Piano Street Magazine

The Art of Improvisation – Risky Business and Living It All at the Same Time

June 17th, 2013 in Top Video Picks by | 3 comments

“There’s never been a time when improvisation was given the respect it deserves. By virtue of the holistic quality of it, it takes everything to do it. It takes real time, no editing possible. It takes your nervous system to be on alert for every possible thing in a way that cannot be said for any other kind of music.” – Keith Jarrett

It’s unquestionable that Keith Jarrett is one of the most significant pianists to emerge in the second half of the 20th Century. This is a wonderful documentary portrait from 2005 of one of the world’s pianist superstars of improvisation. Classical or jazz, Jarret’s unique artistry embraces all aspects of music and explores – perhaps more than any other – the magical present moment.

The film contains interviews with past and present collaborators including Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen, Charlie Haden, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, Gary Burton and Dewey Redman. We also get to know the ECM label owner and producer Manfred Eicher, with whom Jarrett found the perfect creative partner early in his career. The unique concert footage which for example includes performances with Lloyd, Miles, the Standards Trio, and the American and European Quartets, demonstrates the incredible interaction that flows at every performance.

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  • Andy Quin says:

    I have spent a lifetime in the recording studio producing music for film and TV. My ideal is to capture a great performance, but of course to minimize the number of errors, wrong notes etc. In practice this can take a lot of the spontaneity out of recorded material. As for improvisation, this is incredibly difficult to do in the recording studio environment, the problem being that to improvise freely you have to take chances, try things out on the spur of the moment. When you know this is going to be recorded for perpetuity, the pressure tends to make one hold back just a little! Thus I feel live performance is rally the arena for improvisation but as an improvising artist and performer it is very difficult indeed to market oneself in the current environment in the arts where everything has to be neatly pigeonholed into a particular genre. Most people almost certainly equate improvisation with Jazz, although jazz is really just one small aspect of musical improvisation.

  • Ted Jones says:

    I think Jarrett’s main, and vital contribution to world music was to assert the validity of free improvisation through his solo concerts. He is right though, it still has not attained respectability as a creative medium in itself, and is regarded by and large as a sort of poor man’s composition.
    I think that this misunderstanding comes from two centuries of believing the implicit falsehood that music, its forms and rhythms, is defined by notation. In fact, notation is a completely inadequate visual representation of sound. In the matter of rhythm alone, only a very small range of easily perceived, improvised rhythm, can be notated at all. Yet this ridiculous notion that improvisation should strive to imitate the hidebound, old-fashioned, notated forms of the past still persists. I think it is simply professional musicians and academics trying to preserve their vested interests.

    It is a pity that Jarrett does not talk more about the specifics of his improvisational process. His comments are a mixture of vague generalities and speaking about himself. The truth of the matter is that background in classical or jazz is superfluous to personal improvisation. Indeed, the commonly followed paths of musical education are also largely redundant.

    The existence of many thousands of gifted and highly educated pianists, probably a majority of over 90%, who cannot improvise at all should tell us something about how far the musical world has yet to go in regarding spontaneous creation as valid.

    Speaking personally, recording improvisation is a delight and live performance a nightmare, but I suppose I am a very atypical pianist at the best of times.

  • @Ted above: Love your comment, I can totally relate to all you say. I am a free improvisor, I try to teach it to my students, but it is difficult for them to “let go” and “be free”–my main influence has been Keith Jarrett. I have no trouble improvising at all. I remember in grad school absolutely brilliant pianists in class unable to improvise even around a C chord. Sad. Jarrett, unfortuately, is quite arrogant personally, as a teen I waited at the backstage door for him to come out, with a couple other loyal fans, on a cold Feb night in the late 70s in Boston. He walked right by us, within feet, with not even a nod or smile of acknowledgment. It took me years to get over this; now I am back into Jarrett–playing transcriptions–I regard them as “maps”–and letting him inspire my own free improvisations.

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