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Chops: Lucian Ban on Solo Improvisation

When going it alone, there’s no real difference between improvising and composing

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Lucian Ban (photo: Elmar Lemes)
Lucian Ban (photo: Elmar Lemes)

Creating a program of solo piano music is the ultimate challenge for any improvising pianist. The music on my latest album, Ways of Disappearing (Sunnyside), is really improvised—I just started playing—but the end result is not a stream-of-consciousness performance, nor does it come out of nothing. It comes from years of applying a certain approach to the artistic practice. You have to be very focused, get close to every detail, to see, as the great modern classical composer Paul Hindemith said, the whole piece in a flash. 

Playing solo is unique because you have to contend with everything at once: improvisation and composition, form and pacing, duration and rhythm, interacting with the audience (if live) or the empty space (if in a studio), emotion vs. structure, and more. Then there’s the history of the instrument and that of all the great pianists that walked the earth before you. You have this extraordinary tradition, and one always positions himself or herself in regard to it. Playing standards or composed pieces isn’t the issue because of the specific approach you bring to the act of playing. But the challenges are still the same: Make something sound good, as if it were carefully thought out beforehand. And play you. It’s not easy, keeping it interesting without resorting to shtick, to what works. 

What is improvisation? Making music, that’s all. Craig Taborn said somewhere that when you improvise you are observing and creating at the same time, and I believe he’s right. You’re making decisions in real time in reaction to what you play. It might be something you never played before or ideas that you toyed with during practice; it might be a texture or a pure sound; it might even be a piece by another composer (as with the Annette Peacock and Carla Bley pieces on my album). The immediate question that arises is: What do you do next? The question of “what to do” informs the “how to do.”

Although most of the music on my album is improvised, it’s not what we call “free.” Each track is a defined piece and each one tries to answer a posed question, a question asked at that specific moment. These questions are always musical inquiries, but they can codify things beyond music. Like: What do you do after the first note? What is the relationship of what you’re doing to something pre-composed? How do you maintain unity throughout a performance? If you don’t maintain unity, how do you justify breaking it? How do you balance lyricism and intellect, the structural and the irrational? This is true in all jazz contexts, of course, but it gets more intense when performing solo because you have to come up with all the answers. I believe there’s no real difference between improvisation and composition, and for me, solo improvising is allowing both the question and answer to get shaped right then, in the moment.

I’ve always felt connected to a line of pianists that embraced a freer approach to the instrument, the full orchestral possibilities of the piano. And they’re all kind of mysterious. I’m thinking of people like Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Paul Bley, Abdullah Ibrahim, Andrew Hill, Keith Jarrett, Randy Weston, Ran Blake. You also have master stylists like Hank Jones, Art Tatum, Bill Evans, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Mulgrew Miller, and others who define to a certain extent the sound of jazz piano. But I was always attracted to the more radical ones, these iconoclast pianists who challenged the expected ways to play the instrument in this music. For them, whether playing solo or in a group, it’s never only about fulfilling preordained functional roles like comping; it’s about so much more. It’s almost as if they’re recreating the parameters of a given situation on the spot, bringing a beginner’s mind to the whole performance. 

My solo piano playing is also deeply informed by the various ensembles with which I’ve made music over the years. I’m talking about playing with people like Alex Harding, John Hébert, Bob Stewart, Evan Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Abraham Burton, Sam Newsome, Reggie Nicholson, Eric McPherson, Nasheet Waits, Brad Jones, Tony Malaby, Louis Sclavis, Ralph Alessi, Jorge Sylvester, John Surman, and especially Mat Maneri. These are all true virtuoso improvisers of contemporary jazz, and through them I’ve learned some invaluable lessons. They were gateways of how to function and create in a group setting, teaching indirectly about solo playing, and they made me understand the music of the masters more profoundly—understand, for example, what Roscoe Mitchell means when he talks about “irrational phrasing” or what Bley calls Ornette Coleman’s “erasure phrases.” What are these if not modalities to disrupt the expected way to play in a given context?

When talking about solo jazz piano, one also talks about the sound, or what we call the touch. Because you can, after just a few notes, identify all the great solo pianists; their touch is so unmistakably theirs. When we listen to music, we don’t listen to the complex knowledge contained in it, but we experience—and get hooked on—a sound. All the great jazz musicians have it. What is it made of? We don’t really know, because it’s not the instrument. This is what I mean when I refer to all those piano masters as mysterious. Gary Peacock once said this to Canadian journalist Greg Buium about playing with Bley: “I always experienced a … I guess I would have to call it an invitation when he’d start to play. And a lot of that had to do with the way that he’s pushing a note down on the keyboard. It’s almost like somebody walking up to a house and somebody opens the door and is asking you in.”

Solo improvising is allowing both the question and the answer to get shaped right then, in the moment.

Ways of Disappearing was recorded in the Baroque Hall in the western Transylvanian city of Timisoara, Romania, on an amazing Bösendorfer concert grand piano. The sound of the instrument and the room influenced the music. It always does. The first piece of the recording session, “The Heart of What Does Exist,” with its traces of Morton Feldman pointillism, is really me discovering the piano and the stunning acoustics of the hall. It speaks to the “jazz aesthetic”—the very first performance is the best. 

“Remorse” departs from three simple motifs in different registers and with different contours that get developed into what is ultimately an emotional statement. “Jalisco” and its smaller brother “Guerrero” deal loosely with the bebop idea of getting a line going and shifting it through various tonal centers (all imbued with a touch of blues). “From the Other Side” is really an exercise in silence and slowing down. 

Some of the things that go into my process of making music are rather abstract and come from different arts and artistic practices: for example, the extraordinary work of the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky (who once called music “the one art not connected to reality, the most immaterial—and yet by some miracle it gets through to our heart”), or of the visionary American theatre director Robert Wilson. Some of Wilson’s ideas on formalism and the extreme slowdown of movement have influenced my musical thinking. He worked with the master trumpeter Don Cherry and used Keith Jarrett solo piano music in his pieces as well. Wilson says, “Language is the barrier of the imagination.” True, and yet what interests me is how artists break the codes of language to expose different understandings. It’s the reason I feel close to the sound of Ellington, Bley, Hill, and others. 

In the end, there’s no limit to how one can express something. If structure can be learned, freedom is more of an instinct. It’s this tension between the two that makes improvised music so exciting for me, especially solo. It’s a constant voyage of discovery and in it, therefore, cannot be stillness. 

The One Inside the Many

I would posit that if all master jazz pianists are not necessarily great solo players, all great solo pianists are tremendous group players. I’m thinking of an album like Money Jungle with Ellington, Mingus, and Roach. Check how Abdullah Ibrahim plays in Ekaya groups or in his duets, or how Paul Bley plays with Sonny Rollins (1963) or Jimmy Giuffre trios (1961 and 1990) or with John Surman in their Fragments quartet (1986). It’s the same for Andrew Hill or Keith Jarrett playing in various groups.

Lucian Ban

Lucian Ban is a Romanian-born, New York-based pianist who has recorded more than 20 albums as a leader or co-leader. The artists with whom he has worked since the 1990s include Mat Maneri, John Surman, Evan Parker, Billy Hart, Ralph Alessi, Barry Altschul, Gerald Cleaver, Bob Stewart, Badal Roy, Tony Malaby, Mark Helias, Sam Newsome, Pheeroan AkLaff, Drew Gress, Brad Jones, Jen Shyu, John Hébert, Eric McPherson, and many more.