GREAT UNEXPECTATIONS: JAZZ/ZEN IMPROVISATION

In comments on my post titled “Practicing Zen/Trumpet: Part 2”  Jiyu Roshi wrote the following: …….for practice to work you have to be open to the unexpected, either in an answer you’ve arrived at, or in whatever may be a new question to which you are trying to find an answer. It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

This quote reminded me of something that happened at one of my trumpet lessons.  While Nathan, my teacher, and I were warming up before the lesson, he played an incredible complex exercise in the upper register.  I asked him how likely it was that he would ever encounter any written music where he would have to playing anything that complex.  He answered that it was very unlikely, but that since he played improvisational jazz, he wanted to be able to play whatever he was “hearing” during solos. ( He may have used the word “feeling” instead of “hearing”).

Nathan Mills

In playing jazz or other improvisational music, each piece has a distinct series of chords that provide a common structure for the musicians.  During a solo, the players are free to create their own melody as long as it fits with the chord progressions of the song and whatever they play is in harmony with what others in the band are doing.  In other words, each musician is free to spontaneously play whatever sounds right in the context of what everyone else in the group is doing.  Instantaneously, all the others in the band are responding to whatever is being created by the soloist.

 

It is through constant practice that the improviser prepares himself or herself to respond instantaneously to whatever others in the band are doing moment by moment. Accomplished improvisers will tell you that true improvisation is accomplished only after one has so thoroughly mastered their instrument that they no longer have the need to think or plan as they solo. But, having superb technique is not enough.  To learn to improvise, musicians must also throw themselves into musical situations where improvisation is expected.  This is beyond the comfort zone for most musicians and so is avoided, even by those who have superior musical skills.

 

Using the language developed in my past posts, we can say that jazz virtuosos are able to “be present-awake-alive” so that they can spontaneously do what is necessary to contribute to the  collective creation of the piece being performed.  It is this aspect of improvisation that Peter Hershock emphasizes when he attempts to use jazz improvisation as a metaphor for the enlightened or awaken Zen life. (“Liberating Intimacy: Enlightenment and Social Virtuosity in Ch’an Buddhism.”)

Rather than seeing Zen practice as an attempt to attain a special experience or state of consciousness, Hershock writes about enlightened or awakened conduct; a distinct “social virtuosity” which entails being attuned to the needs of others and being willing and able to respond in ways that allow for a harmonious social discourse.  He points out that while jazz musicians are provided a great deal of creative freedom, each is also oriented towards enhancing the overall quality of the band’s performance. But, this responsiveness is not calculated or rule-driven.   Rather it is based on a spontaneous and expanded awareness of what is needed, moment by moment, allowing the musical band to “pull off” it’s performance as a whole unit.

According to Hershock: “Whenever a solo appears, it is not conceived and then executed in seriality, but courses through the musician and his instrument, flowing from that unlocated, unlocateable source of the unexpected lying outside of every horizon, every name and form.”….This flow comes about when the musician stops checking, when he stops figuring out what to play and abandons the projection of the known, the hunger for closure, for sense.  ….The aim of improvisation is not to negotiate or regulate an agreement about how thing are, but rather the creation of a novel harmony through jointly articulating a new world- be it musical., poetic, choreographic or erotic. (pg. 76)

 

Note my underlining of the word “jointly” in the last line of this quote.  Whether we are talking about music or ordinary life we are always affecting and being affected by others.

Whenever an instrumentalist in a jazz group plays a solo, he or she is instantaneously influencing the other players, whose responses, in turn, help shape the direction of the solo.  At any moment something new or unplanned may appear and each musician, and the group as a whole, finds itself going in an unexpected directions.  When the musicians have practiced and mastered their instruments, the conditions (a balance between challenge and skill) that Csikszentimihalyi  says are necessary for “flow” can occur.  (See Are You a Flow Addict and So Can an Average Joe Learn to Flow).  When all the members of a band get into a flow state, it is often referred to as “getting into a groove” and I recall one musician describing that experience as “being the most fun a person can have with their pants on”.

In everyday life, change, and thus the unexpected, generally stems from other people around us.  Most social groups and even our personalities are geared towards reducing the unexpected and probably Zen’s most important insight into human behavior is that such efforts are fruitless and lead to suffering.  This leads us back to Roshi’s last point in the quote at the beginning of this essay: It’s the unexpected which is reality and the reason for practicing.

When we sit in Zazen, hour after hour, we observe that whatever or whoever we think we are changes from moment to moment.  We learn to see how change is the only constant and we learn how to simply flow with whatever is happening.  Working with a Zen Koan involves learning how to let go our ordinary ways of responding to problems and allowing ourselves to move into the realm of the “unexpected”.  Zen teachers have traditionally been known to respond enigmatically to questions from their students in order to thrust them out of the ordinary mode of consciousness.  The goal in all of these practices is to prepare the students to be comfortable with the unexpected, and thus, to be masters of improvisation.  This entails extending one’s comfort zone.

 

Some of you may be wondering what all of this has to do with the Buddhist vow of “saving all sentient beings” which is central to the Zen tradition.  I will offer an opinion on that  in Part 2.