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What is Improvisation in modern jazz?

What is Improvisation in modern jazz?
So at last we’re ready to talk about what real improvisation is. I’ve given you a definition which is “Improvisation in modern jazz is making up your own tune which fits with the chord sequence.” Now you may wonder why it is that this is Session 10 and I am only really starting to consider what is improvisation. It’s because improvisation - good improvisation - is difficult to pin down, but you know it when you hear it. If you hear a Bill Evans solo, very often you couldn’t imagine any other notes being played. In some sense they are perfect little developments of ideas that spring from the tunes that he plays.
Similarly, Keith Jarrett - everything about his playing is wonderful - the pianistic element of his playing is fantastic even when he is playing half under the piano, he still plays superbly well. He has complete rhythmic control. Apparently it came from when he was younger doing lots of exercises like 5s against 4s, 7s against 4s, 9s against 4s, and so on. It’s not by luck that when he plays unusually shaped phrases they come out correct. And his harmonic control is just astounding. I came across something once on the web - perhaps you can look it up, I think it’s from a television show or something - it’s him just playing chords.
All he does is play a chord, followed by another chord, followed by another chord. It’s just incredible. So his harmonic control is just marvellous. But it is his melodic line - his development of the line which, I think, makes him a genius. Somehow you have the feeling that his invention could almost go on for ever. If you’re really thirsty and you want a drink and as you start drinking it’s wonderful and you don’t want to stop. For me, it’s a bit like that listening to a Jarrett solo, that I drink it in and I want it just to keep going because I am being taken on this magical mystery tour with him. So the subtlety is in the word “tune”.
First of all we’re talking about modern jazz. We’re not talking about other forms of music. There’s improvisation in other forms of music. For example, in Britain there’s a movement called Improvised Music - we might say something about that later on. But there constructing something which is a tune is not the ultimate goal of the activity. So we are taking about modern jazz as exemplified by, in terms of piano jazz, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett. There’s many many other wonderful jazz pianists as well. The other thing you notice is that my definition talks about a chord sequence. So we’re typically thinking about playing over sequences.
We’re thinking about playing over a blues first of all, or a tune - a standard usually with a chord sequence that repeats - and then we create our own tune over that. The subtlety is in the word “tune”. What does “tune” mean? I’ve had a go at defining a tune as “something made out of musical phrases which are usually singable.” Of course they don’t have to be singable - it may be that the pianist is moving with such alacrity that you couldn’t possible sing it - there’s just too many notes per second. Then it really isn’t much of a definition because it talks about “musical” phrases. When is a phrase “musical”?
Well I am going to have a go in this session of trying to chase that down - trying to say what is it that makes something tuneful - musical - singable.
That’s where we turn next.
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