Jazz, more than other genre, is defined by improvisation, that seemingly magical ability to make up music on the spot. It's the act of spontaneous composing that goes on during improvised solos, in scat singing and in the riffing and embellishment that are all part of the creative arsenal every jazz musician brings to the bandstand.
When it's going well, really well, the stage disappears, the audience goes away and time stands still. It's called the zone, an altered state of consciousness nourished by a potent stream of jazz ambrosia that flows from a mysterious place.
Different people have different ideas about where improvisation comes from. As reported in the Baltimore Sun, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University takes some of the hocus pocus out of improvisation by showing links to regions inside our brains known to boost self-expression and attenuate inhibition.
Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins sees jazz improvisation as a kind of meditation. "I'm trying to get my mind blank. I don't want to think. That's the whole point," he says.
Great improvisers will take different routes to reach a state of improvisational nirvana, but once they arrive their stories are remarkably similar.
CBC Music spoke to three accomplished performers to get a sense of what happens to them when they improvise.
Michael Kaeshammer, pianist
"I lose track of time. I need to have a phone or clock onstage so I know when to stop the set because I'm really not there for that," says Kaeshammer, who can find the improv zone within moments of setting foot onstage. The spontaneous acts of improvising, interacting with the audience and even choosing a set list on the fly all contribute to Kaeshammer's experience.
"As much as I'm aware of what's going on around me, once I get into that zone, I forget. I don't think about how many people are there, or anything else. I'm just listening. I'm more like a bystander listening to what comes out, even when I'm speaking to the audience. If you're religious, which I'm not, or spiritual or anything like that, you can describe it as channeling through you or letting a higher power speak. In the end it's the same thing."
Jesse Cahill, drummer
Calming the mind is a familiar part of preparing to improvise for many performers, including Cahill.
"For me it's a matter of taking all of those distractions that might inadvertently come into my head for no apparent reason, and putting them aside. Your brain is a funny thing. You can be rolling right along and everything's great and a thought creeps in suddenly it's 'Did you lock the car? Or did I leave the stove on?'
"But when it's going well, it's almost like a state of nothing, a state of blankness where time stops and the audience disappears. And even in a way, other musicians, too. Their sound is there but it ceases to be three or four people and it just becomes this one big sound. And it doesn't happen all the time. In fact it doesn't happen nearly as often as I would like it to."
Cornelius 'Sonny' Fortune, saxophonist
A veteran artist who has recorded with Miles Davis, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner, Fortune has coined his own term to describe how he improvises. "I call it spontaneous improvisational music," he says. "It's like a conversation. You have a theme or topic, but you don't know ahead of time what you're actually going to say."
"In actuality we don't know anything past the spontaneous movement from 'Bam!' to 'Bam!,'" making his point with an Emeril Lagasse-like energy. "The challenge for me is to develop myself and my instrument to agree. Man, let me tell you, you better be in agreement before you head up that road together."
Fortune is widely respected for his fluid command of the saxophone, an instrument he plays with prodigious stamina. He and the late drummer Rashied Ali were known for epic-length improvisational sessions, often developing elaborate improvisations on a single tune for an hour or more.
"Rashied and I used to call it the gymnasium," Fortune says with a chuckle. "We played three times a week for eight years and it was shocking to me how time seemed to stop. It was completely mind-boggling the length of time we were playing because it felt like no time at all."
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