What I wrote in Part 1 of the “How To Listen To Jazz” series was mostly copied from an email correspondence I had with my buddy Bryan McWhite last Spring. The idea to do this series actually came from those emails, because Bryan is a big music fan who confessed that he didn’t really understand Jazz and wanted to. I tried to explain how Jazz works, and it was cool to hear his responses and questions regarding the differences between Jazz and Rock/Pop. So, with his permission, I’m going to include his emails as a way to move along in the series.
How Bryan responded to the initial “improv vs. jamming” and “through composition” ideas
I think you might need to unpack the “jamming” vs. “improvising” difference for me more. You’re absolutely right that I figured jazz musicians were actually doing what you described as “jamming.” Unless I’ve heard you wrong, though, jamming kinda sounds cooler BECAUSE there’s no plan. Jamming seems like it would be harder to do because you have to keep things together and sounding good without knowing where things are going to go, whereas you made it sound like improv has some predetermined direction.
I really enjoy the idea of someone saying (with their instrument and by what they play), in the middle of a song, “Hey, let’s do this… you coming with? Let’s create something.” But unless I’m misunderstanding, that’s more like jamming rather than improvising.
Here’s a question I have, though: Something like the the end of “Who Did You Think I Was?” (from the “Where The Light Is” John Mayer Trio live album) actually sounds like what you described as improv, because it seems like there was a set chord progression – some kind of backbone they were all working off of (and that Palladino mostly sticks to). But that’s what I would have called a “jam,” not an “improvisation.”
How I tried to answer Bryan’s questions
Yes, you are onto something with the John Mayer thing. The end of “Who Did You Think I Was” is a perfect example of true improvising (which, by the way, is a riff that quotes the HendrixBand Of Gypsies album). The John Mayer Trio knows that they are “free” to play what they want… within the context of that chord progression you identified (and the roles of their respective instruments). Another great example would be the slow blues tune fromWhere The Light Is … I think it’s called “Out of my Mind.” Mayer is definitely soloing over a predetermined set of chord changes on that song, and Jordan/Palladino are playing along with him in that chord progression, but it’s obvious that as a band they’re not just going through the motions. The music lifts and falls and breathes, and they are listening intently to one another so as to respond accordingly… but they all knew they weren’t going to turn the “jam” into a disco song or something. There are parameters to their “jam,” and so in that sense they were improvising and not really jamming.
Also, I should mention the reality that there are often two uses of the word “jam.” One is just a synonym for rock (verb), as in, “check out these guys just rocking (jamming) out over here.” This usage has nothing to do with predetermined vs spontaneous anything… it just acknowledges the intensity level of the music. You hit on this by thinking that the end of that Mayer tune was a “jam.” The other definition of “jam” would be the one I’m suggesting: having at it with no idea what will happen, and no real foundation on which to build. This is more or less what bands like The Grateful Dead and Phish are known for (which is where the genre “jamband” gets it’s name). You’re right… it IS pretty cool when musicians can blindly go somewhere together and make it sound hip, which is why people like Phish. But, that’s never been the Jazz tradition. Jazz musicians actually look down on the Phish-style jamming somewhat, at least compared to true improvising. The reason is basically just that jamming is easier. Think of it this way: on “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” the comedians are given some sort of prompt and then they can do WHATEVER they want. But on Christopher Guest films like “Spinal Tap” or “Best In Show,” those actors are improvising but all the while knowing that they have to maneuver the dialogue along the plot lines. They can’t just totally change the scene the way Michael Scott does (NBC’s The Office) in his community acting classes by just shooting the other characters out of nowhere. Another great analogy that I read about a while back would be Iranian films in the last few years. There has been a big movement of avant-garde films out of Iran, which is surprising because of the strict government enforcement of the Islamic laws. One of these film makers was being interviewed by this American journalist, and he was asked something to the effect of, “isn’t it a bummer to try and make cool films when you have such narrow sidelines within which you must work… isn’t that stifling creatively?” This Iranian responded by basically reminding the journalist that it’s not a big deal when an American film maker puts out an avant garde shock art film, because it’s so easy to do that in our culture. Nothing is sacred in America. You can do or say whatever you want. Therefore, because of the immense restrictions in speech and content that exist in Iran, it’s VERY impressive that a film maker can produce something that is truly avant garde and shocking, all while “following the rules.”
Point: it’s much more difficult (and more impactful) to accomplish something extraordinary when there are rules, as opposed to operating in a completely free environment. This is essentially the backbone concept for Jazz improvising.
I should note that your description of the “hey, I’m going somewhere here… want to come?” mentality is totally dead-on for how Jazz musicians dialogue with each other. It’s just that Jazz musicians can’t go WHEREVER they want, because they have to “follow the rules.” Within that, there’s tons of room for venturing out to new ideas, but it’s always in the context of the parameters. Again, with the Christopher Guest improv comedy, I imagine those guys get done with a take sometimes and the producers are like, “oh man, I can’t BELIEVE you went that way with it!” Those guys have to follow the plot, but then one of them suggests something in the improvised dialogue that makes everything go a direction that nobody saw coming, but it still fits the plot and they all know it.
—- I’ll break off the post at this point, and we’ll get to the explanation of the Jazz compositional structure (Head/Solo/Head) in Part 3.