Conversation: The root of good improvisation.

As a jazz bass player, one of the central functions of my musical existence is about having good conversations with others. It is what I crave and search for and it is the time when I feel most alive and engaged. I suppose good conversation makes most of us feel validated and listened to. The same as the process of having a good improvisation.

We are social creatures and conversations are at the root of much of our humanity and creativity. Yes, many of us articulate ideas and concepts when alone and some of the best thinking and writing is a solitary endeavour, and it is an important stage in development to practise or research, essential to develop and advance our craft. Equally if not more important, however, is the time when you sit down with a colleague, friend or family member and have an exchange of ideas, an argument, a debate or a presentation of something new to a listener.

Improvising two or more instruments together takes place in this conversational arena. You bring your voice, knowledge and craft to the table and enter into an exchange. Perhaps you decide to begin a conversation on common ground so a song is selected. This provides the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic reference point that is the beginning of a debate, the statement that sets the mood and tone from which thinking and talking begin to bounce from. Or else the improvisation or it can start with one voice creating a sound, and that leads to the next. The other instruments listen and respond, answer, question, beg to differ and sympathise. Perhaps before the improvisation began there was a set of guidelines set out, but maybe not.

On a day, and I forget which one exactly but it was around the autumn equinox many years ago, ok, and in a land far far away; I met a new musician and it was the meeting of a new friend. He was dishevelled and wild, he was a fire horse and I found him offensive, and we became good friends. We played music together on the first day and we improvised. I have rarely met someone who improvised like that, and I found rather than being challenged and intimidated, it was a release and the introduction to freedom of melody and inspiration. There was something happening in the playing of tunes and improvising that felt very easy and continually leading to new ideas and sounds, it felt free and easy. I can imagine it didn’t always sound pretty but the flow and ebb, the call and response, the conversation was animated and unrestricted, the ideas happy and playful, the jokes all clever and well formed.

At that stage in my playing, most of my jazz background had not been a releasing experience of fun and freedom. Most of it was challenging and difficult, the gigs were a bit frightening and most of the good players were very intimidating and (seemingly to the newcomer) unwelcoming. The workshops and teachers I had met seemed to be there to challenge and push you to understand you were taking on a difficult challenge. Hard work was the only option. Sources of information were limited and you could buy records when you could find them or you could share cassette tapes with friends, there was no internet and a few books with even less places to buy them.  It meant you worked a lot of stuff out for yourself and had to to develop your own ‘language’ and how to speak it.

So when I met this new friend I had only recently added the double bass to my arsenal and though I was an experienced jazz player, this new instrument was giving me no end of bother. From the pain of conditioning the fingers to getting used to the different neck scale, trying to play in tune and learning a new technique to get around the fingerboard. And then here was a person with whom the music seemed to come pouring off, and I found it started rolling off me too. We played and started with the songs we knew and it was soon clear the musical language we spoke and shared was vast and dynamic. The conversation, playing as a duo was always joyful and sometimes other instruments would join us, and they were great and many and varied, but the duo spirit would always rise again to the surface.

We wrote a lot of music together and it was another case of speaking the same language. Our thinking and personalities were very different, but we would meet at such an understood musical place as to be shocking. While writing a four movement piece for our cock-eyed version of the Gil Evans Orchestra we were stuck on an opening chord in the third movement. We sat together at a grand piano playing ideas and chord voicings back and forth trying to find our way out of this question when at the same moment, we both said, ‘ahh, what about this chord?’ and played the identical chord with the identical voicing. It happened with conviction and surprised us both into fits of laughter, and as we doubled over laughing we each bashed our heads off the piano in unison, and that led to further hilarity and laughter. It was a long time before we recovered and carried on writing.

I have rarely experienced that deepness of understanding and coordination with another person. These relationships are often fleeting and transitory so it is important to keep looking for them. We are responsible to nurture environments where they can happen; and if one perhaps doesn’t work, we move forward, go looking and try again. I know I have been lucky having several of relationships with a variety of people. I value these relationships and they give value to my life, and I value the music that has been made through them. There are more out there waiting to happen so I keep looking and thinking, practising and putting myself in situations where my world can keep growing. The musicians and people are out there (because who says this is all about music), just go looking, or at least, make sure you have your eyes and ears open (helps to have your heart in the right place too).

Tom Lyne