So Much Sound Is off the Ground

"Improvisation is like a conversation: you say what you know, but you don't know what you're going to say." --Marcus Roberts

A friend of mine once had a short conversation with Marcus Roberts a number of years ago about improvisation and this was the money quote. Even his remarks swing. Amazing.

I've shared this quotation with many people and thought a lot about how it pertains to writing and improvising music. It's easy to focus on the brilliance of his idea, an idea that seems obviously true as soon as you hear it.

But what if you don't know anything?

That's the reason to practice and listen and check out other musicians and go to jam sessions and buy books and talk about music. So we can learn something. So we can be inspired and create something new. So we have something to say when the time comes.

I'm starting this blog so that when you go to those jam sessions, or have a gig or sit down to write a song, you don't repeat yourself. You'll have something new to say, and the best part is, even you don't know how it's going to come out.

That's the fun of creating.


  1. Sean, I never got the first half of his remark to completely jibe with the second half. Yes, you never know just how an improv is going to work out--I'm on board with that. (Even if you were to work out a solo performance entirely in advance, your well-laid plans bump up against the moment, the place and "the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil." In the interest of music, you push things around. You adjust.) But most forms of improv are just too one-sided to call them conversation.

    So when you write, when you improv solo, with whom are you conversing? (And before you say the little voices in your head, need I remind you that those voices only talk to me.)

  2. I think maybe it could be said more accurately that improvisation is like giving an impromptu speech: you say what you know but you don't know what you're going to say.

    That neither rhymes nor swings though, does it?

    To me, the larger point is in the "what you know." It makes sense that the more you know, the bigger the pool you have to draw from to create in the moment. At least that's how it works for me.

    I heard an interview with the trumpeter Dave Douglas this morning where he address that and more importantly, how to get that all out of the way and just connect with the pure creative process.

    I'm going to do a post about that soon with some music of his. To be continued...