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Saturday morning quotes 2.13: Improvisation

August 18, 2012

Jazz guitarists of today are not likely to consider themselves bearers of a long and lively tradition of improvisation that dates back more than 500 years.  When reeling out riffs to a set of changes, one is not likely to consider the cascading and wildly rhythmic inventions of Joan Ambrosio Dalza (Italy, 1508) or the hundreds of pages of anonymous written out improvisations over grounds found in the Marsh Lute Book (England, c.1580).  But it’s a fact that we are the inheritors of a tradition that goes back much farther than Django or Charlie Christian.

The most principal and chiefest kind of music…is the Fancy [fantasia], that is when a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it…In this may more art be shewn than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing, but that he may add, diminish, and alter at his pleasure. And this kind may bear any allowances whatsoever tolerable in other music except changing the air and leaving the key, which in Fancy may never be suffered. Other things you may use at your pleasure, as bindings with discords, quick motions, slow motions, proportions, and what you list. Likewise this kind of music is, with them who practise instruments of parts, in greatest use. . . .

– Thomas Morley A Plain and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music, 1597

Templates of style and form for modern improvisations can be linked directly to those of the past.  The backbone of the improviser’s art was in arranging, embellishing, and sometimes reharmonizing popular vocal music.  Just like Joe Pass and his improvisations on songs by Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, lutenists like Francesco da Milano and Albert da Rippe created inventive and intricate variations on the vocal music of Josquin des Prez and Clement Janequin. The composed suite-like duets recorded by notable 20th century guitarists Dick McDonough and Carl Kress are directly descended from renaissance and baroque lute duets.

Eddie Lang, long considered the first jazz guitarist and an innovator without precedent, owed much to the Italian tradition of improvising while playing dance tunes.  His lifelong collaborator, Joe Venuti, said of their early explorations:

“We used to play a lot of mazurkas and polkas. Then we started to slip in some improvised passages. I’d slip something in, Eddie would pick it up with a variation.  Then I’d come back with a variation.  We’d just sit there and knock each other out.”

Lang was well-versed in art music of his day and recorded a take off of Debussy’s ‘La Fille Aux Cheveaux de Lin’ with Venuti under the title of ‘Doin’ things’, as well as an arrangement for guitar of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in c-sharp minor.  When renowned classical guitarist Andrés Segovia made his New York’ recital debut in 1928, Eddie Lang was in the audience.   Eddie Lang was also exceedingly busy as the most sought-after accompanist for singers, and his imaginative playing is a model for the rest of us.

George Van Eps was the 20th century guitarist with the closest link to the great masters of the past, and my absolute favorite guitarist of all time. With his treatment of the guitar as a ‘lap piano’, he often improvised in four distinct parts, all the while maintaining an uncanny sense of control over counterpoint and voice leading. This sense of intertwining lines moving horizontally, as opposed to vertical block harmonies, is the very essence of renaissance music and the backbone of the lutenist’s repertory.

Charlie Byrd is credited with applying classical guitar techniques to jazz, as well as playing a major role in introducing Brazilian music and bossa nova to jazz audiences north of the Equator. As for his appreciation for music of the old masters, Charlie Byrd said:

“I’d like to see guitarists of today using more of the vast store of knowledge that has been piled up by the great lute players and guitarists of the past 400 years. Men like Dowland, Milan and Weiss wrote and played very difficult things that have not been surpassed to this very day!”

The 2006 release of Sting’s lutesong tribute to John Dowland (Songs of the Labyrinth, Deutsche Grammophon CD 170 3139, with lutenist Edin Karamazov) has done much to raise the awareness of the lute and has perhaps sparked a renewed interest in the instrument and its music. Using the some 40,000 surviving historical pieces for lute as a guide, one can readily see the richness of the repertory but also the degree to which improvisation played a role in playing styles of the past.  For musicians willing to invest considerable time in mastering the demanding technique required to play the lute well, there are many ways the instrument can be relevant in the context of modern improvised music.

  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Here hear! And let’s not forget the great hot players of the 15th century, Contemporary accounts (in Latin, but there is a translation) of the hair-raising improvs of the great Pietro Bono Brusellis could as easily apply to Django (and vice-versa). Also accounts of the great German duo, whose name I forget; but the “lead” player (flat pickin’ dudes) may have been the immortal Conrad Paumann.

  2. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    există oare vreo relaţie între lutenişti şi chitariştii contemporani?

  3. Bruno Correia permalink

    Excellent topic, you nailed it perfectly! Improvisation seems to be a lost art among classical musicians of today. Were 19th century players still cultivating it?

    • Thank you, Bruno, and a very good question. Although I confess to being less informed about 19th-century music, I’m sure improvisation was basis for the music of keyboardists like Lizst and Chopin. From what I’ve read about Lizst, he possessed the sprezzatura necessary to evoke that transporting ‘divine frenzy’ in his listeners. But maybe the standard of virtuoso technique necessary for playing their composed music actually caused the decline of improvisation.

      Thomas Morley wrote that composers must possess the ‘art of descant’, or the ability to improvise melodic variation over a tenor. We read about 17th-18th century figures like Nicola Matteis, Archangelo Corelli, and right up to CPE Bach as masters of improvisation, but it seems like the 19th century was the era of composed masterworks that interpreters perform today as music you just don’t mess around with.

      As a composer, I have to think that we all get our best musical ideas by improvising on an instrument. I don’t think improvisation ever ceased to be cultivated in the 19th century; it merely took a backseat to the monumental masterworks of successful “important” composers, and instrumentalists have forsaken the art of improvisation in their quest to develop the technique necessary to play the masterworks. My opinion.


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