In the mid-1950s Charles Mingus embraced the collective improvisation of early New Orleans jazz and the ecstatic worship and singing rituals of the Black Pentecostal church— two historical African-derived approaches that emphasized group expression.
Mingus used these two approaches to advance both musical expression and political and spiritual ideas, charting a trajectory toward group oneness. His recordings from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s progressed from short sections of collective interplay and group improvisation reminiscent of early jazz to longer forms of ecstatic ritual. This latter practice—in the form of solos, band, and audience participation—was a direct invocation of the spiritual communion or Holy Spirit possession that he had witnessed in Pentecostal church services as a youth.
This according to “Mingus in the workshop: Leading the improvisation from New Orleans to Pentecostal trance” by Jennifer Griffith (Black music research journal XXV/1 [spring 2015] 71–96; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2015-87883).
Today is Mingus’s 100th birthday! Below, Wednesday night prayer meeting (1959), one of the recordings discussed in the article.
The improvisation collective Improv Everywhere specializes in staging public-space interventions, which they refer to as pranks or missions.
By enlisting pedestrians in discrete one-time events that challenge protocols of public contact and that expand our understanding of public flexibility and empathy, Improv Everywhere offers an antidote to mainstream, hegemonic formulations of spectacle, virtuosity, and generalized expectations concerning the purpose of performance.
The group’s integration of trained and untrained performers (whom they refer to as agents), the kinds of space and sociality that they create, and the connections between their live and web presences reveal noteworthy contemporary understandings of intimacy and the social fabric.
This according to “Why not Improv Everywhere?” by Susan Leigh Foster, an essay included in The Oxford handbook of dance and theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015, 196–212; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-23390).
Sonny Rollins’s extensive use of improvised thematic development in his 1956 recording of Blue 7marked a new level of musical evolution for jazz.
Jazz improvisatory procedures may be divided into two broad and sometimes overlapping categories: paraphrase and chorus improvisation. The former consists mostly of an embellishment or ornamentation technique, while the latter suggests that the soloist has departed completely from a given theme or melody and is improvising freely on nothing but a chord structure.
Most improvisation in the modern jazz era belongs to the second category, and Rollins’s recording is a landmark for maintaining thematic and structural unity in this type of playing.
This according to “Sonny Rollins and the challenge of thematic improvisation” by Gunther Schuller; this foundational work of jazz analysis from 1958 is reprinted in Keeping time: Readings in jazz history (New York: Oxford University Press 2015 193–202; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2015-155).
Today is Rollins’s 90th birthday! Above, the artist around the time of the recording; below, the recording itself.
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Charlie Parker’s three improvisatory choruses in Parker’s mood(1948) can be viewed as one statement; the first is introductory, the second climactic, and the third provides a summary by repeating previous material.
Analyzed as a Schenkerian series of layers, the piece progresses in complexity from the background to the foreground. Parker’s palette of resources includes the blues scale, stock blues melodic figures, bebop-style scale runs, arpeggiated figures derived from substitute progressions, idiosyncratic articulation, and a historic tradition of improvisation.
This according to “Parker’s mood revisited” by Kwatei Jones-Quartey (Annual review of jazz studies X  221–35; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1999-13483.
Today is Charlier Parker’s 100th birthday! Below, the recording in question.
Creative Improvised Music picks up where Fire
music left off, focusing on the literature on American free jazz and
European free improvisation published since the early 1990s, as well as older
works and archival material not included in its predecessor. Users will find
information on the music’s pioneers as well as hundreds of other
improviser-composers, ensembles, and collectives that have emerged in recent
The volume includes a detailed subject index that offers a
key to all of the book’s sections and a way to quickly pinpoint citations by
topic, geographical location, personal name, and instrument.
Above and below, the Mary Halvorson Octet; Halvorson is one of the more recent musicians covered in the book.
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The DJs and laptop performers of electronic dance music (EDM) use preexistent elements such as vinyl records and digital samples to create fluid, dynamic performances. These performances are also largely improvised, evolving in response to the demands of a particular situation through interaction with a dancing audience.
In performance, musicians make numerous spontaneous decisions about variables such as which sounds they will play, when they will play them, and how they will be combined with other sounds. Yet the elements that constitute these improvisations are also fixed in certain fundamental ways: Performances are fashioned from patterns or tracks recorded beforehand, and, in the case of DJ sets, these elements are also physical objects (vinyl records).
This according to Playing with something that runs: Technology, improvisation, and composition in DJ and laptop performance by Mark J. Butler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
Above and below, “The Wizard” Jeff Mills, who provides a case study in the book.
BONUS: Mr. Mills performs in 2016.
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Creativity has been defined as the ability to produce work that is novel, high in quality, and appropriate to an audience. While the nature of the creative process is under debate, many believe that creativity relies on real-time combinations of known neural and cognitive processes.
One useful model of creativity comes from musical improvisation, such as in jazz, in which musicians spontaneously create novel sound sequences. A study used jazz musicians to test the hypothesis that individuals with training in musical improvisation, which entails creative generation of musical ideas, might process expectancy differently.
Researchers used EEGs to compare the brain activity of 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some of the examples followed typical Western chord progressions, while others followed atypical ones.
Jazz musicians had a significantly different electrophysiological response to the unexpected progressions, indicating that they had an increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.
This according to “Jazz musicians reveal role of expectancy in human creativity” by Emily Przysinda, Tima Zheng, Kellyn Maves, Cameron Arkin, and Psyche Loui (Brain and cognition CXIX [December 2017] pp. 45–53).
Below, the Miles Davis Quintet plays Wayne Shorter’s Nefertiti, a work often cited for its use of unexpected chords; above, Davis, Shorter, and Herbie Hancock in 1964.
Keith Jarrett began playing improvised solo concerts in 1973, establishing himself as a major figure in the jazz piano tradition.
The performances drew on a new conception of form suggested by free jazz, one which posited a new kind of relationship between a performer and the musical constraints suggested by a composition. This new approach to performance allowed musicians to reconfigure formal conception in the moment, rather than being tied to an invariant set of constraints.
Jarrett’s solo concerts also drew on an aesthetic view of performance that emerged from free jazz, which saw music making as tapping into a divine source of inspiration. The context in which he performed promoted this conception by giving such dramatic weight to the process of improvisation.
This according to Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts and the aesthetics of free improvisation, 1960–1973 by Peter Stanley Elsdon, a dissertation accepted by the University of Southampton in 2001.
Today is Jarrett’s 70th birthday! Below, part of the 1973 Lausanne concert, a performance analyzed in Elsdon’s dissertation.
Sethus Calvisius (1556–1615), one of the very small number of specialists in the improvised vocal fugue, provided a discussion of the practice in his Melopoiia (1592), illustrated with 21 notated examples of fugæ extemporaneæ—tricinia, or two-part canons, over a cantus firmus.
These pieces were improvised as a third voice sang the cantus firmus, with the two improvising voices entering a minim or semibreve apart; the first of the two singers was effectively the composer. Analysis of Calvisius’s works shows that his mastery of the technique was complete, and he was capable of creating canonic improvisations of surprising originality.
This according to “Harmonia fvgata extemporanea: Fugenimprovisation nach Calvisius und den Italienern” by Olivier Trachier, an essay included in Tempus musicae–tempus mundi: Untersuchungen zu Seth Calvisius (Hildesheim: Georg Olms 2008, pp. 77–102). Below, the Dresdner Kreuzchor performs Calvisius’s Freut euch und jubilieret.
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