Improvisation and jazz – new stuff or rehash?

So I have watched a Pat Metheny interview the other day, in which he voices a strong opinion on how jazz should always keep “reinventing the wheel”; he actually believes that “the jazz tradition mandates that you change”. While playing in a previous – dated – style doesn’t necessarily sound bad, copying some other musician’s style isn’t particularly impressive or even interesting. He says that when a musician “bumps up” against the unknown, something unique is bound to happen, and that’s pretty much the essence of good jazz music.

Anyway, I have watched and enjoyed the interview, then looked up the comments, and sure enough, I have found another strong opinion questioning Metheny’s above sentiment, saying that reinvention isn’t and has never been the main intention of jazz.
Now that argument made me think (uh-oh, right?), and I’ve come to the conclusion that jazz is, and has always been pretty much THE genre of which improvisation was an integral part. And what else is improvisation, if not an immediate, “on-the-fly” reinvention of the song, every fukken time they play it? After all, one doesn’t go out and play the same solo over a certain tune every single time without the risk of getting frowned upon seriously, not to mention the hardcore bitch slap awaiting around the corner.

The reply to my argument was that my logic is flawed. Why? Because jazz is not the only music genre having improvisation, and improvisation is a matter of spontaneity, not originality. Also, if we compare music to spoken language, it’s easy to realize that we improvise every day when we speak to each other without reinventing the language itself.

Let’s look at that logic. Can we really call everyday speech improvisation? I think we can’t. If we say (rightly so!) that music is a language, then notes – our smallest building blocks – are the sounds, not the words. So to correct the above analogy, we should say that improvisation is like creating new words and sentences that never existed before. Now you can see, that’s not usually the way we use our language.

And while the so called jazz police might hate that some overly creative and talented people keep coming up with new things that don’t even swing, they can’t take away improvisation once it’s happened. Then the rest is just semantics. Really, who cares if it’s labeled jazz, folk, rock or alt-country, as long as it sounds good and unique?

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