How a Polish Sailor Turned British Novelist Helped Me Find a Voice as a Jazz Improviser

by David Braid for Canadian Music Magazine, Autumn 2010

It was the author Joseph Conrad whose ideas about "the main task" of art inspired a significant change in how I thought about my goals as a creative musician. In his preface to a novel published in 1897, he wrote, "A work that aspires, however humbly, to the status of art should carry its justification in every line." In other words, an artist's work is economical in expression so that every element contributes in a vital way to the completeness of that work. It was this insight which caused me to evaluate the aims of my creativity as an improviser.

Before I considered Conrad's observation, I thought the goal of jazz improvisation was to achieve an interesting extemporization based on the melody, harmony, and rhythm of a predetermined composition. There is an abundance of jazz pedagogy that develops the tools to actualize that goal; for example, books and master classes often discuss applications of scales, chord substitutions, and rhythm to inspire the improviser. However, if a person becomes extremely skilled with the applications, say, of bebop chord substitution, or, different rhythmic groupings of eighth notes, does it lead to more artful improvising?

Conrad's idea of artful "justification" in respect of improvisation requires not only skillfully executed ideas, but the presence of a larger structure or form which governs the individual ideas.

I started questioning the structural unity or "justification in every line" of my improvisations on two levels: on a macro-level, which considers what makes a solo feel complete; and on a micro-level, which considers the usefulness each musical element plays in relation to the larger form. I enjoy improvisers such as Sonny Rollins and Keith Jarrett because their most inspired solos are organized like written compositions: each phrase logically progresses from one to the next, creating a structural form that prepares a natural climax and conclusion.

After reading Conrad's piece, I became interested in other structural ways to develop a unified solo: I sought for a simple approach that would make every element of the music (melody, rhythm, harmony) play a vital part in both the improvised phrase and the larger form of the improvisation. A simple way to integrate phrase and form is to develop one motif throughout the entire solo. This way, vocabulary such as chord substitutions, rhythms, and scales are not ends in themselves but are tools to manipulate the motif and generate form. At the very least, the application of such vocabulary justifies the presence of each musical phrase by its relatedness to the ideas that proceed from the original.

To further explore this approach, two practical questions are in order: the kind of motif one should use to build a clear form; and the means to become more comfortable spontaneously producing variations of the motif.

To answer the first question, the selection of a motif should be appropriate to the style of music. For example, if one is improvising on jazz standards with a traditional bebop group, three examples of appropriate motifs might be: the original melody of the song, a fragment of the melody, or a simple bebop rhythm. However, if one is improvising in a more progressive context, the soloist would be free to choose any motif. However, regardless of context, selecting a simple motif is ideal because it is easier for the improviser to manipulate and for the listener to follow.

As for the second question, how to become more comfortable manipulating a motif in real time, the first step is to understand the character of the original idea, hence permitting practice in the invention of ways to modify it. Write out some variations applied to an easy composition, and then modify what is unsatisfactory. Examples of ways to modify a motif include: rhythmic displacement, modal transposition, decoration, inversion, rhythmic augmentation, and rhythmic diminution. Naturally, translations can be combined.

To illustrate this approach in a broader perspective, consider my improvisation over John Coltrane's composition "Giant Steps":

David Braid Jazz Solo on Giant Steps

Since much of Coltrane's original melody and harmony moves in thirds, a natural choice for a motif to generate an improvisation is a third. The translation of that interval throughout the improvisation above validates each phrase by its relatedness to the original motif; this creates a logical flow of ideas making a narrative which the listener can follow.

In close, Joseph Conrad may seem an unlikely source of inspiration for a jazz artist in the 21st century, but it was his conviction that music is "the art of arts." In his 'Preface,' Conrad strives for "... complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance" in art. The "form" is the structural unity of the composition, and the "substance" refers to the musical elements economically expressed so as to justify the form in every line, a marked contrast to discussion limited to new, exotic source material, tools, or vocabulary. Applying his wisdom, I believe, is a sure step towards producing more artistically mature improvisation, since clarity of form replaces applications of vocabulary without direction.

August 13, 2010