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Letters from Bob Anram

Jazz Improvisation

Part 3 - Critical listening


In an earlier email regarding neutral phrase based practicing, I stated that one's style and the way one ultimately thinks through the horn are significantly defined by the various artists one chooses to embrace and the relative ratio of time spent listening to each artist. I can not think of any artist who evolved within a vacuum. Furthermore, I think that it is a natural phase in one's development to imitate. However, the importance of one's library in moving beyond imitation can not be overstated. Along with my Coufs, my most valuable possession is my library.

In all my years, I have never studied a transcribed solo, and in fact, I consider such studies to be counter productive in regards to improvisation. Jazz improvisation is basically an oral tradition. Improvisation is ultimately a complex relationship between one's ears, mind and horn, in the same way that extemporaneous speech integrates the ears, mind, and voice. Remember, when we are flowing verbally, we put our faith in our preconscious mind and we are trusting that our verbal output, free of pre-thought, will accurately represent our preconscious intent.. In short, we think through our emerging verbiage. If we try to previsualize our word choice or consciously apply rules of grammar, we take our concentration away from our output and break the thought process. It is critical to note that a child, raised within a grammatically correct environment, will speak correct grammatically, even though they will be oblivious to any rules of grammar. No doubt that reading transcriptions has great value in refining ones reading capabilities. However, I really believe that one should study one's influences by listening, not reading and intellectual analysis, for the latter introduces mental habits that are contrary to improvisational flow.

Theory and harmony are valuable, but should come after one develops improvisational flow. Note that in language development, a child first learns to speak and then much later, learns grammar. Too often, because of the natural insecurities in improvisation, the fledgling improviser learns rules of theory and harmony, and then attempts to actively employ these rules while "constructing" his solo. This interjects a disruptive element to the flow - with the mind flipping between attendance to one's emerging sound while attempting to structure their output in conformance to rules as they have been "learned". This is the exact opposite to nature of language acquisition.

I view listening as training my mind for improvisation and I view it as an integral part of my practice regimen. To this end, I always listen through headphones because the audio perspective is a much closer approximation of what I experience while playing, Comparatively, speakers present a reference point from the audience.

So how does critical listening facilitate stylistic development and improvisational flow?

Style development

Stylistic development should be a natural consequence of our exploration of the great soloists. Throughout my life, if I discovered work that moved or intrigued me, I would pursue it by acquiring as much of that artist's output as I could possibly obtain, including their earlier works. My rationale was that if I listened to a few recordings I would imitate, but if I listened to a broad library I would come to understand their language, how it evolved. To that end I would further ascertain their influences and acquire those works.

Ultimately, when I was younger, I would be able to listen to a performance and then proceed to improvise in that language, I would be speaking Pres, Hawk, Bird, Rollins, Sims, Dex, Trane, etc., as opposed to playing memorized licks. I learned their logic structure and in that sense hearing their works of lesser quality was as valuable as their prime material. As an example, I could always tell when Sonny Stitt was either tired or on auto because he would repeated resolve his phrases to the tonic or when Dex was in overdrive because his use of space between phrases would basically disappear and he would be literally jamming one phrase into the next.

I let my heart define who I listened to and have never let what was currently en vogue define my tastes. (I could never understand what was gained by camps of exclusivity). I believe in the biological axiom of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, i.e. the stages of development of the embryo replicates the stages of evolution of the species. (example: at a point in the development of the human embryo, it has gills). In regards to improvisation, this means that one should embrace the logic of earlier stages of jazz as one grows artistically. One beauty of jazz improvisation is that, as in other art forms, it has the potential for growth and change reflective of the growth and change throughout your entire life (note the changes in Getz throughout his life).

If one examines the lives of the great painters and symphonic composers, they all studied - with varying degrees of assimilation- the art that preceded them. They all went through stages that were basically imitative of their prime influences, which is natural. However, they all had a firm understanding of what had gone before, and that allowed them to grow beyond the imitative. It is certainly acceptable to start with what is current, as long as ones intellectual mindset allows exploration both forward and backward. What artists ultimately move you will be different from my influences - but within those differences lie a major component of individuality. Influences will ascend and recede in our listening, which also contributes to the changes in our style, and that should be embraced. The landscape of performing jazz has dwindled significantly from my youth. A rich jazz library helps to offset some of the negative consequences of that state and keep your mind fresh.

Training your mind:

My goal in listening is never the pursuit of pleasure, though, paradoxically, I experience immense pleasure from listening. Rather, I view listening as training my mind, honing the skills that I view as essential in improvisation.

Ultimately for me, improvisation is defined by the art of creating phrases -the art of the phrase. One of my goals is to come to hear each phrase clearly defined as a separate entity and to do so without analysis of or reflection on that phrase, nor anticipation of the next. I trust that my mind is assimilating the defining aspects of length, direction, range, intervals, tonal characteristics, breath and attack,. melodicism, harmony, rhythm as well as its logical development from both the theme and previous phrases.

I use listening to train my mind to not maintain some form of parallel thought process. I believe that any such parallel thinking takes the mental focus away from your emerging phrase. It is only after listening that I delve into conscious analysis, but not during. I believe that whatever mental habits we employ in the listening experience tend to strongly carry over to the improvisation experience. To clarify experientially, try listening to a recorded book by a quality writer and a skilled reader. I guarantee that your verbal flow will improve and that you will find that your ability to speak in clearly defined phrases will improve. Yet, I doubt that you are actively analyzing during the presentation. We tend to accept this explicitly in verbal behavior but often feel compelled to violate this when learning to improvise.

I believe that in focused listening you train your mind to hear the individual notes in rapid passages. The ability to hear music in detail is an acquired skill and focused listening is critical to hearing in detail. I doubt that novice listeners hear the internal detail of Trane's more demanding passages. If you can not hear quickly, how can one play quickly? By the way, I think that the same is true for more unconventional harmony. I think that the common initial reaction to atonality is to be put off by the dissonance. However, listen enough to Anton Webern or Alban Berg and that dissonance becomes consonant, logical, melodic. Reach that point and the improviser has assimilated the non-conventional into their preconscious musical logic.

I strive in focused listening to build the capacity of hearing everything, but focusing on nothing.. This is precisely the state of mind that I strive for in improvisation. The longer that I can maintain that state, without breaks in concentration, the better I can sustain a solo. The more clearly I can hear the individual instruments in the rhythm section, while hearing my horn, the more they will influence my output and the fresher will be ideas, assuming a quality rhythm section. Focused listening help to train this skill. Incidentally, I always find accompanied bass solos to be useful, mainly because it affords an opportunity to focus on the light comping of the piano/guitar. Also, I make it a practice to bring focused listening to classical listening, which I view as the musical equivalent to lifting heavy weights in my physical workouts. Basically, if I can achieve the mental state of hearing everything but focusing on nothing for a complete Prokofiev symphony, it will make it easier to establish that state with a jazz quartet.

As I stated initially, I strongly believed that focused listening is an important, if not critical component to one's daily practice regimen.



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