Off the Page, Against the Grain

It’s the rare performer who improvises in classical music.

By Bradley Bambarger

Pianist Keith Jarrett — one of today’s iconic jazz improvisers, whether with his Standards Trio or in extemporaneous solo marathons — is one of the few jazz players to cross over into high-end classical performance, having recorded repertoire from Bach and Mozart to Shostakovich and Lou Harrison. Ironically, though, Jarrett doesn’t improvise the cadenzas in Mozart concertos, feeling that he doesn’t have the essential mastery of that Classical-era language.
The pitfalls are deep if a musician doesn’t know the vocabulary, whether it’s a classical musician trying to play jazz or the other way around. Ethan Iverson notes: “Thinking you can improvise jazz without understanding the folklore of the music will result in a horror story. If the style is abstract and non-traditional, pulling off an improvisation is more likely. However, when [our trio] The Bad Plus plays twentieth-century classical music by Ligeti, Stravinsky and Babbitt, Reid [Anderson] and I don’t improvise much at the bass or piano: We have too much respect for the composer’s harmonic language to think we can just jump in and sound right in the style. Dave [King] improvises the most, at the drums.”

Levin has been called upon to improvise in such twentieth-century music as Edison Denisov’s Oda for clarinet, percussion and piano — in which, at a certain point in the score, the Russian composer dropped standard musical notation for geometrical shapes. Levin says, “How do you play a rectangle, triangle and square? He was basically saying, ‘Wing it.’ He wanted to elicit the unexpected. Later, though, he wrote all that out; evidently, he wasn’t persuaded by the creative qualities of his performers.”

Levin laments the practice of “teachers drumming risk-taking out of students.” But there are classical survivors he admires, particularly British organist-pianist Wayne Marshall, who has unusual improv fluency in both the classical organ tradition and a vintage jazz-pop style.

Then there is Venezuelan-born American resident Gabriela Montero, forty, who has recorded three discs’ worth of spontaneous fantasias on Baroque and Romantic repertoire (EMI). Moreover, she reserves the second half of her live recitals for improvising on themes suggested by the audience — a crowd-pleasing trick that also kick-started Levin’s improvising career twenty-three years ago.
“Unlike me, Gabriela isn’t a stylistic purist — she will take a Mozart tune and turn it into salsa, a tango or whatever,” Levin says. “More power to her.”

A Personal Connection
Montero says that one teacher she had for ten years disapproved, admonishing her thusly: “Improvisation has no worth; don’t embarrass yourself with it.”

It was this sort of stifling that caused Montero to quit music several times. She says, “I was born to be a pianist, but I wasn’t fully engaged in music until into my thirties. I even thought at one point of dropping music to become a psychologist. It was finally giving rein to my improvising that allowed me to truly live music.”
Devoting the second half of her recitals to improvisations on themes from the audience has proved a big hit. She says, “People sing out everything from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and football anthems to a theme from The Rite of Spring or a Beatles song. Or they play me ringtones. I find that people love it more than anything else. It becomes a personal, interactive thing with listeners, and audiences today want that sort of connection.”

Montero never studied composition or much theory, and says her improvisations “have nothing to do with thinking. I don’t guide it. I allow myself to be taken.”

When Montero plays a Beethoven sonata or one of Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux, she plays it “one hundred percent by the book,” she adds. “But I think improvising can actually heighten a performer’s sense of empathy, so that when you play Beethoven and Rachmaninoff, you feel closer to their intentions.”

Marc-AndrĂ© Hamelin shares Montero’s appreciation for improvisation, although he is a very different sort of pianist. Only forty-eight, Hamelin’s vast Hyperion discography is already one of the treasure troves of recorded history. It includes great Haydn, Chopin and Liszt, but is especially valuable for peerless takes on rarities by Godowsky, Medtner and such obscure keyboard mystics as Alkan and Sorabji. Carrying on the composer-pianist tradition, Hamelin has also written a set of piano etudes. But he only improvises in private. “I don’t improvise in public because I don’t have the experience it takes to be good at it,” Hamelin says. “But I believe improvising, even in private, is a wonderful way to commune with one’s instrument and get in touch with your creativity.”

Although celebrated for his ability to play seemingly unplayable scores, Hamelin shares Levin’s disenchantment with the fact that “schools tend to cultivate the athleticizing of performance over fostering invention.” Moreover, he adds, “the obsession with the text can put a stranglehold on the ability of a musician to feel free.”