[Dixielandjazz] Improvisation & Your Brain

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon Jun 6 18:08:22 PDT 2011

> Stephen G Barbone forwarded an excerpted version from a NY TIMES  
> article.
>> When the Melody Takes a Detour, the Science Begins
>> NY TIMES - By PAM BELLUCK - June 6, 2011
> Dear Steve,
> Very interesting.
> I wonder if there will be a YouTube video of Mr Metheny's rendition  
> of "Autumn Leaves."
> I certainly hope so.
> Kind regards,
> Bill.

Dear Bill:

Haven't seen one yet but I suspect it is similar to this one by Joe  


For those who know the tune "Stella By Starlight" it is one hell of a  
tune statement and then some very hip improvisation.

The part that grabbed me about Metheny was his statement about what is  
going on in his mind when improvising and his likening it to a person  

Mr. Metheny gave a thoughtful recitation of the elements in a jazz  
musician's toolkit. "The harmony, the basic flow of the rhythms, the  
way the chords are divided from key to key," he said, adding that  
"there's a whole set of options" from which an improviser can choose,  
including playing different musical scales or modes over a chord – “It  
could be Dorian, it could be Mixolydian."

But then he Cheshire Catted it, saying, "but the real answer is I  
wasn't thinking about any of them." Consider that "you just asked me a  
question in perfect English," he said to Mr. Schaefer. "Did you think,  
'O.K., I need a verb?'" or "about how to hold your tongue?"

I think that's a great comparison. We spend years learning English. By  
listening first to our parents speaking, and then in classrooms  
diagraming sentences, conjugating  verbs, learning new words etc.,  
etc. After many years, we speak it automatically without thinking  
about any of those things. How well we speak it depends upon the  
breadth of our vocabulary and how well we learned to string the words  
together coherently.

Jazz is very similar. Musicians first learn how top make a sound, then  
notes, then scales, then chords, then modes. Then we diagram solos by  
copying. Finally, after many years we improvise automatically without  
thinking about any of those things for the most part. How well we  
improvise depends on the breadth of our vocabulary and how well we  
learned to string the notes together.

I am generalizing since there are those with perfect pitch who can  
play anything they can hear, however they are few and far between.


Steve Barbone


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