JJ 07/59: The Art Of Improvisation

An article by Michael Gibson first published in Jazz Journal, July 1959

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Harry Edison, Hank Jones and George Duvivier

Whatever other arguments may go on about the various theories and schools of jazz, there is one basic fact which cannot be overlooked for long: improvisation is an integral part of jazz, and it is mainly improvisation which enables us to distinguish between the great and the merely good performer. Here, I intend to make few individual judgements, but to indicate, rather, some of the different styles of improvisation used by different musicians.

‘I don’t know if Stravinsky had any particular work of Rogers in mind, but it is unfortunate that the composer should base his theories about jazz upon the efforts of a second rate performer’

To begin with, then, we must dismiss technical doodling. Igor Stravinsky, in an interview which appeared in “The Observer”, stated that jazz improvisation derives not from any melodic or harmonic concepts, but from the actual instrument used. He went on to quote Shorty Rogers as an example, claiming that Rogers’ work was a series of phrases and glissandos which derived directly from his trumpet fingering. I don’t know if Stravinsky had any particular work of Rogers in mind, but it is unfortunate that the composer should base his theories about jazz upon the efforts of a second rate performer. Rogers certainly bases a great deal of his work upon the purely mechanical side of fingering and the like, but because he personally is lacking in melodic and harmonic ideas it is hardly fair to state that jazz is not concerned with these. There are far better soloists than Rogers whom Stravinsky might have taken into consideration: only in the case of the piano and vibes, where the notes are already there, corresponding to their position, and have not to be individually fashioned, does good jazz depend upon patterns derived from the instrument itself, and even here such facile performers as Oscar Peterson can go too far.

‘Erroll Garner’s paraphrases pall after a few choruses, as do those of Red Garland and his ilk; similarly, this is the main fault with a great many traditional blues performances’

Secondly, an improvisation usually sounds better if the timing of its phrases departs from the time of the original melody. Thus, if the tune chosen is of twelve bars, made up of three four bar phrases, an improvisation which also consists of four bar phrases will begin to drag after a while. Thus Erroll Garner’s paraphrases pall after a few choruses, as do those of Red Garland and his ilk; similarly, this is the main fault with a great many traditional blues performances, due to the vocal-and-reply format which the blues originally established.

The observing or disregarding of these precepts, of course, are not infallible guarantees of either success or failure. Jay Jay Johnson breaks up the established time values at once on Miles Davis’ “Walkin'” (Esquire 20-062) and drops into the technical doodling of repeated descending runs several times on his recent Opera House LP with Stan Getz, and yet the latter record is probably a superior example of his work. The final merit of an improvisation lies in the individual touch of the musician himself, and it is to particular cases that we must turn at this point.

A soloist is left with two modes of departure when he begins his improvisation—either harmonic or melodic. That is to say, he can follow the chords of the tune religiously, playing all the changes, playing as many inter-bar harmonies as he can fit in, or he can attempt to make his solo as melodic as possible, and keep the harmonic structure relatively simple. At opposite ends of these stylistic poles are Hank Jones, whose insistence upon playing the subtlest chord changes has made him recognised as one of the best accompanying pianists, without establishing him as a particularly great soloist, and Miles Davis, who at present would like to see his material as simple as possible, harmonically speaking, and was talking of writing a ballad with only two chords.

‘Hank Jones’ insistence upon every nuance results, too often, in mere repetition. One recognises a seventh, or a minor sixth, cropping up in the same place in each chorus’

Of these two methods, I think Jones’ is the least successful. His insistence upon every nuance results, too often, in mere repetition. One recognises a seventh, or a minor sixth, cropping up in the same place in each chorus, an unnecessary over-statement which soon wears thin.

There should be, of course, a happy medium somewhere between the two. When I was talking to Humphrey Lyttelton recently, he reminded me of Coleman Hawkins’ habit of waiting for the piano chords before playing each phrase on his famous “Body And Soul”. If Davis could afford to wait for the harmonies, and then still retain the same melodic flights of fancy, the right balance might be achieved, but there has been only one “Body And Soul”, whereas Miles has made dozens of equally great recordings.

There is yet another danger which arises from too slavish an adherence to the chords, apart from the trap which has ensnared Hank Jones. In a great many cases, an improvisation becomes merely a breakdown of the chords into single notes. Thelonious Monk’s version of his own “Round Midnight” on the LP Thelonious Himself is marred by this lack of application. Similarly, a lot of Bob Brookmeyer’s work is spoiled by this fault; a failing particularly evident on his recordings with Zoot Sims. Brookmeyer, in fact, remains one of the laziest young jazz musicians today, his solos being merely a mixture of this breaking down of chords, direct quotes, and paraphrases of quotes. Other performers, such as Milt Jackson and guitarist Tal Farlow, tend to play every quaver in the bar on their up-tempo renditions, and thus obscure the melodic content of any lines conceived.

At the other extreme, an overenthusiastic insistence upon melody also has its pitfalls, especially where ballads are concerned. Harry Edison’s ballad treatments are often a mixture of fairly close to the tune reading, mingled with a selection of his stock phrases. The same can be said of such men as Miles Davis, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. In the case of the last three, however, the natural advantages of the piano tend to offset this deficiency of ideas: their left hands can provide a satisfactorily inventive harmonic and counter-melodic basis to hold the listener’s attention. Davis, Webster, and Getz, with no such aid, maintain interest by their altering of the time values of the original thematic statement, something which they can accomplish with invariable ease, but where lesser men invariably falter.

‘The best possible means of improvisation, then, can most simply be defined as follows: a musically interesting, melodically conceived idea, played over the appropriate harmonic background’

The best possible means of improvisation, then, can most simply be defined as follows: a musically interesting, melodically conceived idea, played over the appropriate harmonic background. Whether the idea is interesting or melodic depends finally, of course, as does all reaction to music, upon the listener; but granted these basic properties, the improvisation should be at its best. The time element in such a case usually looks after itself and all the soloist has to do is make sure that his line does not actually clash with the harmonies of the original statement. Such are the characteristics of the phrases and short bursts of Dizzy Gillespie; of the swooping flights of Charlie Parker, his ideas running into one another, where Dizzy usually takes a break between; of the more thoughtful, subtle, Miles Davis; and of the later melodic, blues-inspired Getz—in the work of these four can be found some of the greatest improvisations of recent years. On record, some of the best examples of improvisation to be found include The Quintet Of The Year (Vogue LAE 12031), featuring Bird, Diz, Bud Powell, Mingus, and Roach, with particular reference to the all-inspired “Hot House”; any one of half a dozen Davis LPs, especially Milestones; the rather neglected West Coast Jazz (Columbia – Clef 33CZ10018), where Conte Candoli proves to be a better partner for Getz than such hangers-on as Mulligan, Johnson, Brookmeyer and the like; and such tracks as the Lewis-Perkins “Love Me Or Leave Me” (Vogue LAE 12065); Bud Powell’s “How High The Moon” (Columbia-Clef 33CX10069) and a long list of Charlie Parker offerings.

If my comments have been mainly concerned with the modern idiom, there are two reasons for this: my own allegiance to the moderns, and the fact that this type of jazz, more than any other, stands or falls by the quality of its improvisation. With musicians such as those listed above, it has a very good chance of standing firm in its position as the most satisfying form of jazz for a great many years.