Posts Tagged ‘Giant Steps’

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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