If you think jazz musicians are born and not bred, you should listen to GenJam.
As a featured soloist in the Al Biles Virtual Quintet, GenJam is a multi-instrumentalist (tenor sax, flute, ocarina, synthesizers...) who improvises solos and trades fours with Quintet leader Al Biles (trumpet, flugelhorn).
As a CD, GenJam is an eclectic mix of straight up jazz with bits of latin, funk, even new age thrown in.
As computer software, GenJam is a genetic algorithm that learns to play jazz solos under the guidance of its creator and mentor, Al Biles.
That's right. GenJam is a computer program, and the Virtual Quintet has only one human member.
How does GenJam work? It applies the principles of natural genetics to jazz by evolving a population of musical ideas that it uses to improvise its solos. This evolutionary learning process is usually conducted before GenJam plays in public (and always before it records in the studio). The process begins with GenJam using musical ideas that are literally random. As it pays solos with the Virtual Quintet's rhythm section, a human mentor listens and provides feedback.. Whenever GenJam plays something nice, the mentor types "g" (for good) on the computer keyboard, and whenever GenJam plays something lousy, the mentor types "b" (for bad). The accumulated feedback for each individual musical idea indicates its genetic fitness -- the better the idea, the higher the fitness.
After a few tunes, the mentor tells GenJam to get creative, and it breeds a new generation of ideas by replacing the worse ideas in the population with the children of the better ideas. In the first generation, GenJam sounds pretty, well, random, but after a dozen or so generations of new ideas, it begins to sound surprisingly good. On this CD, five separate soloists were used, each bred with a different musical style and each with its own personality.
In addition to taking solo choruses, GenJam can trade fours or eights, which leads to some interesting interactions between GenJam and the human soloist. Some of the best moments on this CD are the conversations between GenJam on various instruments and Al Biles on trumpet and flugelhorn.
The tunes on the CD are mostly jazz standards, but with a twist. Al Biles likes to take a good blowing tune and put it in a radically different setting. The settings on this CD include a straight-ahead acoustic jazz quintet, a light electric funk groove, vibes/marimba textures, French horn choirs, and driving analog synth sounds. That's a big advantage of virtual players -- that can play virtually anything!
If you're curious about how GenJam works under the hood, visit the GenJam home page at Al Biles's web site. Among other things, you'll find some technical papers and an extended sound sample featuring GenJam trading fours with its creator.
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