According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to compose means: Form by ordering or arranging the parts, especially in an artistic way. From the same source, to improvise means: Create and perform spontaneously or without preparation.
Would you not agree that jazz, in its entirety, is exactly that? One spontaneously creates by arranging into form. In this article, I would like to discuss the two variations in improvisation that I have begun to recognise and express my preference for one over the other.
Having listened to many, many recordings and watched many videos online of great and semi-professional jazz pianists, I have come to feel a bit frustrated with what is played. It seems gone are the days of melodic, tuneful improvisations and arrived are the days of rapidity, repetition and predictability. I must highlight that I am not putting down the skills or abilities of the jazz pianists I hear, for most of the time, the improvisations are enjoyable; I merely speak of how they are quite similar and lack what I would like to call a 'compositional layer', they usually focus on quick lines and well-established ideas, leaving, for me, quite a bland sound, albeit generically 'jazzy'.
Whilst improvisation is inherently unplanned and unpredictable, and the pianist is indeed supposed to play how he feels without much analysis of what he is creating, it cannot be ignored that going completely blind is quite dangerous; a jazz pianist, I believe, should very much have an absolute knowledge of what is possible to be played beforehand (in his mind, away from the piano, subconsciously) and a realisation of his own musical personality so that he may communicate his ideas in the most natural way possible, as with his own native language.
Comparing with spoken language is a very good way to demonstrate my point. Imagine being given a topic about which to speak for 2 minutes at random. This topic represents the title of the jazz piece you learnt recently for no reason, it was just the next song in the book. Many people would begin by hesitating, trying to find their words, not having much structure to their speech and once they do begin, use very generic words, predictable sentences and not really make an effort to communicate in such a way as to please the listener's ear. It's fair to say that many would simply repeat what they have heard others say.
Now speak about your hobby. No doubt you would introduce the topic of: photography (not my speciality at all!) for example, by discussing the types of camera you can buy, the differences in lenses, day and night shots, perspective, editing, etc... all relatively clearly, precisely, structured with your own experiences and emotional connections to past photographic adventures. The only difference would be your innate ability to use words appropriate to your audience, i.e., school children of 10 years old, or in a photography club to a new member!
Now put this to music. You have selected a piece of music for a Purpose. You have internalised the chords absolutely. You have heard some versions of it by different pianists (both great legends and relatively amateur attempts) just to get a feel for what is possible and what others have done. My recommendation: do not improvise.
Think about a composition. A composition has various parts woven together logically. Ideas are developed, not all thrown in at the same time. An underlying message or purpose resonates throughout the piece. The composing improviser does not aim to show everything he can do in one piece. Liszt wrote both Un Sospiro and Mazeppa; two utterly different pieces, yet the level of brilliance is worlds apart.
Hopefully my point has been made.
When Liszt improvised, he became a Purposeful Improviser. He asked members of his audience to call out themes, tunes, ideas, concepts, and he would improvise on them. How on Earth did he do that? He composed on the spot, rather than simply 'improvise'. A composition, as I said before, has an underlying message, a theme, a purpose. What I hear today does not have that; they are just relatively pleasant concoctions of predictable, throw-away licks or samey blues scale ideas, or disconnected call-response ideas and big, heavy chords for the sake of being louder rather than the sake of adding to the compositional story. I wish to change this.
It has become my ambition to be a compositional improviser, as I have coined the phrase, and not another jazz pianist who improvises like the rest. In my jazz piano lessons on YouTube, I will begin to discuss this approach and do my best to demonstrate what I mean when it becomes possible in a particular video.