Where does improvising end, and just playing something start? At the hands of a truly creative, switched on musician, that line is never crossed. And before that statement is going to make any sense whatsoever, I’ll need to explain myself a bit.
Improvisation can mean a lot of things to different people. To many, it means taking a harmonic or other technical framework, and rattling around inside it until all its nooks and crannies have been explored. This is what happens in most jazz, the spiritual home of improvisation as an organised musical practice: that’s what was going on when Coltrane spewed out sheets and sheets of filigreed detail over chorus after chorus of a standard. He was exploring all the possibilities, filling all the wrinkles of the harmony with his musical awareness, like molten latex pouring into a mould.
To some, improvisation means taking a framework, a selection of notes, and wailing on it, like Neil Young beating crap out of his guitar until it starts to weep, or B.B. King seeming to extract a whole melody from the bends and slurs he applies to just three notes of the blues scale.
And then there are those to whom improvisation means reinventing the wheel, sixty times a minute. To this group any recognisable phrase is a failure of the imagination, an inability to invent instead of falling back on the hackneyed and the formulaic. Of course that’s an extreme: Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ is full of identifiably post-bop phraseology (mainly from Freddie Hubbard), but it made the case for an approach in which every element of music is up for grabs, at any time.
There are in fact, I’m sure, as many ideas of improvisation as there are improvisers, or people who have thought about it, covering every point on the spectrum between the poles described above, and probably several other poles I haven’t even thought of. The point is though, that to most people, improvising means ‘making it up as you go along’, and what is being made up is usually conceived as a series of notes, a melody. How then, can anyone be said to be improvising, when they are just, to pick an example at random, playing the bassline from the outro of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’?
The key is to be found in the practice of the free improvisers, those musicians who set out to produce something non-formulaic. What these people discover is that it’s increasingly difficult to generate novelty from a selection of notes. Improvisers have adopted some procedures from serialism, using tone rows to defeat the ear’s search for a recognisable tonality; the trouble they run into there, with an approach that organises the twelve tones of Western modality in an essentially arbitrary way, is that there are a finite number of note combinations. There are a lot of them, to be sure, but there is nothing unique about any of them: there is no untrodden path, no unexpressed formula to be found in any chromatic sequence. And so, it becomes necessary to look at the other elements of music.
Any secondary school music classroom is likely to have some of the following terms written on the wall: pitch, rhythm, timbre, harmony, dynamics, form. I’ve been talking about pitch, but of course any of these elements is a potential venue for improvisatory exploration. Free and experimental improvisors have explored many possibilities for developing musical meaning through these avenues: granted, traditional improvisation involves the manipulation of these elements, to a lesser degree, but the central thrust of that kind of blowing is always the melody. It’s the uncompromisingly non-formulaic improvisers who have most obviously taken the other elements and used them as primary materials for music making: what I want to suggest is that many musicians are improvising with some of these other musical elements even when they’re playing a set melody.
There’s a lot of choices to make when you play a melody, or a rhythm section part such as a bassline. How long should each note be? Should they be right on top of the beat, or a little ahead or behind? Should there be any vibrato on each note? If so, should it be terminal vibrato, or all the way through the note? How wide and fast should the vibrato be? What kind of timbre should be used - e.g. should a bassline be played by plucking near the bridge for a trebly sound, or near the fingerboard for a deeper, warmer sound? How should the line be phrased?
Most players will evolve the way they play a line through practice and rehearsal, until they arrive at answers to all these questions that work for them. It’s always necessary to remain aware of how those choices relate to what’s going on around you however: for instance if I’m playing in a venue that has a boomy acoustic I will make my sound less bassy, and play most of my notes more staccato, in order to avoid muddying up the band sound too much. I try to be as aware as I can be of issues like that, but the possession of a really finely honed awareness of how all the choices you can make interact with all the things that are going on around you is what separates the truly great musicians from the rest of us. These are the musicians who are always improvising.
So sure, they play all the notes you expect to hear when you hear the outro from The Chain: but when I play it, I play those notes because that’s how it goes. A master musician, a permanent improviser, is choosing those notes, because they are the right notes, just as they are choosing the note lengths, and allowing the music to breathe in a way that makes it flow instead of plodding. They could play anything at any time: they have come, as an improviser, to a musical framework, and they are going to make choices appropriate to their aims within that framework. The aims and the framework may be given by somebody else, but the choices made within them belong to the player, and this is equally true whether a jazz trumpeter is going to blow on a set of changes, or a session bassist is going to read a rock line from a chart, or an experimental tabla player is going to improvise with no reference points except the other players they will be playing with.
The point is that some players have that ‘always on’ level of total musical awareness, and the rest of us can, and should, aspire to it. What that means is trying to be aware of the other possibilities while we play what we have to play, and consequently of why we are playing exactly what we are: we’ll always be aware of the more nearby possibilities, such as minor variations in dynamics, but ultimately there is a whole world of music we could be holding in our head, and, crucially, relating to whatever we are playing. And the more of the big wide world of music we are conscious of as we enact our little part of it, the closer we come to that Zen state, of never ceasing to improvise.