This past Wednesday, I did something I was always interested in trying but never had the opportunity to do before. After hearing Keith Jarrett's many improvised performances from The Köln Concert to more recent records like Creation, I had always wanted to perform an entire set in a similar fashion. No sheet music, no lead sheets, no traditional preparations. You go to the venue and make up everything as you play it, rolling with any "mistakes" made and creating entirely new, original music on the spot that can only live in that one point in time, never to be played the same way again.
A couple weeks ago, I put my name in to volunteer at a local senior living center as an entertainer. I didn't hear back from them at all after a week and assumed they didn't have time, had found someone before I got my message in, or they just weren't interested. Well, on Monday afternoon, they get back to me about performing just two days later on Wednesday for 90-minutes at noon. I had no time to prepare a full set list as I wasn't expecting to hear back from them, or to have the gig so quickly (had I been given at least four days notice, then yes, I could have run through a couple set lists and had a ton of prepared music with improvised solos ready to go). I decided that this was the opportunity I had been looking for to try performing a fully improvised concert.
It was a private setting, so it was a safe place to experiment with this sort of thing versus being on stage and having the attention fully on me, and they provided a baby grand piano so that saved me a lot of aggravation with carting around my Nord and a sound system for it. As soon as I sat down at the keys, I was glad this was the direction I had chosen to go in; this piano was in rough shape. Many of they keys were sagging and either didn't produce any sounds, or required heavy accenting for the faintest of tones. They were also slow to return to the attack position which meant repeating a note in succession was extremely difficult to do accurately with such loose action. Almost all of sagging/non-working keys were in the (out of tune) upper register, forcing me to rely more on the tenor and alto register of the piano as the keys worked better and were in tune there. The bass end was also poor in response and it wasn't uncommon for me to strike a key and get nothing out of it without a few repeated hits to get the hammer working right, the sound was also rather tinny in this register. The sustain pedal didn't work right and often got stuck in the downwards position, which required me to use my foot to push it upwards to get the damper back down, and the sostenuto pedal didn't work at all. The soft pedal shifted the keyboard as it should, but the difference in tone was almost unnoticeable. Using the soft pedal also resulted in many upper register keys failing completely and getting stuck in their downwards position, making them completely unplayable.
I started off by playing the introduction to Philip Glass' Metamorphosis to get a feel for the instrument and quickly wound up improvising over the ostinato in the left hand, and gradually moved on to other themes over ii-V progressions and some familiar changes like the chords to "Blue Bossa" and "Maiden Voyage". I played about 30 minutes with no interruptions before ending my little medley and starting a new improvisation, the successors being shorter and changing styles from a ballad feel over a ii-I vamp to a gospel/rock fusion sort of sound over the same chords before moving along the progressions and into new keys.
The gig actually flew by and it went over incredibly well. I've been dealing with a lot of personal issues lately and this helped me express them in ways that I couldn't do in any other way and the residents at the home enjoyed the performance (and were able to get their blood pressure checked, which is why I played the extra half hour, it was a ploy by the facility to get the residents in one location so they could take and treat them as many were forgetting or ignoring their meds).
Had I prepared a traditional set list ahead of time, many of the pieces wouldn't have come out at all as the notes required the use of the dead keys or pedals that didn't work, which would have made them sound incomplete or worse, poorly played. This is definitely something I want to do more of in the future (with better instruments of course!) but not something I would recommend anyone do without a lot of practice in improvising, especially in two hands. Just playing chords in your left hand and soloing over them is fine in a band, but on your own, in a fully improvised concert, you need to have grooves, countermelody and much more support coming from the left side than you would normally need. It's okay to start a set like this using a simpler approach like that, and it lets you get a feel for the instrument so you can settle into it, but as the set moves on, you need to keep it interesting and moving in ways that speak to you and the audience, you can't bore them, especially over extended vamps!
This was one of my first major solo performances in nearly five years (have been doing a ton of band work in the last half decade) and it feels good to get out there on my own again, but I'm just hoping that next time I have more than 36 hours to get ready!