How to play improv that doesn’t suck

Before we begin, a little shameless peddling: SNW was my band before it, er, disbanded. I consider that “improv that doesn’t suck”. If you think it sucks, then you probably won’t agree with my conclusion.

Two weeks ago I attended an open mic night at Cafe Babu, a fabulous musician-supporting cafe in Boulder. Interleaved between the scheduled acts were “open jam sessions”, where anybody who wanted to play could come up and play. Keyboardists being a rare commodity, I played in three of the four such sessions.

After more than a year of playing with excellent improvisers, it was extremely frustrating playing with these folks. Not because they weren’t good musicians—they were, they had good ears and a good sense of groove—but because nobody had musical control. The problem was that the music had the inertia of a freight train, and no matter how hard anyone pushed, it would not change direction. I will refine this statement to be more succinct by the end of the post, but in a good improv session, everyone needs to have control, simultaneously.

What I mean by this is that everyone needs to be looking at everyone else, watching and listening for ideas. Ideas are scarce in improv: because of the hypnotic nature of playing, music can continue on a good groove with no new content happening for many minutes. This makes it suck (ever heard the term “jam band” as derogatory? That’s what it’s referring to.). Music needs to change to make an impression, and if somebody wants to change it, you follow them. No matter if you like where it’s going or not, where it’s going is better than where it is.

Ears are more important than eyes. Especially when you’re around excellent musicians who often play with their eyes closed :-). So you listen for ideas and adapt to them. My personal philosophy as a musician assumes others are doing this: when I have an idea, I do it! No thinking, no testing the waters, no making sure that there is a nice transition or even that anybody is on board: just commit and go! If it doesn’t work out, well, you cross that bridge when you come to it.1 Other musicians take different tactics to success as well, this is just mine.

But if people aren’t listening, such riskiness will never work. That’s what I found at the open jam. I heard an idea (almost all my ideas come from hearing other people do things) and accentuated it, basically split off a new groove with whoever sparked the idea very coarsely, and nobody else did anything. Same ol’ thing. If I wanted it to stop sounding like noise, I had to shut up.

The best way to get the music to go somewhere new is to give someone control. You can force control on someone by making them solo. Not drum+bass+guitar solo, I mean guitar-only solo (or bass-only, or drum-only). As an extension to this rule, the more people playing, the less control anybody has. Or: the prowess of the musicians involved must increase quadratically with the number of musicians in order for the music to be coherent (each musician needs to be able to simultaneously listen and respond to each other). I explicitly restricted SNW never to grow beyond 4 members, since I didn’t believe that I had the prowess to handle 5.

But there is another way! If I can’t handle 5, there is an easy way to give the coherence of a session with 4. In the words of a favorite pop band, Cake: “Shut the fuck up!” Whaddya know, there are only 4 people playing again. The problem is that if you want it to be a 5 person jam session, one person can’t just refuse to play the whole time. Everyone needs to STFU, frequently. Listen to some Miles Davis fusion records, great improv. And then note the number of people listed on the album versus the number of people you can count playing at once. The ratio is around 3:1.

I am going to be organizing some jam sessions before I leave. And my preface will be just that: STFU. And ideally, you’ll get all numbers of musicians playing at once if you have a good distribution: 4,3,1,5, and (my favorite) 2. And if it’s really flowing for somebody, 6. :-)

But that’s it. Listen for ideas, give everyone control. If you don’t have enough control to introduce a new idea, shut the fuck up and endow your bandmates with more.

1 I have been working on incorporating such a mentality into my life outlook.


5 thoughts on “How to play improv that doesn’t suck

  1. Interesting. I’m not much of a jammer, nor do I really like much jam music but I still think you are pretty much right on as far as this goes. I’ve heard a lot of really boring jam music, but some that’s interesting and the interesting stuff is definitely that which tries new ideas.

    I’m listening to “Pale Enchantment” now as I type btw – Pretty cool.

  2. Theatrical improv follows much the same principles. A drama teacher sums it up this way: “Improv is about saying yes.”

    Considering that the lost art of conversation (qua Gian-Carlo Rota) embraces improv at its core, we need only reflect on the progress we have achieved since then.

    And despair.

  3. Very nice. I’ve been into improvisation since the day I started playing guitar. In fact, I attribute most of my learning to playing with my brothers and friends in the power struggles / balancing act of a sensitive improv environment. It would be nice to see your band. Shameless plug: is my not-so-improv computer-as-a-canvas style, but what I play live is much different.

  4. This was obviously a good experience for you. You can’t know how much Open Mike nights suck until you do enough of them to get sick of them.

  5. Hey man, I agree with you fully on all points here. I commonly find myself having the exact same issues when I’m jamming with (mostly) everyone I know. No one listens! Everyone loves making music, but no one tries to focus on the whole product rather than their own instrumental enjoyment.

    I’m from the Boulder area, play bass, know a few others that DO play very well. Let me know if you’re interested in getting a jam together.

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