I didn’t even realize it until it was over this morning: it was our last classical improv class of the semester. Sigh. Great group this semester, good ears, lots of satisfying choices. Some fear, still, of “mistakes” (it’s hard to set aside all that classical training for an hour when you’ve been doing it so long), but great imaginations.
What did we do on the last day?
Before I came to school this morning I had been rummaging around some old notebooks and found some scribbled notes on various masterclasses and was typing them into more organized files in the computer. One of them was an improv masterclass given by jazz French hornist Marshall Sealy. He said that everyone should be able to play a plaintive chant-like piece in a minor key on their instrument. So we started with that.
I made some notes as they played as I usually do to help discuss pieces afterwards (they don’t call it short term memory for nothing). The pieces were all pretty short, a minute, minute and a half.
Jim, on trumpet, started off. His opening line 5 8 (1) 2 b3 5 almost sounded like “Shadow of Your Smile” to me at first, but didn’t continue that way. He outlined some chords along the way and ended modally with a 1 b7 1. He used the Dorian mode (1 2 b3 4 5 6 b7) throughout. Matt, on piano, started out 1 b3 b6 5. He added filigree high chords answering melodic statements. An ostinato in the left hand followed some chord changes, like i-bVI-iv-V-i. He used some altered dominants; e.g. b9s. Madeline on flute started 1 5 4 b6 5 8. Her minor piece was noteworthy in that it hardly used the identifier of minor keys, the b3. She did use a lot of the b6 which became the ersatz definer of minor. Sarah, on bassoon, did a lot of 1 b7 1. Her first phrase was 1 b7 1 b6 5 b3 b2 1, which perfectly spells out the Phrygian mode. But then in the very next phrase she threw in a (natural) 7, which was surprising after the Phrygian set-up. She later used a 1 7 b6 5, rather exotic sound; but then went back to the b7. Nice mix of modes. Drew on horn used another minor mode that we really hadn’t encountered as such yet, the Aeolian or natural minor (1 2 b3 4 5 b6 b7).
Then we did the Big Dorian. Same idea, but everybody plays. This worked less well, because everyone played most of the time – the texture was too thick to hear other ideas or let voices shine through; but this is common when you have a new challenge – everyone wants to play and get experience in it and try out stuff. So we did it again, this time in G Aeolian with the instruction to play 40% of the time and rest 60% of the time. The thinner textures (now we had solos-duets-trios) made it much easier to hear and work with motifs. Lots of 1 b7 1. Some nice sounds and combination, mostly with long tones, with the piano supplying some chords for support. Jim, on muted trumpet added a (needed) change with a fast note motif. The horn back this up with lower, slower notes, and the piano added fill. The bassoon answered, but suddenly everyone either lost their nerve or ran out of ideas and curiously the piece came to a sudden stop.
On to something else: scale + solo. Organists are the only classical musicians never to have given up improvisation. There are a couple of good books on organ improv by Gerre Hancock (who recently died) and Jan Overduin. One of the organ improv techniques is simply to play a slow octave major scale and improvise over it. This is what we did. We started with Sarah on bassoon playing half notes up and down an octave with Madeline on flute improvising over it. Then Madeline played the scale, but this time in quarter notes for Drew on horn. Drew then played the scale in 8th notes for soloist Jim on trumpet. Jim then played the scale with mixed rhythms for soloist Matt on piano. Matt had to play scales in his left hand while his right hand improvised. We then tried a few more variations, where two (or even three) played short scale fragments (3 or 4 notes, up and back) to make a more complex background for the soloist. The last variation of this game was bassoon imitating a pizz bass playing an octave Bb major scale while everyone else in turn took a (sort of) jazzy solo over it.
Last piece: free piece, 5 min. long. Nothing set before hand – discover the rules as you go. I remember that it was a very interesting piece, but no details, because I played percussion the whole time instead of taking notes.
Tuesday is our last concert. Sarah won’t be there (she has a pro audition), but to fill the gap we will be joined by Jim on trumpet (who was just visiting the last few sessions) and Laura (a class alumna) on viola, voice, piano, and/or accordion. I’ll give you a full report next week.