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Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz

In response to the excellent contributions by Dr Zack Moir [1] and Dr Richard Worth [2] I thought I might add my tuppence worth on the subject of jazz improvisation from an autoethnographic perspective.
Like many of my fellow jazz musicians, I was bitten by the jazz bug somewhere in my mid-teens. Having grown up listening to the popular music of the day (I’ll avoid examples so as not to give away my age), I began to take guitar lessons from the extraordinary Edinburgh based polymath, Francis Cowan. Francis, who is sadly no longer with us, was an internationally acclaimed double bass player – the go-to bassist of choice for visiting musicians in the days where itinerant musicians would perform with a local rhythm section. Double bass was only one of many musical instruments that Francis played to ‘concert standard’. He was also a highly regarded lutenist, reflecting his passion for Early Music and was adept on a range of instruments ranging from cello to trumpet. He also reputedly fluently spoke nine languages and was an avid twitcher (bird-watcher).
I went to him initially for classical guitar lessons but while waiting in the hallway outside his sitting room for him to finish his personal practice sessions (sometimes for several hours), my ears were opened to the melodies and harmonies of jazz – jazz guitar being another of his talents. It wasn’t long before I persuaded him that this was the music that I’d prefer to play and my efforts in classical guitar were confined to a footnote in my musical development.

Francis was a ‘chord-man’: “Understand the chords and the solos will take care of themselves”. Guitar lessons were intertwined with harmony lessons, focusing on chord voicing, substitution and voice-leading (greatly informed by Francis’ love for Early Music).
Inspired by what was being learnt in my lessons and Francis’ performance example (he gigged extensively in and around Edinburgh at the time), I formed a band to put my learning into practice. I look back on my early-career playing with considerable embarrassment. I could just about get around a blues scale but that was about it – although my chord-playing was fairly secure due to Francis’ insistence that harmony was ‘king’.

In concert with both Zack and Richard’s observations, I approached soloing by listening to the players that ‘wowed’ me the most: Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery, George Benson and later Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell. In contrast to this blog’s title, there was very little ‘thinking about music’ going on. In my zeal to get my chops up to gigging standard, I cobbled together various aesthetic approaches and licks heard in my favourite musicians’ playing while trying to unravel underlying music theory.

Pressures on stage were considerable. Other (almost always more experienced musicians) weren’t shy in letting you know about your inadequacies. There was an underlying demand for authenticity from fellow musicians. The music had to sound a certain way, be constructed in a particular manner and its presentation was equally prescribed. In short, the freedoms that we so readily associate with ‘improvised music’ were in short supply. It was expected that you knew the material off by heart (or play it on 2nd hearing), could play it in any given key, be able to show respect to (often by directly referencing) those who had made it famous, demonstrate extensive harmonic knowledge and technical prowess, behave in a ‘cool’ way, know all the jargon … and tap your foot exclusively on 2 and 4.
It was a high-pressure apprenticeship in a highly competitive environment. I struggle to remember these as over-archingly happy times. Rather they were times of frantic learning and assimilation of musical knowledge while yearning to ‘fit in’ to the jazz scene’s constructed ‘authenticity’. There simply wasn’t time to think about music beyond on a technical level.  So what was the outcome of this apprenticeship in the school of (hard) knocks?

By the end of my twenties I came to the realisation that, try as I might (and I really had), I would never be Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Wes Montgomery and all the other players I’d come to idolise and nor would I ever fit comfortably within the local jazz scene. There were many reasons for this: I’m not American (least of all African American), I was playing historical music at a time (with the risk of giving away my age after all, in the late 1980s) where it didn’t really make sense to me any more and, most importantly, I just wasn’t ‘feeling it’ – the jazz bug had left me with a post-viral ennui.
It was time to start thinking about music.

The only way I could think of to break what had become an increasingly uncomfortable relationship with the music was to write my own. Through composition I could circumnavigate much of the baggage of authenticity and expectation associated with the ‘standards’ of jazz repertoire. I looked east, to Scandinavia and musicians on the ECM, label for inspiration. Their music didn’t have all the troublesome modulations and Rhythm Changes derived twists and turns. Their music had room to breathe and, critically, to think – the room to develop a more personal voice. The Scandinavian approach was also younger and, as such, less fully formed within the canon.

Through composition I was able to employ influence from many other musical strands, ranging from the film scores of Ennio Morricone to the minimalism of Steve Reich and post-rock sound of bands such as Mogwai. In drawing on diverse influences I attempted to write the music that I actually wanted to hear and, in doing so, gave space for fresh approaches to improvisation that, on the surface at least, had little to do with those of standard jazz. The musicians that I have since surrounded myself with and I have been challenged with coming up with non-Aebersold (or at any rate, significantly less-Aebersold) approaches that encourage greater focus on tonal considerations, use of space, avoidance of swing-feel etc).  This of course was nothing new and I make absolutely no claim to musical trailblazing or innovation. Rather, everything that I now do within the sphere of jazz improvisation is done with intention of finding my own way or voice (with vastly varying degrees of success) that in some way reflects my reality, rather than some imagined historical understanding of a music created on the other side of the Atlantic by musicians with significantly different life experiences to my own. That’s not to say that I don’t owe enormous thanks to their invention of a musical form that has played a substantial part in the musician that I have ultimately become – an increasingly happier, and I hope thoughtful, one.

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Dr Haftor Medbøe is Jazz Musician in Residence and Lecturer in Composition at Edinburgh Napier University School of Music. Haftor was appointed full-time lecturer in 2009 following a 20 year freelance career that encompassed composition for theatre, film and television, performance, community work, industry mentoring and consultancy. Haftor has presented papers at conferences throughout Europe for, amongst others, International Musicological Society, Rhythm Changes, KISMIF and HEA. In addition to his teaching and research roles at the Edinburgh Napier, Haftor remains active on the local and national jazz scenes. His eponymous group has to date recorded five albums and performed UK-wide to critical and audience acclaim.

4 thoughts on “Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz”

  1. Hi Haftor
    thanks for this
    It’s the perfect response, and very much how I also felt about the whole thing, hence my main output in those years was in the context of a funk/groove band, and writing provided the way of creating different contexts to solo in.
    Still I can’t help playing some of those licks….

  2. They’re inescapable. Even though I continue to feel somewhat fraudulent peddling bop licks on a gig, they’re a much loved part of my practice and personal musical vocabulary – and they come in handy on the foyer gigs …

    1. maybe we should get together and do some “free improv” (everybody’s doing it you know) – I still have to proove such a thing exists, but Zack is down?

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