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 and become self-conscious of the activities at this even higher meta-level of consciousness 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 or they 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
Chick Corea on the Myths of Improvisation
In detail Chick Corea quoted below explains how improvisations are and are not spontaneous as well as explains numerous myths that are false of improvisations as practiced by performing musicians.
“KEYBOARDS & MUSIC — Myths, Part II: The Myth Of Improvisation
I was talking last issue about how the process of learning depends on copying what other people have done. There's a myth to the effect that you should try not to sound like anybody else, but this can be very destructive because it can keep you from using what you've learned. There's a similar myth about improvising, which is that if you know ahead of time what you're going to play during a solo, you're somehow cheating. I'd like to blow this myth, too, because it puts some severe limits on the soloist, limits that aren't necessary at all.
I see improvisation as a decision by the improviser to not know what he or she is going to play. There's always the possibility of a fresh idea occurring, even in a piece that the artist knows well; but if you interpret your own decision (to not know) too rigidly, you can get trapped by the myth. Trying too hard to be spontaneous, to always be creating something new, can hang up your ability to build an effective solo.
There's a mysteriousness that surrounds improvisation. There seems to be some element present in the playing of the music that isn't known about. But it's really very simple. A musician learns his instrument and his art form, learns about melody and harmony and rhythm, and this gives him a certain knowledge of music. But for him to be able to control his music, he has to be able to imagine a piece: he has to be able to conceive how it will sound before he ever plays it. This is the only way he can make that piece of music be that piece of music, and not some other piece of music.
So with improvisation, he conceives of and controls some of the aspects of what he's going to play before he starts, but other aspects he decides to not know about. In bebop, for example, there is a chord progression which follows, say, a 32-bar form. The chords are very predictable, so that's not improvised; and the player knows that there are certain notes that fit into certain chords, and he knows he'll use those notes, so that's not improvised. What happens is that he takes certain fragments of melodic phrases and strings them together. And they're usually fragments that he already knows. If he didn't, he wouldn't be able to execute them on his instrument. Obviously, those fragments are what people started referring to as licks.
The thing I've discovered is that the better the improviser gets at what he's doing, the more he's able to predict the shape of the longer phrase. He can predict whole four or eight or sixteen bar units before he plays them. He just decides before he starts a particular chorus that he's going to do such-and-such.
I've heard a story about trumpeter Fats Navarro that illustrates this. I'm not sure the story is true, but I could conceive of its being true, because I do this myself, and I see other musicians doing it. Navarro would write out a whole chorus of improvisation on, say, "I Got Rhythm." He'd write it down, note for note. And then he would take that chorus of solo and improvise on it. He would string out five or ten choruses based not on the original melody but on the chorus he'd written out. It would be like writing his own tune. And that process put him very much in control of his art form.
Another way of looking at it is that the more capable a musician is, and the more logical he is about what he's creating, the harder it is for him to not know what he's going to play. It starts to become an effort to improvise, unless he's willing to admit to himself that improvising is a game he's playing. He'll get a strained expression on his face, and contort his body in all sorts of weird ways, because he's trying to be spontaneous.
In Return To Forever, we find that as we perfect each piece, as we perfect the improvisation within it, the improvisation becomes more stable and predictable, and even more lyrical. It's a thing that we acknowledge to be a good thing; it's not harmful. The myth is that you always have to play something different for it to be spontaneous. But that's not true. What's important is how 'there' you are when you're playing; that's really the point. Good music is just good music, whether it's composed, or improvised, or whatever.
When a musician decides to not know what he's going to play, it can still be very unspontaneous, for the same reasons that composed music is not always spontaneous. It simply has to do with whether the person who is playing has his whole attention and control of what he's doing there, at the moment that he's doing it. That's what makes something spontaneous. How different it might be from the last rendition has nothing to do with it. There's a myth that spontaneity has something to do with the musical phrase being different from anything that has come before. But newness is just viewing something from now, from the present moment. It doesn't matter if the tree you're looking at today is the same tree you looked at yesterday. If you're looking at the tree right now, it's a new experience. That's what life is about.
It's a constant problem for a classical pianist to make a piece come to life, when all the notes and all the expression marks are set in advance. The way it's made to come to life, of course, is by the performer's being right where he is at the moment that he's there, playing the piece as though it had never been done before.
There are various decisions that the performer could make about how to improvise. Certain things can be set up in advance, while others are left open. You could have only a set rhythm, or a set chord pattern. You could also have to a large degree a set melody, which you would leave open to minor alterations. Or any or all of these things could be left open. The thing is, the less you decide in advance, the more effort it's going to be to put a piece of music together. The more you decide to not know, the further away you put yourself from the truth, which is that on some level you really do know what you're going to play.
When a musician really doesn't know what he's going to do next, the improvisation tends to be very erratic. You've got to go along a path once or twice or a hundred times before what you're doing comes out as a flow. When a piece comes out as a flow, it's because it's being controlled by the musician. He knows about it. He's done it before. It's a question of relative degrees of composing. From a present moment, you can decide to compose the next note, or the next five notes, or the next phrase, or the next two phrases, or the whole piece. What makes a good improvisation isn't lack of advance knowledge about the solo; it's the way you put it all together at the moment you're playing, no matter how often you might have played those notes before, that makes the difference. (bold and bold italic not in original)
➢ What are the myths of improvisation?
- Myth 1: You should never try to sound like anybody else.
- Problems with Myth 1: this can be very destructive because it can keep you from using what you've learned.
- Myth 2: Myth about improvising. If you know ahead of time what you are going to play during a solo, you're somehow cheating.
- Problems with Myth 2: This puts severe limits on the soloist that are unnecessary. It is OK to know ahead of time a lot about how one might proceed in an improvised solo. Improvisation only requires that one not entirely know what he or she is going to play exactly. Interpreting this too rigidly and trying to be completely spontaneous with no planning while only open to the new can prevent building an effective solo.
conceives of and controls some of the aspects of what he's going to play before he starts, but other aspects he decides to not know about. In bebop, for example, there is a chord progression which follows, say, a 32-bar form. The chords are very predictable, so that's not improvised; and the player knows that there are certain notes that fit into certain chords, and he knows he'll use those notes, so that's not improvised. What happens is that he takes certain fragments of melodic phrases and strings them together. And they're usually fragments that he already knows. If he didn't, he wouldn't be able to execute them on his instrument. Obviously, those fragments are what people started referring to as licks. The thing I've discovered is that the better the improviser gets at what he's doing, the more he's able to predict the shape of the longer phrase.
- Myth 3: An improvising musician always has to play something different for it to be spontaneous. It is a myth that spontaneity has something to do with the musical phrase being different from anything that has come before.
- Problems with Myth 3: What's important is how 'there' you are when you're playing; that's really the point. Good music is just good music, whether it's composed, or improvised, or whatever. But newness is just viewing something from now, from the present moment.
- Myth 4: Good improvisations require that you be ignorant of what you are going to play and that you should not have played it before.
- Problems with Myth 4: What makes a good improvisation isn't lack of advance knowledge about the solo; it's the way you put it all together at the moment you're playing, no matter how often you might have played those notes before, that makes the difference.
- Myth 5:
- Problems with Myth 5:
- Read musician's reactions to Corea's "The Myth of Improvisation" from the Keyboard magazine forum .
Internet Resources on Improvisation
- Hal Galper, "The Illusion of an Instrument" explains that accomplished musical performances are achieved via the brain and what one can hear aurally.
- "Jazz Improvisation: What's going through your mind?" under Music: Practice & Theory at Stackexchange.com, (accessed January 22, 2021), provides a discussion of musicians reacting to how best to understand improvisational processes and how to practice them.
- "What are jazz pianists playing in the background (when they're comping)?" From StackExchange.com under Music: Practice and Theory, discussion started December 16, 2020.
- "Steve Lacy, a Saxophonist and Monk Interpreter," NPR'S Fresh Air with Terry Gross, originally aired August 28, 1997. “The late soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, who died in 2004 at the age of 69, trained and performed with Thelonious Monk when he was in his mid-20s. He was also known as the "father of the modern soprano saxophone."”
- Chick Corea, "The Myth of Improvisation," Keyboard Magazine, "KEYBOARDS & MUSIC - Myths, Part II: The Myth Of Improvisation," April, 1976.