Ontpj8. What intentions does a jazz improviser have?
Terry Gross (Fresh Air interviewer): “What did you learn from [Thelonious] Monk when you were playing with him, and were inside of [his] music, and from talking to him?”
Steve Lacy (alto saxophonist): “I learned to stick to the point and not get carried away.”
What Intentions Does a Musician Have?
The answers to questions regarding musical intentions, perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, is extremely complicated, non-obvious, and subtle. It is surprising because one might think that the answers are relatively easy and forthcoming. A musician intends many things including intending:
- to be playing music
- to be playing this very song being played
- to play the musical instruments involved well and in tune
- to coordinate the playing with all musicians involved
- to produce something good musically
- to follow the musical score for this song
- and many, many more both general and specific.
In fact, any human has simultaneously too many intentions ever to succeed in listing them all. There are also difficult questions about negations. For example, if someone intends to be playing the note middle C, do they also concurrently intend not to be playing a D note?
Why is it not surprising that determination of musical intentions is complex and complicated. First, of course, the entire notion of intention as a concept/category is itself highly complicated because it concerns mentality. All issues regarding the mind are extremely subtle, difficult, and non-obvious, especially the best way to analyze and characterize such things. Second, there is the large can of worms that results from including unconscious intentions. The unconscious is itself a deep and richly complex area for research and study.
What Intentions Does a Jazz Musician Have?
Because any jazz player is a musician each will have all of the types of intentions that a non-jazz musician could have such as those listed above.
Are there other intentions more peculiar to someone playing jazz in particular?
To answer this question requires that it be known what makes jazz music be jazz. Everyone concerned realizes this to be a challenging and demanding task. Nevertheless, at a very minimum, it can be said that some of what is more peculiar, or of a greater significance, or has a high preponderance of usage by jazz musicians can be delineated.
Jazz players often, and typically, have these intentions. They intend that they are:
- synthesizing and hybridizing the diatonic and pentatonic musical scales during their performance
- using syncopation as a rhythmic foundation for the music
- using standard (jazz) harmonies
- listening and modifying their own playing in light of what other performers are playing
- developing a musical 'conversation' with other players
- constructing melodic lines with developed and effective melodic structures
- working with conventional concerns of jazz theory such as chord-scale relationships, harmonic voicing and substitutions, or long-range contrapuntal frameworks.
- trading fours amongst the players
- and many more
There are also somewhat paradoxical intentions that may be involved. At some general level of intention, a jazz player can intend that as one of her goals she hopes to get into a flow state during the playing. The paradox is that the more and harder one consciously strives to get into a flow state is the very thing preventing one from entering such a state.
Kenny Werner (born 1951) in his book, Effortless Mastery, explains how he prepares to strive to achieve such a flow state. Before he plays he sits and tries to clear his mind, stop thinking and calmly mediate. By not thinking and having prior intentions as to what he will play this helps him to focus when he is playing and presumably permits his unconscious mind and muscle memory potentially to take over the choice of notes his hands may produce on the piano.
When musicians can successfully get into these flow states they often describe them as a state where they are no longer playing the music; the music is playing them. The reason why this strikes flow performers as an accurate description of what they can observe upon reflection of this type of experience is that they are not seeming to have to be thinking during the performance. Everything becomes effortless and automatic with no need to strive or try. The music comes out 'naturally' and with conviction.
Paul Motian (1931-2011), the late drummer, once observed himself playing three different rhythmic patterns using his hands, feet, and use of cymbals versus skin hits on the drum heads, with an implied fourth beat resulting from how he was manipulating the other three. As soon as he recognized and observed that this is what he was doing, he could not maintain it any more. He had to stop noticing, recognizing, or becoming aware of these practices, and just go back to doing them, but without thinking about it consciously or intellectually.
Plus, in some legitimate sense, it can correctly be said that Motian intended to be playing three simultaneous rhythms with a fourth rhythm implied, but he cannot become intellectually aware that he is doing this or it prevents him from accomplishing such a complex musical task.
What reasons can be given to justify that Motian did intend to be playing these rhythms? Some evidence in its favor is this. If we were to ask Motian, “Did you mean to be playing those three rhythms during your performance and not some other ones?” his answer will be yes he did intend to be playing those rhythms because if he didn't intend it he would have played some different ones.
What Intentions Does an Improvising Jazz Musician Have?
Again, an improvising jazz performer will often have the same intentions had by both non-jazz and jazz musicians. The difference in the improvisation case is that the improviser now must spontaneously create a musical composition. The non-improvising musician has no such intention. They are following the pre-determined musical score and are not trying to create something new spontaneously. That work has already been accomplished for them because of the composer's score that they are using to produce the tune they are currently playing.
What intentions will an accomplished jazz improviser have?
Any effective improviser is simultaneously intending to accomplish multiple goals and tasks. He or she might intend that:
- the improvisation is appropriate to the musical context
- often, an improvising musician already knows how many measures their solo improvisation should take and plans on developing their improvisation with that length in mind.
- many good improvisations develop so that they can be considered to have a beginning, middle, and end
- concerned with rhythmic displacement
- developing their own sound
- producing thematic improvisations
- developing melodic improvised lines derived from bebop featuring unusual rhythms and innovative melodic organization with a high degree of structural integrity
- they develop a solo with interest and balance creating a sense of inevitability and forward motion
- developing melodic lines using passages with symmetric contours, i.e., contours that have invariance under retrograde, inversion, or retrograde inversion
- use triplet passages at irregular time intervals and by interrupting them build a half-chorus from a simple motive without being predictable
- stopping of lines on a weak beat (the second or fourth beat) or on an off-beat anticipation of one
- and many more