What Is Collective Improvisation?

Written by on September 28, 2015

Evan Christopher
(Evan Christopher, Photo: Eric Hartman)

If you’ve listened to very early recordings of Jazz (for example, the first instances of recorded Jazz, played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band), you’ll notice something unusual: the solo is missing. The solo – an artist stepping to the front to improvise on the melody and chord changes while backed by the rest of the band – is such a staple of Jazz that it’s very odd not to hear it in these first recordings.

What you hear instead is a different model of performance, called Collective Improvisation. Rather than one artist stepping forward to solo, the band members all engage in some improvisation and embellishment within their instrument’s respective roles. It can be thrilling to hear, but it can also be confusing to follow who does what.

In this Jazz Academy video, clarinet master Evan Christopher–joined by a frontline of Jon-Erik Kellso and Vincent Gardner, and backed by pianist Eli Yamin–breaks down the instruments’ jobs in Collective Improvisation:

Check it out, then start to listen to the early Jazz recordings! You’ll hear lots of Collective Improvisation, and you’ll also hear the dawn of the solo. For more on that, check out this lesson with Phil Schaap.