Jazz Improvisation 9: Time and Space

‘Notes are what happens when silence is broken.’

‘Notes are the painting, silence the frame.’

‘When you play silence, it fits perfectly.’

Yeah, they are all valid, and there are many more.  Silence is the equal partner to sound.  Without it, notes make little sense.  The meaning of a phrase is entirely dependent on where the silences are located.  It’s all about timing.  Just ask a stand up comic.

The art and craft of the comic is the ability to distill of all of the principles of storytelling into the 100 proof rum of a great bit and the key to that skill is timing.  ‘Set it up and knock it down pal, that’s what you have to do.’  Easy to say, but harder to accomplish, particularly if you are new to improvisation.

Timing comes from good instinct, but that instinct is learned.  It is acquired naturally from experience.  The ballpark where we learn to play with timing is life itself and, in particular, how we play with language in life.  (There it is again – language.)

We have talked a lot about storytelling, phrasing, dynamics and the like, but in the end it is the delivery that makes or breaks a solo.  And good delivery is entirely dependent on timing.  And timing is entirely dependent on how your phrases are spaced; in other words, where you choose to place the silences.

One of the big mistakes beginning improvisers make is rushing.  I am not talking about rushing the time, which is an entirely different problem, but rushing with what they have to say.  You can sacrifice the meaning in a phrase if you don’t frame it with the silence it needs.  That silence may be long, or so short it is barely noticeable, but it is vital to the intent of the phrase.

This is true regardless of tempo and style.  When Charlie Parker stunned everyone in the day with his unbelievable chops and his continuous streams of perfectly tailored phrases, it was easy to conclude that he was just filling up all the available space with notes.  But listen closely.  The placement of the notes is exquisite.  There is no sense of crowding, no sense of frantically piling one idea on top of another; it is as smooth as silk because of one thing – timing.

So how do we go about developing better sense of timing and delivery?  Next up: TIME AND SPACE II