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Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music
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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.
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on January 9, 2001
The low ranking of the previous reviewer, who was apparently expecting this to be a introductory how-to manual, should be disregarded, as he's missed the point and direction of this classic work. Rather than being a instructional primer, it is instead a larger examination and explanation of improvisational music from the unique perspective of an extremely talented and thoughtful insider. The topics covered are diverse and wide-ranging, touching on the myriad of styles and genres listed above. Bailey addresses issues of composition, "anti-instrument" approaches, recording issues and more in the form of essays and excerpts of conversations with Steve Lacy, Earl Brown, Viram Jasani, John Zorn and many others.
I'd like to give this item 4.5 stars, as it's not perfectly written - the flow from topic to topic is abrupt at times, and I think it could have been a stronger work had Bailey explored some of the tangents touched upon in greater depth. I'll err on the positive side, however, and go with 5 stars.. It's just that important of a work for anyone interested in listening to or making improvised music. I'm not even much of a fan of Bailey's recorded work (though I wouldn't argue about his role historically), but will recommend this book without hesitation.
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on July 8, 1998
Derek Bailey hasn't played a composed note in decades. This book is like his playing... engaging, difficult, comical, infuriating, and ultimately liberating. Bailey examines the improvisation in many musical forms - not just jazz, but also Indian classical music, blues, Baroque figured bass, and of course free improvisation. Like his music, this book examines issues mostly ignored by the commercial and academic music mainstreams, with a keen and critical eye.
And like his music, most people won't be able to stomach this book. But those who can will learn things. It will change your understanding of music.
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on January 2, 1999
This book is absolutely essential for anyone seeking to learn more about modern music and approaching music in an historical manner. Baily explains the role of improvisation in a variety of music forms and in the process helps the reader attain greater knowledge and appreciation of these various genres. The only section that is lacking is the one regarding rock 'n' roll, which focuses on Steve Howe of the band Yes, a rather insignificant artist in modern songwriting and rock music. Other than that, this book is a masterpiece.
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on January 18, 2007
I've read a copy of this book that a friend of mine owns, and it is a very worth-while book. Bailey lends us some of his philosophies on improvisations and a number of other things, and gives us a great background on the whole deal from an insiders perspective.

I found it amusing that a previous reviewer wrote things like "learning" to improvise, "tricks and tips to learn improvising" etc etc. My advice to this person is that if you are as ignorant as this, don't bother "learning" to improvise.
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on March 12, 2002
I'm a great lover of outside music, but
not a musician, and I found this book
very accessible and sharply written.
Helps one find things to say about
music that so often 'scares' people
you know!
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 24, 2000
I've been studying classical piano for 3 years and now I intended to learn something on how to improvise (to practice in contemporary music). So, why not buy a book called "Improvisation", right? Wrong! This book was my worst buy in Amazon! It says no word on how to learn improvising, there's not even one exemple or something like that. If all you want is historical data on important musician (including photos), then this book is for you. But, if all you want is ideas, clues, tricks on how to start or learn improvising, get away from it.
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