Improv Ensemble (and the value of the short piece)

We have yet to name our new group.  I might bring this up tomorrow at rehearsal. Our instrumentation is percussion, 2 pianos/keyboards, guitar, trumpet, and saxophone/clarinet. Hopefully, several more musicians will join us. I’d like to see a group consisting of 9 or 10 members.  We could get some very interesting colours and textures that way.

So far we’ve had three rehearsals.  In the first rehearsal, it was just me on sax with the percussionist and guitarist.  We spent some time on a freestyle jam.  “Freestyle” is my favourite word to describe the musical genre of our group.  In my experience, the extended jam becomes the norm in freestyle improv.  Arguably, it’s the best platform to develop aural skills because of it’s meandering nature, generally speaking. However, it’s valuable to focus on smaller pieces, if only for the sake of contrast.

I suggested we each think of an idea that we’d play for one minute, watching the wall clock for timing, and then switch to a contrasting idea for the second minute and return to the first idea for the third minute, creating a simple ABA form.  The advantage to this approach, assuming we don’t share what our idea is or plan something intended to be somehow compatible, is that interesting textures will arise even with a small group.  We don’t plan to play in a particular key, for example.  The challenge, of course, is to play such that your idea fits musically with the other players.  Proceeding this way also helps with one’s sense of time, particularly with regard to how long a certain period of time like 1 minute “feels” as you play.

If nothing else, developing a repertoire of strategies for shorter pieces will be useful for various performance contexts when there are time constraints, like participating in a variety concert.  Also, I think shorter pieces are more palatable for audiences.

Longer jams are a lot of fun though, so we’ll definitely continue to work on pieces of various lengths.  And when you don’t plan how long you’ll play for, it is good practice for choosing a good time to end – not an easy task sometimes, especially with a large group.

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