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How much do jazz improvisers share understanding with each other and with their listeners?

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SCHOELLER Paul-Emmanuel

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How much do jazz improvisers share understanding with each other and with their listeners?

To what extent do collaborating improvisers understand what they are doing in the same way as each other?And to what extent do their listeners understand the improvisation in the same way as the performers? Thistalk reviews evidence from two case studies (with Neta Spiro and Amandine Pras) of pianosaxophoneduos, one improvising three versions of a jazz standard (“It Could Happen to You”) and one carrying out anextended free jazz improvisation. In both studies, immediately afterwards the performers were separatelyinterviewed, from memory and prompted by audiorecordings, about their detailed characterizations of theperformances. Outside listeners (expert musicians in the same genres) were also interviewed for theircharacterizations. Later, the performers and outside listeners rated the extent to which they endorsedanonymized versions of statements by all participants, based on close relistening to the recordings. 239internet listeners also rated their levels of endorsement of the jazz standard characterizations. In both cases,performers endorsed statements they themselves had generated most often, but they endorsed statementsby an outside listener more than their performing partner’s statements. Overall levels of agreement amongthe performers were greater than chance but quite low. Among the 239 listeners to the jazz standardimprovisations, only a very small number agreed with the performers’ characterizations at a level greaterthan chance. The implication is that fully shared understanding of what happened is not essential forsuccessful joint improvisation, and that performers’ interpretations are not necessarily privileged relative toan outsider’s.



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