Archive for category Improvised music
At 70, John McLaughlin is playing and recording some of the best music of his career, and he’s got a career that is now part of jazz history. Having invented modern guitar playing almost single-handedly, the master is playing music that in the 21st century is both brave and rewarding for the dedicated listeners of progressive, improvised music.
Just several days before the band’s London appearance at the Barbican, part of the 2012 European tour, I received in the post the latest creation of the guitarist and the Fourth Dimension – ‘Now Here This’. McLaughlin’s records have come to resemble something similar to a second birthday to me in recent times – ‘Industrial Zen’, ‘Floating Point’, ‘To the One’…plus the ever useful ‘This is the way I do it’ instructional DVDs, to which I keep returning for inspiration – John’s dedication to the guitar and music have become one of the most important pillars in my musical universe.
The most obvious way in which the new record impresses me is through the apparent ease with which the musicians – Etienne Mbappe, Gary Husband and Ranjit Barrot, together with McLaughlin – interact with each other to come across as a well syncronised improvisation machine. This apparent ease has many years of experience, talent and musical vision behind it, but the end product is nothing short of true medicine for the soul – the music on the album is both inspiring and abundent in contageous positivity.
On the album, ‘Echoes of then’ brings a nostalgic vibe that extends way back to the 60s and 70s, including the Mahavishnu years, whereas ‘Guitar love’ is an open declaration of sympathy to the instrument that has been McLaughlin most trusted companion in a life and career that saw the guitarist create is a fashion that can only be summarised as artistry of the highest calibre. Among other compositions, the opening ‘Transfusion’ and fluid ‘Call and answer’ each bring their own personality to the improvised music party that is ‘Now Here This’.
From the enigmatic title to the last note on the album, this is yet another original, inspiring and generous record from John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension, whose power I will experience in a few hours at the Barbican in London.
How to improvise - thoughts on how to define and approach the art of unique and spontaneous expression
Improvisation is the process of acting spontaneously and in music specifically it is often defined as spontaneous composition. Although composition in a more traditional setting usually involves clearly-defined, detailed playing itineraries which players follow, in the realm of improvisation more freedom of expression occurs and as a result artists can define the material they are interpreting as well as improvisation as a whole in a very personal and unique way. And that is what makes improvisation as a form of artistic expression both fascinating and open to interpretation at the same time.
Because of the nature of improvisation, how to improvise is defined by each individual according to musical preferences and education, cultural background, influences and sources of inspiration. However, there are common denominators that bring together musicians and make group improvisation possible. Among them, harmonic, melodic and rhythmic factors are the most important considerations, after which personal preferences shape the way improvised music is individually or collectively created.
Mick Goodrick is well known for guitar-specific concepts on improvisation, and thinks even the best musicians very rarely don’t rely on devices or licks and pure improvisation isn’t something that occurs every time an improviser plays. This brings us to the topics of spontaneous composition and how to practice improvisation, both of major importance in the context of how to improvise artistically.
Charlie Parker famously said ‘You should learn everything about your instrument, then forget it and start playing’. Many years on, this is still one of the best statements on how to improvise – music should naturally flow based on previous practising and playing experience, shape by the personality of the player in the process.
Instrument and genre-specific vocabulary has an important role to play in the outcome of improvisations, and inevitably learning the vocabulary leads us to the subject of practising. A few years ago, I went to a master class with Billy Sheehan, who stressed the importance of of being able to separate practising from actual playing in order to maintain the boundaries between performances and the practice process, where the player can take more liberties and experiment more.
There are many takes on how to improvise, but among my favourite musicians, mostly from the jazz and fusion camp, if we can categorise it in this way, statements on the subject complement rather than contradict each other, so there must be a common denominator that we could put together and use as a point of reference in our quest for mastering improvisation.
Paco de Lucia often talks about his father locking him away with a guitar when he was little and not letting him out until he thought he heard some music coming out – quite a radical approach – but it seems to have worked, big time! And that I guess summarises the ideas I tried to share here talking about how to improvise – analytical thinking, continuous hard work and inspiration – improvise well!
In the last 6 months or so, I have had the feeling that my instrument, the guitar, is getting in the way of playing…I know it sounds strange and unclear, but it forced me to practice away from the instrument, which gave me a completely different perspective on playing and improvising.
I generally find comparing music, and more specifically improvised music, to a language very helpful as a learning strategy. Grammar (theory, structure) and vocabulary (licks, patterns) come together to form the language of improvisation beautifully, but it takes time become proficient and fluent and the first step is to conquer the chosen instrument. Having chosen the guitar, which I absolutely love playing, I find myself either playing too much or playing too many notes, and one way to become more relevant as an improviser is to contextualise the music that comes out through the instrument of choice.
Apart from improvising over chord sequences, free improvisation also appeals to me as a way of artistic expression. Although free improvisation has a variety of definitions – John Abercrombie for instance says it is only when you know a composition really well that free improvisation and playing generally becomes possible – Ornet Coleman’s free explorations in jazz and beyond seem to approach improvisation ‘from scratch’ – playing your heart out is the first thing that comes to mind. Personally, I think there’s time and place for both approaches, and as long as the improviser has a powerful message behind the music it usually works and involves the audience convincingly.
The musicians who are continuoiusly inspiring me – McLaughlin, Stern, Jarrett, Scofield and many, many more- they all have one thing in common – the pure passion, and that passion has been a driving force for everything I do for some time now. So that’s all there is – passion. Scales, chords, arpeggios, licks etc – they are all just tools -at the heart of it all is the supreme passion for music – nothing else matters.
In the age of the internet, soon to be followed by the age of whatever, universal meanings like passion, transcendental thoughts and the like are standard. Music, however, is as endless as ever. Jazz, classical…anything with a powerful message behing it. First the tools, then the whole picture…or even the other way round if it works for you – whatever works!
And that’s all. All that matters, anyway.