By definition, improvisational jazz music thrives on an organic form of expression. Evolving (or devolving) from moment to moment, it flows according to the moods and tendencies of a few musicians on stage. A collective beat emerges from one note, and then it is destroyed. Instruments act like voices; they add, detract, contradict, interject, compliment and complement. Perhaps a vocalist walks out a bass line instead of a bassist, or the drummer utters an unexpected growl. Piano players strike the keys or reach inside to thrum the chords themselves. Every sound and pattern seems familiar yet different, and each time signature is standard yet totally unique.
So, what is the point of reading a jazz review if the music it reviews is designed to be experienced as it is played? The point is simple: any time that you see Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Bobby McFerrin set to play the quaint little theater in your part of the world, grab some tickets by whatever means are available-scrounge for cash, borrow (read: take) money from your roommate, or knock an old lady down in front of the theater and grab her ticket if necessary. If you manage to see that trio play a show like the show they played at the Granada last Tuesday night, the ends will unequivocally justify the means.
Picture the simple stage: upon the parquet flooring sat only a baby grand piano and a tricked-out drum kit. They were played by Chick Corea and John DeJohnette, respectively. The third instrument, Bobby McFerrin himself, walked on stage and took up a position between the two. After Corea and DeJohnette took their seats, McFerrin grabbed a microphone, tapped rhythmically on his chest, and crooned a soothing doo-wop beat. They started off slowly with riffs similar to the quintessential, early 50s idea of jazz, everything made up of quiet key tonalities and soft cymbals. McFerrin would begin a beat, and DeJohnette might pick it up on the kick drum before Corea threw in a few disturbingly low, dissonant notes to even out the measure. Their sound wasn’t defined so much by who was actually making the sound as it was defined by which instrument was suddenly silenced, amplifying the other performers and their instruments through its sonic absence.
Overall, McFerrin’s astoundingly amorphous and powerful vocal range determined where the music was heading next. One moment, he would extend a few beautiful notes into long chants, almost like African folk music. Then, he would segue into strange, high-pitched sounds directed at Corea, who tried to keep up with these manic pleadings by raking his fingers across the keys of the piano to produce a flurry of high notes. McFerrin even switched into different moods, as if he were an actor switching characters. At one point, he sang and spat like a scratchy-voiced blues singer before transitioning to an Anglo drill sergeant that barked commands as DeJohnette tapped along at a regimented marching pace. They carried on with whimsical sound effects reminiscent of old Looney Tunes cartoons, experimented with spoken word, and even crowded around the piano to simultaneously slap at its sides and pull at its strings. Again, their creativity evoked a sort of contradiction: it seemed too natural to be improvised and too random to be rehearsed.
All three men did a remarkable job of getting the audience to participate in their musical explorations. McFerrin lead the crowd through several vocal exercises that usually lead to a whole theater of elderly Santa Barbarians howling like dogs or crying with laughter. By its end, the trio’s amazing performance had the audience reverberate with every note they produced, and that is the essence of improvisation.