What links Buddy Guy with Mozart, John Zorn with Gaelic psalm singing, Jerry Garcia with Indian ragas? The answer, according to Derek Bailey, is the art of improvisation. Kenny Mathieson investigates.
Improvisation, Derek Bailey argues, ‘is the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood”. The guitarist explores its implications in a new four-part Channel 4 series On The Edge - Improvisation in Music, but has already written a ground-breaking book on the subject. The new series will range widely in its examination ofan art which has thrived in jazz and, to a lesser extent, other popular forms in our time, but has largely been lost in classical music, where it would once have been expected as a matter of course.
At its simplest, improvisation suggests a musical performance which is created as it is played, whether as part of a work or as the whole. The art of improvisation has been taken to dizzy heights (no pun intended) by the great jazz players, from Louis Armstrong through Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman, and on into the present generation.
Three of those giants— Gillespie, Rollins and Coleman — will be heard practising their art in
for their compositions. but that facility has been lost to most classically-trained musicians. Pianist Robert Levin. heard in the first programme with
Scotland in the coming months, along with . Coltrane’s former pianist McCoy Tyner. While improvisation has thrived in jazz (although it is not i true to say it is an essential constituent — many | demonstrably jazz works are entirely arranged). however. it is Bailey‘s contention that it plays a part in most other musical forms, while its demise in classical circles has been detrimental to that | music.
The programmes will focus on many examples of that. from the improvisatory element essential to classic Indian ragas or Flamenco through to John Zorn‘s complex but often ramshackle experiments, ranging from hardcore thrash through to complex games with blocks of sound which fuse composition and improvisation into a single process. The importance of improvisation in blues and rock is too often taken for granted, but at least it has survived as a vital constituent of the music, unlike the improvising principle in classical music.
Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were all valued for their ability to improvise at the keyboard as well as
the Academy of Ancient Music. argues eloquently that its loss diminishes the music. a view shared by young British composers and musicians like Steve Martland or pianist Joanna MacGregor. whose work includes transcriptions of'l‘helonious Monk and Errol Garner.
Levin laments the loss of ‘the willingness to take risks‘ which lies at the heart of improvisation. and which ‘invests the artistic statement with a level of integrity. personality and uniqueness that nothing else can do.‘ The prevailing fashion for uniformity in intepretation ofclassical music militates against the kind of freedoms Levin chooses to exercise in his approach to Mozart‘s cadenzas. but would not have caused the composer a moment‘s hesitation as to their validity.
‘lmprovisation is always changing and adjusting,’ Bailey writes, ‘never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description; essentially non-academic’. If this is maybe more an idealised description of what improvisation should be — there are plenty of players in jazz. folk. and rock whose improvisations rarely change, and are all
John Zorn: tusing composition and improvisation
too fixed, while strict rules govern the use of improvised passages in, for example, Indian music — these are nonetheless all qualities which the classical music establishment has come to distrust.
When it happens, though, that sense of possibilities to be discovered, that continually renewed hope of spontaneity and excitment, more than makes up for all the self-indulgent nonsense passed off under the banner of freedom and imagination. On The Edge should help to provide a context for the historical and cultural importance of improvisation, as well as a ﬂavour of its diversity and range, but the best argument for improvisation is, and always will be, the one made by great improvisers caught on the wing.
No one, as it happens, knows that better than Derek Bailey. His own contribution to a particular stream of freely improvised European music has been a crucial one, and as he himself notes, ‘any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit ofvoluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims, and contradicts the idea, ofdocumentation.’ 0n the Edge begins on Sunday 2 on Channel 4.
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: TORI AMOS O PAISLEY JAZZ O SMASHING PUMPKINS O ALBUMS
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