Thoughts on jazz improvisation

The importance of the bassist

Juan Moreno
6 min readSep 21, 2020
Photo by Miti on Unsplash

Every Saturday night I sit in front of my screen with a board of cheese, a glass of red and my best headphones, to virtually tune into the various venues that are streaming live jazz these days. Smalls & Mezzrow, Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, Parker Jazz Club… are offering live performances over the Internet, accepting donations from listeners as a means to pay royalties to their musicians and try to keep their business open while things get back to normal.

Jazz is one of those acquired tastes that has grown on me over the years. Living in Austin I have lots of options to watch live music, and recently got acquainted with the house band of one of the clubs nearby. Since I go there often I get to listen the same tunes from time to time. This might be boring for some people, but to me it is interesting to witness the evolution in the playing and complicity of the band throughout different shows. That is precisely one of the wonders of jazz, even if the instruments and the band might be identical, the same song never sounds the same. Actually it can be completely different depending on the mood of the musicians that night.

People who don’t like or appreciate jazz usually can tolerate the first few seconds or a minute of a standard jazz composition, to immediately disconnect in boredom when “the messy part” kicks in. At that point is like if all faded in the background as an indistinct blur of notes, becoming the companion for a walk in the mall or social gatherings. My musician friends refer to the “wallpaper band” effect as a way to describe those very well-paid wedding gigs where people are paying no attention to the music while everyone is getting tenderly drunk. It works for everybody.

The “messy part” I am referring is the improvised solos. Improv not only defines the complexity and beauty in jazz, but also makes every tune mysterious and unpredictable. This is a whole field of study and their associated techniques are more complex than someone without formal training in music can dive into: I have intuitions of what is going on and can identify patterns and tricks, but one doesn’t need to be an expert to resonate with it at an emotional level. And I love that about jazz.

“You’ve got to find some way of saying it without saying it.” — Duke Ellington

To give an example, I have linked below a fragment of a very famous jazz song, played by the house band at Parker Jazz Club in Austin. They do this tune almost every Saturday, and my favorite part is the bass solo. Their bassist Ben Triesch manages to make it unique every time.

Bass is a reviled instrument because is not as high-pitched as piano or horn, or as loud as the drums. However I enjoy the bass sound because it is the chameleon of a great piece of music. When doing the job correctly all it needs to ensure is to keep the groove, but that doesn’t mean that bass cannot be exciting or wonderfully creative.

Ben Triesch performs at Parker Jazz Club last June. Credit: Kris Kimura

…Give it up for Ben indeed. I love how he gracefully lands on time for the vocalist to pick up. He is dancing around the main melody or, as Duke Ellington put it, he is finding a way to play it without actually playing it. This is the magical minute where you are sitting there with your ears wide open, and if you are attentive enough you will be taken on a ride to an uncertain destination. Ben is hinting us clues in what looks as an effortless exercise of rambling around some notes. Nothing further from the truth.

“The word ‘improvisation’ has great limitations, because when musicians are given solo responsibility they already have a suggestion of a melody written for them, and so before they begin they already know more or less what they are going to play. Anyone who plays anything worth hearing knows what he’s going to play, no matter whether prepared a day ahead or a beat ahead. It has to be with intent." — Duke Ellington.

My friend Ben Triesch holds a Masters on Jazz Performance by the Texas State University, and many years of bass playing under his belt. Here he is improvising a melody to guide the listener through an enjoyable experience. Experts call it “directed freedom” as the best improvisers don’t play random notes: they clearly know what they’re doing and where they are going with the song.

Improvisation on that sense can be compared with learning a foreign language. New words, phrases, and grammar patterns enable greater communication in a new environment. As musicians learn chord shapes, different tonalities, sequences, and harmonies, they gain more flexibility and fluency in their improvisation. So the more they know, the easier their ability to find freedom within the boundaries of the song structure.

“First you learn the instrument, then you learn the music, then you forget all that shit and just play.” — Charlie Parker.

But none of this matter without emotion. As I mentioned I don’t know the first thing about the theoretical concepts behind that minute of music, but still can feel transported when I hear it. And for the musician, if a nonnegotiable love for music is absent all the experience and mastery adds to nothing. You simply will not be able to reach your audience without pouring your soul in the instrument and giving it your best.

This is brutally obvious when improvising. Professional musicians may disagree with me, but even sitting at home watching through the livestream I feel way more connected with the band when I sense they are enjoying themselves. And this is especially true when improvising, where there is no space for cheating.

Back to Ben. I’d like you to listen what he did a couple of months later when executing his solo for same tune. As part of the rhythm section he is usually having to hold the fort for the quartet, so others can go in tangents and melodic adventures. Probably there were different muses floating around that night. But when he is given the space, this time around he pulls a different bag of tricks from his vast vocabulary.

Ben Triesch performs at Parker Jazz Club last September. Credit: Kris Kimura

Those last five notes should help you to identify the tune. If they didn’t, no worries, I will reveal it in just a minute. I personally can’t decide which one I prefer, they are two different approaches: this one generated on me a bigger expectation on knowing what was coming around the corner, as he delightfully played with silences and extended time like if it was an elastic band.

“You cannot step into the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.” — Heraclitus

Being the same song, both solos I have included here differ completely. In June, September, or tonight’s gig Ben will take you through different roads, but making sure you always arrive on time to your destination. Jazz is on that sense a structured chaos and it aligns with the harmony of The Universe, and as such it stays in permanent mutation.

My apologies to Ben and Parker Jazz Club for this auditus interruptus. The jazz standard I have used is entitled “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. It was written in 1930 and Nina Simone’s recorded the best-known version in 1957. She executes there a beautiful piano solo as well, pouring every drop of her tormented self… but that’s a story for some other time.

“My Baby Just Cares For Me” (46'08") — Kenny Williams and the Ryan Davis Trio (Ryan Davis on piano, Ben Triesch on bass and Mike Koenning on drums) perform live at Parker Jazz Club. Credit: Kris Kimura

If you are in Central Standard Time (UTC -6) timezone, you can enjoy live jazz performances every Friday and Saturday at Parker Jazz Club. To keep jazz alive and thriving in Austin, Texas Jazz Society and Parker Jazz Club are committed to providing an avenue for jazz musicians to earn working wages while sharing their art. Learn more or donate now.



Juan Moreno

Nomad. Addicted to jazz, books and coffee. The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent the position of my employer.