- Scientists then speak of the “scales falling from the eyes” or of the “lightening flash” that “inundates” a previously obscure puzzle enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution. [Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 122.]
Creative improvisational jazz musicians, along with improvisational comedians, make an art of spontaneous creativity. Great scientific discoveries often occur in an instant, as Kuhn described. By either means, the practitioner is bringing order to seeming disorder, and though spontaneity can seem to break the usual rules of the discipline, nearly always the practitioner is following the usual rules in a variety of ways, while perhaps departing from them in others.
This is different from “thinking outside the box,” where someone will consciously try to do things differently. By definition, spontaneity is not planned. Yet it is valuable in many fields of endeavor, and in play and interpersonal relations.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Patricia Ryan Madsen, Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up (Crown Archetype, 2005).
- Willard Spiegelman, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009).
- Ben Ratliff, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (Henry Holt and Company, 2008).
- Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
- Sam Stephenson, The Jazz Loft Project: Photographs and Tapes of W. Eugene Smith (Knopf, 2009).
- Sally Schneider, The Improvisational Cook (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2006).
- Sam Wasson, Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017): “In the past two decades, a fertile artistic scene has transformed into a much-mythologized industry . . .”
Documentary and Educational Films
- All the Notes, on the improvisational jazz pianist Cecil Taylor
Wassily Kandinsky emphasized the art of improvisational painting:
- Capricious (1930)
- Improvisation 209 (1917)
- Improvisation. Gorge (1914)
- Dreamy Improvisation (1913)
- Improvisation 30 (Cannons) (1913)
- Improvisation 11 (1910)
Of the author Jim Harrison, critic Pete Dexter writes: Willie "Mays was a magic act, but the kind that left you with the feeling that the miraculous stuff surprised him too. And that's where Harrison fits in . . . you can still feel the excitement every time he pulls something new out of his ear. Which pretty much happens on every page he writes."
- The Great Leader: A Faux Mystery (Grove Press, 2011).
- In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).
- True North (Grove Press, 2004).
- Returning to Earth: A Novel (Grove Press, 2006).
- The Beast God Forgot to Invent (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000).
- The Road Home (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998).
- Julip: A Novel (Houghton Mifflin, 1994).
- The Woman Lit by Fireflies (Houghton Mifflin, 1990).
- Legends of the Fall (Collins, 1980).
Film and Stage
- Shoot the Piano Player (Tirez sur le Pianiste): Truffaut and his cinematographer Raoul Coutard shot this film “with unprecedented spontaneity and lyricism. Anything might wander into frame and become part of the flow: an oddball digression, an unexpected change of mood, a small miracle of poetic insight.” So the selection of this film to illustrate spontaneity invites you to consider the art in itself. Truffaut “pulled all the stops on (his) talent (for lacing pathos with slapstick comedy) and let it run rampant.”
- Aladdin: this animated film was scripted of course but Robin Williams took liberties with his brilliantly manic reading of the genie
- High Hopes: the actors improvised their scenes
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Improvisational jazz highlights spontaneity in music and enhances creativity in its listeners and practitioners (see also here). Some of its leading exponents are represented here. To be sure, this music is for everyone but for those who understand what the players are doing, it can be fascinating.
Begin with an Indian raga. Raga Sindhi Bhairavi “is centered around the improvisation of the sitar. The tabla and tambura instruments are used to accompany the sitar. Classical Indian is not centered around harmony the way western music is. This piece can therefore be seen as a kind of improvisational ‘vamp’ using the Sindhi Bhairavi raga. The task of the accompanying instruments is therefore contribute to the atmosphere through rhythmic and melodic accompanying lines.”. Ravi Shankar explained: “Indian classical music is based on melody and rhythm. This differs from western music, which focuses on chords, key changes, and the interaction between multiple instrument lines that creates harmonies. Shankar explained that the music system of Raga Sangeet is around two thousand years old and has roots in the Vedic Hymns of the Hindu temples, like western classical music has roots in religious chants from the Catholic church. The classical music of India also varies from the North to South of the subcontinent.” Linked performances are by Ravi Shankar in 1971, Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar Khan in 1984, and Ali Akbar Khan in 1985, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan & Alla Rakha in 1972, and Ali Akbar Khan & L. Subramaniam.
Jazz saxophonist Ivo Perelman has spearheaded a series of albums, in trio, on improvisation:
- Ivo Perelman, Karl Berger & Gerald Cleaver, “The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 1”
- Ivo Perelman, Mat Maneri & Whit Dickey, “The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 2”
- Ivo Perelman, Matthew Shipp & Gerald Cleaver, “The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 3”
- Ivo Perelman, William Parker & Gerald Cleaver, “The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 4”
- Ivo Perelman, Joe Morris & Gerald Cleaver, “The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 5”
- Ivo Perelman, Joe Morris & Gerald Cleaver, “The Art of the Improv Trio, Volume 6”
- Freedom of the City festival 2011
- recording from “Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum”
- Freedom of the City festival 2009
- an improvisation, 1985
- “Process and Reality” album
- “Monoceros” album (1978)
- “All Knavery and Collusion” album (2020)
- Setoladimaiale Unit with Evan Parker, “Live at Angelica 2018”
- improvisation 4/22/85
- ICP 1004 (with Han Bennink)
- “Solo Guitar” album (1971)
- “Drops” album (1977)
- “Aida” album (1980)
- “Improvisation” album (1985)
- “Cyro” abum (1988)
- Derek Bailey interviewed (1989)
- Dear Lord
- This Appearing World
- with Hamid Drake
- live at the Kniting Factory, 1996
- live at the Stone, 2014
- solo in Buenos Aires, 2016
- with Pierre Favre at Schaffhauser, 2011
- JazzFest Berlin (1981)
- “Jazz Meets India” album
- “Where’s Africa” album
- “Many and One Direction” album
- “Piano Solo Vol. 2” album
- “Celebration” album
- “Awakening” album
- “Omen” album
- “When We Were” album
- “Two in One” album
- Free Improvisation # 3
- This Nearly Was Mine
- Cecil Taylor Unit, Live in Paris, 1969
- Solo piano, 1984
- Cecil Taylor Quartet, Desperados, Prague, 1999
- Cecil Taylor Group, at the Knitting Factory, 1991
- Austria 2005
- Trio, live in Linz, Austria, 2016
- Quartet, live in Atlanta, Ga., 1998
- “Globe Unity Orchestra” album (1968)
- “Pakistani Pomade” album (1973)
- solo at Super Deluxe
- “Solo” album
- “A B D” album
- “Nerve Beats” album
- Duo with Oscar Jan Hoogland, 2014
- The Seagulls of Kristiansund
- “Torments – Solo in Kyoto” album
- “Raps” album (1977)
- “The Kiss” album (1986)
- “Flim-Flam” album, with Steve Powell (1991)
- “Remains” album (1992)
- “One More Time” album, with Jöelle Léandre (2005)
- Steve Lacy Quartet, “One Fell Swoop” album (2018)
- “5 x Monk, 5 x Lacy” album (2018)
- Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe, “Duo Exchange”
- “The Byron Allen Trio” (1965)
- John Coltrane, “Ascension”
- Arcana, “The Last Wave” (1966)
- The tracks on Kurt Rosenwinkel’s dreamy, electronics-heavy “Searching the Continuum” album were conceived and recorded live.
- Joel Futterman, Ike Levin and Tim DuRoche, “Timeless Memories”
- Sam Rivers Trio, “Emanation”
- Frode Gjerstad Trio + Steve Swell, “Bop Stop”, “Forgotten City”, “Gathering” and “Russian Standard”
- Jaap Blonk, Lou Mallozzi & Ken Vandermark, “Improvisors”
- Ute Wasserman, Jaap Blonk & Michael Vorfeld, “Improvisors”
- William Goldstein, “Collaborative Composition: Created in the Moment”, consisting of works created by Goldstein in the moment, in collaboration with seven other composers
- Matthew Shipp, “Art of the Improviser”
- Régis Huby, Guillaime Roy & Atsushi Sakaï, “Improvisation: Live at Gravner Winery”
Books on jazz improvisation:
- Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
- David Baker, Jazz Improvisation: A Comprehensive Method for All Musicians (Alfred Music, 2nd ed, 1988).