The Improv Heart of Jazz

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between jazz and not-jazz is notes on a page… Well, actually, more to the point, the absence of notes on the page. Like 90% of them. At it’s heart, a jazz tune is an improvisational art form based on a chord structure… the same way a surging tidal wave is based on water molecules. And what the listener hears each time is a completely unique experience – alive, complete in that moment.

An SF Jazz Center performance by pianists Eric Reed and Benny Green was a verdant example. Tunes by Thelonius Monk – (San Francisco Holiday, Reflections, Evidence) and Cedar Walton (6th Avenue, Voices Deep Within Me),  both with long and influential sway in jazz piano, were the mainstay of the night. Beautiful to see and hear played individually. Even more so as duets… if the word duet even applies.

What Green and Reed do in performance together is less like a duet and more like an incredibly dynamic conversation, fierce or sweet, or even like what a connection with a tender lover might be. As they played, their eyes and smiles met across the full length of Steinway and Yamaha, facing each other, passing the lead back and forth, synchronizing and splitting in arrangements that will never be played in that exact way again.

In 2004, there was a conference held in the Hague on improvisation in music. German jazz maven Wolfram Knauer wrote articulately about the gift and challenge of jazz improv:

“In any case, jazz is the first musical genre in which improvisation was so strongly put into the foreground… an alternative for a eurocentric cultural perspective in which the written word, repeatability, comprehensibility became essential parts of a work of art… improvisation in jazz which implies the possibility of expressing one’s emotions, one’s emotional experiences spontaneously. The problem of this jazz aesthetic as an aesthetic of an improvised art is that jazz survives in a world of the repeatable.

“How often do I as a concert promoter have people from the audience coming to me after a concert asking, ‘Did you record the concert?’ – because they want to repeat the experience of listening… indeed, each of us knows the feeling when we listen to music again and again, concentrate on it, perceive the originally improvised sounds as a work of art and then make ourselves aware again of their origin … by saying … with astonishment: ‘… and all of this is improvised!’

The sweetest spot of the night’s performance, for me, was Benny Green’s voluptuously gentle solo of the Jimmy Van Heusen tune ‘Deep In a Dream’. Which does not appear to be something he has recorded.  And would not be surreptitiously recorded by me in a venue with ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHY OR RECORDING’ signs frequently posted. Though I wish I had…. because I want that feeling again. And again. To say, with astonishment:  “… and all of this is improvised!” It was. I was. Alive. Complete in that Moment. Thank you Benny.