The controlled freak out- outside/inside playing

Improvising over changes takes many years of dedicated practice to master. It is a highly intellectually demanding act that requires knowledge of music theory as well as an excellent memory and quick thinking. Once players get a basic grasp of Jazz improvisation it is often hard for them to let go and play by ear again, as they did when they first started to improvise. Long before they were thinking about symmetrical scales or tri-tone subs they just followed their ears and let their fingers do the walking. Once they are blowing bebop lines through changes with some proficiency they find it hard to trust only their ears to navigate for them. I often try to get my students to move outside by disengaging their rational minds for just a moment at a time. It's almost harder to get an intellectual player to play by ear than it is to teach an ear player to learn Jazz harmony.

I like hearing bebop players who are able to step outside without using set harmonic formulas. There are many post-bop players who use harmonic devices in order to take it outside, fewer who are able to play freely by ear and then drop right back inside. It can be hard to convince a student who has worked hard to play over changes to ignore them, even if it is just for short periods of time. I may cross out a few chord changes and tell them to just blow whatever they hear over those bars. I tell them not to play anything that is directly harmonically related to the changes that the rhythm section is playing. They should land on the next written chord change with a strong chord tone. I try to get them to feel comfortable with playing totally outside by ear for just a bar at a time. This is like popping the clutch in a stick shift vehicle. The rational mind is forced to disengage from its calculations and computations while the ears and the fingers momentarily take the reigns. When the 'clutch' is re-engaged the rational mind takes over again without losing it's place in the tune. After the student is comfortable with one bar of cosmic freak out I'll have them try for a few more bars at a time.

It's also nice to work your way outside and then work your way back inside using chord substitutions. For example let's take the first five bars of the bridge of 'What is this thing called love?'

The written changes are:
C-7 /F7 /Bbmaj7 / /Ab7 (b9) /

Let's try playing the first chord of the bridge and then work our way out using strong resolutions, then right before the Ab7(b9) we'll play a few changes to get us back inside. So.....

C-7 B7 /E7 A7/FREAK /OUT! E-7Eb7/Ab7 (b9) /

By beat three we are starting to head outside, culminating in a six beat cosmic freak out in the third bar and the first half of the fourth bar. Beats three and four steps us back inside where we land on terra firma in bar five. Unscathed!

This example shows how we can gradually move outside using standard diatonic harmony, play free for a few moments and then step back inside without anyone knowing what hit them. This way the psychedelic freak out is woven into the tonal harmony seamlessly. It doesn't come as so much of a shock (which isn't always bad) to the listener and the transition outside and back will be much smoother. You'll be able to play like Archie Shepp even at a Bar Mitzvah or your hotel lobby gig!

Listen to George Garzone or Ellery Eskelin for their ability to step across the line between inside and outside playing with ease. Free playing doesn't always have to drive the grandmothers out of the room (my grandmother used to ask me when she came to my gigs if I was going to play any of that 'drive the grandmothers out of the room music'). Grandma won't even know that anything's wrong before you're back from your full fledged FREAK OUT.


Jason DuMars said...

David, a complimentary excercise is to approach the "freak out" from the other side and explore structured improvisations. I find that a majority of inexperienced "free" players (particularly saxophone) tend to default to the least common denominator when playing improvised music -- and many times that is sloppy technique and purely emotional squonking. I think to craft an elegant free solo requires the same exacting balance as an interesting bebop solo. I also believe it is very important to have a wide musical vocabulary to be an effective improvisor, since you are in essence professing a fluency in multiple languages. When doing free improv you are exploring the entire universe of sound -- from Stravinsky to Gamelan to Bird. What a daunting task, to examine the entire universe and pull pieces from it to build something meaningful! So, a good excercise is to focus in on just a few conversational elements -- perhaps from the bebop language and interweave them in a way that makes emotional and structural sense. Once you realize that free improv can be a simple, beautiful melody, it opens up a conceptual space that informs everything else you musically do. I'm not sure this makes any sense, but hopefully it does!

David Carlos Valdez said...

Thanks Jason,
Nice comment. I think you're talking about free playing in a more general sense. You have a much more developed sense and style of free playing than I do. I was talking more about playing outside and freaked out in a bebop context, rather than free and elegant.
I guess 'freak out' does kind of suggest 'squawk festival', as does the Archie Shepp reference. Maybe a better definition of what I mean would be 'dissonance'. As you said, free playing can be very elegant and melodic as well as a honk fest.

It's nice to contrast inside playing with some controlled dissonance.
Garzone teaches that you can incorporate really outside lines into bebop as long as the lines are strong melodically and they swing really hard. It's hard to draw the line between inside and outside playing if approached in this way.

You have much more experience playing free than playing inside Jason. What kinds of ideas do you use to structure your free playing?

Are there concepts or methods that inform your free improvisations?

What elements of musical experience are you most aware of?

How has your free playing changed over the years?

I remember the first free gig I ever played. It was at Kuumbwa Jazz center in Santa Cruz when I was about 17 years old. I remember feeling totally lost. It felt like everyone was in their own world and I was just left out in the cold. After a few minutes of playing some self-conscious random lines I was like,"WHAT NOW?!?!?". It's still hard for me to feel comfortable in free situations unless everything is just right. Often it feels like most free players are operating on the 'hundredth monkey' theory. That is if you play enough random shit some real gems are going to come out eventually. That works about as well
as going deer hunting with a dinner fork. Yes, eventually you WILL get a bite to eat, but is it really worth all the trouble?

Jason DuMars said...

David, I see where you're coming from better now. I absolutely love to hear players (like yourself) who can flex the tonality away from the changes in rubber-band fashion bringing them back into the base changes at just the right moment. This tension build and release is really at the heart of all interesting music in one form or another. That's one of the things I like about good free improvisation -- that you can have these moments without necessarily having a "schedule."

To answer your questions... When I want to structure a free improvisation, I take one of two approaches depending on the background and experience of the musicians I am performing with. For inexperienced players, I'll write a core notated head or provide a conceptual framework (like, "we'll start soft, then build to a fast loud section and then get very quiet again"). You can also write a series of pitches and say "play around this pitch" or "select from these pitches only." Normally, this sort of excercise sounds like exactly that, with only fleeting moments where things coalesce into something interesting. The most important thing I impress upon fledgling free players is to LISTEN and leave space for other things to happen. If everyone is talking at once all the time, no one is really saying anything coherent. With experienced improvisers, it's a completely different experience in that these basic skills should be well understood. You can also expect an expanded level of technique or fluency on the instrument. When I improvised with Ned Rothenberg, there was never a point where I could execute a technique that he couldn't match. It was like a conversation that could drift effortlessly from ethnobotany to quantum mechanics without skipping a beat. With this calibre of musician, you can structure an improvisation around a word, or even just the place where you are at. Every space, every moment has its own music, and really good improvisers can collectively explore and discover that. I know this probably sounds completely "new age" or what have you, but once you experience that connection, it's absolutely amazing.

When I improvise, I tend to start with a base technique or sound to "kick things off." And from there, I will let things develop in reaction to what is around me -- either other musicians, the audience, or the space itself. I feel like music in that space is simply a meditation, where you take a moment to let go, and then follow the stream of consciousness that develops at that point. For this reason, I don't really like recording improvisation and listening to it later, since it loses that immediacy and connection. Being in the TV studio and playing like that on Thursday was akin to having sex in front of an audience -- it's bound to produce less than intimate results.

Over the years, if I look at my progression as a player, I realize the only thing that has changed is my ability to execute on what is in my mind at the moment. The very first thing I did when I picked up a sax for the first time at 10 years old was improvise. I honked and learned that if I opened the palm keys I could sort of play the "James Bond" theme. No one ever told me about altissimo, so I discovered it on my own, and by high school had developed my own fingering system a full octave above high F. I never had a teacher other than my band director until I was in high school, so it's been one very long trip of experimentation. Sadly, I'll do things that I like, and then forget how I did them. This happened thursday, when I spontaneously double-tongued perfectly for the first time ever. That's the magic of doing this stuff -- I swear you open up new universes where everything is possible if you are only open to it.

With your experience, I completely understand how you felt. But, really it's no different than trying to play a good bebop solo over a bad rhythm section, or coming up with an interesting solo at a blues jam session. The quality of the free situation depends on 1. the quality of musicians you are performing with 2. the oppenness of the situation, and how you relate with the people you are performing with -- and 3. the location/vibe/feel, etc.

I didn't intend to write this much, but obviously this is something I am very passionate about. I can't play without investing myself 100% in what I am doing, and that's what makes me very, very selective about who I choose to perform with.

David Carlos Valdez said...

You have a day job, at least for the moment. You have the luxury of only playing with players that you want to play with. You don't have to do gigs that you don't want to do. I have noticed that you are still able to play with high intensity even when you're playing with bad players. You're somehow able to really get into the music even when the situation is less than ideal. Even though you're playing standards at the sessions where I've heard you, I'd say that you're playing pretty free. If the rhythm section is terrible I just can't play full on. I just can't get into the space of full intensity and creativity. What I'm getting at here is that I think that you're able to rise above a bad musical situation in a way that I can't. Granted I'm sure you would be much better off playing with great players.
Do you think that it is easier to float above a bad rhythm section when you are playing more freely? I am extremely effected by wrong changes or bad bass lines. It just stops me from being able to attain lift off. As a free player you're much more focused on things like energy and emotion than I am.
Of course I am aware of those intangibles, but usually every thing else has to be in order before I can really focus on them. Do you understand what I'm getting at here?

Do you think that it is possible to float above a terrible rhythm section and still play inside?

What is going through your head when you take off from a runway paved with turds?

Anonymous said...

"purely emotional squonking" is more difficult to come by than it seems. What about cold-hearted squonking? A drive-by squonking, perhaps.

JoshuaCliburn said...

When I freak out (and I frequently do), I like to channel some fierce emotional episode, like the time my Dad wouldn't get me that pony I wanted...uh...probably too much info.
But seriously, you really should look OUTSIDE the jazz realm for inspiration when looking to play freaky. Rock, metal, funk...these categories of music may not be the most intellectual, but are heavy on emotion and emotive playing. There's definitely alot to be learned from the less learned (so to speak).

David Carlos Valdez said...

Right on Dan! I'll take emotional squonking over cold-hearted squonking any day.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Good point Joshua. My post was meant only to illustrate one way to step outside and back smoothly.

So often Jazz is emotionally stunted by it's complexity. When I was in the Flamenco scene in Santa Fe, I was hanging with players who thought that Jazz was emotionally barren. I could really see their point because compared with Flamenco, most Jazz sounds like it's being played by Laura Bush. We change keys all the time and never seem to gather the emotional steam that Flamenco does.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my 2 bits:

I know Trane used to carefully work out "outside" ii V patterns to superimpose over the inside changes, but that always struck me as as overly-complicated way of thinking about it, since what you end up doing is noodling around the chord-related scales.

Anyways, I made up a little melodic pattern that I find useful for freeing me up: G E D C, G F E-flat C, repeated a bunch of times, or else upside down (I know there's a technical term for "upside-down," which I forget): C D E G, C E-flat F G, repeated; then you modulate the patter around by minor thirds and major thirds, going from relative minor to relative major, and vice versa, which can take you through all the keys. I don't necessarily play the pattern, but I find that noodling around with it first, and having it under my fingers and in the back of my mind helps me play freer, whether inside or outside.

Another thing to do to help you use your ears more is to sing improvised melodies over changes, although not too many people (anybody???) can sing outside really well.

Or you can just make up a melody by singing, and then try to harmonize it after it's finished.

Anonymous said...

p.s. It occurs to me that a long time ago I happened upon a really excellent article by Mick Goodrick, I think in Guitar Player Magazine, about tricks for freeing up your improvising.

David Carlos Valdez said...

There is no better way to practice improvising than singing. First try singing along to solos that you already know, then try scatting with an Aebersold. It doesn't matter what syllables you use or what your tone is like. Just try scatting while you're driving in the car if you're afraid someone will hear you. If can learn to sing what you're hearing then you have made a huge step toward actually being able to play what's in your head. This is also true for learning to play in tune. If you can really sing intervals in tune your then physical body learn how these intervals resonate. It becomes a palpable physical sensation rather than just a concept of what it is to be in tune.

Anonymous said...

Sweet!! A discussion on the fine points of squonking - and I would have to add, let's not leave out the merits of skronking!! I love sax players. And the occaisonal piano player too - hey G. what up. (I took back my wine glasses for the holiday festivities by the way - come over Saturday for food if you want and I'll fill you a glass....)

Uh. Anyways. I want to thank David for providing a home for these beautiful discussions and also say...hey Josh! I played with your buddy Dallas Huber the other day and we all agree that you're wasting away in Hood River. Come have some sessions with us all eh?

Okay. I'm done. Off to practice varietal sqounking.

love, love,


Anonymous said...

Sweet!! A discussion on the fine points of squonking - and I would have to add, let's not leave out the merits of skronking!! I love sax players. And the occaisonal piano player too - hey G. what up. (I took back my wine glasses for the holiday festivities by the way - come over Saturday for food if you want and I'll fill you a glass....)Uh. Anyways. I want to thank David for providing a home for these beautiful discussions and also say...hey Josh! I played with your buddy Dallas Huber the other day and we all agree that you're wasting away in Hood River. Come have some sessions with us all eh?Okay. I'm done. Off to practice varietal sqounking.love, love,MST

Anonymous said...

Guys,the first 200 paragraphs of posts are all about theory and structure. What a surprise that you have to go back to find the emotion!

How about some basics?

Like, get to like the SOUND of being outside. it's like getting to like a new flavour in your food. It's got to be that physical. You have to crave it.

Like, don't worry that you're playing for a room of jazz professors. I had a teacher who said "play whatever stuff you want, as long as you can resolve well, most people will accept it". A little trite, but you see the point.

Like, Jerry Coker once wrote that studies show that listeners should be able to predict musical direction 50% of the time. More often, they get confused, less, they get bored. Supposedly scientific. What that means is, HALF of your solo can go into new places and we'll be able to deal with it.

Great site. Thanks for reading.

John M
Oakville Ontario Canada

David Carlos Valdez said...

My particular problem is not playing with emotion in general, but finding it when the rhythm section sucks ass. For an intensely emotional solo of mine listen to the very last tune of my live show with Pere Soto. I am practically crying while playing.

Jazz media: David Valdez w/ Pere Soto & Dan Schulte

This is not and outside sounding solo although much of that concert is very out there.

I don't think that studying theory makes one less emotional. If you don't practice playing with emotion then you will probably never learn.
Some people are more emotional people in general and need to work on that aspect of their playing more consciously. It is something that can be developed with work. Check out my post on 'Emotional range:the musician as the actor' for more ideas on this topic. Some players can be very angry but not sad. It is important to be able to express a wide RANGE of emotions.

My point is that a free player's music can be just as devoid of emotion as a straight ahead player's music, often times much more.

I do agree with the theory that listeners need about as much predictability as they do unpredictability.

It is of course much easier to teach theory than it is to teach a player how to feel intensely and be able to express that feeling in a solo. So you can expect more posts about theory than emotion in the future from me......