Notes are nothing on their own. They have no identity, no meaning. They cannot even be in tune on their own, as in order for a note to be in tune it has to be in reference to something else. Concert pitch A at 440Hz is the established reference frequency for tuning. However, there are people who think that music based on the 432Hz reference frequency sounds more humane and creates a more divine musical context. However there is no need to get into that heated debate. Let’s tune up and jump out of the frequency microcosm. I would like to share a few thoughts on the importance of context and the way it shapes the validity, meaning and perception of musical statements during a jazz improvisation performance. I am going to use the analogy between language and a jazz solo to make my point. This is an analogy often brought up in jazz circles and for good reasons. Novels developed parallel with Classical European music, which provided the harmonic foundation of jazz. Both arts have used the same mechanism to generate meaning and drama for centuries: the interplay between order and disturbed order or between tension and release, as it is often found in jazz literature. It’s no wonder we often hear that a good jazz solo tells a good story. Rhythmic context We all had teachers in school who were really bad at delivering information. They spoke fast, without accenting key points. They jumped from one point to another, without pausing in between. Their overall pace was random and tiring. Since our brain’s capacity for information processing is limited, people only welcome well organised and well paced information. Random and fast musical information is perceived as bad music. It violates the natural limits of our brain capacity and remains unprocessed. Notes that are organised in strong rhythmic patterns and delivered at good pace attract our attention. The most ‘outside’ note can sound great when it belongs to a strong and interesting rhythmic pattern. Structural context. Comedians are aware of the importance of timing more than anyone else. There is a good moment and a bad moment to deliver your punch line. It is interesting that the pause comedians take in order to build up tension or give time to their listeners to react is called the ‘beat’. Likewise, not all points within a song structure or our solo structure are equally welcoming to a certain statement. In an AABA song form for example, the end of the B part carries a lot of inherent musical tension. It makes more sense to take your liberties at the end of the B section since the inherent tension at that point is high and naturally more forgiving to any ‘wrong’ notes you may hit. By the same token, it makes less sense to play your favorite ‘outside’ lick in the beginning of your solo where the tension is low. That’s the reason many people suggest playing a simple melodic or rhythmic idea at the beginning of a jazz solo. This strategy addresses the low tension area wisely and helps us build and develop our ideas more effectively. Harmonic context. Imagine watching a TV programme on flight safety while plane crushes are shown in a background video. The presenter would have no chance of passing on the message to the audience. The great challenge and beauty of jazz improvisation is that everything happens against a dynamic harmonic background. So not only do single notes gain their meaning among larger groups of notes, but they can even change their meaning when played in different harmonic contexts. Whoever provides the harmonic foundation for our solo is also responsible for the validity and quality of our statements. As the great teacher and fiddler Mat Glaser says in his Swing Violin video lesson when the guitar changes chord while he is holding a note: you take the credit! Social context. I don’t think using vulgar language is considered appropriate during a job interview anywhere in the world. There are words we only use when being in certain social contexts. We are being trained to constantly adjust our language style from an early age. The character of a jazz performance can vary from informal to really formal. Jazz can be performed in small bars where people are drinking and interacting with each other or concert halls where people are quietly listening. The nature of every music event encourages certain relationships among those who participate either as musicians or listeners. What seems or sounds cool in an underground jazz club may seem or sound inappropriate in a concert hall. Psychological context. We all appreciate someone’s confidence in speaking. We may also have fallen in love with the introversion and naiveness of a woman’s voice. When I listened to old recordings of myself with my gypsy swing band I noticed that some of what I thought were the most unsuccessful ideas sounded great. Played with an ‘I don’t really care attitude’ but with authority and intention, they somehow conveyed the feeling that I had things under control. Since then, I often try to repeat and emphasize what sounds like a wrong note. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. However, it is definitely a habit that builds our confidence while performing. However, excessive confidence can turn into repulsive egotism that might contaminate our music. Authority is great, but being esoteric and naïve while improvising is great too. Many people hate German just because they have associated it with Hitler’s talks. The question is: can we really escape our real selves when performing? It goes beyond doubt that the necessity of building good and solid musical skills for dealing with any given situation should be top priority for musicians. By being aware of a few principles that govern communication and the delivery of information we can enhance our ability to come up with more interesting and meaningful improvisations. Sometimes instead of looking for right notes, we should ask ourselves: What really makes sense to the human ear? On the other hand, we often think that we can carry our solid and rigid musical skills anywhere we go. However we all know that the same skilled person is capable of delivering a great performance one day and a mediocre performance the following day. This is natural, since there are many parameters interacting with each other that affect our performance in any given situation. Sam Sommers in his book ‘Situations matter’ mentions that we’re easily seduced by the notion of stable character. Anyway, my point is this: When I listen to a musician who creates interesting rhythmic ideas, has a good pace using pauses, doesn’t want to convince me of anything, shows no egotism, plays in a really nice friendly atmosphere, has a good sound, and all that is happening at a friendly volume to the human ear, then I am more than willing to forgive anything!
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