Sunday, December 13, 2009

Improv Diaglogue

If you were one of the unlucky few to not make it to Friday night's jazz performance, well, I have no words of comfort for you, because it really was as good as advertised and it's just too bad you missed it. Spectacular, really. Anyway, after performing a couple of numbers, Dave Remphis and Frank Rosaly opened up the floor for questions and over the course of a half and hour, I gained a new insight into the inner workings of improvisation.

Improv has always been bit of an elusive practice, to me. The concept makes perfect sense, but I never really understood the practical application, that is, I always thought that there was some sort of special understanding involved with it that I was just unable to grasp- that the musicians must just know something I don't. But after the conversation that took place on Friday, I feel like just a bit of light has been shed into the dark corner in which I always thought improvisation was hiding (and I came to realize that it wasnt actually hiding there at all). Frank and Dave described improvisational music -in the context of playing with other musicians- as a dialogue, a conversation between the instruments. For example, the saxophonist starts with a few notes, the drummer responds, the saxophonist responds to the drummer and so on. It was clear that both musicians on Friday were listening to each other, basing their next move on what the other was doing.

Frank emphasized that hearing what the other musicians are doing is crucial, as is knowing the musical personalities of those one happens to be playing with. He described this with a marvelous analogy about the complexities of conversations with other people. You have your friends with whom you can talk about politics, your friends with whom you can talk out your problems, those you can joke around with, ect. You have to know the musicians you're playing with in a similar manner, because if you try to converse with any of them in the wrong way, you mess things up. That is, you can't try to talk politics with the friends you normally goof off with, because the result is an awkward silence, or simply an uncomfortable exchange.

Knowing these "musical personalities" is also instrumental (bad pun, I know) when it comes to performing well. You can't play with someone who wants to dominate the space, because they, in effect, dominate the conversation and none of the other musicians are going to like that- especially if said musician tries to play over everyone else (Frank mentioned performing with guitarists who just keep turning the volume up on their amplifiers to stay in control of the exchange, much like someone who simply keeps talking louder whenever you try to make a comment). One can't play well with someone who always attempts to control the direction the performance is going, bringing it back to what they want to play, similar to a person who always tries to bring the conversation back around to what they want to talk about. When asked about solos, the guys said that you know when they're going to happen, because the other musician is playing something that takes precedence, that needs to be heard. I see this as what happens when one stops mid sentence to allow someone else's thoughts to be vocalized, because they deserve the floor at the time, because "hey, they might have a good idea- let's listen."
And now, improv is beginning to make perfect sense.... So does this mean that someone doing improv by themselves is performing a monologue?

I love analogies.

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