Counterpoint and improvisation


Counterpoint and Improvisation
The easy things and the hard things: Thelonious Monk. How and where to begin to explain his style, much less his relationship to counterpoint and improvisation?

I found a great interview with Simone Dinnerstein where she discusses why Bach Inventions are as wonderful as they are. So I followed up and  downloaded her recording of the Inventions and the Sinfonias.

One reason I did so was because as someone who teaches others how to play the piano, I’m always looking for new interpretations of these fundamental pieces. Another reason is counterpoint and improvisation go hand and hand. A good place to start with both is to look at and list to the music of JS Bach.

What happened exactly—what led to the download—is listened to the 1st Invention in C from her recording.Then without hesitation, I pressed the download button—instantly. I was so completely taken and relocated into a state of absorbtation while hearing that recording.

Absorbtation isn’t a word. But it should be. All it means or could mean is we’re absorbed completely and literally with no other options. Perhaps we already have a word for that, which would be enthralled Well, whatever, and in any case, that was my experience when I first heard Simone Dinnerstein play the Inventions

Counterpoint and Improvisation and Music on Demand

But there’s another part of the story that perhaps leads to absorbtation. But whether it does or it doesn’t it’s an amazing bit of trivia and sidetrack. That so-called other part of the story is the idea of music on demand.

Music on demand, the idea of it, reminds me a conversation I had in the early 1980s with an individual in management at a well-known record company—that well-known company was, actually, Columbia Records. There I was sitting and eating dinner with this individual, and a few others, somewhere on the upper East or West side of NYC. The important part of the conversation and the point about what I’m writing now was: This particular Columbia Records exec said CDs will never replace vinyl.

Well, we all know now how that story went. Even though now, there’s growing interest in vinyl recordings. And, I have to say, having just heard Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue on vinyl, I can see, or, rather I can hear, why vinyl has growing appeal.

Analogue, rather than digital sound is just a different beast. Some are more sensitive to it than others and some prefer it over digital sound. The thought of going back to a collection of thousands of vinyl recordings is frightening but alluring …

But, returning to that comment from the Columbia Records guy, in tone or retort, Alex Lewyt is said to have said 30 years prior that:

Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years.

In other words, predicting the future, as Niels Bohr has already noted, is notoriously, fiendishly, and really totally impossible! The only ones rash enough to try are politicians as they run for office? Maybe that’s not even true.

Whatever, enough in the way of preliminaries. Simone Dinnerstein’s recordings of Bach’ Inventions put me into a state of absorbtation. I was enthralled.

Counterpoint and Improvisation: Bach and Jazz

As an improvising pianist and as a teacher of improvisation I recommend the Inventions and Sinfonias to all of my students. They’re fabulous lessons in how right and left hands can be equal partners at the keyboard.

That’s an essential insight for jazz pianists for whom the goal at first can seem to be “play lines in the right hand and chords in the left.” Of course many jazz pianists quickly move past that initial goal.

But the important point is Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias demonstrate equality between the hands–how to do it and how to acquire it. They’re among studies that move us past the idea that the left hand exists only to accompany the right hand.

However, there’s something else inherent in the Inventions and Sinfonias that’s equally important. That something else is Bach wrote them not just as exercises for aspiring keyboardists. In fact, he also wrote them as examples, or lessons if you will, in how to compose for two voices, as in the Inventions, or three voices, as in the Sinfonias.

Students and, dare I say it, professionals, often totally overlook that aspect of the Inventions and Sinfonias. That’s a larger, longer, bigger issue.

But I think it comes down something that was brewing in the mid-to-late 19t century and which became reality in the 20th century. The reality was and is: performance practice in western european musical styles eventually placed more focus on reading and interpretation of scores than on improvising and extemporising.

How and why that happened is a much longer story. I’s definitely not a story with a simple beginnings and underpinnings. More than likely, it’s not a story that’s ended either. It’s also not the story I’m trying to tell in this blog post, although it’s true I’ve reached the point where perhaps I should?

Counterpoint and Improvisation: What was Bach Thinking About?

Meanwhile, I’ve since read Bach and the Patterns of Invention by Laurence Dreyfus. It’s not a new book published as it was in 1997. It’s a book about the idea of “invention” and what that meant to Bach. Charles Rosen wrote a lengthy review of it in Oct. of that year in the New York Review of Books.

Well, Charles Rosen’s piece is called a “review” and it’s in the New York Review of Books. But it reads like an essay by Charles Rosen that happens to mention the book it’s reviewing. But that’s not criticism ofCharles Rosen who is or actually, was an extremely insightful critic in addition to being a great pianist.

It’s as good an insight as I’ve seen into what Bach might have been seeking to accomplish through the idea of invention. That’s because in his day, the idea of invention had a very specific meaning. It was tied to rhetoric. In that sense, it was maybe a step away from the actual practices and processes of improvisation.

Fred Hersch as Innovator

Meanwhile, in jazz Fred Hersch is considered to be the pianist who overtly brings counterpoint into improvisation—in jazz. Yet, a few years ago, The Guardian was quick to review Floating—that speed in this case is a good thing!—and the recording was FH’s latest release at the time.

However, I couldn’t disagree more with the overall conclusion of the review: “masterly if traditional piano jazz.” Yes it’s true FH works in the zone of tradition–his style is and has been, always, tonal and melodic. Having said that, where tonality begins and where it ends is an open question. So declaring him to be a tonal improviser may not be entirely accurate.

Returning to the review in the Guardian “masterly if traditional piano jazz” completely misses the mark. It speaks to the idea of a great pianist who’s doing something all previous practitioners of the art have already done or accomplished.

Let’s cut to the quick. In so doing, let’s decry the quality of much so-called critical writing in major newspapers and media outlets. Yet, isn’t it wrong to group all journalists and writers in major media outlets? Yes, of course it is! It’s hyperbole!.For sure, there are some fabulously insightful critics writing wonderfully insightful pieces.

However, my point of disagreement with this one particular review, and then my projection from this one review to the larger sea of reviews is: FH has always had a deep, overt sense of counterpoint as a trademark part of his style. Which is to say FH isn’t just a great jazz pianist. Rather, he’s an innovator. He’s expanded the scope of jazz piano by bringing contrapuntal improvisation at the piano into the mainstream of jazz.

In other words, the scope of his music goes way beyond typical notions of style and accomplishment. To refer to his playing as masterly if traditional is not all that far removed from saying JS Bach wrote counterpoint in the traditional style, To which we might retort, he did, did he?

Maybe one thing to learn from a glib characterisation of FH’s playing is musicians who work within tonal parameters in the current time of 21st century now are often not referred to as innovators. That itself makes Fred’s accomplishments all the more unique and vital.

I also shows how easily innovation of any kind slips under the radar. Which of course is what happened to JS Bach’s music. It was only and literally a century later when composers in the 19th century began to promote the music Bach had written a hundred years earlier.

None of this is meant to say or compare or imply that we should now compare and consider the music FH and JSB except to learn from either or both of them. But, I do mean to say exactly that innovation often hides in plain sight. It’s easy for any of to miss it. Perhaps it’s also something for which we should look?

Or maybe and simply what I’m getting to is whether phrases like masterly if traditional have meaning or utility. Who are the musicians who fall into that category? For sure, JS Bach was thought of and perhaps is still thought of as a composer of music that’s both masterly and traditional. Are those phrases that actually describe his music?

A Generation of Jazz Pianists Influenced by Fred Hersch

These days Vadim Neselovskyi is among the pianists taking Fred’s ideas in different directions.

A student and friend said to me not long ago that VN should be in Carnegie Hall! Which speaks exactly and directly to what he brings to the piano. Jazz cognoscenti very likely already know who he is, of course, and what’s he doing and been doing. That’s because, among other things, Fred Hersch produced a recording VN released on Sunnyside Records.

What Else?

If you’d like to say something about counterpoint and jazz pianists and all related things don’t hesitate to leave a comment. Your thoughts and ideas are welcome. Of course, I review all comments to exclude out the spambots. Other than that if you send a comment I’ll post it.

Just to mention, this post consists in large part of something I wrote several years ago still on the web at That something from several years ago is part of a blogI was writing at the time.

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