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Improvisation? Does it matter?
The great thing about jazz is that it can be many splendoured things. Yes, we know that, for instance, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Hodges, Art Tatum all repeat their famous solos; but could they bettered? I suspect not. They have been honed over they years and all were played so often that it would almost be a crime to change them. However, some musicians simply can't not change a solo. Try Lee Konitz - how often has he played All The Things You Are? Too many times to count but he more often than not makes it new. Or try Stan Tracey, or Art Pepper?
But somethings work better than others and this is the beauty of jazz. Those of us who try to get to live music look forward for the undescribabled for a sensational passage or whole solo or a particular piece. Ever so often we get the rewards. You could name your own as something wonderful.
I'd cite the first half an hour when the Gil Evans in Manchester Free Hall 1978 when we simply didn't know what was happening, didn't realised that the second number had ended and the next had started - we didn't know when or whether we could or should applaud. The tension was amazing until it was broken. The whole concert was a landmark as far as I was concerned.
Or the Mike Westbrook Cortege when Phil Minton sang Jerusalem with the band boiling and grumbling whilst he did it more or less straight. Some folks would have found it unbearable, for what ever reason but had you been there, well, it would have been remarkable. Or any version of John Lewis's Django. I heard Louis once at Batley Variety Club and he played exactly what you expected - but the magic was there. Improvisation didn't matter at all, I say.
So where does this leave me? Would a version of, say, Jerusalem be repeatable? Probably, as it would have been written down and could have been played/sung more or less successfully. That undefinable moment would be able to tell us when it happens. Of course we can compare a well known Mozart or Bach piece and can "judge" a better or worse one. I'm sure that lots of jazz fans have heard and enjoyed written "classical" compositions many times and would look forward to hear them again. I do, including jazz compositions, in the same way (cf Bach cello suites).
Take, for another example, Stan Getz's Focus. I can hear it as often as you like and can always find something new in it. Was it composed or was it improvised? Does it matter? So far as I can tell this was a "one off" and was never played again, primarily because that he was off playing bossa nova and counting the pennies, understandably. I gather that Focus was mainly a result of Eddie Sauter's seven compositions which were then conducted by Hershy Kay and after they had been rehearsed Getz simply (!) played what he liked over the strings (and Roy Haynes drumming in one number).
So when Getz improvised it became jazz? A one-off - or could it have been replicated? Probably, as it could be transcribed and played by another saxophonist, another violinist, perhaps, or any other instrument. If so, would it then be jazz or not? Would it be jazz if it was repeated exactly? Or would it be jazz if someone else played Focus with different solos? Or would it matter at all if it was good enough music? I think not.
Jazz is essentially a free music, no, not free in the sense that we hear about likes of Evan Parker et al, but free because Jazz musicians can have the freedom to do what they want to do with the music, whether to repeat a solo, to not or to move on to complete improvisation. And what not? Get rid of the unnecessary clutter about whether jazz is improvised or not and just hear what there is there.
7 October 2011