Top positive review
Seminal Text for Anyone Interested in Improvised Music
on October 23, 2002
Let's get the caveat out of the way first. This is NOT a How to book on Improvising! In fact...I'm not sure there can be a How To book on improvising...there are no tricks and written examples really defeat the purpose. The only way to learn to improvise, at least in a contemporary setting, or a free setting, is to do it and do it and do it. At first it won't sound good...that's where so many people get lost. They think that if their improvisation isn't brilliant off the bat, then somehow they haven't got the "trick" yet. But perserverence is what leads to mastery. (For example, when I was 16, I got sick of my jazz harmony in my piano's left hand. I spent an entire weekend at the piano, practicing chords that I'd discovered on Bill Evans albums. Changed my jazz playing forever!) So if you are looking for a How To book...give it up. Reading won't help, only playing will. (Like the Nike commercial says, just do it!)
Now on to the book at hand...Derek Bailey's book on Improvisation is really a classic. Bailey's interest here is wide ranging. Using a combination of interviews and essay, he looks at improvisation, or the lack of it, in Indian, Flamenco, Baroque, contemporary concert, rock, jazz and freely improvised music with the purpose of exploring improvisation in all it's forms from the inside. The act of improvisation is basically conceptual. How you think about your material has a deep effect on the material itself. So the book examines mostly the attitudes of improvising musicians toward improvisational issues: structure, composition/improvisation, rules and stylistic issues, recording, the relationship to the audience, and even the attitude toward innovation. It is interesting that there is such diversity, even in the improvising community, in outlook. Indian music is based on rather limiting sets of rules, and innovation doesn't even come into play. It's how you express the raga, not how innovative you are that determines your artistry...at the other end of the spectrum, in freely improvised music, the players are at great pains to always remain sponteneous...not to reuse tricks over and over again. In both cases, I think the stated positions are ideals...invariably there is innovation in Indian music and there are "licks" in free improvisation, but the differences in basic stance are fascinating.
On the whole, I think Bailey does an admirable job of discussing improv in the various fields. The one exception that I would make is in the classical field. Bailey is correct, classical instrumental education has totally banished improvisation, with the exception of liturgical organ music. It has created a dicotomy in which composers (usually dead) create music which performers lovingly try to recreate. However, this is a modern development. Improvisation was alive and well, deep into the 19th century. Most instrumentalists looked on pieces of music as a fairly detailed blueprint which they added to in the form of improvisation. And most composers were also instrumental soloists of note and improvisation was a key part of their repertoire. Chopin was notable for improvising the virtuoso figures of his piano pieces in the salons of Paris, and actually resisted writing down pieces, partly because he didn't want to commit any one version to paper. Beethoven and Mozart were of course known for their improvisation...Beethoven actually made his greatest showing as a young pianist in the improvisations he played. Many of Brahms late piano works started as improvisations, and some of the Intermezzi were carried around by Brahms in his head for 2 years before he finally wrote them down. Of course, cadenzas in concerti were supposed to be improvised by the performer, though, as the art was lost, more and more performers relied on prewritten cadenzas, either by the composer of the piece or by famous 19th century virtuosi. And there is a charming reocrding from an original Edison cylinder of Camille Saint-Saens improvising on the piano. (At the end of the disc you can hear Saint-Saens say in French, "are we done yet?") Bailey doesn't address any of this, and tends to make the classical tradition sound like the enemy of improvisation...seems actually to be a bit hostile to the entire notion of classical music. I find this a blemish on an otherwise excellent account of improvisation.
If you are an improvising musician in any discipline, you should read this book. If you want to understand the thought processes of improvising musicians, read this book. If you want to expand your understanding of the creative possibilities in music, read this book.
If you want a How to book, go somewhere else.