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A Closer Look: "Room to Improv"

2019 December 237 min read

Heading into the new decade, it's looking like my October 2019 track Room to Improv, at 309 plays, has become the most-played song on my SoundCloud. I'm not exactly sure why; I felt, when uploading it, that it might be too experimental, and not that popular beyond a niche audience, although I suppose 300 listeners could still qualify as "niche" in the grand scheme of things. All I can think of is that people were drawn in by the memey thumbnail image (which was painstakingly hand-crafted using an online generator), and that I should introduce more clickbait like that into my future content. In any case, I thought it would be a good one to talk about here in a bit more depth - so let's do it!

First, the backstory behind the opening theme. As I mentioned in the original song notes, this theme was - funnily enough - one of my few musical themes that didn't come from improvising; it came to me in a dream on July 6 of this year. In the dream, I was watching a viral video of a jazz combo with a baby doing scat singing in a really low voice; his mouth was edited and synched up to a vocal track to make it look like he was the one singing. I wrote the tune down when I woke up, in GarageBand, where in place of the "zoobidy-boop" vocalizations I used a saxophone, with a typical piano/bass backing.

But after introducing those last 8 bars of development, I quickly realized that I was not gonna be able to sustain and/or develop the energy and mood of this passage for the entirety of a two-to-three-minute electronic track - at least, not a typical one. So that was where the track stood, for over three months, sitting among many others in my scrap heap of ideas that didn't go anywhere.

It was while I was going through this scrap heap on October 11 that I came up with the idea for what this track would become. It reminded me so much of just the casual jazz improv scene, and my days of performing in the high school jazz combo, that I decided to run with it and try to capture that feeling in the track itself. The idea, then, was to emulate the live experience of a jazz combo jamming together for the first time. The opening standard can be something they've practiced ahead of time, but in the interstitial solo sections they'll just be making stuff up and riffing off of each other, goofing around in the process in much the same way as I might do in jam sessions with other improvisers.

I've always felt that the "language of improv" lends itself to a certain type of humour that's only really accessible to people who "speak" it, or are at least very attentive listeners - and that this is one of the great things about meeting and jamming with new musicians. When you play music, you're in a state of constantly sending and receiving signals, and just like in regular communication, sometimes these signals can be misinterpreted in funny ways, or have certain humorous connotations, or mislead someone - intentionally or unintentionally - in a way that not everyone will recognize, but those who do will laugh at it. And that feeling of connecting with someone along those wavelengths is one of the things that make music so magical for me.

The elephant in the room, of course, is when the saxophonist quietly plays the lick at 2:07 in Room to Improv. This wasn't very subtle, obviously, and I know that some people will see this insertion of "the most famous jazz cliché ever" as a hack joke - and in part, I guess that was the idea - but at this point I felt that the track was just crying out for it. Particularly, my decision to put it two-thirds of the way through the piece, during an awkward silence, and directly after the only unresolved minor chord (E minor), was all calculated.

Less obvious, probably, are the reasons for that awkward silence and the others throughout the solo parts of the track. My intent was that these moments should happen for any one of the following reasons:

  1. a miscommunication between the soloists;
  2. a soloist gets carried away doing a fancy chord progression and doesn't know how to end it;
  3. a soloist becomes self-conscious and can't commit to their predictable riff.

Now that I list them out like this, you can probably go through and sort each of those pauses into one of these categories - but in practice, it was pretty hard to pull off any of these convincingly, especially the first one. I tried that one at 0:41, for example, where the pianist gets ready to land on D for the 8th bar of their solo, but then realizes that the solo sections should be more than 8 bars. The three other instruments all pick up on this unintentional signal and prepare to launch back into the opening theme, before realizing that the pianist didn't play their last chord. You can interpret the little half-hearted E in the saxophone as the player exhaling from laughter, if that suits your fancy.

The saxophonist then takes up the solo, doing pretty much a straight mimic of the piano solo, but perhaps mockingly, continuing the pianist's final 2-5-1 chord progression chain for far longer than they're supposed to. The pianist, just as it seems like they've caught on enough to provide backup chords, has to stop playing and sigh in frustration. Eventually everyone, including the bassist, has to accept that we've now gone halfway around the circle of fifths and will have to circle back from C#.

Before that happens, the piano takes over again with a descent full of identical 9sus4 chords in the left hand (which regular listeners of my piano music will now be intimately familiar with). The saxophone follows, mimicking the piano once again at the start before desperately trying to sequence down again with some more 2-5-1s. Having successfully made it back to D, they triumphantly begin the run-up to the main theme before realizing that no one else is buying it. But with no better options now, the pianist soon follows suit, and we get our first reprise.

For the next solo, the players do a similar transition to B minor, with triplets in the saxophone for some added flavour. The pianist is a bit uncertain in the middle, but quickly catches on enough to keep providing backing chords. In fact, they're all ready to transition into their solo on bar 8, but the saxophonist is still going! This causes another short hiccup before the pianist is able to take their turn, mimicking the saxophonist this time and adding their own tinkly riff sequence but - just as the sax player did before - sequencing it for too long. The sax player responds flippantly by playing the lick, and the drummer finally gives up and stops the beat for a second.

It's at this point that we hear what might charitably be called the "B theme" of the piece, and the reason for the thumbnail image. The guy in the image is Daniel Thrasher, taken from a YouTube video of his called "when you learn a riff and put it in everything", in which a pianist learns a riff and can't resist the urge to end every song with it. Right now, I am that character but with the riff that starts at 2:11 in Room to Improv - not only is it always on my mind when I improvise, but if I may say it's a fantastic way to pivot between all sorts of tonics and keys. (Incidentally, it's from a short assignment I did for a composition course in 2017.)

This is demonstrated in the track, as the riff is played three times in succession, resolving in three different keys (G#, C#, and D). In the end, while the soloists are preoccupied with their cool seven chords, it's the bassist who takes charge and saves the day by bringing things back to D in preparation for the final reprise. I didn't give them a solo - you're welcome - but I thought they should get their chance to shine in some way.

After that, it's smooth sailing: they execute the ending tags and slowdown perfectly - almost too perfectly, one might say - and thus show their newfound chemistry that they have built throughout this whole team-building exercise, or whatever.

Also the name of the track is a pun, room to improv, like improve, but like the room is the space between the hook sections, get it hahaha

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