In the comments section of my 'emotional range' post drummer/Jazz writer/avant-garde concert producer Tim DuRoche touched on something that I'd like to explore in a bit more depth. The topic of inside/outside playing is something that I feel is an important issue to address, partly because I personally struggle with it in my own playing. I have done quite a few free gigs in my career, many of them with TDR. Tim is one of those rare players that are equally comfortable in either the free or straight-ahead realms. I think that one of the reasons he is able to do this is because of his truly encyclopedic knowledge of jazz.
The free mind set is a completely different one than that of straight-ahead, or for that matter any other style of jazz. It’s a much more meditative mindset. You have to listen more to what your ear is telling you to do, by temporarily strangling your rational mind. When I play free music I feel like my lines might go in any direction at any time, it feels like I’m just trying to get my mind out of the way so my body can play what it wants. It is much easier for this to happen if the audience (and the other musicians) is already expecting and excepting of the possibility of freedom. I don't hear many modern Jazz musicians who incorporate totally free playing while playing an inside gig. Most jazz players will play 'outside' at certain times, but it's not really free. They will use techniques or formulas to take them outside and get them back inside. They might use three-tonic lines, sequences, 12-tone lines, converging chord changes or pre-worked out patterns. These methods do take them 'outside' and back but they really lack the spontaneity and intuition of free playing. There are a few players who really do incorporate free playing with straight-ahead; players like George Garzone, Ellery Eskelin, and Jean-Michelle Pilc.
To me it's as if the mind cannot be in these two modes at the same time. They seem mutually exclusive in my experience. The rational mind is more constrictive and deals with what is already known and defined. It calculates and applies the rules of musical harmony, form and rhythm. It is reactive rather than active can only rearrange already known elements. The function of the mind that is used in free playing, let’s call it the abstract mind, is DIALATIVE. It puts together entirely new combinations of notes and can express inner feelings by way of pure abstraction. It doesn’t express things in logical or linear ways, it is above logic and linear time and space. Since most of us can’t operate using both these modes of functioning at the same time, the best we can hope for is be able to move between them fluidly. To play freely over changes you can’t be thinking how the notes you are playing relate to the changes (or lack of changes). People say that in order to play outside you first must learn to play inside. I’m not so sure that this is true. I don’t think the Bop players can learn to blow free music by practicing inside playing. Almost the opposite is true; it becomes harder for most players to let go of their rational minds once they’ve mastered musical theory. They don’t want to let go and just let their ‘fingers do the walking’.
Trane was the shining example of someone who had totally mastered Bop harmony and then started toward freedom. This was a rare musician indeed. I think that Trane had so thoroughly mastered inside playing that there was nowhere else to go but out. He had the ability to function on the abstract plane while his rational mind was able to slip into a type of automatic consciousness. He no longer needed to think about keys or scales. He became an 'ear player', but with a mastery of musical theory. There are still great Beboppers out there who never learned any theory at all. [Check out ear player and master Bop saxophonist Vince Wallace.] At one time this was the rule rather than the exception, favoring a more natural and organic sounding style of Jazz.
The difference between the rational mind and the abstract mind is very much like the difference between the ear and the eye. The eye is like the rational mind, it can only see the surface of things and only in a direct line of sight. The eye also perceives only one octave in range, whereas the ear can hear almost eleven full octaves. The ear can also hear things that are hidden from the eye, far away or behind closed doors. Most young players learn to play jazz more by their eyes (reading music, looking at chord changes, ect) than their with ears. This was not the way Jazz musicians learned to play in the first half of the twentieth century. It would be hard for us to choose if we were forced give up either our sight or our hearing. So we should also equally value our rational mind and our abstract mind. When we learn tunes we should learn how the changes sound as well as memorizing the changes.
I've also noticed that it is easier to play free music if it is a 'free' (read non-paying) gig. Unless you've developed an audience for your free playing or you're in Europe. If you are worried about clearing the crowd out or pissing off the club owners you really can't loosen up enough. My goal is to make my free playing flow right into my straight-ahead playing. I want it to be seemless.........