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The art of improvisation

  • Jazz class
    Jazz class
    Professional drummer and vibraphonist Chuck Redd performs during a recent master class, accompanied by Instructor of Jazz Guitar Woody Beckner.
    Photo by Stephen Salpukas

Members of the William & Mary community were treated to a lesson in improvisation and jazz last week courtesy of professional drummer and vibraphonist Chuck Redd.

An accomplished performer on both of his instruments, Redd has been performing and recording since 1980, where at the age of 21 he joined the Charlie Byrd Trio. On Oct. 24, he shared some of the knowledge that has come with that experience in a music master class hosted by Instructor of Jazz Guitar Woody Beckner.

To the casual listener or beginning jazz musician, the level of improvisation featured in professional performances can seem mysterious and confusing, said Redd. But through performance and explanation, Redd, accompanied by Beckner) showed that appearances can be deceiving and the seamlessly created solos and transitions are the product of knowledge and communication.

“There are standard arrangements or understandings that happen universally in the world of jazz,” he explained.

Each musician knows the basic structure of the piece being played, which allows for creative deviations from that arrangement. Those deviations are what give a performance its flavor, but the heart of the piece, known to each performer, is what makes it endlessly repeatable across time and borders, Redd said.

“That’s one thing I really think is important, it helps you communicate with people you’ve never even talked to before,” he explained. “They could speak a different language verbally, and we would still be able to communicate. I’ve had that experience all over the world. There’s an understanding about the arrangement.”

Redd went on to describe the deviations from an original arrangement of a song.

 “Those of us that have been around a little while and have a sense of maturity or wisdom or maybe even boredom at times in our programming and our playing, we try to change it up some,” he said. “When you’ve been around a while it’s nice to do something unexpected.”

One theme that Redd reprised continually was that of communication, with every musician knowing what the others were planning to do. This knowledge can even allow for collective improvisation, where all members of an ensemble are inventing their parts as they go.  According to Redd, that’s planned out ahead of time.

“Usually when that kind of thing happens it’s been talked about ahead of time. I remember having this conversation when I was in college and wondering how we hear these magical things happening on recordings. I remember sitting around with the guys and one guy would say ‘Those guys are geniuses’ and then the next guy would say ‘I think they talked about it.’ Then the older guys would explain ‘They talked about it before.’”

While it seems that a jazz audience is doing all the listening, Beckner explained that performers are constantly paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is playing and juxtaposing it against what they know the arrangement calls for.

“We have to learn to listen on our instrument,” he said. “Playing is a given. The music is a higher authority. As soon as you start thinking ‘Oh I should do this’ or ‘I’m not playing enough fast licks’ or whatever, the music goes out the window. The music gods know when you do that.”

 Redd agreed, saying “It’s true; it’s all about your motivation, and your motivation should be the higher authority, the music. It’s all about the big picture.”