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REPORT: 35th Conference of the Radio Jazz Research Group, Salzburg. – " Improvisation: New Perspectives

Prof Raymond MacDonald presenting in Salzburg
iPhone snap by Sebastian Scotney

Sebastian writes:

The conferences of the Radio Jazz Research group provide a useful point of confluence between people promoting and presenting jazz – such as jazz broadcasters, festival and concert promoters – and current academic research. And this 35th session in Salzburg in October 2018 gave those of us outside the academic world a useful window into it.

The format of the gathering is that papers are given based around a specific topic, allowing light to be shed on the subject from some very different perspectives. Most of the talks are in German, but the spirit is definitely one in which complementarity and breadth of vision are welcomed, and the sessions are open to speakers who work in English (this time two of the papers).

The context is normally around a festival in the German-speaking world, so the discussions around the seminar are often illustrated and enlivened by examples from the performances and the musicians at the festival.

This session was held concurrently with Salzburg’s Jazz & the City Festival and focused on work around “Improvisation – New Perspectives”. This festival has as part of its way of working the presentation of artists in both established bands and in blind date contexts, where musicians are free to invite people they have been curious to work with, so the background was a fruitful one.


Of the papers given, there was one which dominated the discussion because the sheer scale of the empirical research and data-mining has been so vast and so intensive. The data are indeed impressive. A group of researchers based in Weimar has worked since 2012 on the Weimar Jazz Database. Transcriptions and recordings of a total of 456 jazz solos have been fed into the database. They range from 1925 to a Chris Potter solo from 2009.

A link to their work is HERE

What comes up when they interrogate the data is mind-boggling. In this slide Klaus Frieler was able to demonstrate across the instrumentalists whose solos they have sampled a “swing ratio” ie on average the extent to which individual players diverge from straight quavers (straight eighths):

Swing ratio slide as presented by Dr Klaus Frieler
iPhone snap by Sebastian Scotney

And in this slide the players were ranked by the accuracy of their intonation, with Benny Goodman as the cleanest, and, extending that simile, Charlie Parker as the dirtiest:

Instrumentalists ranked by intonation
iPhone Snap by Sebastian Scotney

One panel member recalled a delightful comment during an off-the-cuff instant self-review from Andreas Schaerer as he summed up his wonderful solo recital the previous evening (reviewed here): “Ich höre gerne falsche Töne” (“I love to hear wrong/inaccurate notes”)


The other papers ranged widely. Professor Raymond MacDonald talked about various strands of work he has done on how musicians talk about and reflect on improvising, and also gave convincing and lively demonstration about work done with early-years children on improvisation, sponaneity and the development of telepathic understanding. The papers from philosopher Georg Bertram and Michael Rüsenberg set improvisation in a wider human context, i.e. beyond the confines of its being used as a vehicle for artistic expression. I found the semantics (paraphrasing versus improvising versus interpretation) in Gerhard Putschögl‘s paper quite hard to grasp, and Iwan Wopereis gave us an insight into his work which is very much in progress.

Full programme of the 35th Conference of the Radio Jazz Research Group Conference in cooperation with the 2018 Festival Jazz & The City in Salzburg.“Improvisation: New Perspectives”

– Welcome from Tina Heine, Artistic Director of the Jazz & The City Festival and Bernd Hoffmann, Chair of Radio Jazz Research

– Michael Rüsenberg (author/journalist):
“Beyond Jazz : Improvisation, a part of life”

– Gerhard Putschögl (Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts ) :
“Paraphrasing Variation as universal musical and spoken improvisation”

– Iwan Wopereis (Open University, The Netherlands):
“What Experts think of Improvisation – a survey among RJR Members”

– Raymond MacDonald (Universiy of Edinburgh):
“Notes from the Psychology of Improvisation”

– Klaus Frieler (Hochschule für Musik Franz Liszt Weimar):
“Dig that Note – Die Weimar Jazz Database”

– Georg W. Bertram, (Freie Universität Berlin):
“One cannot not improvise.”

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