To compose or improvise. That’s the question?

Composing and improvising are often thought of as two sides of the same coin. Composition, we say, is written down improvisation. Improvisation is spontaneous composition. (Preferable to spontaneous combustion for sure.)

In an episode of my podcast late last year, pianist/composer Jean Michel Pilc and I discussed these ideas extensively. Jean Michel is convinced that there is really no difference. And I have always striven to make my improvisations composition-like in their structural clarity. A theme, or themes, with development, etc. And with my composing, of course, I want there to be a feeling of spontaneity.

Knowing When to Compose, Knowing When to Improvise

And yet, I do think there’s a difference between the two. The most obvious, of course, is that with composing you can fine-tune, edit, fix, etc. Obviously not the case with improvisation. Though as I said in another podcast, the editing for improvisation does take place over the course of the musician’s life up to the moment of the improvisation: not just the practicing but the decisions on what to practice and how to improve on one’s previous improvisations.

But there is a deeper distinction which has to do with the end result. What purpose does improvisation serve compared with composition? More to the point with regard to this particular track, how do get the two disciplines to interact, live harmoniously together in the same work. I struggled with that dichotomy quite a bit in my early 30s When is it better to improvise vs. compose? There were cases where I wrote something down that I should have left the player’s creative skill and imagination. And vice versa.

Finding the Balance

By the time I composed and performed this work in my late 30s, (it’s a live recording) with my group, the Revolution Ensemble Jazz Quartet, I think I had figured it out. In this track, the 2nd movement of a four-movement suite, I seamlessly mix composed and improvised elements, often simultaneously. Instead of the conventional jazz approach where you “play the tune, take solos, play the tune,” this is a through-composed work that includes improvisation when needed for creative purposes.

And when is improvisation needed? In a group context like this, it’s mostly a question of understanding when you need to let the player express his/her individual musical personality as opposed to you the composer imposing your own. In other words, it’s a matter of trust and acknowledging that the player in the moment may be able to say something more musically vital than anything you could have written down.

Of course, you need not only great players but the right players. That I certainly did in this case.

About the Track:

The track is the 2nd movement from my Suite for Jazz Quartet, written and performed in 1999 (at the Three Arts Club in Chicago.) The magnificent players: Jim Gailloreto on sax, Larry Gray on bass, and Jeff Stitely on drums. I’m on the piano.

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