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Improvised Bach: A Case Study In Classical Improvisation (Video)

christian howes

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Published: January 5, 2015 at 9:19 PM [UTC]

Bach is already perfect, but for a classically trained jazz violinist like me, having fun with it is hard to resist (see video below). Although Bach’s Fugue for unaccompanied violin could be treated with a walking bass line, I tried a half time feel bass line to allow space for fugue-like countermelodies in the inner voices. The difference between foreground and background becomes blurred this way, rather than assigning the bass, comping, and melody their typical places in a swing-type rendition.

I hope classical players can use case studies like this to inspire them to improvise with classical material in other ways. After you check out the video below, feel free to leave a comment below and let me know what you think.



Before I got heavily into jazz, I improvised using the only vocabulary I knew. Jazz has a history of drawing from classical composers, but we could see even more of it once improvisation is taught to classical musicians from an early age.

In this performance, I hear a bit of “everything” (jazz and classical vocabulary), and “nothing” (stylistically neutral material). That’s partly why I decided to share it.

I think the single best way for musicians to improve is by recording and listening back. That’s why the loop pedal is such a great practice tool. It gives me the ability to immediately review my timing, rhythm, ensemble, ideas, phrasing, intonation, and more.

Intonation always needs work, and for this I plead “guilty” as charged. As Yo-Yo Ma once told me in a master class (paraphrasing), “Learning to play in tune is a lifetime project for every string player.”

But the loop pedal reveals a flaw in this performance that’s harder to pin down, something most classical musicians don't spend time honing, and in this performance it’s so blatant, I almost didn’t post the video. Hint: anytime you’re working with a longer form, this will be harder to perfect, and it shows up only once within the loop. Leave a comment and let me know if you figured out what I’m referring to, and if it bothers you.

Credit for the idea of truncating the form of the Bach Fugue in G Minor goes to Billy Contreras. We recorded a duo version of this arrangement on “Jazz Fiddle Revolution”.

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My gear: Yamaha Silent Violin 250
D’Addario Helicore Strings
Boss ME-70 (multi effects signal processor)
Ditto loop pedal

I get my gear from the Electric Violin Shop

Feel free to leave a comment below and please share this if you enjoyed it!

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