Posted on July 21, 2010 at 9:50 pm

In the best improvisation, it’s the soloist’s job to navigate the maze between the beginning and the end, with nothing but the most rudimentary map. I’m always amazed to hear improvisers like Fred Hersch, who can find impossibly elegant but unexpected routes through that maze. Thelonious Monk, on the other hand, gives the joyful sense of careering into corners and crashing into dead ends along the way. One of my favorite jazz players is Michel Petrucciani, who starts out with two screws and a washer and gradually builds a bulldozer that flattens all the walls.

I’m not really in those guys’ league; my training (if you want to call it that) was more in blues and gospel than hardcore bebop playing. Nonetheless, improvisation is central to my concerts, and I build spaces into many of my songs where the players get to make their own way through the maze.

“Getting Out”, which I wrote for my album Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes, contains the scariest piano break of any of my songs. What I pictured in my head was the whole band racing forward over a cliff and then suddenly they all stop but the pianist (that would be me) keeps racing, suddenly realizes that he’s hanging, Wile E. Coyote-like, in thin air over a chasm, whereupon he has to scramble, flap his arms, claw at the air, and generally defy the laws of nature to get to the other side. It’s a fun idea, but I’d say I only really pull it off about half of the time.

Obviously, I had to nail it for the album, but that kind of pressure makes it virtually impossible to succeed. When we recorded the band tracks for “Getting Out,” I did four or five takes of the solo in the middle, and they all felt labored and stiff and unsatisfying. My producer, Jeffrey Lesser, sat with me and tried to edit the different solos together into one good one, but it just wasn’t working, so we scheduled another session where I could just play solos, one after another, until I found my groove. The five minutes and twenty five seconds of music attached below represents the entirety of that session, and let me assure you, it felt a lot longer when I was playing it.

“Getting Out” piano solo outtakes (2004)
Music by Jason Robert Brown
JRB: piano
Recorded by Jeffrey Lesser at Clinton Recording Studios, NY, NY, 4/30/04

Shrewd listeners will have already figured out the punch line: we didn’t use any of that material. After the session, we sat down see if these solos could be edited into something, and found that, yet again, my mojo never successfully carried me from one end to the other. There were some good beginnings and some good endings, but they were never on the same take, and the differences in energy between the takes made it impossible to edit them together. (Also, the fact that I recorded without a click track meant that the tempo vacillated wildly from take to take.)

And so, during the big choral session for the album, Jeffrey and I shooed all the singers out of the room on their break, opened up the piano, and prayed that I could get a usable take in the four minutes we had. What you hear on the album is what I played the second we started recording. It’s pretty sloppy, but I love it for the utterly elliptical but thoroughly logical way I made all the parts come together.

Wanna take a shot yourself? The structure of the solo is very simple: it’s just one time through the 16-measure chorus of the song. Measure by measure, the chords are: F7/F7/C7/C7/F7/D7/G7/Gb7(#11)/F7/F7-E7/Am/D7/G7/Fm7/Am7-D7/G7/C. Go for it! Post a link to your version in the comments section. You can buy the song on iTunes here, and you can pick up the sheet music on by clicking right here.
[UPDATE: Sorry, I kept this entry open for as long as I could, but the spam is just overwhelming. If anyone has a version of the challenge that they want to submit, just send it to askjrb at this website and I’ll post it as soon as I get it. And thanks to everyone for playing so far!]