“In Jazz, improvisation isn’t a matter of just making any ol’ thing up. Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and vocabulary. There’s no right or wrong, just some choices that are better than others.” – Wynton Marsalis 

“Handful of Keys,” the JAS Cafe performance taking place on July 27-28 will feature two of the most talented young pianists in the jazz world today: Emmet Cohen and Christian Sands. You can expect a night of outstanding music and mind-blowing improvisation. But what exactly is Jazz improvisation?

Composed music and improvised music may seem to be opposites, but in Jazz they merge in a unique mixture. The trick to Jazz improvisation is playing music with both spontaneous creativity and intentional conviction.

A common misconception about Jazz improvisation is that it’s invented out of the air. This notion may exist because many small Jazz groups do not read music when they perform. Jazz players will choose phrases that seem to be preordained so you intuitively know where they are going, even though it’s being created at the instant you are hearing it. The musicians are actually spontaneously creating a very intricate form of theme and variation; they all know the tune and the role of their instrument. The guitar, piano, bass and drums, while all able to solo, basically provide the rhythm and harmony over which the soloist will create improvised variations. The structure is flexible so that the soloist may venture in various directions depending on the inspiration of the moment. A Jazz musician is creating spontaneous art every time he or she plays music. In fact, spontaneity has always characterized Jazz music’s finest improvisers.

But there’s more to Jazz than just improvisation. Composers such as Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus wrote occasional Jazz compositions practically devoid of improvisation. The real challenge comes when a composer integrates improvisation into a piece, merging Jazz composition and improvisation in the act of creativity. Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul or Thelonious Monk’s Straight, No Chaser are sophisticated compositions built from the improvised line.

When jazz musicians improvise they are playing notes that they “hear” (imagine” in their mind; they hear these notes just a split second before they play them, just like when you are talking and you hear the words in your head just a split second before you same them. It happens so fast and so naturally that it seems simultaneous, but in actuality, the thought occurs a microsecond before the action.

Simply put, improvisation means making it up as you go along!