June 16th, 2011

You know I had to comment on Jonah Lehrer’s "basketball is brain jazz" piece, which I had to try and comment on at some point. The comparison (meme, even?) is close to my heart, and not something I only think about in terms of lazy analogies.

My main question concerns the, ahem, metaphysical differences between basketball play and jazz improvisation. While if both do involve lightning-quick decisions based on assimilated/practice material, in basketball, there’s clear goal in mind. The rebounder is trying to come down with the ball; the point guard, set up a scoring possession. Even the most baroque one-on-one players are trying to find a path to the basket for the best look—or the one that looks the best, maybe.

In jazz, there simply isn’t that same clear-cut point to it all. One can be trying to stay within the changes, or interact with bandmates. But neither of these present anything like an overall goal of the improvisation. I guess there are approaches to a solo that make a point of developing, and dissecting, thematic material—Sonny Rollins’s “Blue Seven” is the most famous example—and yet by definition, an improvisation involves not knowing where it will end up.

Why do soloists solo? It’s as banal as “to express themselves”, or the even more vague “to say something”. Jazz is discourse, with its own internal logic and emotional narrative. There’s no clear argument; “good” and “bad” solos are largely the result of critical, or peer, consensus. But that only underscores how basketball, where everything is a means to an end, differs from improvisation, an end in itself even as the brain is engaged in similar activity. Sadly, I lack the training necessary to know whether this difference is substantive, or just a matter of semantics.

  1. cfcollision reblogged this from bethlehemshoals and added:
    I doubt I’ll be the one to crack this nut, but I do think an underappreciated similarity involves the collaborative...
  2. bethlehemshoals posted this