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Columns > Jesse Jarnow - Brain Tuba

Published: 1998/11/15
by Jesse Jarnow

Why Improvised Music?

There’s a lot to be said for music. Duh. There’s also a lot to be said in music. Double duh. That’s why people listen to it, and that’s why people create it. Songwriters create songs. Songs, as I babbled about last time, are straight-up ideas. Ideally, a song will access the same emotion in both the mind of the author and the mind of the listener. This does not mean, in any way, that the two will get the same thing out of a song. Emotions trigger different series of thoughts in different people.

As art, songs can set off long streams of thoughts, of associations. Much music leaves it only at that. The music acts as a seed in the listener’s mind for, shall we call it, independent study. This takes a great talent — to create something that will keep the listener thinking through repeated listenings. One of the most amazing things in the world is a well-written, concise song that, in the long run, will unfold in an infinite amount of ways for whomever looks. For me, much of the material on Phish’s 1993 album, “Rift”, functions in this manner.

Obviously, though, the basic song form is not all there is to a song. If a musical idea is good, a listener will keep thinking about it. Hell, if a musical idea is good, a MUSICIAN will keep thinking about it. Why shouldn’t he? A musician’s thought might take the form of the original idea — music. If a musician is particularly adept, articulate, his discourses – so to speak – upon the themes will remain interesting for whatever length he chooses his explorations to be.

This is where improvisation comes in. To observe a musician improvise is to observe a musician in the process of thought. It’s no coincidence that language is one of the primary metaphors many writers use to describe music. Talented musicians have something interesting to think about and a clear way of expressing it.

This, also, is why I believe many fine musicians, who can write original material with the best of them, include cover material in their sets. If a song is interesting, why not play it, no matter whom the author(s)? A principle such as this has nearly eternally been embodied in the philosophy of art and science. British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in “the Friend”: “A dwarf sees farther than the giant when he has the giant’s shoulders to mount on.” The question, then, is why not to cover? Performing the tunes of others’ is a long standing tradition in the jazz world and has always been – now more than ever – a convention in the genre of improvised rock.

On a given night, nearly half of a good ol’ Grateful Dead setlist might be comprised of covers. Phish, too, has recently sunk their collective teeth into this — offering up exploratory versions of tunes by a host of other artists… more so than previously normal. Younger bands, too, like Colorado’s String Cheese Incident, are making names for themselves playing their interpretations of an eclectic mix of material written by other artists.

Once in the realm on thought/improvised music, there are many different types of expression to choose from. The most basic – in concept, at least – is that of the soloist: a lone musician improvising on top of a set of determined chord changes. A stunningly great example of this approach, in the rock genre, is the late Frank Zappa. Check out his incredible two CD collection of solos, titled simply “Guitar”, available on Rykodisc. A guitar solo, especially in the case of FZ, would be the musical equivalent of an oration. A good musician’s voice and personality shines through in his soloing. Compare any segment of “Guitar” with any excerpt from FZ’s autobiography, “the Real Frank Zappa Book”. One will find, instantly, that FZ’s musical and written voices are indistinguishable — one and the same.

The next level up, obviously, is when multiple musicians improvise together. The simplest form of this, is what are often referred to as “dialogues”. Again, a borrowed metaphor from language. This is when musicians interact with each other directly. One musician will play a phrase, and another will react. Though the phrases might overlap, the voice of each individual musician can still clearly be ascertained. The Dead, circa 1968-74 were absolutely incredible at this. The Mickey and the Hartbeats shows from fall of 1968 feature some wonderfully sparse interactions between Garcia and Lesh (on some) and Garcia and Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane on others. They are, most definitely, conversations.

And, like real discussions, some of them were agreeable, some of them were heated. For an example of an “agreeable” conversation, the Hartbeats tapes are some good samples. Or, perhaps, the shimmering jewel-like jam moving back into Dark Star out of the first ever Wharf Rat from the Capitol Theater on February 18, 1971. For a musical argument, observe the Dark Star from August 21, 1972 at the Berkeley Community Theater in California: Garcia, mid-jam, begins Morning Dew — or attempts to, anyway. Before the first measure can be completed, Weir and Lesh cut him off with evil, slashing chords.

Rob Boyle wrote, in “Road Thoughts, snippet #2” that “great musicians represent the peak of human togetherness” — and I can’t say that I disagree with him. Despite their disagreements, the Dead manage to turn the argument into another separate piece of improvisation. In fact, the disagreement – over whether or not to play Morning Dew, over whether or not to play like comet dust or a black hole – seems to send the band into an entirely new conversation about, even, the nature of the very argument they just undertook. At first, it’s all hostility. But, gradually everybody begins to see eye to eye. Somewhere in there, the jam enters some weird space that lies somewhere between the deep textural beauty of Morning Dew and the sonic death rays of Phil Lesh.

When this happens, the band hits something that is beyond conversation. They enter a kind of music that, so far as I know, has no active equivalent in spoken or written language. The band is working as one, carefully cutting the moment “now” out of the fabric of the space-time continuum and swiftly sewing it into infinity. The Grateful Dead, on one pod, is made up of five completely separate instrumental voices. But, on the other pod, IT is speaking as one unit with one voice that exists nowhere else.

In normal, spoken conversation, each person can contribute to his own heart’s desire. A oneness, of sorts, may even be reached with the rest of the group. But, at no point can that oneness ever be tangible in the same way that one can actually hear a band working together on stage or on tape. Nowhere else can one actually see a group mind in action, in full thought and splendor.

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Jesse Jarnow rawks the Catskills in between periods of deep excremediation at his temporary home in the flats of Oberlin, Ohio where he has learned to pitch the perfect split-fingered fastball by whipping rocks at yaks.

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