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Review of the role of improvisation in live performance

Thomas Dolby and the Jazz Mafia:

For my concert review on improvisation in the context of musical performance, I recall going to see a hero of mine, Thomas Dolby. Well known back in the eighties for such songs as “Hyperactive” and “She blinded me with Science”, Thomas Dolby has been well regarded for many years in the musical fraternity not only for his compositional talent and virtuosity but also for his innovation in production and electroacoustic music. The concert took place on Thursday 11th October at Whelan’s music bar in Dublin, an intimate venue and one of the few places I expected to find Mr Dolby to be playing. Upon entering the building I was surprised and heartened to see so many of my own generation had discovered and come to see Dolby’s music being performed live. The stage was set up with things I recognised, MIDI controller keyboards, touch pad samplers, computer sequencers, and the classic analogue phase vocoder, the tools of an electronic musician. I knew I was in for a treat.

The support consisted mainly of electro acts (Black Affair and Neosupervital), whose songs consisted mainly of sequenced electronics and live bass. What I found most striking was the contrast between these support acts and Thomas himself. Whereas the support acts simply played their set in a planned, sequenced form, Thomas improvised the intros and outros using midi controllers and computer sequencers to play each part/section thus building each song from the ground up.

The use of improvisation within the boundaries of structure was exemplified during the performance of the song “Aliens Ate my Buick” in which the Jazz mafia (three piece horn section consisting of saxophone, trumpet and trombone) broke into a free Jazz improvisation while Thomas played the piano and bass parts on his synthesisers. During the performance many non verbal exchanges took place between performers; some of these were individual cues directed at specific performers to take an on the spot improvisations, others were more global in intent as they cued breaks into new modal sections and various key changes.

Much of the improvisation which took place was highly technical and within the realm of what Derek Bailey in “Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music” describes as ‘idiomatic improvisation’ (pxi) that is improvisation within a well defined genre or style, in this case Jazz-Swing. Each member including Dolby himself displayed great technical proficiency within the idiom, looking back I am reminded of the great flamenco guitarist Paco Pena on the practice of improvisation, “I think I do prepare to be able, technically, to reach anything I want to reach on the guitar and for that, of course, I do my exercises and so on. But nothing specifically for improvisation.” (p17 Improvisation its nature and practice in music). Clearly practice tempered with experience and knowledge is vital for a convincing idiomatic improvisation. Certainly seasoned musicians like Dolby and Jazz mafia connect with the audience during these excursions. Another interesting element of the gig was the affable Dolby’s anecdotes in between song’s as he would tell stories about his life and career and of events that had inspired him to write various songs within the set. One notable story was the origins of ‘One of our Submarines is Missing’ a song about Dolby’s uncle, a submarine officer whose submarine was lost during the second world war. The anecdotes allowed him to create a relaxed rapport with the audience. Much of the discourse gave perspective on both the songs and created an emotional connection with the songs for both performer and audience which I believe affected the mood of the performance. As Derek Bailey says on improvisation and the connection of performers and audience:

“Undeniably, the audience for improvisation, good or bad, active or passive, sympathetic or hostile has a power that no other audience has. It can affect the creation of that which is being witnessed. And perhaps because of that possibility the audience for improvisation has a degree of intimacy with the music that is not achieved by any other situation.”(p44).

Personally I feel that the venue reflected the intimacy and the ultimate emotional impact of the performance.

Rab McCullough Blues Band: A local and well regarded blues band, Rab McCullough band have been the staple on Thursday nights at the Empire bar. Having played for some years now at the Empire the Rab McCullough blues band has gained a loyal local following which continues to gain popularity. I had seen the band many times over the years and not least because of the tenacity and energy of the seasoned McCullough players but because of the showmanship and skill displayed by the musicians.

It was Thursday the 8th of November on the night I went to see them; something I had always liked about the band was their ability to rotate and change the set to keep each gig fresh and engaging. The set on that night consisted of many classic blues tunes including Jimi Hendrix’s ”All Along the Watch tower” and the now legendary cover of “Voodoo child” in which Rab solos the guitar behind his back and with his teeth. Within the set other blues classics such as Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ and ‘Here comes the night’ were featured. Something I believe the band owes its great success is to the solid drum bass and piano players as well as McCullough’s impressive extended blues solos. The gravelly New Orleans quality of Rabs voice resonate a classic blues style that captures a distinct blues atmosphere and the use of “idiomatic improvisation” was again evident in the performance.

Unlike the Dolby gig, the audience of this particular gig took to dancing to the songs perhaps because of the mass appeal of the material and the beat and rhythm of the music. Certainly I would say that there was very much a dance hall air about the gig as there was a fairly broad age group from twenty something too fifty something couples to various concert going groups. Much of Rabs improvisation revolved around the use of major and minor pentatonic scales including the Blues scale and relative minor blues scales. An example of Rab’s use of the major pentatonic was most evident during his rendition of “All along the watch tower” in which his use of double stops and on the spot riffs was coupled with the classic riffs Hendrix recorded on the original.

Again the use of cueing was evidence during extended solo sections between individual performers and double timing rhythms. At one point during a particular solo over “Black magic woman” Rab closed his eyes as if connecting himself “into” the music while soloing over the piece while the bass and drums kept the rhythm and harmony of the song going: Viram Jasani on improvisation in private/public noted such behaviour during performances as “they’re (musicians) not worried about an audience sitting there and this is a time when they really let themselves go” (p15).

Derek Bailey on music improvisation remarks: “At the actual time of performance, the musician does not calculate the procedure that will guide his playing. Rather he plays from a level of consciousness somewhat removed from the purely rational. Under these conditions the player performs not according to the ‘theory of practice’ intuitively by the ‘practice of practice’ wherein the dictates of traditional procedures are integrated with his immediate mood and emotional needs.” (pxi)

I believe there is great truth in this statement as the performer did seem to withdraw within himself to create music based on his own subjective experience. While emotively connecting with the music he added his own interpretation to what he felt in the present moment. To conclude while both concerts had contrasting musical styles, the electroacoustic of Dolby versus the New Orleans Blues styling of Rab McCullough both displayed a high level of musical knowledge in the context of their idioms. I believe that successful improvisation within idioms is much as I have said before up to practice tempered with experience and moderation because within popular genre music the role of much improvisation as I have discovered is to complement the piece and bring it to a higher level musically for the performer and psychologically/emotionally for the audience.

Greg Hamilton

All references from: “Improvisation it’s Nature and Practice in Music” by Derek Bailey ©1992 2nd Edition. 1st published circa 1980. Internet resources:








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Two concerts which couldn’t be much further apart in terms of genre, yet both included large amounts of the mysterious process we call ‘Improvisation’:

Atau Tanaka and his completely unpredictable BioMuse vs. the psychedelic delights of the Cosmic Debris Music concert.


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Should the concept of a standard musical performance be maintained, challenged, or removed entirely? Nearly everyone can close their eyes and imagine a concert of some variety – performers come, play a few songs which follow a specified setlist, and then the concert is over. The setlist is of course pre-determined and pre-written, and in many cases the audience is familiar with all or most of the songs performed. Improvisation offers a refreshing break from this standard. Some musical groups, such as Asima, may throw one improvised song into a concert to branch out – others, such as Disparate Bodies, rely predominantly on improvisation, using scores to define only structure.

Asima are a musical ensemble with a strong focus on vocals and percussion, though also featuring some pitch-oriented instruments. Many of their instruments were quite experimental, such as their use of a terra cotta pot as a drum. They also initiated the majority of their pieces with a small box creating a drone sound in the background, over which the entire piece was established.

Their performance, which featured mostly pre-arranged songs, did contain one improvisation. This improvisation was linked in quite clearly with the general sound which the audience had already come to associate with Asima – probably influenced by the musical timbres of the instrumentation available, as well as the band’s general tendency towards their own sound. Musical features of note were the presence of vocal dissonance (one was brought to wonder whether it was intentional, but it added quite a bit of tension to the piece and it can only be assumed that it was), some well-placed rests among the entire group, and the use of many notes which followed a different scale from the rest of the piece. Their method of communication was relatively standard, and it was often clear that the individuals were cueing each other through eye contact.

Eye contact, meanwhile, was not an option for the performance entitled ‘Disparate Bodies’. This performance was a collection of four pieces (sound studies) which placed far more emphasis on improvisation than Asima’s performance. ‘Disparate Bodies’ was a novelty of a performance – it was going on in three places (Northern Ireland, Germany, and Austria) and performers in all three locations were communicating via a network. The network turned out to be not only a medium for communication, but added so many factors to the piece that it arguably became an instrument in its own right.

The importance of improvisation varied between the pieces, yet was important to all four of them. A unifying theme of the entire performance was that of the restrictions set by the network. Network delays established subtle differences between timing cues. A very interesting factor was that the physical absence of many of the other performers removed the possibility for cueing through eye contact – meaning all communication had to be enacted either aurally (the most prevalent) or interactively (which was principal in part three, the synthesized piece being composed live through software). In the case of the first and last piece, however, ambiguous scores (resembling modern art) were followed which facilitated unity between the performers.

Overall, ‘Disparate Bodies’ was a very novel and interesting approach to a performance and made use of technology to an extent which would previously have been unimaginable to me. Where Asima made use of unusual instruments, Disparate Bodies took classical instruments and explored them in new ways over a new medium. While Disparate Bodies’ approach was the more cutting-edge of the two, these factors ended up defining the performances, with the music following them appropriately. Perhaps this is the future of music.

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Since starting my time at Queen’s studying Music Technology, I have attended a large number of concerts in which the use of improvisation was apparent. An example would be the Olaf Rupp concert in the SARC building, however I decided, as a fan of both bands, and as it seemed to be more of a challenge given the nature of the shows, to compare the use of improvisation in two concerts I attended as a fan as well as a musician; Motion City Soundtrack in the Temple Bar Music Centre, Dublin and NOFX in the Carling Academy, Liverpool. As a huge fan of both bands, I was excited to see how the live performances would differ from the recorded tracks.
The Motion City Soundtrack show was definitely the least interesting in terms of improvisation. They stuck relatively closely to the recorded versions, however there were some moments of improvisation which stuck out in my head. During the song, ‘Time Turned Fragile,’ in which there is an extended outro, which they played in full off the record, but then developed into an improvised instrumental section. It featured all the members of the band improvising on their respective instruments [drums, rhythm and lead guitars, bass guitar, synth]. The synth really came into it’s own during this part of the show, using various effects to create a massive array of sounds from such a small instrument! This section did not seem to have a very set structure and appeared to be very random and thrown together on-the-spot so to speak.
A second section that was improvised was their entrance back onto the stage for their encore. Their synth player, Jesse Johnson, came onstage alone and played a chordal piano piece which seemed to have quite a specific structure laid out in terms of chords and bars etc. He was then joined, however, by drummer, Tony Thaxton, who played a series of improvised beats and fills to complement the keyboard part. They were gradually joined by the rest of the band, including vocal harmonies, throughout a gradual crescendo which led up to a held E chord, which then introduced the first song of their encore, ‘This Is For Real’.
The improvisation in this concert was few and far between, and this is probably natural, considering the nature of the performers and the fact that fans have bought tickets to see their favourite songs performed live, and witness the subtle differences between the live and recorded versions, as opposed to concentrating hard on an improvised piece of music which they need to fully concentrate on. However, the moments of improvisation that the band produced during the concert were certainly not disappointing and most certainly kept the attention of the audience. This could be partly down to the fact that they chose specific parameters to set themselves, for example, tempo: keeping an upbeat tempo could possibly keep the attention of a largely teenage audience more effectively than a slow dirge-like piece which may bore them to a certain extent.
Moving on to the second concert that I attended, NOFX in the Carling Academy in Liverpool. With their reputation as a punk rock band who can actually play their instruments, I was interested to see what surprises they would have in store for the audience. I was not disappointed.
Indeed, the band started with an improvised piece, in a jazz style, featuring guitarist El Hefe on trumpet, a feature that would return throughout the show. While there were definitely specific parameters set in terms of key, dynamics [the whole piece was a crescendo], and tempo, the trumpet line was most definitely improvised. The drum part was a simple swing beat, and the rhythm guitar line was a 12 bar blues pattern repeated. The bass line was improvised to a certain extent in that he played within the chord structure but chose different notes from within the scale to create a walking bassline. The trumpet line then was the melody line, and he played with tied notes and syncopation throughout to create an interesting contrast with the underlying standard blues/jazz rhythm section.
A second example of improvisation was when they played a fast rendition of an acoustic song off their latest EP called ‘You’re Wrong’. The recorded version features just acoustic guitar and vocals. The live version they performed was with the full band and at the trademark NOFX ‘million-miles-an-hour’ speed. This was one of the highlights of the entire show and one of the most captivating examples of improvisation I have ever witnessed.
A third and final example of improvisation was towards the end of their set, when they were joined onstage by their support band for what turned out to be a jamming session. The nine musicians onstage created a piece of music covering a vast pitch, tempo and dynamic range that lasted for about seven or eight minutes, a long time in terms of their usual two and a half minute punk rock songs.
In conclusion then, the two concerts were not the most conventional of settings for capturing improvisation, but I realised that this made me hone in more on what was going on improvisationally, rather than trying to sum up two entire improvised performances in one essay. It was interesting to see how the two bands used their own genres of music in different ways and pushed the boundaries of those genres to create a new piece of music which in some ways fitted into those preconceptions and in others were way outside the box.

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This review looks at performances from ‘The Jahm Band’, a psychedelic, funk-jazz fusion group based in North Antrim and singer songwriter ‘Tom McRae’ who are two performing artists/group who share the same or similar (self-proclaimed) chaotic approach to improvisation within their perspective music/sounds. However within the context of a live performance, this same attitude towards extemporization within their art form yields vastly different results. So at what point in the creative process do similar foundations become streets apart?

‘The Jahm Band’ (Are Ye Jahmin’ or Wha?!)

The Jahm Band are a collection of musicians who play ‘funky, groovy transcendental hoodoo music’ which was originally set up by Will Hawkins, Ciaran Laverty and Dave Hoy a few years ago. ‘The Jahm Band’ is now made up of six fantastic musicians from around Northern Ireland.

The music of ‘The Jahm Band’ is exactly as the name suggests, a series of ‘jahms’, each with the fundamental component of being primarily improvised (within a very loosely fixed medium) which is defined by the quality of musicians within the group as well as a love for what they are creating.

Primarily in hindsight of this performance I would suggest that this is a group of individuals who share the ideal that their music is ‘played by a group of musicians who choose one another’s company and who improvise freely in relation to the precise emotional, acoustic, psychological and other less tangible atmospheric conditions in effect at the time the music is performed’*. This is evident in the simple fact that at several intervals throughout the performance, extended friends of the group (myself included) were invited on stage for a brief ‘jahm’ as the atmosphere/mood of the music/venue compelled the group to do so. Surely this introduced a substantial element of free improvisation as control was passed ‘not to chance, but to other musicians’*, whether or not said persons were aware of any fixed mediums. This isn’t to say that the group lacked direction and required the participation of the audience, indeed quite the opposite. In relation to the inspiration for improvisation, the flamenco guitarist Paco Pena said that ‘anything which has art in it would have an effect. For example, the way people move – you could see someone moving gracefully and that inspires you’. I believe this to be the case when concerning ‘The Jahm Band’. Whilst the main protagonist of the group (Will Hawkins – Guitar) is heavily influenced by the music of Robert Fripp (which was evident at points in the performance) whose music embraces ‘instant creation’, however when the audience began to ‘get their GRooVe on’ this had a very definite effect on the group, spurring them on. This like the cameo musicians served to inspire the group giving their ‘transcendental mission’ momentum!

The improvisational structure I feel was dictated by the members of the group as individuals acting within the institution that is ‘The Jahm Band’. Phasing and ‘Grooves’ would be exchanged with band members and opposed to repeating what has been ‘said’ created their own phrases within the ‘Grooves’ allowing each piece to explored, treating every error as an ‘unintentional rightness’. Needless to say this practice (in order to be carried out effectively) requires considerably high levels of communication which in some cases took the form of whispers, nods and in some cases it was almost possible to see the musicians passing notes, ideas and responsibility across the stage through the way the notes phrases were played and where emphasis was placed at defining moment of the performance.

If was definitely one of these gigs that had the audience holding their breath at every stager and fall, at every sustain and trill, and at the final crescendo the release of the group was shared by the audience which for me defined the special relationship between an audience and improvised music.

Tom McRae

Tom McRae is recognized for his intelligent and sensitive song writing, his haunting vocals and the energy and warmth which he puts into his live gigs, which needless to say is all that was presented and them some at ‘The Limelight’ on Monday 12th November. The gig was apart of his European tour to promote his recently released 3rd studio album ‘King of Cards’. His influences as expressed on www.myspace.com/tommcrae are ‘Gravity, poverty, some childhood issues, and Burl Ives’ which gives some indication of his character as opposed to his music which could be described as being somewhat bleak and depressing. This contradiction does however highlight that (in my opinion) he has a real sense of humour.

Opposed to the performance of ‘The Jahm Band’, any musical improvisation that takes place is rigidly defined by his fixed medium which in this case are the songs from his latest and previous albums which people have come to hear.

After the show I had the opportunity of asking him how he approaches or perceives his use of improvisation within his own music, to which he replied that one factor (similar to that of ‘The Jahm Band’) is that he and the rest of the band enjoy what they are playing. This appears to be a common train of thought with improvisers the world over, as Derek Bailey says in ‘Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music’, ’don’t be afraid of being wrong, just afraid of being uninteresting’ which to me suggests enjoying yourself.

The performance was much more than on of a musical nature, it could also be compared with that of a stand-up comedy act, which in my opinion was second to none. His use of ‘ad-libbing’ to engage the audience both between and during songs allowed for the audience, I believe, to have a definite presence in the performance as performers. The constant interjection of question and answer between audience and performer was very reminiscent of the improvisation that is employed in Rock music as defined my Derek Bailey.

One final key element of this performance which I found particularly compelling was that, although it says on the ticket ‘Tom McRae’ he went to lengths to introduce the rest of the band to the audience (Oli and Olli, Johnny Sound, Stevie Guitars) and included them in his interaction with the crowd. This allowed much of the bands personalities to come forth making them more than simply ‘the men behind the man’ but equals within the performance along with Tom and the audience. The familiarity made the band members embellishments on the original themes much more evident bring improvisation to the forefront of the performance which I believe made the experience all the more engaging and entertaining. The bands relaxed and jovial approach to the performance turned songs of a serious nature into one of light-hearted camaraderie which I believe to be the result of the group adapting (dare I say improvising) to the mood of the audience making them much more accessible.

Although the actual implementation of a similar idea of improvisation, in relation to these two performances yielded very different results is not to suggest that one was ‘better’ than the other, just different. Speaking in strictly musical terms the improvisation of Tom McRae was very rigidly defined, not going beyond the confines of the set pieces, were as The Jahm Band in some cases even went beyond the tempered scale of the West (due to the wizardry of one Will Hawkins).

As an avid supporter of local music (music from Ireland) I am compelled to vote in favour of ‘The Jahm Band’, that is if this were a competition, however I feel that both performances captured what I believe to be possibly the single most important factor of any improvisation and that is to play with you heart as opposed to your head, because as Steve Howe said ‘if you try to closely to look at inspiration it disappears… Untangible’!

Darren McLaughlin

*All references and quotes were taken from:

Improvisation – It’s Nature and Practice in Music. Derek Bailey




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A review comparing the use of improvisation in two extraordinarily diverse performances: the first a jazz band playing at the Rotterdam, one of the oldest bars in Belfast; the other a much more modern experimental music group at Queens.

Giant Steps are a standard four piece jazz standards band, featuring drums, double bass, guitar and saxophonist Lewis Smith, performing that night with guest singer Bronagh Mullan (who represented Ireland in the Eurovision song contest in 1999, but has since found a love for jazz).

QUBEnsemble, who need no introduction, involve themselves in a wide variety of experimental styles, mostly involving some sort of improvisation. On this particular occasion the Ensemble was split up into groups of three or four musicians, each group being given short piece of sheet music and a page from a magazine for inspiration and told to come up with a performance based on those two things. The groups were given around twenty minutes to prepare, after which a very diverse range of interpretations emerged.

The use of improvisation by the jazz group, although very creative and expressive, was much more reserved and carefully structured than that of the QUBE groups. The jazz group performed pre-arranged songs, with improvisation taking the form of one instrument soloing over the chord progression of the song. The boundaries for this improvisation were quite clear- the tempo of the song was regular, the chords of the song were clearly repeated, and only one member of the band would be improvising at any one time. Also, due to the more traditional nature of the jazz being played, the improvised melodies rarely deviated from the blues scale of the song being played.

The QUBE groups, on the other hand, made much greater use of improvisation, each group imposing its own particular boundaries and guidelines as to how the performance should be carried out. Some groups, for example, took short groups of notes from the sheet music and repeated them at different times, improvising timing and dynamics, rather than the particular choice of notes. Another group improvised without any boundaries, with each band member picking a particular note of a chord and sustaining it when they felt the free improvisation should end. Still another group used the narrative of the magazine to structure their performance, improvising within that structure.

Despite the very different approaches to structuring improvisation between the jazz band and QUBE groups, all the musicians involved were creative and confident enough to produce interesting and imaginative music within the guidelines that were set. Therefore I feel that the resulting performances, although very different, were both intellectually and emotionally engaging, and as a result could be considered to be high quality music, and definitely worth listening to.

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