Went to a jazz gig performed by a group called ‘Way Out West‘, a collective of about twenty jazz musicians who live in this part of London. Seven of them were there on the night, plus two singers out of the three who were advertised. They explained that ‘Way Out West’ accepts invitations all over the place, fielding whoever happens to be free on the night, so that the next time we heard them, the permutation might be different.
I couldn’t help envying them the flexibility. Imagine if one could confidently accept any booking for ‘the Florestan Trio‘, using any three experienced players who were free on the night! At a stroke one would be freed from the restriction of being able to perform when three particular people were available. Such a thing would never be possible in the world of classical music, alas, for the simple reason that all our music is notated in detail. We couldn’t possibly take the risk of waiting until the very evening to know who would be playing, because those people might not have seen or prepared their parts. In big orchestras there is a degree of variable membership, but the variability is agreed long in advance, and nobody performs in a professional symphony concert without prior rehearsal.
In improvised music, even if a skeleton structure is written down, most of the notes actually played are elaborated on the spot. If someone is feeling out of practice, or not particularly inspired, they can choose to play very little when their ‘solo’ comes, or elect to miss it altogether, as happened once or twice at the event I attended. If someone didn’t feel like playing fast, they didn’t. If someone felt like carving a swathe through the others with a burst of unplanned virtuosity, they did. When a couple of people felt like taking a break, they wandered offstage, leaving the others to play the next number as a smaller cohort. If the bandleader needed to tell people something, he pottered about the stage, whispering in people’s ears while the piece was in progress. During the second half, we learned that one of the advertised singers simply hadn’t turned up – no explanations given. No matter: they pulled out some new parts from the bandleader’s folder, and played on without the singer. All this seemed perfectly in keeping with the traditions of jazz, but would be impossible in classical music.
I sat there wishing that I could copy their formula and found a Classical Collective. What fun to leave more things open to the last minute! But as soon as I started thinking it through, I could see that it wasn’t going to work. There simply isn’t enough leeway in what our composers have demanded of us. Indeed, they want every note to be played as they wrote it. There’s no escape from a reciprocal commitment to specifics.