Improvisation, Part 2-2
Welcome back to part 2 of an article in response to a question from Michael a loyal AAJ reader with some interesting questions that I was asked to write about. Once again here's the letter:
I have a question, which might make a good topic for an article - maybe. In an old interview with Frank Zappa I read a while back, he talks a bit about his guitar playing and some of the nuts and bolts of his group's improvisations. He makes an interesting remark about how in an improv; the soloist (i.e. Frank himself) might think, "let's play a mixolydian scale here" at the exact moment that his bassist might think, "oh, let's play a diminished scale here". Basically he's saying that this would not be a desirable effect in his guitar solo pieces and that coordinating the harmonic setting/events of the improvisation is an important part of his performances.
Now, I fully realize that 'way out' kind of jazz would be full of clashing harmonies as Frank is describing...in fact, consonance may even be something freer players would want to avoid. My question is at what point in jazz do we start to hear players no longer playing in complete 'scalar agreement' with one another? I'm not talking necessarily about total dissonance or atonality or bitonality...I'm talking about one guy playing mixolydian and another guy playing dorian with the same root, possibly by 'mistake' during an improv. (Also, let's exclude from discussion any incidental use of chromatic scales...)
Did this kind of thing happen in pre-free jazz? Or did it happen later? When a hard bop group saw Cmaj7 on the lead sheet, did that mean they could only play one set of notes at that chord change? Or did Cmaj7 imply a number of possible scales (with a C root) from which each player could play from, regardless of what the rest of the band is doing?
Michael, a rock guy trying to expand his horizons
OK Michael, let's start out part 2 by talking a little about "way out" jazz as you call it. First of all since the late forties there have been experiments with free improvisation, meaning using something other than chords as the foundation for improvisation. Most music then and now is based on chord symbols as the basis for improvisation. But a few creative souls have tried getting rid of the chord symbols and improvised freely using other ideas as the basis for improvisation. Pianist Lennie Tristano at a 1947 recording session told an engineer to keep the tape rolling as he had his band improvise a couple of pieces using no set chordal pattern or song of any kind. The music they played was actually quite beautiful and not very dissonant at all. The amazingly creative bandleader and composer Sun Ra used open sections in the music of his archestra also around this time. And of course the king of free improvisation that influenced everyone from John Coltrane to Sonny Rollins was the great Ornette Coleman. His compositions from the late fifties were very bebop oriented in the melodies that he wrote but they had no chord changes. Improvisations were based on the soloist's individual taste and creativity. Ornette used what he called harmolodics, which in oversimplified fashion meant that each person in the band could play in any key and switch keys whenever they wanted as long as the line they played made musical sense. This new style of improvisation became the revolutionary cry for freedom in music. But don't be mistaken and think that free or open music is easy to play or that people can just play what they want. And also don't think that there is only dissonance in this very difficult kind of music. Some open music is very beautiful, just listen to any of the wondrous free improvisations of the great Paul Bley on the ECM label. In all music there is a mixture of consonance and dissonance. They are two sides of the same coin. You need them both to make good music. I've played a lot of open music and to me this