Improvisation: An Expression Beyond Boundaries

Improvisation in many senses is like a composition in itself. It is a musical creation that seeks to deepen the bond between musician and audience, between performers and their instruments, and overall, the nature of the song itself. Numerous musical traditions in the world consider improvisation to be the true test in the technical ability of the musician, and in many cases, an integral aspect of the very fabric of the musical performance. This post will seek to expose the reader to the variety of improvisation that exists around the world.

First we will look at improvisation in the world of jazz. Jazz has many strains with many visionaries, but when I think of a true soloist and composer I think of trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis could throw himself into any musical situation and figure out a way to turn it into a work of art. He was at times very avant-garde, but this really demonstrated the boundaries he was willing to push in order to constantly shape the idea and practice of jazz. Davis’ strength was modal jazz, which would lead to him improvising in modes. Modes date back to the Gregorian monks, and the way theoreticians look at the modes is that they are altered scales. For instance, in order to build Mixolydian mode (yes, it is my favorite mode hence the name of this blog), you must take the major scale and flat (or lower by one-half step) the seventh scale degree (Ti in movable do solfege and Si in fixed do solfege). The modes are beautiful scales for improvising, as each mode has its own unique character. Take a listen to Miles improvising in Lydian and Phrygian modes.

Another music area well known for improvisation is the blues. Considered by nearly every musicologist to be a precursor to rock music, blues has left indelible mark on the world of music. When I think of improv in the blues, a few guitarists come to mind, namely Lightnin’ Hopkins, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters (each belonging to a different strain of blues). Lightnin’ Hopkins belonged to the country blues genre, and was known for his single note style solo technique (you can trace a lot of modern guitar techniques to this style).  Robert Johnson was a pioneer of Mississippi Delta blues, and used a bottleneck slide style which allowed him to slide to notes all over the fretboard with ease. Muddy Waters is considered to have brought electricity to the blues, meaning he was a pioneer of the electric guitar in the Chicago blues genre.  Each guitarist has given numerous guitarists (such as Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Mayer etc.) a reason to play their instrument. Check all three out below (Robert Johnson is first, then Lightnin’ Hopkins, and then finally Muddy Waters).

One region of the world that improvisation is considered a fixed part of the classical performance is North India. Hindustani Classical music contains a section in the very beginning of the performance called Alap where the performer(s) develop the raga (set pitches in a vast and complicated system honored by centuries of oral tradition). The Alap in many ways sets the tone for the entire piece. Take a listen to this example where in the first section Ravi Shankar plays an Alap on sitar (notice that it is an unmetered section).

In the Near Eastern music, one of the true tests of a musician is their ability to perform a maqam (or makam in Turkey) within the context of a taqsim (or taksim). True masters of their instrument will be able to create beautiful and technically challenging compositions within an already existing piece. Look at this example on ‘ud (lute) from the late master Hamza el-Din.

Finally, and yes I saved this for last since I play this music , is rock music improvisation. Solos in rock come in all shapes and sizes, and are able to exist on many different instruments. Drummers improvise, as do bassists (and of course guitarists). There is nothing quite like listening to a roaring crowd while a solo is happening. Check out these three examples, the first is a drum solo from Alex Van Halen, the second is a bass solo from Billy Sheehan, and the final is a guitar solo from John Petrucci.

Ultimately it is in improvisation that the musician finds their true voice. It is always a pleasure as the listener to see what different perspective an instrumentalist can give. It is one thing that gets me up every morning, and will continue to do for a long time.

(Sources: Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr; Encyclopedia of the Blues by Edward M. Komara; Shruti : A Listener’s Guide to Hindustani Music by Sandeep Bagchee; Grove Dictionary of Music)


2 thoughts on “Improvisation: An Expression Beyond Boundaries

  1. Interesting post, Derek. My favourite rock improviser is (was) Jerry Garcia. For a band whose main body of work was live performance like all such events The Grateful Dead could have an off night. It happens. They are only human. But the nights they were ON the jams and improvs proved to be something else….. and then they seemed not human at all but magical Gods of Musical Wonder. 🙂

  2. Yeah man I think a lot about the fact that I was born in the wrong era. If I had been born early enough to experience the jam bands like TGD, you better believe I would’ve gone to their concerts!

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