Bill Evans on Collective Improvisation

There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible. These artists must practice a particular discipline, that of allowing the idea to express itself in communication with their hands in such a direct way that deliberation cannot interfere.
The resulting pictures lack the complex composition and textures of ordinary painting, but it is said that those who see well find something captured that escapes explanation.

This conviction that direct deed is the most meaningful reflections, I believe, has prompted the evolution of the extremely severe and unique disciplines of the jazz or improvising musician.

Group improvisation is a further challenge. Aside from the weighty technical problem of collective coherent thinking, there is the very human, even social need for sympathy from all members to bend for the common result. This most difficult problem, I think, is beautifully met and solved on this recording.

As the painter needs his framework of parchment, the improvising musical group needs its framework in time,. Miles Davis presents here frameworks which are exquisite in their simplicity and yet contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with sure reference to the primary conception.

Miles conceived these settings only hours before the recording dates and arrived with sketches which indicated to the group what was to be played. Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a “take.”

— Bill Evans, Liner Notes, Kind of Blue

Bill wrote this song from the album, and inspired much of the overall texture-

I went with my brother to see Nat Adderley play in the 90s, and we went to a diner beforehand across the street from the jazz club. An older black guy sat next to us at the counter, ate a sandwich and left; we talked to him for a minute about something or other. We went over to the club and came to find out it the guy was Jimmy Cobb, the drummer from Kind of Blue, playing with Nat’s band that night. One seat over from immortality, much like this passage from EB White’s Here is New York:


I think about Bill Evans’ line about allowing the idea to express itself quite a bit, and about the particular challenges of collective improvisation. The small school I worked at for most of the time I taught, with only half a dozen teachers at first, had at times the feeling of a band trying to put on a new show night after night after night. And while this blog would benefit no doubt from more planning and forethought, I’ll make excuses and say I’m just hoping for the unbroken line, the uninterrupted stroke of black water ink on canvas.

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