One of the hallmarks of jazz is that its players know how to improvise. So it would seem that the idea of teaching improvisation is a contradiction in terms.
Not so, says Mark Davis, a professor of jazz piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and author of the new book, The Hal Leonard Jazz Piano Method: The Player’s Guide to Authentic Stylings. Davis is also a working jazz pianist and arranger. We met him at the Conservatory recently, where he played us a few songs and talked about the importance of teaching improvisation.
Although the common perception might be that improvisation is completely made-up on the fly, he says, it requires fine-tuned skills and preparation.
“As an improviser we want to be prepared, so that’s what we practice. We practice being prepared for all kinds of different situations that come up,” says Davis. “Rather than in the case of some styles of music where we might work out one way to play a piece, the jazz musician works out many, many, many different ways they might approach a piece.”
Improvisation is a vital tool for jazz musicians, he says. In a genre that often takes familiar tunes and plays with the structure, Davis believes musicians need a thorough understanding of how to move a song forward.
“In many ways jazz is like a theme in variations, where play the song and then we go into variations on the song, which might involve changing the harmony, or changing the rhythm, or… experimenting and changing the melody,” he says.
*Originally aired February 2016