Lee Konitz
Conversations on the Improviser's Art

Andy Hamilton
(The University of Michigan Press; Ann Arbor, Michigan)

Lee Konitz + Charlie Parker, 1953                                        Lee Konitz Collection

an excerpt from:
Chapter 6: The Art of Improvisation

Konitz is one of the most astute and eloquent commentators on the art of improvisation. In this chapter he states his artistic credo, in one of the most extended accounts of the practice of improvisation given by a jazz musician. Konitz is totally committed to "really improvising", as he puts it, a commitment which he believes few jazz players share. In his daily routine of practising, he prepares himself, as he puts it, "to not be prepared". His distinction between "real improvisers" and what he calls "prepared playing" may come from Tristano, who commented in an interview that "I can count on one hand the great improvisers... This kind of improvising you always hear about almost never happens".(1) In these interviews, Konitz contrasts his own intuitive approach with the more prepared playing or "professional performance" of Oscar Peterson or James Moody who have a routine that wows the audience. He also describes an approach intermediate between prepared playing and intuitive improvisation, the "compositional" approach of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane which has a more specific vocabulary. He explains how he intends to "really compose, and not just try to perfect what I know", creating an improvisation that stands up to analysis as a piece of music. (Here "compose" has a different meaning from when he is talking about Parker, and of course neither meaning refers to writing music.) Konitz is not saying that Parker or Coltrane are not improvising, just that they are adopting a different approach to improvising; with Moody and Peterson he would be more severe. But there is also the feeling, which I share, that Konitz's approach, in avoiding licks and focussing on melody, is more purely or more "really" improvisational….In our conversations we approach these difficult issues from various angles, trying to tease out what is distinctive about "real improvisation", the art of "theme and variations" as Konitz calls it. Konitz then discusses composition and the contrast with classical music, how to teach jazz, and the importance of singing for improvisers.

You've said that you thought Charlie Parker was really a "composer". You mean he had a vocabulary of phrases that he'd adapt?

What is a "composer"? One who puts good phrases together. When I came to New York with Claude Thornhill in '48, I went right to 52nd Street and listened to Charlie Parker. He sounded great, but very familiar to me, and I was wondering why that was at first. Then I realised he was playing vocabulary that I'd already heard on the records - but it was fantastically played and realised. As a "composer", he conceived of these great phrases, and fit them together in the most logical way, and played them until they came alive – and then decided to depend on what really communicated with his audience.

That approach doesn't appeal to you?

Of course we have to function with a vocabulary in order to speak musically. But because I've had so much experience playing, and had my confidence reinforced and encouraged through doing it, I realised that it's possible to really improvise. And that means going into it with a so-called clean slate. That appeals to me very much. Not to deny the importance of a speaking vocabulary, but having one that's flexible enough so it can be used to reinvent constantly.

Keith Jarrett stated it pretty eloquently on his new record, Always Let Me Go.(2) He explained how he had to really withdraw from following through with something that he already knew could work. That's a very important point.

Both Bird and Coltrane had a very prolific vocabulary. It becomes licks and clichés when there's no feeling behind the phrase any more. But you have to have things to play. I have what I think of as a more flexible vocabulary. When I practise and come up with a good combination of notes, I work with it through the keys; different tonalities, rhythmic changes, etc. Then, when I play, that idea inevitably pops up in a most unexpected place.

Bird's phrases were very specific, and it was hard to alter them, for him or [followers such as] Jackie McLean or Sonny Stitt. Mine, and Warne Marsh's, phrases are more like filler material - rhythmic phrases that could be played in many different contexts, connecting one to the other…

…You felt that Charlie Parker's motifs would be plugged into very specific places, whereas Tristano's are not so harmonically specific - they fit over many different harmonies, so they can be used more freely.

Yes, that's part of it. I think Lennie was, ultimately, more intuitive then Bird.

Your improvisations also are often based on motifs – so if you're playing a song with a melody which has three quarter notes ascending, you might begin your solo with those notes, then develop it by transposing the motif to fit other chord changes, changing the rhythm to eighth notes or stretching the melody but retaining its shape, and so on. Are you conscious of that as your main improvising technique?

Yes. I'm very much aware of the developmental possibilities of the notes I choose at the moment. It's what I think of as a note-to-note procedure, rather than a phrase-by-phrase procedure. It's fundamental. It's very essential to me the more I do this.

Do you hear yourself using a phrase you've used before?

Of course! But instead of ignoring it, I try to develop it, maybe, in a different way to last time. Familiar phrases that can be used one way or another are still vital, I think. I've heard very good versions of patterns of licks by some musicians. I try to avoid that myself. But sometimes a sequence is in order.

It's not possible to really improvise when you're playing very fast.

Not for me. The idea of having to "burn", and having to swing hard, and all of those concepts, I'm too old for that - but I was really too old for that when I was 20 I guess! I tried to play as hard as I could, but obviously I couldn't get up to where the really hard players were. And you know, that's like a contest in some way, to be able to swing as strongly as possible. One of the reasons I wasn't able to do that, is that I didn't know what I was going to play, like they do. You can play as strongly as you want, when you're not thinking about what note to select.

But then who needs to play "strong" all the time? There are many dynamics possible besides strong.

You're very insistent that people shouldn't be playing mechanically. You said that when you started out you were more mechanical, and your ideal has been to eliminate that. Does that mean you should be surprised by what you're playing?

You should be surprised! That's what I love about improvising, that it's full of surprises. Jack Zeigler, the cartoonist, said that "I find that when I'm doodling I am most interested in what surprises me, and that's what I end up using". No surprises, back to the drawing board!

But shouldn't you be hearing in your head what you're going to play - and so not surprised?

When I'm playing, the only thing I hear in my head is the note that I just played; there's no room to hear anything else. I never know what people are talking about, "playing what you hear" as you play. Although in a moment of pause in the play, something can occur - a note, a phrase - to suggest direction.

And yet as you say, you're making a logical construction.

Yes, as a result of all the thinking, and singing, and practising that I do. And I feel confident to go out and make up a new melody - that, simply put, is my goal. I'm not looking for new rhythms, or world music expressions, which everything seems to be going in the direction of. I'm not looking to be original; just to play as sincerely as possible in the discipline I inherited. I'm still fascinated with this basic discipline of theme and variations.

"Hearing internally" is another way of saying that you're fully conscious of what you're playing, that it's not mechanical. You don't like the idea of "playing what you hear" in the playing situation, but you must at least be able to play what you hear. This is a really important training, to be able to hear lines in your head, and play them.

This is important as a meditation technique. You can meditate on a word, and you can meditate on a note, or a series of notes.

But practically, if you're going to be a good improviser, you've got to be able to hear or sing a phrase, and then go to the piano or horn and play it.

Right – but as a practice thing. That's very important I think.

Because another way of playing is to play what's in the fingers, in the muscular memory.

That's when it's mechanical. As Bob Brookmeyer says, there are these "vanilla fudge" areas in every instrument that are so much fun you can't stop yourself from using them, but that's a far cry from real improvising…

…Singing will put you more immediately in touch with what you're hearing. It's harder to sing mechanically – at least for a non-singer.

I think so. But hearing in your inner ear is the first step.(3) Something is popping around inside, and you start humming or singing. Chet Baker sang, or played, what he could hear, and so he sounds like himself in both cases. Singing is the main instrument, there's nowhere to hide.

And when someone else plays a phrase, you've got to be able to play that very phrase, or answer it.

Right. That's an ear training process. When I played with Brad Mehldau, soon enough he was anticipating what I was playing – he was right there, sometimes too soon.

How far ahead do you think when you're playing a solo?

Just, ideally, on the note that I'm playing. I know, on some level, where I'm headed in the tune, but it's most important for me to play each note as clearly as I can. I've heard a number of people describe how they think ahead, and kind of aim for a certain note, or a certain place. Hal Galper wrote in his book about looking forward to how you develop the phrase, and how it's going to end. I don't know how that's possible, if you're improvising. But it's different for each player, I'm sure.

What kind of state of mind are you in when you're improvising?

Just trying to be "there", basically, and be interested in what's going on around me, besides my own obligation to play. I want to hear the other players as clearly as possible. It's an almost selfish need - besides the satisfaction of hearing them play, even if it isn't first-rate. If I hear what they're doing, I never run out of things to play, because they'll always feed me something. It's really not possible to run out of something to play if you tune in to the bass drum, the sock cymbal, or the bass notes, or the piano chord. But if 100% of my attention is on thinking "What's the next note?" it's hard to listen to anything else.

How do you get beyond playing things that are in the "muscular memory" – phrases that have been learned and are then unconsciously repeated?

By believing that it's possible to do it, first of all, and wanting to do it. I have complete faith in the spontaneous process. I think most people think that can be very naive, and that you do your improvising at home, and when you go out, you play prepared material, so the paying customers don't get short-changed. It's the picture I've seen all of my life. And very talented people can do it effectively – the rest sound like hacks, to me.

I need to talk about these things, to clarify whatever's not fully clarified yet.

Obviously, playing mechanically suggests a lack of real connection to what you are doing at the moment. We learn to play through things that feel good at the time of discovery. They go into the "muscular memory" and are recalled as a matter of habit. If I know a pattern on a [chord] progression that feels good at the time of discovery, every time I come to that place I could play that pattern, knowing it works, rather than making a fresh try. Up to a point this is the choice you make with a working vocabulary - how much you want to flex those ideas.

James Moody is a very good example of this prepared playing - playing what he knows. I never really enjoyed listening to him that much, though last time I heard him, at a Charlie Parker concert in New York, I was very impressed that this 75-year-old man was playing so well. But what he played is basically very set, it's like he's actually playing exercises sometimes, it's so obvious. He was playing the same things that I've heard him play over and over again. But he does it very well, and with a sense of humour in between, everything is very enjoyable to listen to. He even told a great joke that he's been telling for 40 years! That is a true professional performance - not easy, but that's what it is. I'm just trying to clarify the difference between him and Charlie Parker. Charlie had a truly dynamic feeling for the music, and these great phrases that he put together ingeniously. A very special kind of expression only known to a major player.

I don't put that down [what Moody does], I just try to put it in its place. Sonny Stitt was more musical, I think. James Moody tried to get more chromatic in his playing, and he worked out phrases and things, and they always sounded worked out and stuck in, and that's not the point, to me. Sonny managed to integrate all those Charlie Parker phrases, or Lester Young or Dexter Gordon or whoever he was emulating, and make a musical statement. It's some kind of an art form, but not the work of a true adventurous, chance-taking spirit.

James Moody is a hard practiser and he learns his things. And he knows how to deliver his punch when he's out there. This isn't meant to be a criticism of him, because I respect him for doing what he can do very well. I'm not saying he should be doing something else, I'm just trying to make a point that there is something else to be done, and then you make your choice whether you want to do it. I can't play the way Moody does, playing a finished product, as good as you can come up with, for the paying audience.

Whereas with Charlie Parker, the phrases were similar - the same phrases would recur, but they make a different mosaic each time.

I think the indication of that is on some of the second and third takes on some of the early records. I heard the second take of one of Fats Navarro's solos, and it was pretty much the same.

There are a few versions of "I Remember You" on my Motion record with the second drummer, Nick Stabulas. And it sounds entirely different each take, just indicating it's intuitive.

Is it quite a small number that play the way you do?

I think most people who play professionally want to do a good job, and prepare as much as possible to do that. I do in my way, but that's my way of preparation - to not be prepared. We talk about learning every change that existed, every inversion, every lick. And then when you play you forget about what you practised and try to really invent something for the moment, according to what the rhythm's playing, according to the acoustics, the audience, how you feel at the moment, and so on. And certainly I don't do it all the time. When I get in trouble, for acoustic reasons, or because it's the wrong band for me, or whatever, I have to rely on what I know more. And that's less satisfying, but necessary, certainly.

I wish, at times, that I could have a readily available vocabulary to use on less inspiring occasions; but it would be too easy to rely on that.

Shelly Manne once joked that "The guy was so hip he never played the same solo once"!

You think that a lot of players are missing out on something, when they go in for prepared playing.


No jazz player would say this, but what do you say to someone who asks "What's the advantage of being spontaneous in the performance, with all the risks that involves. Why not plan it out in advance?"

I think there's a very obvious energy, let's say, for the players, and the listeners who are tuned in to that kind of thing, that doesn't exist in a prepared delivery. There's something maybe more tentative about it, maybe less strong or whatever, that makes it sound like someone is really reacting to the moment. I presume you know what I'm talking about. It's hard to catch what it really is, but I feel that way is very apparent to people who are doing it, and the people in the audience.

I recorded with Phil Woods and Enrico Rava at the Umbria Jazz Festival in 2003. Both Phil and Enrico are very fine players. They were playing strong, and definite – which is a result of "knowing" what you're going to play. And Stefano Bollani is a marvellous pianist.

So, here comes me – and as soon as I play the first note the whole intensity comes down from a spirited swing to a thoughtful, respectful volume and listening intensity. It's very difficult to start from scratch after all that pizzazz! It's a very welcome dynamic, but a psychological problem for me.

But as you say, if you're coming out with a prepared statement, however energetic it is, there's a definite limit to how far you can react to the moment.

I think so. And that also means that the second time you hear that person, it's not going to be too different from the first time. When you hear Phil Woods, you hear similar phrases. And Stan Getz was kind of the same. He has a style, very musically worked out, and he found success with that and stuck with it. I think that defines "style" in a way. Doing something that catches on, and repeating it every time, more or less.

I was surprised when you said that on some classic recordings, you felt the ideas weren't coming.

That can happen at any time, still. That possibility continues to make the process real, in a way, and a never-ending problem in another way that I don't care for. I haven't solved that problem. I'm thankful I can get a good average out of it. It's a matter of slowing down the process with enough space to stay relaxed. Not getting tense and breathing in a relaxed way are the keys to the good ideas department.

As improvising instrumentalists, composing as we press the keys, we have the desire and obligation to play as logical, well-structured, great-sounding, rhythmically loose, accurate and meaningful stream of notes as possible, that add up to a valid creation. But I commit many errors along the way, and thankfully, jazz is not a perfect art! As has been said, "An improviser needs the anxiety of imminent failure".

Have you ever heard something that you thought was really spontaneous and improvised, and then found out that it was worked out beforehand? Or could you always really tell?(4)

Sometimes I'm not sure, actually. When it's done as ingeniously as Warne did it, sometimes, it sounds like he wrote it out – amazing.(5) He had access to his material in a most spontaneous way.

So you mean, when you heard him, you thought "How could someone do that spontaneously?"

Yes, really. It's just so intricate, so well taken care of in the detail. Warne was a true musician, to the core. A rare bird!…



You said in that interview with Kastin that "first and foremost you have to adhere to the song for a much, much longer period of time. You have to find out the meaning of embellishment before going on to try to create new melodies..."

Getting a good melody to swing loosely with a beautiful sound is no easy thing to do. Then, you slowly add and subtract to keep it loose and beautiful. It's a very gradual process. I tried to break it down into small steps, so that people could measure their progress. The novice should be trying, in some way, to create original melodies; but they have to ease into this discipline, of playing a theme and variations in the traditional way, and play on a level in which they can get all the moving parts into sync. It's hard as hell to do that in reality. I'm trying to find out how you can work at that at home, to build up the belief that it really is possible to improvise. Tristano suggested knowing the song as thoroughly as possible, but he never went into those details, that I can recall. He encouraged his students to play in all keys, and so on, but never talked about this step-by-step development.

But the specific examples in that article [of mine] are much too complicated.(6)

When you learn a new song, do you start out by sticking fairly close to the melody at first, as you advise students to do, and then gradually make more variations?

The first improvising step as I understand it is stretching the rhythm, and the expression of the melody notes. So before adding anything, I play the song. If I can't play that melody as if I just made it up, I need to work on it until I can. Change the key, or the tempo, and make it sound like real music, and not just some way to get into the variations too soon. Unless the basic groundwork - melody - is strong, the variations certainly will not be convincing.

There are infinite possibilities, rhythmically, on these melodies, and that's improvising already. Not adding a note. Then I suggest adding a grace note, or something to dress up the melody little by little before making a new melody.

I came to harmony later in my life - I was just interested in melody, because of my single-note instrument. I realised the significance, harmonically, of every note, but I can't hear a chord in my head as I play, unless someone else plays the chord. So I'm certainly more concerned with moving from note to note, and interval to interval.(7)

But too often the melody is thrown away, in order to get into the serious business of pattern-playing.

Those sound like my words! [laughs] By now, though, I don't really love to play the melody of "All The Things". I have to find a new way to make it real.

You composed "Thingin'", on the chords of "All The Things", and you play the melody of that.


When did you write that piece?

Who knows! In the last ten years, I would say. It modifies the chord-structure, though, and I like playing on that new chord-structure more than the standard one. I've not written anything else on "All The Things", but Warne wrote a great line on it, "Dixie's Dilemma".

Most jazz improvisers improvise on the harmonies, and the melody is almost inconsequential.

A few weeks ago I played in a small town near Munich [in 2005], in a duo with a fine pianist Walter Lang, and I took my soprano. And because of my need to be very careful with the pitch on the soprano, I was playing very softly, and very much around the melody. It was such a nice feeling, and I felt that communication with the audience was very special as a result. Usually I start out playing embellishments on a melody that's very familiar to me, but unfortunately a lot of people don't pick up what I'm playing on.

But say that someone can play the melody – they've learnt it and can play it without any mistakes. What more do they need to do to internalise it?

Well, I'm talking about note-to-note responsibility. Every time I play one of these melodies, I'm trying to tune in to every note – how it feels in itself, and how it connects with the next note, whether I'm tonguing it or legato-ing it, or vibrating it. It's a constant challenge, and the more meaningfully it's played, the more meaningful the second chorus of embellishments is.

And you feel that often the melody is not played very meaningfully.

That's the way it feels. It's either done mechanically – it feels like that's the way they always play it...

...Or it's distorted from the start in an effort to "update" it.

Updating is valid, distortion is not, for me. I think that, no matter how old the tune is, the first step is always to play the melody, "improvising it" so to speak – improvising rhythmically, or timbrally, so it's not mechanical. All the details have to be reviewed.

My approach, when I'm talking to a player who's beginning, is that they shouldn't even think of the chord-progressions – just play on the melody for a while, and then add the chord-progressions.

If somebody just gives you a set of chord-progressions without a melody, could you improvise on this?

I can, but it doesn't really thrill me to see all those fucking chords. It's not the same. It would tend to be up and down more than across.

You've said that "practising solos is the way to learn, those are our etudes" - that is, the solos of the great players that you can now often find transcribed.

Practising solos is an essential step in this process of developing a real conception. I have suggested that to learn a solo from a record you should listen; sing it; play it; write it down and analyse it. The same should be done for your own solos, so you can confront what you play, study it, and enjoy the process.

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