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I have read different accounts about how much Tatum's solos were improvised or mostly planned out. One source(can't remember which one) said that all his performances of the same song were very much alike. I assume this means over some period of time but not necessarily over several decades. But the bio of Tatum I'm reading now(Lester's Too Marvelous For Words) claims his solo performances of the same song were mostly improvised on the spot and different from one another.

I think the only way someone could know about for sure this is if they listened to many of Tatum's performances of the same song and compare them carefully. Or if they talk with someone else who has done that or have actually been to a lot of Tatum's performances.

Does anyone have an opinion about how much Tatum improvised his solos vs. mostly playing the same version every time?

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
Does anyone have an opinion about how much Tatum improvised his solos vs. mostly playing the same version every time?

Tatum is 100% improvised - by that I mean that when he started playing a piece he had no idea of where it may go and was free to go off anywhere he wanted in the moment. He did use certain devices and runs a lot, that was his style, but the placement of these was not prearranged in my opinion. He was playing on melodies and chord sequences that were pre-composed though, and all players have their favourite ways of getting round them.


Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I think the only way someone could know about for sure this is if they listened to many of Tatum's performances of the same song and compare them carefully. Or if they talk with someone else who has done that or have actually been to a lot of Tatum's performances.

That is not really necessary. Once you have heard enough jazz you know how it works and that is not by playing the same version each time. There is no jazz musician alive or dead who could play the same version twice in a row even if they wanted to, it is just not the jazz way.

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Originally Posted by beeboss
Tatum is 100% improvised - by that I mean that when he started playing a piece he had no idea of where it may go and was free to go off anywhere he wanted in the moment. He did use certain devices and runs a lot, that was his style, but the placement of these was not prearranged in my opinion. He was playing on melodies and chord sequences that were pre-composed though, and all players have their favourite ways of getting round them.
If you mean he was using the same chord sequences(his own) every time them to me that means a big part of the performance was planned ahead of time.

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Hi

IMHO Tatum and virtually all high level Jazz musicians don't 100% improvise (i.e. it's not completely spontaneous). Neither do they repeat the same performance each time they play a tune.

The thread I started on Keith Jarrett is a case in point. In Jarrett's solo concerts it's quite commonly stated that he improvises with no pre-concieved idea, and it's all completely spontaneous. Nahum was quick to point out in that thread that he doesn't believe this. And I go along with that. Jarrett has a huge knowledge of Jazz and Classical repertoire that must influence the choices he made in what he played. Maybe he wasn't aware of it happening, but I'm sure it must.

I should mention here that I have a very large KJ album collection, and I have a number of recordings where he plays the same tune on different albums. And the versions are very different. I think even the statement of the tune is somewhat different. I remember listening to a new album when I got it many years ago, and being surprised when the version of <a Jazz standard> wasn't the same as the version I'd got used to listening to on the album I already owned.

I shouldn't have been surprised, he's a Jazz musician. But I think as listeners we get used to certain solos, their patterns, form etc.

Tatum is no different (he is stylistically of course). As beeboss says he has certain runs that he uses (as do all Jazz players) and he does some interesting harmonic things, which I've heard Oscar Peterson talk about. However in the end he's playing known tunes, with set chord sequences. He may vary the chord structures and even the form to a degree, including modulations, and he'll vary which runs he uses and where he places them, but it's not 100% improvised.

My use of 100% improvised here is in a different context from the way beeboss is using it. Though my overall view is pretty much the same as beeboss.

However.....

I've certainly read in the past about both Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson repeating performances note for note. I don't have time try and find the source for those at the moment. However would I trust a music critic to know that a solo was identical to previous one? No. It may well have been very similiar, but identical, I doubt that.

And a favourite quote of mine from Dave Brubeck, which was something like:
'How much is improvised when you've played the same chord sequence a 1000 times?'

Cheers


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Very instructive is the double album by Charlie Parker (whom I could never find) where he works with the cats on improvisation in the studio over Ko-Ko. Each time he threw in different ideas (and even made a mistake in the form), but gradually the solo began to line up. During periods when I performed a lot with the same repertoire, I noticed this dynamic. For several years I worked with a saxophonist, very professional with a great sound, but with a relatively weak improvisation skill. At the beginning of gigs we always played The Girl From Ipanema; and in his improvisation he always missed the "correct" notes. Six months later, I noticed that he was playing the same solo, note for note - including mistakes.

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
If you mean he was using the same chord sequences(his own) every time them to me that means a big part of the performance was planned ahead of time.


Tatum played on standards and blues forms, the sequences are there in any (almost) any version of tune played by anybody, but they are realised in different ways each time. That is what jazz improvisation is, theme and variations.

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Originally Posted by Simon_b
IMHO Tatum and virtually all high level Jazz musicians don't 100% improvise (i.e. it's not completely spontaneous).

How can anything be 100% spontaneous? Even free players have to learn how to do it, and their knowledge informs what they play.

Originally Posted by Simon_b
My use of 100% improvised here is in a different context from the way beeboss is using it. Though my overall view is pretty much the same as beeboss.

Yes, with the way you are using it nobody can really impovise 100% on a sequence or play a pattern that they know already (a melody or lick). 100% improvisation would be impossible enless done by a piano playing cat.
Of course I understand what you mean - players can choose how much pre-arrangement to use and there is a spectrum between, say, a almost completely worked out Bill Evans introduction and a Cecil Taylor workout, but these things are artistic choices. Bill Evans could have left out his introduction if he wanted and Cecil Taylor could have incorporated worked out structures inside his improvisations (he probably did). They were choices they made, maybe even in the moment of actually playing them.
But yes, that is not what I mean by improvisation - my view is that something is 100% improvised if the notes are not worked out ahead of time. Any Bill Evans performance would fit into that camp even if sections of intro head and endings were structured.

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Totally agree. It's rare to hear 'improvisation' that doesn't contain any structures/patterns somewhere within it that we and everybody knows already. We clearly all detect those patterns within it all the time. It's pretty much impossible to escape from it.

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Originally Posted by beeboss
Originally Posted by pianoloverus
If you mean he was using the same chord sequences(his own) every time them to me that means a big part of the performance was planned ahead of time.
Tatum played on standards and blues forms, the sequences are there in any (almost) any version of tune played by anybody, but they are realised in different ways each time. That is what jazz improvisation is, theme and variations.
I was talking about the way he chose and voiced the chords even the very first time he plays the piece. My understanding is that those chords are not the same for every jazz pianist.

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Pianoloverus: The line between "planned" and improvised is not, in jazz, a clear, bright, line. Here's an example. In East of the Sun most lead sheets will show G major for the first two bars, but a well-known variation is C7#11 for measure 2. Do I ever "plan" to play C7 in measure 2? No. But nearly all the time I play the piece I use that variation because I like it! There are, however, times when I choose not to. Is the C7 planned or improvised?

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Originally Posted by jjo
Pianoloverus: The line between "planned" and improvised is not, in jazz, a clear, bright, line. Here's an example. In East of the Sun most lead sheets will show G major for the first two bars, but a well-known variation is C7#11 for measure 2. Do I ever "plan" to play C7 in measure 2? No. But nearly all the time I play the piece I use that variation because I like it! There are, however, times when I choose not to. Is the C7 planned or improvised?
I can understand what you mean in your first sentence and my guess is anyone's answer also depends on their personal definitions of planned and improvised. I am not a jazz pianist(although I have spent the last ten years mostly playing transcriptions of performances by the great jazz pianists) as is probably more than obvious, but I would say that if you use only those two variations for measure 2 that both are planned.

I'll try to phrase my question differently and although I specifically asked about Tatum it would apply to any jazz pianist. If one had several Tatum scores with the chords the pianist played marked would Tatum's solos "generally" indicate the same chord progression?

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Originally Posted by pianoloverus
I was talking about the way he chose and voiced the chords even the very first time he plays the piece. My understanding is that those chords are not the same for every jazz pianist.


Sure, different players from different times use different voicings and there is a lot of variation between players. Similarly the chord voicings of Rachmaninoff are not those of Bach. Ultimately both composers and improvisers use the chords voicings and harmonic devices they like that provide the sound they think fits.
But there are only a certain number of notes in basic chords and all improvisers and composers play the same voicings sometimes. It doesn’t mean they are not improvised though, the voicing is not planned ahead of time generally, but if you are playing a C7 rootless voicing in the LH there are only so many ways of doing that.
Tatum had huge hands and he played stretches that many other pianists can’t manage. Those moving 10ths he did are one of his trademark styles.

Originally Posted by pianoloverus
If one had several Tatum scores with the chords the pianist played marked would Tatum's solos "generally" indicate the same chord progression?

The chord progression comes from the original composer of the piece - when Tatum plays ‘Yesterdays’ he is following the progression chosen by Jerome Kern but with with his own twists and variations added for extra interest.

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pianoloverus: Just to be clear, the choice of whether to play the C7 chord is made after I've started playing the piece. I'll make that decision the moment I play that measure; I do not plan in advance what I'm going to do. I think my point is that it makes for a limited discussion if there are only two boxes: planned or improvised. Some "improvisation" is the real time choice between 2 or 3 possible voicings, some improvisation is the choice whether to use the composer's chord or a substitute, some improvisation is the choice of tempo, and some improvisation is making up a whole new melody but using the language of bebop, etc. As jazz players, nothing we do is totally unique; we play within a tradition that we have studied carefully. On the other hand, we rarely play something where every note is written or planned out in advance. Improvisation occurs in a spectrum. That's how I think think most jazz folks view it.

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Knowledge of a large amount of music and / or in-depth study of theory makes it possible to create a store of various textures and harmonizations, which allows the improviser to spontaneously pull out of his pocket what suits the moment.

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Here's NYC pianist David Hazeltine on Tatum. This tracks with much that I've read about Tatum in terms of his mix of pre-set arrangements, patterns & pet licks, and pure improvisation:

DH: There’s a link there in my mind with Bill [Evans] and Cedar [Walton], in the care they took with voicings.

Art Tatum was the same way. Tatum had very specific ideas. He makes it sound like that it’s off the cuff, but when you compare the live tracks to the studio versions they are almost the same. Sure, some of the ornamentation is different, but the essential harmony is the same. Tatum, Bill, Cedar: there was a lot of attention to detail.

People think, “This is jazz so we improvise everything,” but masters like Cedar thought everything through. It was pristine.

https://ethaniverson.com/interview-with-david-hazeltine/

Tatum, unlike Evans and Walton, was obviously often playing solo standards, so there's even more reason for him to fashion arrangements with pre-set elements that frame more improvisatory passages, much as a big band arranger has to arrange big chunks of a tune.

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Originally Posted by beeboss
Tatum played on standards and blues forms, the sequences are there in any (almost) any version of tune played by anybody, but they are realised in different ways each time. That is what jazz improvisation is, theme and variations.

BeeBoss sums it up pretty neatly. The following is from the album notes to the Smithsonian album Art Tatum: Pieces of Eight released in 1981.

"Tatum's amazing memory enabled him to repeat many passages note for note, a gift which often inspired criticism from improvisation-minded jazz journalists. When asked about this, he responded:

Solo playing, most of the time, certain numbers I have certain set patterns for, and I'll tell you the reason for that--it's because I've had so many complaints--people would come in and say "Gee, I heard your record of such and such a thing fifteen years ago and you don't play it that way anymore,"...Consequently, I found that they'll hear something on the record...invariably they'll want to hear it the same when they see you in person. With me...any artist that I ever saw, I've always wanted to see him do something different than what they've done on the record or whatever they've done...Other people...whether they feel that the artist can't do that, because he did it on the record and they just want to see whether he can do it or not, but it's one of those things that's a lasting impression. But with me, usually it's a routine thing--whatever we set up on the record, I usually play it that way nor nearly that way, anyway.

When asked whether a musician could work out a more or less set arrangement and still retain the spirit of jazz, Tatum said:

I think you can. In fact, I know you can. Because I don't know of anybody in the world that could contain an idea every time he got ready to play. You're bound to revert back to the same thing some time or other."

The notes go on:

"Duke Ellington apparently felt the same way; in the March 1962 edition of Music Journal he wrote:

Another theory...is that there is such a thing as unadulterated improvisation without any preparation or anticipation. It is my firm belief that there has never been anybody who has blown even two bars worth listening to who didn't have some idea about what he was going to play before he started...Improvisation really consists of picking out a device here and connecting it with a device there, changing the rhythm here and pausing there; there has to be some thought preceding each phrase that is played, otherwise it is meaningless."

Final notes from the Tatum album:

"Notwithstanding his proclivity for set patterns on certain pieces, Tatum was capable of, and often demonstrated, an ability for almost limitless improvisation on any tune; sometimes he was known to play a single title for hours at a time."


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Originally Posted by Henderson Hall
Originally Posted by beeboss
Tatum played on standards and blues forms, the sequences are there in any (almost) any version of tune played by anybody, but they are realised in different ways each time. That is what jazz improvisation is, theme and variations.

BeeBoss sums it up pretty neatly. The following is from the album notes to the Smithsonian album Art Tatum: Pieces of Eight released in 1981.

"Tatum's amazing memory enabled him to repeat many passages note for note, a gift which often inspired criticism from improvisation-minded jazz journalists. When asked about this, he responded:

Solo playing, most of the time, certain numbers I have certain set patterns for, and I'll tell you the reason for that--it's because I've had so many complaints--people would come in and say "Gee, I heard your record of such and such a thing fifteen years ago and you don't play it that way anymore,"...Consequently, I found that they'll hear something on the record...invariably they'll want to hear it the same when they see you in person. With me...any artist that I ever saw, I've always wanted to see him do something different than what they've done on the record or whatever they've done...Other people...whether they feel that the artist can't do that, because he did it on the record and they just want to see whether he can do it or not, but it's one of those things that's a lasting impression. But with me, usually it's a routine thing--whatever we set up on the record, I usually play it that way nor nearly that way, anyway.

When asked whether a musician could work out a more or less set arrangement and still retain the spirit of jazz, Tatum said:

I think you can. In fact, I know you can. Because I don't know of anybody in the world that could contain an idea every time he got ready to play. You're bound to revert back to the same thing some time or other."
As I understand the above quote, Tatum is saying the he did, in fact, play a given song mostly the same way each time he played it, even if he did that because that's what his audience wanted.

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What Tatum is saying is that when he was doing a gig and strayed from the recorded (expected) version of a tune, he got complaints from some members of the audience. Wishing to avoid these complaints, he performed the tunes pretty much as he recorded them. (Which is still pretty phenomenal). This is not to say he couldn't improvise. There are reports of him improvising chorus after chorus at cut sessions or parties.


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