develop, and he might even repeat certain sequences of
notes from one performance to the next because he deems them
like the speaker who decides to write out his recommendation,
if the musician decides to turn his impromptu solo into a
composition, it will be an improvement over the improvised
version because he will have been able to revise certain passages,
deselect inferior ones, pay more attention to the harmonic
structure, and more effectively connect his ideas.
take it for granted because the outstanding musician makes
it seem so easy, but since every solo has a beginning, middle
and end, every improvisation can be likened to a song that
has been composed on the spot – a daunting challenge
under the best of circumstances. It wasn’t for nothing
Chestnut, during his 2011 Montreal
Jazz Festival performance, began by reminding
his audience that jazz is playing music without a chance to
edit. Since he didn’t explain what he meant -- unless
his concert was meant to be the answer -- there are two possible
conclusions to be drawn from his statement: that composition
is superior to improvisation because it can be worked on and
perfected; or playing music without a chance to edit is much
more difficult and demanding than reading from the page.
jazz critic André Hodeir writes: