Conversations on the Improviser's Art

Here are some quotes from the book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser's Art, these are sure to stir up some comments. The book consists of nothing but interviews with Lee Kontiz and a few of his contemporaries. In the book Konitz talks with the interviewer (and musician) Andy Hamilton in great depth about Lee's musical philosophy. To be fair these quotes are taken out of context and are therefore not Lee's complete opinion on the subjects he's talking about. In the book, Lee expresses respect for Bird's playing and goes into greater detail about how Bird used his 'composed' phrases to great great mosaics of sound in artful and original ways.

On Warne Marsh-

Lee: When I think of Marne Marsh, I think of the definitive creating player, no theatricality, no showboating, just a true musical improviser. It's a true exaggerated voice, that's what was so sophisticated about it- without the 'bleating' and over blowing that many saxophone players seem obliged to do.......it's not blustery, it's not self conscious, he was improvising. There's a different feeling between an improviser, and one who has the ability to improvise but feels it's wiser to make a plan before he goes out in public. Warne wasn't naive, he had a plan in some way- his plan was to improvise in the best possible way.

On Bird and improvisation-

Interviewer: You said that you thought Charlie Parker was really a "composer". You mean he had a vocabulary of phrases that he's adapt?

Lee: What is a "composer"? One who puts good phrases together. When I came to New York with Cluade Thornhill in '48, I went right to 52nd street and listened to Charlie Parker. He sounded great, but very familiar to me, and I wondered why that was. Then I realized he was playing vocabulary that I'd already heard on the records- but it was fantastically played and realized. As a "composer", he conceived of these great phrases, and fit them together in the most logical way, and he played them until they came alive- and then decided to depend on what really communicated with the audience.

Interviewer: That approach doesn't appeal to you?

Lee: Of course we have to function with a vocabulary in order to speak musically. But because I've had so much experience playing, and had my confidence reinforced and encouraged through doing it, I realize that it's possible to really improvise. And that means going into it with a so-called clean slate. That appeals to me very much. Not to deny the importance of a speaking vocabulary, but having one that's flexible enough so it can be used to reinvent constantly. Keith Jarrett stated it pretty eloquently on his new record, Always Let Me Go. He explained how he had to really withdraw from following through with something that he already knew would work. That's a very important point. Both Bird and Trane had a very specific vocabulary. It becomes licks and cliche's when there's no feeling behind the phrase any more. But you have to have things to play. I have what I think of as a more flexible vocabulary. When I practice and come up with a good combination of notes, I work it through the keys; different tonalities, rhythmic changes, ect. Then, when I play that idea inevitably pops up in a most unexpected place. Bird's phares were very specific, and it was hard to alter them, for him or [followers such as] Jackie McLean or Sonny Stitt. Mine, and Warne Marsh's, phrases are more like filler material- rhythmic phrases that could be played in many different contexts, connecting one to the other.

Interviewer: How far ahead do you think when you play?

Bob Brookmeyer: Just, ideally on the note that I'm playing. I know, on some level, where I'm headed in the tune, but it's important for me to play each note as clearly as I can. I've heard a number of people describe how they think ahead, and kind of aim for a certain note, or a certain place. Hal Galper wrote in how book about looking forward to how you develop the phrase, and how it's going to end. I don't know how that's possible, if you're improvising. But it's different for each player, I'm sure.

Interviewer: What kind of state of mind are you in when you're improvising?

Bob Brookmeyer: Just trying to be "there" basically, and be interested in what's going on around me, besides my own obligation to play. I want to hear the other players as clearly as possible. It's almost a selfish need- besides the satisfaction of hearing them play, even if it isn't first rate. If I hear what they're doing, I never run out of things to play, because they'll always feed me something. It's not really possible to run out of things to play if you tune into the bass drum, sock cymbal, or the bass notes, or the piano chord. But if 100% of my attention is on thinking," What's the next note?" it's hard to listen to anything.

Interviewer: How do you get beyond playing things that are in the "muscular memory"- phrases that have been learned and are then unconsciously repeated?

Bob Brookmeyer: By believing that it's possible to do it, first of all, all wanting to do it. I have complete faith in the spontaneous process. I think most people think that can be very naive, and that you do your improvising at home, and when you go out, you play prepared material, so that the paying customers don't get short-changed. It's the picture I've seen all my life. And very talented people can do it effectively- the rest sound like hacks, to me. Obviously playing mechanically suggests a lack of real connection to what you are doing at the moment. We learn to play through things that feel good at the moment of discovery. They go into the "muscular memory" and are recalled as a matter of habit. If I know a pattern on a progression that feels good at the time of discovery, every time I come to that place I could play that pattern, knowing it works, rather than making a fresh try. Up to a point this is the choice you make with a working vocabulary- how much you want to flex those ideas.

Interviewer: Is it quite a small number of people that play the way you do?

Bob Brookmeyer: I think that most people who play professionally want to do a good job, and prepare as much as possible to do that. I do in my way, but that's my way of preparation- not to be prepared. And that takes a lot of preparation!

Paul Bley: Fuck the listeners! The listeners are privileged audience participants, with no relationship to anything except for the fact that they're there for moral support.

Paul Bley: The thing about a good improviser is that when he's playing a written piece and it now becomes time for the solo, he will continue the piece as if the solo was written as well as the piece, so it's seamless.


MonksDream said...

So does this mean that you actually found this book in its secret hiding place? Do I still need to put a request to purchase in at the library?

cheers, Bill

David Carlos Valdez said...

No, I never found the first one I bought.

I used my Amazon ad earnings to buy the second one. I'll lend it to you as soon as I finished reading it.