Let’s Improve Our Fiddle Improv
Cracker Jazz or Hillbilly Jazz is fiddle based music that expresses the improvised line in fiddle style. The comparison to bluegrass is obvious. In bluegrass each instrument is allowed only limited scope for improv, usually eight bars, sometimes equal to the length of a fiddle tune.
Fiddle Improv for Listening
What was formerly dance music becomes listening music in bluegrass. Improv is also listening music, even though derived from dance music, like jazz was derived from swing and blues.
In songs, the lead instrument gets a chorus. In jazz the lead gets the whole song, and often more than one time through the song’s structure. That means playing all the number of bars in the song and the progression of the chords.
Improv tradition allows more than one time through the tune in Texas, or contest style fiddling also. Fiddlers work out variations on traditional tunes, mostly dance tunes, that extend the 16 bars to many repetitions.
Cracker Jazz and Fiddle Improv
If you subtract Vassar from Cracker Jazz you don’t have much left. Without Vassar, it doesn’t really have any substance. Vassar’s genius shows as an improviser. His sound was unique and his endless licks and fills were always musical and interesting.
He is the benchmark that other fiddlers can compare themselves to. Maybe we don’t sound like him, and our repertory of licks and fills is different, or unique sound is not the same. The question is do we maintain variety and create musical interest the fourth and fifth time through the musical structure, or do we run out of ideas and steam?
Fiddle tunes are an obvious source of inspiration for the improv possibilities in Cracker Jazz. They can be traditional or contemporary. The structure they provide is logical and familiar.
Songs are a traditional source for improv in mainstream jazz. So are composed pieces dedicated as jazz tunes.
One of the strongest elements in the development of jazz, and other pop styles, is blues. Its influence is noted in bluegrass, too. In the classic Hillbilly Jazz album we find blues songs. Vassar’s last major album is a collection of blues numbers, Living the Blues.
Improv for the Here and Now
Improvised music, ideally, fits the place, time and occasion of its performance. Recorded improvised music can be great. (I think of the album, Old and in the Way.) But it can’t be as great as it was the moment it was created.
That’s the special nature of improvised music. Both the audience and the performers know it’s going to be what it is. But, they don’t know exactly what is going to happen. It’s a mystery to be unveiled. And the audience is present at the unveiling. It truly is a special moment of performance.
Kenny Werner wrote that an audience gets turned on by a performer who can really open up in an improvised situation. Everybody knows there is a risk and an opportunity. The risk is an out of place note, called a clam by players. The opportunity is a transcendent musical expression.
It may be that I’ve experienced this with audiences I’ve played for. There is the possibility of a psychic bond taking place between the performer and the audience that helps the creative flow and sometimes even lifts the performer beyond their usual capacity.
Improv in Music Practicing
Those were the special moments in my experience as an improviser. When I practice at home, sometimes I will specifically practice improv. It is not thrilling, but is is interesting.
This is a situation that complies with Daniel Coyle’s description of the sweet spot in practicing. That’s a place between playing something down with almost no error, compared to struggling through with clams galore. The sweet spot means a few flubs, but not many.
In practicing improv you may or may not stop to work out what you were attempting to do. Sometimes we just practice hanging in there despite difficulties and disappointments. Other times we get on the trail of a new lick and track it down to make it part of our repertory of licks.
Even fiddlers who would not be described as improvisers change their fingering patterns from one time to another. This change is even done on the fly without premeditation. They are not called improvisers, but they are improvising.
I cannot think of a single fiddle tradition for which this is not true. Even old time fiddle has little variations that happen as the tune is played many times for dancers. And dancers do not really want to hear major changes going along with their dancing. It isn’t appropriate for them.
That’s one more example of why improv is a listeners musical art form.