improvisation: Free Jazz and The function of freedom

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.........


Anonymous said...

I would add to the list of players who use inside and outside plaing equally well: Paul Bley, Han Bennink/Misha Mengelberg, Paul Motian-I also think a player like John Gross (and Billy Mintz, for that matter) is adept at employing/deploying free strategies. . .or more aptly bending the frame. It's almost a distillation as opposed to free music's usual expansive mode.

The biggest obstacle is in the codification of how jazz is
taught-it's too lick-centric and formulaic. If more emphasis were
placed on individual voice instead of transcription and emulation
there would be less of that "That's not how Brecker does it,"
bullshit. The Tristano approach of teaching people to sing and move
the solo through their breath and body is one way of taking standard
form, expanding it melodically, and finding new life for old ideas.
That's just one thing.

Because I learned in the old fashioned rarefied way-snare and hihat
meets 76-year old Boogie Woogie pianist, McDuff saying "quit playing
that bebop shit and swing. . .you're playing like a marching band
drummer, or crazy James "Jimmiapolis of St. Paul" Wallace playing
2-1/2 hour sets of uptempo bop-meets-Archie Shepp tunes-I learned to
be a flexible thinker and even more a reflexive listener.

Many young players simply don't listen to enough music or go beyond what they know. If you like Joe Henderson, then by all means listen to Don Byas and Lucky Thompson, understand the trajectory. You think Cannonball's the shit, then you've probably never listened to enough Frank Strozier or Lee Konitz.

That's why the phrase "ragtime to no time" is such a resonant rule to live by for me. I don't see any difference between Andrew Cyrille and Baby Dodds.

I've had paying, background music gigs where free playing became a subversive piece of poetry-it wasn't "what" you played, but "how loud" you played-I love doing brush gigs where you play tempo and energy without ever getting loud. . .controlled dynamics. People frequently confuse free playing with loudness, frenzy, and collisionary aesthetics. Not so. Listen to Paul Bley or Motian-masters of open, lyrical freedom. Great dinner music to try this on: Conference of the Birds. Played just under the level of conversation, mallets on a snare, with simmering (lyrical) tension.

Free playing works because it defies boundaries-it can be wild, wooly, soft and fuzzy, as patient as a piece of Morton Feldman, and despite what some of the more "non-idiomatic" young improvisers think-it can swing in a way that invites people in.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. Plenty of golden nuggets in your blogs.

Anonymous said...

I also don't really agree with the labels "in" and "out" in general. I would rather someone "plays" music and not worry about styles or categories. I think one of the downfalls of jazz in the present day and recent past is an identity crisis which lies on labeling itself way to much. Wynton Marsalis has been culpible of that, and sadly I recently heard Branford now jumping on that same bandwagon. It is kind of like the desire to be prideful of their blackness through it's history, rather than the energy of struggle, resistance, experimentation etc.... that it came from. I like players like Brad Meldhau, Kieth Jarret, Henry Threadgill, even Bill Frisell, to name but a few that are not concerned with the label of in or out but just play music and let it all come out.
This is what your probably referring to but I personally would leave the duality out of it and find another way to describe it.

David Carlos Valdez said...

I am surprised that you won’t admit that there is quite a difference between inside and outside playing. Maybe you don’t see it as much because you don’t think harmonically, being a drummer. There is a wide gulf between the two. It’s very silly to think that there is no difference between the ‘in’ and ‘out’. That is like saying that we shouldn’t label music as ‘consonant’ or ‘dissonant’ or ‘tonal’ or ‘atonal’, let’s just call it all music and not be restrictive.
These labels are simply ways to describe actualities. They do not constrict creativity in the player.

There is a rich tradition of Jazz that has been passed down to us through generations of players. To not want to ‘label’ it as Jazz is to ignore what we have inherited. Let’s just call it ‘music’ and blend it with any random style you happen to pull out of your ass. This kind of thinking is like inventing your own language and then trying to speak to others with it. You might say to someone, being so very creative,”Splarg floosh fwahpah flarpah poogle-schmolrsh beerp.”
You would find it very hard to make yourself understood and probably end up being frustrated and thinking to yourself,” They don’t appreciate my unbridled and highly original creativity.” Jazz is not just a label, it is a universal language that is spoken all over the globe. If you are interested in communicating with other ‘Jazz’ players or listeners, then you need to learn speak this common language in a way that can be understood. If you want to invent your own language called ‘Splarg Floosh’ or ‘Extreme Afro-techno-Hebrew fusion’ then you will only be able to converse with a few other people. Another solution that people try is to combine words from many different languages. This is a good way everyone will be able to understand only snippets of what you are saying.

I am all for trying new things, don't get me wrong. Many revolutionary things have been tried with Jazz, like 'Heavy-Metal Be-Bop' for example, but these experiments have for the most part not stood the test of time. It helps to be standing solidly on the shoulders of our musical forefathers before we try to fly.

Anonymous said...

we're really talking two different things. For very consumer-simple reasons the "label" exists. When we're looking at the 100-year history of this great four-letter word, the labels exist to aid simple-minded critics and uninitiated consumers. They're a bane and a boon. Without them, one curious, but not in the know might, say buy a Kenny G album instead of a Kenny Garrett or Dexter Gordon side. Like with the production of kitsch, the tyranny of the music industry shrinks great art and ideas into small negotiable forms that can be packaged for easier consumption.

That said-it's naive to think distinctions don't exist and blame the identity crises of jazz on the dogmatism of the Marsalis-Crouch bunch. If anything it's the cynicism of the record industry that keeps reconstituting simple forms like the "chick singer" (Monheit, Krall et al), the young lion (take your pick), the crossover (Bad Plus) and goading people into believing they're "making jazz relevant" again.

Joe, I think we're all saying a similar saw-that we like players that straddle the line between a more free sense of play and traditional form. David, I'll disagree-there isn't a wide gulf between in and out; rather there's a narrow chasm and continuum between the two that a few people have found the secret skeleton key for (Mehldau, Frisell, Garzone, Gross, Paul Bley, etc.). . .and like Joe sez they just "play." What prevents people from getting there is fear and an embrace of (what Dave Storrs says makes this music work) "trust and forgiveness." They're also not teaching kiddies to take risks-students might learn to transcribe Coltrane, but not the process by which his approach transgressed lateral thinking.

Gosh this is fun.

Adam said...

My opinion: Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Charlie Parker were playing "out" and "free" from where they were coming from during their time... Eric Dolphy was really just doing Charlie Parker's thing in a post Charlie Parker time-period. And so on...