Improvising has long been part of musical tradition, whether in Western Music, Indian classical music, Flamenco Music of Spain, or even the drumming music cultures of West Africa. Though easy to pick as a musician, to an untrained ear it can be hard to decipher when an artist or group is improvising, and why or how they’re doing so. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the purpose and functionality of improvising in music.
We’re constantly exposed to improvisation through music styles such as jazz, rock and even hip hop. Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were renowned for their wildly improvised rock epics; as were great musicians like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, who improvised their way to new territory. Improvising transcends musical definitions and infiltrates all genres through the function of human creativity.
Music is often referred to as being a ‘language’. This is very much a true and valid label, and it provides the perfect context for understanding improvisation within music. If a musicians’ currency is a sound wave omitted from their voice or instrument. If there is no understanding of this musical currency, then it’s quite difficult to understand or even appreciate the value of the improvisation itself. That could be the reason why ‘improvisation’ is often confused with being ‘noise’.
Music has many elements that it utilises as a craft including melody, harmony, rhythm and tone production. Every piece of music would inevitably make use of these elements, resulting in a particular musical constraint. An improvisor would improvise within these constraints, unless the improvisors purpose was to create an overt amount of musical tension and dissonance, which also has its place. An improvisor’s solo would outline the harmony or chord changes, create melodies, and play time with the rest of the band. Unlike the composer who takes their time to carefully craft a piece of music using the aforementioned elements, the improvisor is crafting in an instantaneous and spontaneous fashion. The legendary jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter phrased it perfectly when he said “composition is just improvisation slowed down, and improvisation is just composition sped up”.
Let’s use a quick example to help it sink in: Freestyle Rap. If you can read this article, you probably understand the English language. It’s because of this understanding that you would appreciate a finely written speech given by an activist, or an intelligent joke made by a comedian. An element which remains consistent between these examples is the logic that is present, and the connection between the events – the punchline of the joke, or the crux of the speech. A freestyle rapper links events in a similar fashion, as they are spontaneously connecting words in such a way that each verse neatly rhymes with and follows on from the previous one. Take a look at rapper A-F-R-O doing this exact thing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon:
When you listen to the great improvisors, they perform very similar spontaneous feats to that of a freestyle rapper; they link musical ideas, they phrase in a way that creates energy, they play smoothly with the time and most importantly – they make sense.
There is a large community of improvising musicians in Melbourne who are performing regularly around town. Some of these gigs are completely improvised, in the sense that there is no preconceived or mutual understanding of any musical event that is about to happen. Everything is improvised there and then. A great example of this is Uncomfortable Science, which takes place at Boney (Lt Collins St) every Tuesday. The group is led by Lachlan Mitchell, who uses a marker to write musical ideas on a whiteboard, and then allows the band to improvise using the ideas given. The band features musicians from the Melbourne music scene, who rotate their way through the always changing lineup.
Other great venues that consistently showcase improvising musicians and/or ensembles are Uptown Jazz Cafe, Bennett’s Lane Jazz Club (soon to re-open on Flinders Lane), Paris Cat, Lebowskis, Bird’s Basement, The Toff, The Fitzroy Pinnacle, Lido Cinema Jazz Room, and Rooks’ Return.