Piano improvisation! From 21 to 23 September, I’ll be giving a weekend jazz improvisation course at Finchcocks in Kent. There’s one seat left.
But it’s still possible … Be the first person to claim that last seat! …. Follow the link in the previous sentence to see why Finchcock’s is an absolutely gorgeous place to be AND also to claim that last seat!
In October from the 26th through to the 28th, I’ll be giving another improvisation course at Jackdaws And there are still a few open seats there. Follow the previous link to register and to see why Jackdaws, in Frome, is also in a wonderful setting.
Finchcock’s and Jackdaws are in uniquely beautiful locations. These are places to visit—piano courses or no piano courses!
But, scenary aside, if you’re interested in general in jazz, the piano, and the art of improvisation, why not come to one course or the other? Or, for the the best possible solution:
Come to both!
The logic of two
Two rather than one—actually it’s a solution with a story. The story is:
Since returning to the UK in June after living in China for five months, I’ve been searching for the perfect gong. That would be a gong that’s gorgeously resonant instrument either soft or loud.
Most gongs do loud well. But a perfect gong produces many different timbres and not just a loud clang! Although for obscure reasons that I won’t explain, a gong klang rather than clang is ok
Clang or klang?
Actually, I did find a perfect gong in China. It’s sound was exquisite. Soft or loud—it didn’t make a difference. Hit it just right and there was a strong fundamental that blossomed not to fast and not to slow but just as it should. Goldilocks style. At every dynamic it produced a shimmering gamut of colour.
Unfortunately that particular gong wasn’t for sale. And that’s why I’ve been searching ever since.
So, who knew? In Uzes in France a few weeks ago I came across a shop with an owner who travels to Nepal to handpick his inventory. Right there in his shop were not one but two gorgeous gongs—both for sale!
Each of them resonanated with gorgeous overtones and a million other partials. Moving either of them up and down while they vibrated produced a fascinating mini-Dopler effect. And damping them ever so slightly—just barely touching them with padded mallets—THAT unleashed a whole other sonic dimension
Morever, they were complements to each other—they were a pair.
But the fundamental issue was: two gongs and I couldn’t choose just one. And separating them didn’t seem right.
Finally, I realised: they’re musical instruments with emphasis on the musical.
The gongs, both of them, left the shop with me.
So that’s how I came to have the two gongs I’ll be bringing to both courses. But why would one bring a gong, much less two, to a workshop on improvising at the piano?
It’s because if there’s one thing those gongs do extremely well,it’s that they compel listening. LISTENING, in turn, is the beating heart of improvisation.
A course about improvising at the piano needs a piano at the centre of the course. So let it be said: Finchcocks, among its other pianos—it has many—has a gorgeous Bosendorfer. Meanwhile, Jackdaws has an in-residence Steinway.
Good things happen on good pianos. That’s fact!
I’m not sure how or why, but we hear things more clearly when we’re listening with a group. At least sometimes. There’s something about collaborating that sharpens overall focus and perception? Is that why we often feel inspired or energised when performing with an ensemble?
Another part of the course experience will be viewing things like this video of Ahmad Jamal. He recorded the video, I think, last year, at age 87.
Group listening and discussion: It’s a great way to generate fascinating opinions about what we hear.
Is there a best way to improvise? Is there a best way to learn how to improvise?
Ummmm, who wants to answer that question?——! ? !—— …Learning to improvise, much less improvising itself, doesn’t fit cleanly to choose-one-way-or-the-other-and do-things-in-order-beginning-from-here-and-go-to-there.
Therefore, working primarily through a book or as a first resort following a graded syllabus really isn’t the most productive way to move forward. But that said, there are plenty of good books and syllabi that address improvisation directly and creatively.
And, really, every single resource we find to be helpful is helpful! So we could rephrase and say: find what’s useful and use it!.
Throuh that particular approach—use what’s useful—we don’t have to worry about the question of what’s the best way. Rather, we can just go directly to learning. Then, in, and over time, the path becomes clearer and clearer.
It deepens. It becomes broader.
Experience, which we acquire when we do something or anything, is key.
Suitable for who?
The Fitchcocks and Jackdaws courses are for improvisers from beginning through to advanced levels. The courses are also for individuals with no improvisation experience whatsoever. In other words, the courses are for those who want to begin AND for those who are past the beginnning but looking, nonetheless, for inspiration and fresh perspective.
How I began
My improvising journey began, more or less in New York City where I attended a weekly jazz piano course taught by Barry Harris at a sort of school that was known then as the Jazzmobile. Years later, the Jazzmobile is still an amazing organisation.
After picking up basics from Barry Harris’ class—and I wish I had picked up way more than I did!—I found other teachers who helped me. Tony Aless, who’s in the category of one-of-the-great-jazz-pianists-whom-you’ve-hever-heard-of is was among them.
I categorise him as such because he did record with Charlie Parker. That’s not something all musicians have on their CV.
The thing with Tony was he had a system he taught—without deviation, the same exact stuff—to all of his students. So, there’s a contradiction brewing here.
On the one hand I believe that experience and the lessons we draw from it are the best way forward. On the other hand, lurking in my background is the idea of common knowledge such as Tony wanted to impart to all of his student, each and every one of them.
Common knowledge is also what Barry Harris leads his students through. Although to say the knowledge Barry Harris imparts is common is somehow amiss and just wrong. Maybe the better way to say it is Barry Harris imparts knowledge that should be common.
And, to be clear, the DVD sets Barry Harris released—there are two of them in which he works directly withs students—are much better than superb. Categorise them as essential.
Improvisation, learning, creating, creativity
Among things we’ll explore at Finchcocks and Jackdaw are, well, I call them simple concepts. However, they’re simple .ostensibly. That’s because with a very few simple concepts we can learn how to scale ideas from a small example to solutions that cover a lot of territory.
Get out the music to Eleanor Rigby or play it by ear.
Eleanor Rigby is a superb lesson on how to create something profound and compelling from just a simple scale fragment or two. Norwegian Wood, also by the Beatles, is in the same category.
We can look and listen to those two tunes and marvel at how much can be expressed through very few notes. Of course, we can do the same with music by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and, for that matter, the entire western art music tradition.
So. techniques that we use to transform simple excerpts into larger lessons about improvisation—THAT is a huge part of what we’ll do in both courses.
Two sentences I received in an email from Harold Danko, the former chair of the jazz program at the Eastman School of Music, are:
We don’t learn to improvise. We improvise to learn.
I’ved been writing mostly about communal, collaborative learning and also how to transform direct experience into lessons. Both of those things will feature in the both courses.
But, in both courses I’ll also work individually with whomever might want that particular option—please feel free to request that as you’d like.
Meanwhile and as per Harold: we improvise to learn.