Join Date: Dec 2007
bringing back a very old thread.
this is a really cool article on the musical process and improvisation.
Trey Anastasio and the art of improvisation - The Believer - Salon.com
it's a very long article, but this is the most interesting stuff to me.
Did you ever learn anything about improvisation through a book?
A lot. A lot. I studied with a guy named Ted Dunbar at the UMass jazz summer workshop. He taught me the system of tonal convergence. When I give guitar lessons, I recommend his book. There are 28 scales that converge or bombard the tonal center. They are all tension scales, and they all come with a series of chords. If you listen to the great improvisers -- Pat Martino, Sonny Rollins, someone on that level -- these guys all studied this stuff. Yusef Lateef. All those '60s jazz guys. They're not playing the diatonic notes of the chord. They're playing outside the chord, but it's a very natural thing to do.
Let me see if I can explain this. There are only three chords in music, period. Minor, major and dominant. A dominant chord wants to go somewhere because it has a tritone in it. A G dominant chord wants to go to C. That principle is physics. That's not something that was assigned to music by theorists. When two strings are vibrating together a tritone apart, there are so many overtones that all you feel is tense, and the notes want to squish together into the home chord.
Stewie sings about it on Family Guy. [Sings, "You've got your G chord right here / It's like your cozy house where you live / That's where you start your journey / Here I am in my house nice and cozy / and then you poke your head out the door with a C chord / And everything looks OK out here / Maybe I'll take a walk outside to the D chord / Walkin' around outside, look at all the stuff out here / And then we go to an A-minor, gettin' a little cloudy out here / lookin' like we might get some weather / Then we go to E-minor, oh definitely got some weather / Things are a little more complicated than they seemed at first / And then we go back to my house."] It's great. The 12-bar blues are based on this, too. But the jazz guys from the '60s took this concept to Mars. They came up with 28 scales, all of which were basically substitutions for that dominant chord. The music is still simple: Major is happy. Minor is sad. Dominant is tense. That's all there is. It never goes further than that with chords.
And you're working with these sorts of "tonal convergence" theories when you improv onstage?
If you're going to be doing a long improvisation, it's boring to sit on one scale and just go up and down. There's a lot of jam music like this, and that's why people don't like it. It never goes beyond that. Sonny Rollins isn't doing that, even though he's playing over a G-major chord for 18 minutes. It's not just a G-major when Sonny Rollins plays it.
Herbie Hancock has this thing about an informed vocabulary but a childlike approach. He plays simple, simple, catchy melodies, but all his chord voicings have 40 or 50 years of this theory in them. So when he gets onstage it can be all childlike. Not childish. But if you ever stopped a Hancock recording and looked at a few measures of what he's playing, you'd be floored. The voice leadings are filled with all these ideas. It doesn't sound complicated, but it's a more mature, elegant palette of emotions. These guys can hit an emotional chord that a lesser player couldn't. It's the same way a great writer with a great vocabulary can bring out subtler emotions.
And you're still practicing this type of thing at home?
Yesterday. It takes forever, because once I learn one of these scales, I can just play it from my brain. It doesn't sound right -- if I'm playing it from my brain. I have to play it so much -- until it sounds tossed off, until it is tossed off.
There's that Charlie Parker quote: "You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail."
That's what he did. It sounds like water when you hear him play.
It's impossible to think that fast.
You couldn't. They were all doing this. Coltrane. All those jazz guys. I heard that Ted Dunbar's theory of convergence is like the Holy Grail. There's stories about this legendary dinner these guys had where they wrote it on a tablecloth, and nobody knows where.
There's actually a Coltrane quote I wanted to ask you about. He says, "I'd like to get to the point where I can capture the essence of a precise moment in a given place, compose the work, and perform it immediately in a natural way."
I love that. I love that he said "compose the work."
Right. And I wanted to ask you, do you think composition and improvisation are the same thing? Or are they inherently different?
I think they're the same thing. The struggle is not giving up the best element of composition, which is the time to figure out that it's all right, and also to not give up the best element of improvisation, which is that it's happening in real time, so you can't stop to ruin it. You don't have any time to screw up.
So you think in the best instances, improvisation and composition would produce the same results?
Yes. Yes. I'll give you an example. On the song "Billy Breathes," there's a guitar solo I like a lot. That's a composed solo. I didn't labor over it. What I did is, I walked around the kitchen -- my daughter had just been born and we were living out in the woods in Vermont. I was in my union suit, chopping wood. I was not thinking about anything, and then I just started singing [sings melody] the first four notes of the solo. I had a cassette player and I'd run over and get it recorded. Then I'd forget about it. And then the next part came. It was a lot of wearing headphones while walking around. Cassette player in my pocket. Change a diaper, go to the store, and whenever I can disconnect from whoever I'm talking to in the room, I'd put on my headphones. So the point I'm making is that it still felt like improv.
You were just capturing moments out of your daily life.
I would just wait for the moment to come. It didn't feel any different than what happens on stages. I was busying myself with other things. I wasn't sitting there working, like capital-W work, but, in the end, it took days and days.