Musical Improvisation vs. Musical Composition

A friend recently heard Keith Jarrett live in concert. It was one of Keith’s solo concerts, which are entirely improvised. I’m quite familiar with KJ and the conversation I had with my friend brought to mind the following thoughts:

A great improviser does not make a great composer. Improvisation and composition are two separate and distinct musical activities.

I believe that anyone going to a KJ concert knows he will be improvising the whole concert. Fans are going to hear a wonderfully inventive, resourceful musical mind spin out a range of musical ideas that will be inconsistent but, on balance, more great than lousy. As wonderful as the music may be, chances are, it will not be transcribed and performed later by other pianists.

Keith Jarrett plays in France in 2003. (Photo: Oliver Bruchez)

Keith Jarrett plays in France in 2003. (Photo: Oliver Bruchez)

I think it’s worth making the distinction between improvising great music and composing great music. KJ is a great improviser. In concert, his musical ideas will range from sublime to mediocre with musical filigree connecting his ideas.

The point is: One cannot expect KJ’s music that’s improvised on-the-spot to be worthy of something compositionally brilliant. It won’t be brilliant. It will have brilliant moments but that’s it.

By the same token, no one would expect Chekhov or O. Henry or John Updike to write a wonderful short story in one continuous act of penmanship without taking his pencil off the paper. Nor would one expect Picasso to paint a masterpiece without taking his brush off the canvas. Writing is re-writing. Improvisation does not leave room for revision.

Improvisation is a terrific skill that has a long-standing place in music – not just jazz. Mozart improvised. Stravinsky improvised. I’ve heard that Michel Legrand improvised the entire melody to “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life” in one pianistic outpouring. I believe Richard Rodgers often wrote music to Hammerstein’s lyrics in one burst of melodic and compositional genius.

My point is: Let us all improvise brilliantly but let us not confuse great improvisation with great composition.

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