Improvising in Switzerland



The International Society of Improvised Music (ISIM)

gathered last week at Chateau d”Oex in Switzerland, about 40 minutes from Montreux and Lake Geneva. This was my first time to present and participate in the conference and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The group brings together improvisers from many different musical genres with the goal of fostering creative expression across disciplines. Here is the ISIM definition of improvisation:

Improvisation is spontaneous interaction between musicians from the most disparate backgrounds, dissolution of boundaries between performers and listeners, and access to the transcendent dimensions of creative experience. Improvisation is at the heart of a new musical paradigm that uniquely reflects contemporary life.




Over three days, I witnessed numerous inspirational presentations and performances but I have to say that the initial jam session impressed me the most. Upon arrival on Thursday I entered the performance space in the hotel and saw about 40 musicians gathered with various instruments in hand, including a harp, a melodica, several middle eastern string instruments besides the usual suspects of trumpets and saxophones and plenty of pianists. I recently did an investigation and analysis on jazz jam sessions, which is published here. There are quite defined rules that make the sessions work such as picking a tune to play together, providing equal improv space, listening to each other, knowing the jazz language and repertoire, etc. An interesting fact about freedom is that actually setting boundaries and guidelines facilitate a greater degree of collaborative success. What I witnessed in the Great Hall at the Hotel Roc et Neige in Chateau d”Oex, Switzerland proofed all these theories wrong! With very little guidance (keep it short so everyone gets a chance), usually someone got up and others followed with no prescribed instrument combination. Hence there was an ensemble with harp, clarinet, piano, another one with a pianist, melodica, two vocalists, flute , etc. Then one of the band members starts with a musical idea and everyone else  chimes in, carefully listening to each other’s activities and contributing to the musical whole. These interactions were not bound by harmonic progressions nor a common groove contrary to typical jazz jam session procedures. The musical language also transcended genres and repertoire – no jazz licks, no classical cadenzas. But nevertheless each ensemble managed to create a piece mostly 5-10 minutes in length, switching off leadership, and telling a musical story with beginning, climax, and coda. I was especially captivated by two vocalists who started improvising harmonic ideas together and through expansion of dynamics and range pulled the ensemble along to an exciting high point of their improvised piece.

When I presented my research on jazz jam sessions on Saturday morning, I made sure to actually stage a jam session with the participants and we had a great discussion on the interactive elements of such sessions. Interestingly, we ended up witnessing a workshop in Montreux by a group comprised of Swedish trumpeter Nils Peter Movaer with drummer Sly and Robbie Shakespeare for a session of Jamaica meets Sweden completely improvised including a DJ capturing and playing back phrases. I’m intrigued about experimenting with such genre-bending improvisations – let’s see what happens!


Here is Lynn Baker’s treatment of Aaron Copeland’s Billy the Kid Suite including a variety of stylistic elements and improvisational techniques.  It was a great treat to be able to join him for this piece!