Question about song-based improvisation...

Discussion in 'Playing and Technique' started by KRosser, Mar 4, 2008.

  1. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    In another thread I asked these questions as a means of trying to talk about improvisation beyond just identifying scale/chord relationships, and I'm curious to open this up to the whole floor...

    (The context here is song-based improvisation, such a jazz standard or such, but maybe this could apply in some way to a pop or blues tune)

    I don't have an agenda here, so I don't ask these questions as a challenge but as an invitation to discuss and I'd love to hear all kinds of viewpoints...I have my own feelings about it but it's far from a 'black or white', 'right or wrong' issue to me

    Anyone?
     
  2. dewey decibel

    dewey decibel Supporting Member

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    I was just about to post in the other thread but I guess I'll do it here.

    IMO, what you're talking about is the most important thing, much more than "proper" note choice. As we all know, dissonance and what works or doesn't is subjective, and we can play any note over any chord. So what are we left with?

    This is from the other thread:

    I feel the exact opposite. You should learn how to phrase and how to string things together before you even learn what notes to phrase with. If you listen to little kids talk, even babies make sounds, they're doing them in rhythms that mimic actual speech- sentences and phrases. A lot of times you can understand what a toddler is trying to say even if they don't know the words. It's the same with music- it's not what you say, it's how you say it.

    Along those same lines, that's my issue with the way so many approach music, especially improvising and jazz. I have a foot in two very different schools, one is the educated jazz school, and one is what I'll call the uneducated garage band school. But here's the catch, educated means different things. I've found that while the jazz/college cats know theory inside and out, they don't necessarily know music. In the other camp, I have friends that can't tell you if a chord should have a major or b7th, but give them half a song and tell them to write a part for it and they know exactly what to do. They know it from years and years of listening and thinking about the "essence", this thing that's so hard to talk about. IMO, the whole point of music is to get across what we can't with words, so in that sense the more you try and explain or otherwise theorize music the more you lessen it's impact.

    Don't get me wrong, ideally you want to have an understanding of both. I think of it as left brain vs right brain. But it's really easy to let that analytical left side take over. I think a main reason is fear- it really removes a lot of strain if we have a selection of notes that we know are "right", and we can fall back on those. It's safe. IMO, that's great for practice and that's not to say the left side isn't creative, it is and we can come to some amazing realizations thinking purely of theory and numbers and such. But when it comes to a playing context (or a writing context) that's when the right side of the brain should take over- the intuitive side.

    When it comes down to the actual essence of a tune, there's so much to consider. And none of it is right or wrong as it's subjective. Further more, it differs from song to song- while the chord changes (harmony) maybe very important to one song, they might not be as essential to another. That's why when teaching folks about improvising I'm of the chord/chord tone school, as that's all that's there. For instance in the other thread, you have guys saying over Dmin7b5 you can think Fmin6, Abmaj7, etc as they're all the same chord. But they're not! People seem to think that is opening up options for them, but really it's limiting them. What you can play over a Dmin7b5 is limitless, so to truly give a more definitive answer you need more context. If you're already thinking Fmin6 that leads you to a certain train of thought, and although it's easy and it may work, it may not be the best way for the tune or situation.

    And then you realize that just because the chart says Dmin7b5 that isn't necessarily what's being played. All that matters harmonically are the notes that are literally being played at that moment, say by the bass player and the pianist. What chord/key/scale they belong to is filled in by your brain and what you've learned about music. If you let your left brain take over you're going to come to conclusions based on what you've learned theoretically- what you can right down. If you let your right brain take over it will be based on other things, more of this "essence". A lot of times I'll get an idea for a line or maybe a part in a song and it won't make any sense to me at all as to why it fits, but days later I'll realize why it works. Your right brain is much better at seeing the whole picture and putting things together at first glance that don't seem to be connected in any way at the time. And that's what being an artist is all about.

    Ramble over... :munch
     
  3. JSeth

    JSeth Member

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    Wonderful post Rockinrob - very succinctly stated, IMHO - after a lot of work to learn a bunch of theory and altered chords and scales, for me, playing and writing seems to be more about forgetting "the rules" and everything I know, and letting the piece play/write itself; to let it be what IT wants to be - and not throw in a chord or notes just because I've learned how...
    BTW, the fellow who schooled me, big time, on harmony and theory, told a story that one of his instructors at Berklee told him...something along the lines of "but, don't forget, this is all from a bunch of educated white jewish guys trying to explain why the blues works..."
    so there's that...
    thanks again for a great reply!
    John Seth Sherman
     
  4. decay-o-caster

    decay-o-caster Member

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    But back to the question in the OP: what gives a song its essence?

    The chords? The melody? The composer's intentions? The emotional content of the lyrics, if applicable? The definitive performance by which all others are judged? Beats the crap outta me, but I know it when I hear it.

    So John Stowell is one of the most harmonically adventurous guitarists - musicians - out there. I went to one of his workshops in which he started a solo improv of a song miles beyond any reference points, then brought it closer and closer to what the audience knew as "the song". It was only about the second or third chorus from the end when any of us in the audience (including some serious jazz cats) recognized it as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".

    Now, I could listen to him play forever. I will almost certainly never comprehend more than about 15% of what he does. But I'm willing to go along for the ride wherever he takes me.

    But - and this is the big 'but' for me - I don't think he played the "essence" of the song until he got to the place where there was some recognizable feel / harmony / melody snatches / pulse that actually said "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The rest was amazing and magical, but not that song. Sez me, YMMV, etc. It's not wrong, it's certainly musical and lovely, but the essence of the song was lost in the outer limits of the twilight zone of the harmonies he was turning inside out. Again, just my view of it.

    I think the essence of the song is in the ears of the listeners (one of whom is the player). And most listeners want to hear something of the song, not just the cleverness of the improviser. Everyone has different limits of where they can hear the song, of course. But a super-advanced and adventurous ear, or a mathematical exercise that allows you to take a line a million miles away based on your knowledge of chord subs and modes is interesting and can be very musical, but eventually it loses the song. Sez me.

    Flame away - I know I'm a Philistine.
     
  5. Nick_

    Nick_ Member

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    I don't think a player should ever not sing with his own voice. I agree with you on a lot of your points, in fact.

    My opinion, take it or leave it, is that a player should develop the ability to play in a traditional, technical, numbers, analytical manner, and attempt to internalize it. I feel that this is a "technique" issue and that without it a player is being held back trying to realize what he hears. Know it then forget it kind of thing.


    Thinking about the subject of this thread though I came upon a good analogy ... think of onion soup (or some other delicious indulgence of your choice). What makes it onion soup? onion? There are a million and one ways to make it, every chef you meet might have a different recipe, some may not even have onion in it. But if it still tastes like onion soup and it tastes good, well ...

    It's sort of a half formed idea but you get the picture.
     
  6. DrSax

    DrSax Member

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    it's an interesting question, and all i have for an answer is more questions!

    I wonder: how/what was Charlie Parker thinking in terms of a song's essence? I'm guessing his idea of the essence of a standard was probably different than the composers idea of its essence. Or maybe not? What did Monk think?
     
  7. medrawt

    medrawt Member

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    I agree with decay-o-caster that the definitive content of a song, if you will, varies from song to song. In a tune with very recognizable and unique or unusual harmonies then I think the harmonies are an essential part of the fabric to the song. If you figure out an effective way to solo over "Giant Steps" that doesn't deal with the standard chord progression for the song (or reharmonize it in a manner that gets away from the key-centers in major thirds concept) then you may be doing something great and artistically valid, but in IMO you're not really dealing with the essence of "Giant Steps" any more. If you do something similar with (I dunno) "Solar" then I wouldn't feel you'd left the essence of the song behind.

    Personally I'm drawn (as in so many things) to Thelonious Monk, who usually seemed to draw his improvisations from what he considered the atomic material of his songs - less expositing the chord changes than developing the thematic material of his melody. Given that Beethoven is one of my favorite classical composers, I would appear to be drawn to musicians who obsessively work with the thematic building blocks of their melodies. I guess that would usually be my answer to KRosser's question: most of the time, to me the ideal improvisation on a tune is going to maintain enough connection with the initial melody that (e.g.) every few bars you might get an aural hook that reminds you of where it's all coming from.

    OTOH you wouldn't want to do that *all the time*. I want to leave room for making a statement by NOT dealing with the melody, in the same way that whenever you start your solo you have the choice of either building on or contrasting with what came before, in intensity or complexity or rhythm or register or anything else you can think of. I guess my real artistic ideal (across various media) is that every possible artistic choice is consciously dealt with, up to and including the choice to not consciously make choices.
     
  8. The Captain

    The Captain Supporting Member

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    I would like to make some contribution here, but as a listener ratehr than a player, becasue my lead improvizational skills are appraoching zero.

    Consider Satriani. I frequently read comments here saying he has no sense of melody, yet to me I hear exactly the opposite. He begins most pieces by stating a melodic theme. As in classical music, he then takes that theme and develops it, varying it, using inversions and substitutions etc, differnt tempos, tones and attacks. The melody is still there, just less obviously. I can only think that the people saying he has no melodic sense are unable to perceive that.
    So, it can be very much about the listener. At some point an improvised solo might depart from the melodic backbone, but that point is likely to be perceived differently by differing people.
    What popular music does, is to "dumb down" music to the point where an optimal number of people get it.
    I might reference Joe Bonamassa as well. His approach on Zep's "Tea for One" for example, is to play the main melodic notes, but to race around in between them as well, kinda like a jet-ski racing around a cruise ship. You get this effect of lots of notes zooming all over, but withthe critical "target notes" or melodic linch pins being stated emphatically, if you are keeping trackof the meldoy in your head while you listen. I like that kind of solo. AC/DC by contrast never seemd to do that, so I really did not like it much. Gilmour is a master of this, so is Mike McCready, so his solos fit like a hand in glove.
    I was on Amazon lst night buying some of his stuff, and a reviewer said the usual "he needs to play less notes, and se how much emotion he can get into fewer". My response to that, is that reviewer needs to develop his listening skills, because it is all there, you just have to engage to hear it.
    THe essence of a song can be contained in rhythm or melody. Initially I thought melody, but the TV is on, and I'm listening to a song whiohc has very litel musical melody. All the melody is in the vocal, but that is not the essence of the song. Sometimes it's a chord melody, like Whole Lotta Love, sometimes a straight riff melody, like Black Dog.
    Sometimes it's a more rhythmically oriented essence like Enter Sandman, which I think everyone would recognise just by the drum part alone, aot the main riff if it were al played on one tone, but witht the correct interval.
    So, for an improv to belong to a song, it can capture any of those elements, but it must capture something. A good solo should capture the mood of a song too.
     
  9. brad347

    brad347 Member

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    Good question!

    I don't think there's a neat answer of any type. It's like anything else; there are degrees of specificity and everyone's idea of how rigid certain qualities must be differs. To identify the essence of something we have to on a very basic level at least be able to reach a consensus on whether the 'essence' is present in a particular scenario or not. This is hard.

    Some kids on a playground with a hoop playing ball with no referees, only one hoop, no net and a bent up rim-- are they playing basketball, even though all of the rule-book type stuff isn't in play or enforced?

    What about some kids in a back yard with a milk crate nailed to the side of the house?

    What about someone with a balled up wad of paper thrown at a trash can?

    What about the Harlem Globetrotters and their extended rule-bending basketball antics?

    Degrees of specificity. I'm sure to someone, it's not basketball unless every single rule is adhered to. I'm sure to someone else, throwing any semi-round thing into any receptacle for any reason is basketball.

    So it's hard to say what gives anything its 'essence' when nobody agrees on if the 'essence' is there or not. I guess.

    Sorry, I got nothin'
     
  10. JonR

    JonR Member

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    The "essence" of a song is obvious: it's the melody. A "song" is something that is "sung". You can't sing chords.
    No harmony is necessary, except whatever is implied by the melody. (eg, melodies that use arpeggios will imply chords.) Likewise, the only rhythm necessary is that incorporated into the melody - which will usually imply an underlying pulse, but (as in a ballad) may not.

    Many songs have identical chord sequences - witness the dozens (100s?) of jazz tunes written to the changes of "I Got Rhythm".

    This means that, if we want "song-based improvisation" (and why wouldn't we?), we have to know the melody by heart, and use it as the basis for improvisation, the springboard.
    That may not mean overtly lifting exact phrases. It can mean taking the rhythmic patterns of the melody, applying them to different notes; as well as taking the notes and playing them with a different rhythm. And all the other ways you can twist the melody around.
    Naturally, there's an infinite distance you can travel beyond the melody (into the more fertile but less distinctive harmonic content), but the melody has to be where you start.

    As decay-o-caster said, a player can improvise beautifully and entertainingly with no obvious reference to a tune, but if a recognisable melody is not referred to at some point, then every improvisation will sound much the same. They may vary in tempo, dynamics, harmonic implications - but they will generally sound formless.

    This may not be a bad thing, but what it does is focus the music on to the player - how clever is he/she? - rather than the composition. And it takes a very clever player to entertain well enough without reference to a composition (even one of their own). Even moderately good improvisers will struggle to stay fresh beyond (say) 10 minutes of playing unless they refer to composed material, ie, melodies.

    The point is that playing off the melody makes an improviser's job easier - so it's hard to understand why any beginner doesn't do it; why they seem to prefer to learn "scales" or (aargh) "modes" :worried and how to "apply" them to chords :confused: (OK, it's not all their fault, they do tend to get taught that stuff...:rolleyes:)
     
  11. brad347

    brad347 Member

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    It's fun to 'put the classroom desks in a circle and discuss,' or think about these things in depth sometimes just to figure out what we're doing, but sometimes it's really hard to notice things we do instinctually and have been doing so for years. I was just doing a little thinking about my relationship to the melody during improvised choruses and failed to come to any clear conclusions.

    At first I was thinking "maybe the melody is sort-of unconsciously present in the back of my mind during improvising, like a sort of Ă–hrwurm from having just played/heard the melody, informing everything I do creatively (or accidentally, if I don't want to give myself that much credit).

    But then I started thinking that maybe it's the bass voice that grounds me in the song-based improvisations, as much as or more than the melody. Honestly I could not say.

    I guess it would be fair to say that in some ways, the 'essence' of a piece as-composed might be reducible to the counterpoint that exists between the bass and the melody. No matter what unexpected turns the supporting voices take under the melody (even non-diatonic supporting voices over a simple diatonic melody, like Bob Brookmeyer's First Love Song for example), the bass-melody counterpoint will usually at least mostly get this essence across. So I'd say for rigidly composed music, it's possible that 90% or more of the time, the essence of the composition-as-conceived lies in the counterpoint relationship between those two voices.

    For song-form based improvised music, which is really the subject, both are up for debate. Who knows.
     
  12. gennation

    gennation Member

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    Regarding the melody, or the song, or any other aspect...once it comes time to solo...are you going to basically play the same solo over every song that has a ii-V-I or a ii-V-i?

    Hopefully you don't.

    And the reason you wouldn't is because the song has something inherent to it. It a special place that you don't know about until you play that song. The "chord progression" is nothing more than a bed that the song lays on, but there's a lot more to it the just a chord progression.

    Something like What Is This Thing Called Love or Night & Day, are you going to play the same thing over each of the ii-V-i's, no...because those two songs are different.

    How about Tune Up or Satin Doll, are you going to play the same things over each over those ii-V-I's, no...because those two songs are different.

    Those examples have MANY of the same type of progressions but are completely different "songs".

    So, while you can learn to play over "chord progressions" all day, every which way you can dice it, you are NEVER going to know what you'll really play until you start playing over the song...not the progression.
     
  13. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    Wow, guys...so much great stuff here...I want to tackle, discuss and further provoke here as I get time, but to start with:


    Sure... the information about "what notes/scales go with this chord" is important, but that information is not hard to come by and too much that I see here treats it like that's the whole key to a great improvisation.

    I look at it like, "what golf club is best to pull out for this shot?". Great - choosing the right club is important...but having chosen the hippest club in the caddy bag, the ball is still not one millimeter closer to the hole.

    It has been my experience as someone who teaches jazz improv fairly regularly that rhythmic phasing is a sorely neglected point. Students come to me all the time and say, "Can you show me all these altered scales so my jazz will sound more convincing?", and I show them it's how the rhythmic phrasing is off, and lo and behold, I can get them sounding swinging and authentic using the same minor pentatonics they were playing before.

    Sure...it's one of those things that I think the answer is not so important as it is that we start asking ourselves questions.

    One of the greatest jazz guitar lessons I ever had consisted of me playing one tune with the teacher and spending the rest of the hour talking about intention, in regards to not only music and improvisation, but what is the nature of your physical relationship to your instrument...

    I'm telling you - it changed everything for me.
     
  14. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    OK, so how do you know what a song "wants to be"? Is it entirely intuitive, or does judgement step in somewhere?

    And there's the history of art in America, in a nutshell...throw a bunch of disparate cultures together, get them in each other's face and force them to try to figure each other out...
     
  15. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    For me, it can be any of those things, depending on the song. Or it can be more than one over time.

    Jazz is one field where the composer's original intentions are less 'set in stone', it seems...but, there's even some debate about this in classical music, where the common myth is that the composer is the law.

    Right, which is why I ask, what is essence and how important is it? Maybe Stowell did hear an oblique reference to the tune the whole time. Maybe he just considered it a jumping-off point. There's times I've heard Keith Jarrett do these free-form solo intros when he plays with the Peacock/DeJohnette trio where I'm convinced he had no idea what tune was going to come to mind as a result...maybe I'm wrong...(OK, so I know I've done that...)

    There was a period in the 50's where Miles was absolutely attentive to the lyric and structure of the songs he played. By the late-60's he was using those same tunes as springboards into completely other colors, to the point that I'm convinced the beginning of his so-called 'fusion' period was just Miles deciding to jettison the standards since they were largely perfunctory at that point anyway, and just deal with the colors they were getting into. It would have helped his listeners follow this if his working live band of the time (DeJohnette, Shorter, Corea & Holland) were better documented, since that was where it was happening.

    But let me ask you, was part of what made that intriguing was that the essence slowly revealed itself? You know, like how a really well-written mystery very slowly lets you in on who did it? Then when you do find out, it makes you want to flip back earlier in the book and try to figure out how you couldn't have spotted it earlier...you know?

    Absolutely not. I think those were excellent points.
     
  16. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    I feel this is a personal issue. Some people feel this way - some don't. The world at large benefits from both.
    It's a great analogy...so, what's the "essence" of onion soup? If every time a chef went to cook something he asked himself what the essence of it was, even if to the point where it became second-nature - even if he decided to deliberately go against its essence, might that make him a better chef than had he not bothered with this question?
     
  17. KRosser

    KRosser Member

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    In listening to Bird's early work, I think there was an almost punk-like irreverence to the way he treated the chord changes he took from standards, but by the time the Bird with Strings records, etc. came out later he seemed to come back around to wanting to have something to say about the source tune that was a little more on topic.

    Just my hunch as a listener...
     
  18. tkozal

    tkozal Supporting Member

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    The public is mostly listening for the melody, especially in jazz.. The melody is that essence, its the players who get focused on chords and scales.

    Eric Kloss taught me to solo three ways:

    1. Based on the chords
    2. Based on the scales/modes, with no reduction to the common tones among the changes, to one based on a lot of reduction (the solve for "x" way)
    3. Based purely on the melody.

    Then you can mix and match

    The old uneducamated jazz people I played with in PIttsburgh years ago, thought of the melody first, then the chords. The young students from the Pitt jazz program were chord/scale theory crazy.

    Guess who people liked to listen to?

    My personal best solos I realize were almost entirely "melodic reference", rather than chord/scale theory stuff. Melodic reference helps alot with your rhythmic phrasing, unlike running scales..
     
  19. JonR

    JonR Member

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    I think if you're talking about the essence of a "song", then it has to be the melody - because a song is something that is sung, and one can't sing chords. (And as Mozart said, all melodies, even instrumental ones, should be singable.)

    But a piece like Flamenco Sketches isn't a "song". It's essence (and it's a slim one) lies in the modes chosen. It's an exercise in mood, if anything.
    Is it copyright? Could it be copyrighted? How? Where is the intellectual property in Flamenco Sketches? Just the order they decided to play the modes in? (This touches on the question - which arose somewhere else a while back - of whether a recorded improvisation can be copyright...maybe that's another thread? ;) )

    IOW, it's possible to have perfectly good music with no melody, or with totally improvised melodic content - whether or not there is also a fixed harmonic structure. We'd need to search for an "essence" elsewhere. (I've just visited Cuba for a jazz course. We saw an authentic rumba: percussion, drums, singing, dancing. What's the "essence" there? It's the whole thing, there's no sense in trying to break it down to a hierarchy of elements: elements, yes, but not a hierarchy. There is melodic content, but it seems insignificant. African music, of course, is similar.)

    As for onion soup - how can it be onion soup with no onion in it? The "onion" is the melody. OK, maybe we can use artificial onion flavouring - that's still a reference to the "essence", like a quotation of the melody. How else would we recognise or identify it?

    Maybe a better analogy is the knife handed down from father to son over generations. As time goes on, the handle breaks and is replaced; later the blade, after much resharpening, is replaced. Is it still the same knife? Maybe in some respects it is (looks much the same, used for the same tasks by the same people...). In other respects, obviously it isn't.
    IOW, we can drop the melody, keep the chords, write a new melody (as Charlie Parker often did). Maybe we can then reharmonise the new melody. Clearly - I think - we have then lost the "essence" of the original, if not its totality!

    As for who cares... that comes down to an audience (real or imagined). Are they there to hear their favourite tunes (maybe with a new twist)? Or are they there to watch a virtuoso show off his chops? Or do they just want the music for dancing, for a background mood, or some other purpose?
    Many players - or many gigs - give us all those things, of course; sometimes in the same song.
    But music is always a mixture of the familiar with the fresh or new. Any notion of "essence" (IMO) has to refer to the "familiar" - whether that's melody, or a distinctive chord pattern (as in much rock music, but not much in jazz), a distinctive rhythmic pattern, maybe even familiar lyrics. (Which is not to say that the fresh/new elements are not in themselves "essential" :rolleyes:)

    I'm not really making a point here... just entering (I hope) the mood of the thread. :)
     
  20. The Captain

    The Captain Supporting Member

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    Can I make you President in Charge of Stopping Guitar Teachers from Doing This ???

    Dang, how many lessons have I had where I am given a set of changes, and a scale, BUT NO MELODY and told to "improvise" ? I completely refuse to do this now, telling a potential teacher up front that it ain't gonna happen, and still they try. I really don't know how they can stand to listen to the drivel that approach generates.
     

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