Intuition and Education: The Catch 22 of Improv

Curator's Note

I studied formally, and have played and sang in all kinds of bands for decades. I’ll admit that I did not always show the kind of dedication to my music that I wanted to, but even if I did practice eight hours a day for 20 years, my repertoire and sight reading would still suck as badly as they do because I’m obsessed with intuitive improvisation, where every solo is a spontaneous composition. My question for the universe, a question I obsess over every time I pick up my guitar,—when I’m improvising over changes, where does the studied music end and the intuitive music begin?  Is it possible to separate the two and play on pure creative intuition?

I ask that same question of the universe each time I listen to any piece of improvised music: Is that player playing scales and arpeggios over the changes—constantly deciding which rules to follow or break on the fly—or is he or she inventing something that is free from any laws of harmony and melody, channeling that stream of innovation directly to an instrument? If it’s a combination of both, where is the line, and what are the stages of growth? If I’m going to move onto another plane of musical being, do I need to relegate my book learning to my subconscious, or do I keep it present? If I keep it present, how do I avoid imposing intellect on my improvisations? It seems like every question just craps out more questions.

When the end credits rolled on Passing Through, my first question was: “What was Poppa Harris up to with that horn?” Not because it was a weird distraction, but because I saw that he was free—free to move in and out of structures at will, while Warmack was still hitting the walls. I wondered if maybe there were some clues about the path to that freedom that I had missed.

The reality of music, though, is that very few people can honestly enjoy listening to a guy blowing through an antelope horn, no matter how good he is at it. Not an audience, and not the musicians he shares the stage with. It’s a brilliant device, though. It got me thinking. It got me asking questions. So many damn questions.


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