Jam Band, Zappa, Taqsim, and Bach and of course jazz; these are all part of the extended musical family of improvisation.
You may lean toward the Grateful Dead and extended solos by John Coltrane for your improv pleasure. Or maybe you’re an aficionado of Chicago’s rich new music scene which includes members of the band KLANG.
The quartet, led by Oak Park clarinetist, James Falzone is on Morning Shift Thursday to give us their take on improvised music.
In the beginning there was improvisation. By the Medieval Period, singers were being taught how to improvise a counterpoint to a fixed melody. Jump ahead more than a few hundred years and you have scat singing. When a jazz fan thinks of improvisation, they may look back into the music’s history for stories of the "cutting contests"; late night jams sessions between friendly rivals. Well, consider this; those improvisation cutting contests were also taking place back in the 18th century between Mozart Muzio Clementi.
Composers such as Mozart, Bach and Chopin were skilled in musical extemporization. And in the Middle East, making it up as you go along is still a big part of the repertoire; the taqsim and maqam are improvisatory techniques integral to music from North Africa to the Levant.
Here’s an interesting aspect of musical improvisation: it’s a skill that not every musician masters. Many musicians have never delved into the spur of the moment type of performing while others have spent their entire careers doing nothing but improvising. Improvisation seems to less about technique than feeling and communication with your fellow musicians. It certainly can be like balancing on the high wire.
KLANG will be providing most of the music this week along with a few picks from Richard Steele featuring improvisation in jazz. My one pick is from a series of improvisations on video from avant rock master Brian Eno. These brief forays into improvisation (each "movement" averages about five minutes) were recorded as a promotion of sorts for his 2010 album Small Craft on a Milk Sea.
Here, Eno’s third movement called "Written, Forgotten Remembered," recalls his work with David Bowie on the latter’s album Low.
Lee Konitz is a native Chicagoan with a long career, which often placed him in settings with other musicians who thought “outside of the box.” This 84-year-old alto sax player joined Miles Davis in the legendary Birth of the Cool recording. He was also in the Stan Kenton band for a year. But the person who influenced him most was another Chicagoan, his major mentor, Lennie Tristano, whose musical ideas about improvisation were unlike anyone else on the scene at the time. This song, called “Fishin’ Around,” is representative of those concepts and has a title suited to the musical approach. It’s Konitz on alto sax, Lennie Tristano on piano and Wayne Marsh on tenor sax.
Bobby McFerrin has often been called a vocal virtuoso. His mother and father were both classical singers. He left his home base in New York City to study music at several colleges in Northern California. After moving to San Francisco in the late ‘70s, he met Bill Cosby, who was responsible for getting him on the bill for the 1980 Playboy Jazz Festival. McFerrin later did the theme song for one of TV’s biggest hits, The Cosby Show. He also had a huge commercial hit called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” While all of that was happening, McFerrin continued to develop a unique music style, using his voice and body to simulate a number of instruments. His improvisations are unlike any other vocal technique, and you can hear that on this old standard, “I Hear Music.”
Vijay Ayer’s South Indian immigrant parents exposed him to a wide variety of Indian classical, religious and popular music. Primarily a self-trained pianist, he began to show an interest in jazz while in high school. In the late ‘90s, he became aware of the Asian Improv movement of socially conscious artists who melded their cultural musical roots with the language of jazz. During this period, Ayer was greatly influenced by former Chicagoan and alto sax phenom, Steve Coleman. Ayer learned a lot about improvisation through his association with Coleman. Listen to Ayer talk about how his trio approaches the creation of the music … as he leads off a version of “The Star of a Story.”