Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Art of the Obvious

Don’t be afraid to be obvious. Don’t be afraid to let your intentions be known.

Improvisers often become so caught up with being free, being new, being unexpected, being bold, being avant-garde, being different; that they avoid (and may even disdain) the obvious, the expected, the inevitable. But the ability to be clear and obvious about your intentions is an essential part of group improvisation, one that is often ignored.

Last Sunday, I had the immense pleasure of hosting Session X, with myself on saxes, Kevin Barry on guitar, Marty Ballou on bass, Dean Johnston on drums, and April Hall on vocals. All master musicians (in many different styles), and I had brought them together to improvise with me. I had framed the evening’s improvisations to be about the groove, but that’s about all I said. When listening back to the music it sounds like a killer band playing some loose, funky, grooving tunes. It doesn’t sound particularly weird, or different, or avant-garde. But it’s completely improvised.

And believe me when I tell you, it is incredibly difficult to improvise music this clear, music that people can hear and understand, music that grooves and has beats, and bass lines and melodies and lyrics – all the things you would expect to hear from a funk band, but not necessarily from an improvisational quintet. It takes an immense amount of patience, and commitment, and deep, deep listening. And a willingness to let your intentions be known, to be obvious, to commit to a focus and to share it freely.

There is an art to being obvious. There is joy in understanding and being understood. And sometimes the hardest thing to improvise is a (seemingly) simple and beautiful group composition that just flat out feels good and makes sense.

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