The fourth annual International Society of Improvised Music Festival/Conference takes place in early December this year, and I’ve just made plans to go. By the end of the third day, or maybe the first, I expect that my head will be spinning like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist,” except in a good way.
Quoting The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, improvisation is “the spontaneous creation of music as it is performed. It may involve the immediate composition of an entire work by its performers, or the elaboration or other variation of an existing framework, or anything in between.” (The New Grove goes on for nine more pages; we’ll stop here.)
Improvisation keeps things interesting for the players and the listeners. On Wednesday night at the Dakota, during the final set of a three-day, five-show run, Dave Brubeck played “Take Five,” which he probably plays at every show and will continue to play for the rest of his life. It’s Brubeck’s greatest hit; people love it and expect it.
But what started out as the tune everyone knows quickly changed into something none of us had ever heard before because Brubeck and his quartet improvised. “Take Five” was in there somewhere — you could hear it in occasional flourishes from Brubeck’s piano, in the plucked notes from Michael Moore’s bass, in Bobby Militello’s saxophone, and all over Randy Jones’ lengthy drum solo — but it was fresh and new.
Improvisation within a familiar melody is one thing; “the immediate composition of an entire work by its performers” is another. It can seem like a lot of noise, random and unstructured and frustrating. I’ve heard many people say, “I don’t understand it!” Join the crowd. I don’t understand it either. But I like it. Improvised music can be intensely creative and full of surprises. You don’t have to know anything about what you’re hearing. Just bring your ears and an open mind.
One of the Twin Cities’ leading improvisers, multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine calls improvised music “deep listening.” The musicians aren’t making things up out of thin air and going their merry way. They’re listening — hard — to each other, responding to each other, leading each other, making musical suggestions, drawing from a shared vocabulary. Often, what musicians do depends on how the audience responds. So you may not realize it, but you’re part of the performance.
Fine leads this week’s picks.
Sunday: Trio Raro. Its name is a play on words, referencing both the music they make and the infrequency with which they perform (for geographical reasons). Milo Fine plays clarinet, piano, drums, and chimes; on Sunday he’ll play piano. Born in Argentina, Andrew Raffo Dewar is a composer, improviser and woodwind instrumentalist who teaches at the University of Alabama; he’ll play soprano saxophone and B-flat clarinet. Percussionist, cellist, violinist, soprano saxophonist and St. Paul resident Davu Seru will be on the drum set. All three have lengthy improvised music/free jazz resumes you can check out on their websites. 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8, Studio Z, 275 E. Fourth St. (Northwestern Building), St. Paul ($5).
Tuesday and Wednesday: Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. The Tijuana Brass. “A Taste of Honey.” “Whipped Cream & Other Delights.” Co-founder of A&M Records (the Police, the Carpenters, Carole King, Janet Jackson). Co-producer of smash hit Broadway shows. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Eight-time Grammy winner. 72 million records sold. Herb Alpert is A Very Big Deal. The trumpeter/bandleader and his wife, Lani Hall, are playing a series of club dates in support of their new CD, “Anything Goes.” They’ll spend two nights at the Dakota. Here’s a video from last year. 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 10-11, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, ($79/$55).
Thursday: Turtle Island String Quartet. The Grammy-winning classical crossover group — violinists David Balakrishnan and Mads Tolling, violist Jeremy Kittel, cellist Mark Summer — has recently been exploring the music of John Coltrane. They played from their CD “A Love Supreme: The Legacy of John Coltrane” in November 2007 at the Fitzgerald, where they shared a bill with Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker and author of the bestselling book “The Rest Is Noise.” I was there and enjoyed it very much. Improvisation is integral to their music. 7 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall ($40/$25).