Teaching Free Improvisation, Part 2 – Parameters for Exploration

I have a few more thoughts to share about teaching, learning, and doing free improvisation, in anticipation of our Jazz Education Network Conference panel discussion today (Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2:00 PM in Reno — Sierra Room, for anyone who is at the JEN conference).

As I mentioned in my previous post, there’s a range of approaches to free-improvised music and several, maybe many, musical subcultures with differing aesthetics, assumptions (stated or unstated) or tendencies, and approaches to playing together.

If you’re a visiting artist, or perhaps an artist in residence, hired to teach what you do, share your values — what you like and believe — and your job is to involve students in your works, then what I’m suggesting here may not apply to you. I think that’s a valid and important kind of teaching, and a worthwhile experience for students to have. If that’s your role, then you’re not responsible for representing the diversity of possibilities as much as diving deeply into the way you work and sharing that with students.

Another kind of teaching, which it’s been my role to do as a teacher and support as an administrator, is to expose students to a range of possibilities and try to prepare them to be flexible so they have the tools to make their own artistic choices and to navigate the music worlds of the present and the unknown future. That requires a kind of questioning overview and some analytical thinking about what the characteristics of different musics are, then designing experiences so students can explore them. I don’t feel I should be telling students there’s one true or best way to improvise or give structure to music. I can give artistic feedback on what they do, but I feel I owe them exposure to and experience in a wider palette of options. And since I’ve participated in and studied different scenes and approaches as a student, musician, and researcher/teacher, I want to share not just my favorites, but all the wonderful possibilities that are out there, as much as I can.

Looking at the music from different angles, identifying parameters of musical structure and sound in time, and then varying them, can do several things:

  • Clarify our hearing and thinking about music,
  • Help us understand different approaches and aesthetics,
  • Suggest creative possibilities to consider,
  • Suggest skills to practice, and
  • Prepare one for participating in different possible ensembles, traditions, musical cultures, and future developments.

Here are some parameters and thoughts about them in relation to free improvised music. There may be a lot more of these that are equally important, but I’ll start with some obvious parameters in which I’ve encountered wide differences of taste and practice myself in working with free (form) improvisation with other musicians from a variety of scenes and backgrounds:

Duration of pieces: This is one of the most contentious and varied areas, and one I find is surprisingly rarely discussed in advance in some parts of the free jazz and free improvisation world.

(With many of these things, improvising musicians often feel a reluctance to talk too much, or at all, not wanting to introduce inhibiting expectations or dominance of one person over another. But sometimes big questions hang in the air about what is expected or wanted, and sometimes something really is expected or wanted: long durations or short ones, for example.)

Some musicians are very bothered when a potential ending is ignored, bypassed, or elided into another passage by others in the group. They are thinking that the music can consist of movements or pieces, several or many per set. Some improvisers are very open to what might be called miniatures: pieces as short as a minute or less, even. They often value the ability to find endings greatly, and the endings themselves create a lot of musical interest.

Another widespread point of view is that the need for flow (or ebb and flow), long arcs of energy, immersion in the creative process over time, going deeper, not breaking the trance, etc. (there are many ways of feeling or talking about it) are primary. Endings can even be seen as a failure to keep the music going. A natural ending should be bridged by someone who keeps the music moving forward. There’s often an assumed, but sometimes unstated, duration for a set or concert, however: 45 minutes or an hour for a set, 2 hours for a concert, for example. There are also some who might play much longer in some situations, and value that.

Sometimes, these are really incompatible points of view that can cause friction in a group, and skills at communication and conflict resolution are needed to resolve them. As a teacher, I’d propose making students aware of this range of practices and musical meanings or intentions, and listen to music with them in mind. In an educational setting, at least, you can talk openly about these things and try many variations. There are real skills and challenges involved in playing concise, crystalline improvisations vs. playing multiple long solos in a set, each maintaining momentum and building over many minutes.

Related to this is the ability to be aware of duration. Knowing how clock time is passing is an important musical skill, with a practical side in recording, giving concerts, and bandleading. This awareness of time is not at all to be taken for granted. When I started teaching free improvisation at Berklee in 1983, I would give each of my eight ensemble members a one-minute solo improvisation to start the class, or as the second activity after a group improvisation. I would secretly time them. Some — and these were fairly to very strong, experienced jazz students — played for as long as eight minutes but, when asked, said they thought it was a little under one minute. Gradually, the group developed a better sense of clock time and how it is altered by musical material. (At first, it can be hard to process the fact that a two-and-a-half-minute modal drone introduction to a 12-minute modal jazz piece, for example, is the same length as “Paperback Writer,” or two Bach 2-part inventions. The experience of musical time has a lot to do with the pace of change and information flow, as well as inner physical and psychological experience, like adrenaline and anxiety.)

I should point out that there are also artists whose work includes both extremes, from miniatures to very long pieces. This difference of duration can be specific to pieces or projects, or it can be a characteristic of an artist, band, or style in general.

Continuity vs. discontinuity: This is related to duration of pieces and sections, but not quite the same. How long do instrumental combinations, textures and densities, general dynamic levels, and areas of musical material stay roughly the same, and how much and how often do they change? Free improvised music of recent decades contains some real extremes in approaches to continuity, from rapid jump cuts to long drones, and from extreme dynamic contrasts to whole concerts of ear-damaging or barely audible music. A lot of music is in the middle of these extremes but is still varied in its degree of continuity across different parameters.

Repetition and imitation (as in imitative counterpoint) are two aspects of continuity about which there are wide-ranging opinions and practices. Thinking of examples, at one end, with much repetition you might have certain pieces by The Necks or Third Person (Tom Cora, Samm Bennett, and an invited guest), or the beginning of Roscoe Mitchell’s famous live interpretation of his piece “Nonaah.” Examples of the other extreme (if I remember correctly) might be Roscoe Mitchell’s “The Flow of Things” or the Joe Maneri quartets, with very little apparent repetition.

Solos and accompaniment vs. group improvisation: Some groups tend to organize their playing into sequences of solos, where one artist is featured in a texture and duration that resembles a solo and accompaniment in a more traditional jazz group — or a soloist with accompaniment in any style (song, concerto, etc.). On the other hand, some improvised music has constantly changing roles and people quickly move from foreground to background and back, or play in varying equal contrapuntal combinations. Again, this could be an area for contention: “Why do you keep interrupting my solos?” vs. “Play with me, let’s get into something; don’t hang back just because I’m playing energetically.” In an educational setting, you can explore all these extremes and the middle ground, and listen to a variety of approaches and discuss them.

Rhythm section (and other instrumental) roles: There are bands and styles in free jazz where the instrumental roles are quite close to those in post-bebop modern jazz, or other musics with rhythm sections: the drums rarely stop, except possibly for a bass solo or an introduction; the bass rarely stops while the drums are playing, except for drum solos; etc. On the other hand, there are bands and styles where all possibilities of orchestration are pursued: in a quintet of two horns, piano, bass, and drums, you might be as likely to hear a duet of only the horns, or drums and piano without bass, as any other combination.

Note that the difference is really created by not playing. Unless you’re a conductor or visually cuing bandleader, or you’ve provided a compositional structure in advance, you can’t change the basic orchestration while improvising except by laying out yourself. When you stop playing for a substantial period of time, longer than a breath (possibly much longer), it has an impact on the sound of the ensemble and the listeners’ perception of orchestration.

Sometimes these two extremes are represented by the phrases “free jazz” (more traditional rhythm section roles) vs. “free improvisation” or “new improvised music” (more varied roles and more laying out)— names without “jazz” in them. But it’s not always that simple or clear what is intended when people first get together.

Rhythm, pulse, and meter: The area of the timing of musical events and how they relate to one another is another parameter with wide variation in improvised music. Some groups and artists are very open to things being in a shared groove, including a steady metric cycle (like 4/4 swing or funk, for example). Some are open to playing in a shared pulse or tempo, but want flexibility to change the meter and move where “1” is. Others strongly prefer to play in free time all or most of the time. And others are quite specific about this, varying it widely from one piece to another. There are ideologies and issues of identity and relationship to history and culture around pulse, meter, and free time that are worth discussing deeply.

“Free time” is not just one thing. There are many variations and ways of playing it. It’s not necessarily the same as classical rubato, or multiple people doing their own rubato playing, although that is one possibility. People deeply immersed in free jazz have a lot to say about free time, and there’s a lot to learn about it, and several kinds.

One key element has to do with whether the figures and gestures are played with their own internal sense of rhythmic momentum and expressive intensity. In my eight years of playing with the great Rashied Ali, John Coltrane’s last drummer and one of the handful of drummers who helped create this style (with Sunny Murray, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, and a few others), I learned a lot about this. He said everything he played was “in time,” and closely related to his studies with Philly Joe Jones and jazz in general, and, to him, all the free-time pieces had a basic tempo. I offered the observation that his approach to rhythm, which John Coltrane called “multi-directional,” was analogous to looking at the real world through a kaleidoscope: everything is what it is, but it’s broken up, changing, etc., and he at least partially agreed. Jazz players may find alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons’ playing with Cecil Taylor and others to exemplify this as well. To explore this, try playing figures in time, but in your own time, or as if they were in time, but shifting among tempos from phrase to phrase, in both mathematically clear and fuzzier ratios. Play with the articulation and dynamic shape that you would use for any rhythmic figure.

The effect of a group of people each playing with their own rhythmic intention and intensity, whether each part is continuous in tempo or not, is very different from that of a group where some or all are playing more like classical rubato, which can have its own beauty or compelling character. Some groups have both, or multiple, kinds of free time going on together. It may take time and listening and playing experience to fully appreciate this.

Unpulsed space and pointillism is another kind of free time that may or may not overlap with the others.

And, of course, tempo (agreed upon or contrapuntally individual, shifting or steady), note durations (and how varied or consistent they are), density (amount of activity over time in one part and in the ensemble as a whole), and the ratio of rests to sounds are all factors that have a huge role in the effect of music.

Pitch material (on the short-term, phrase or motive scale): Another important aspect of the musical surface is how familiar or unfamiliar, diatonic or chromatic or microtonal, tonal or atonal in implications, conjunct or disjunct, directional or zig-zagging, jazz-like or not, blues-related or not, etc. the melodic figures (and their inflections and expressive elements) are. And over what period of time? Are tonal implications constantly being undermined by “Viennese triads” (014 interval sets, like C Db E), tritones, and chromatic intervals of a major 7th or larger? Or are there phrases that are tonal or jazz-like but modulate every few seconds?

Pitch material (on the longer-term, passage or movement or piece scale): Does the pitch material stay in a tonal or modal area, or at least maintain a tonic or pedal tone, for a fairly long while, and does it modulate sometimes? If so, how often? And if it modulates, how (by pivot or abruptly?), what are the key relationships and their distances or number of common tones? What is the rate of chromatic circulation? (I think that useful term comes from composer/teacher Stefan Wolpe: how often are we hearing all 12 notes, or most of them?)

Timbre, register, dynamics, and instrumental techniques: Some styles, players, or pieces use nearly constant extended techniques, including ambiguously-pitched or unpitched noise elements, while others really work with the usual twelve pitches of Western equal-tempered music and the conventionally-produced tones of instruments. Are dynamic ranges and registers extreme or moderate, disjunct or smooth? Are pitches colored by growls, bends, etc., and are these recognizably connected to the expressive language of a traditional music, like earlier jazz, or not?

More parameters will come to mind, and for each, you can think of them as a field with extremes, like a spectrum from ultraviolet through the visible colors to infrared, and experiment with them in all combinations.

Many of these parameters can be observed on the local, moment-to-moment level, and then they multiply when one considers their rate and range of change over time, the direction(s) of that change, etc. Multiple vectors all changing at different rates among the players in an ensemble, listening and reacting to one another musically and imaginatively, coming together and diverging in conscious but somewhat unexpected ways, with a bit of random surprise and quick conscious musical reaction to it, all add up to an endless proliferation of engaging musical forms.

Really, all of this examination of parameters is no less applicable to traditional forms and tonal or modal music, composed or improvised. You can analyze (or practice playing) a bebop solo on a standard form and changes the usual way, in terms of certain melody-harmony relationships and chord resolutions, but also in terms of density, use of registral space over time, chromatic circulation, or any other parameter, and then see what happens when you vary it.

You can take or leave this analytical language and parametric way of thinking. If you use it, I suggest using it judiciously. It is breaking something into parts mentally when the thing itself is really a unique whole. If you do analysis, it’s important to remember that the category is never the thing, and nothing is totally reducible to words and concepts. This is a tool to help us question assumptions, move out of our comfort zones and try unfamiliar things, and/or to better understand and communicate about aspects of free music (or any music). I think of this analysis as being in service of creative inquiry and an enriched experience and appreciation, not an end in itself.

In Part 3, I’ll share a short list of practice suggestions and links to some books, ebooks, recordings, and other resources.

Teaching free improvisation: some thoughts and exercises

I’d like to start this blog by sharing some ideas about teaching free improvisation to musicians who are new to it. I have one exercise, “Forest Duos,” that has proved to be an effective introduction to some of the key elements of group improvisation and choices one has as an improviser: listening, making transitions and endings, choosing material, choosing among varieties of interaction (the spectrum from imitative counterpoint to independence and contrast; use of space), development, flow, free and metric rhythm, dynamics, timbre, etc.

I’ll be part of a panel discussion on this subject at the 2019 JEN (Jazz Education Network) Conference in Reno with Ryan Meagher (organizer) , Dawn Clement, Ralph Alessi, and Samantha Boshnack. It’s called “Coloring Outside the Lines: How We Can Encourage Our Students to Truly Explore Improvisation,” and it’s Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2:00 PM – 2:50 PM in Sierra EL.

Here’s a handout I prepared for a similar panel on teaching free improvisation from the IAJE (International Association of Jazz Educators) conference in New Orleans in January 2000. Graham Collier and Ed Sarath were also on the panel. This one-page summary includes some listening suggestions and some beginning ensemble teaching techniques:

Teaching Group Free Improvisation – IAJE 2000

Here’s a full explanation of my Forest Duos idea. It’s both an exercise with step-by-step instructions, and a composition or framework that can be used in performance:

Forest Duos – Group Improvisation – Chase – 2019

And here is a sample template and a blank template for use in structuring a Forest Duos performance.

Forest Duos – Sample Template – Chase

Forest Duos Blank Template – Chase

Forest Duos Blank Template – Chase – Word Doc to Download

As I say in the Forest Duos document, this evolved out of my studies with some of the great innovators in free jazz and free improvisation at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY, from my work with Tom Hall and other members of Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet over almost four decades of playing together, and from my work with student ensembles, mostly septets and octets: Berklee “large avant-garde ensembles” (1983-88), NEC Duo Ensembles (2003-9), and particularly this graduate ensemble I taught at New England Conservatory in 1995-6 (who helped name the elements like Forest, etc.):

chase nec ensemble 1995-96b

(The ensemble that first worked on Forest Duos and helped develop the idea. Back row: Joel Springer, Thomson Kneeland, Joe Karten, Zach Buell, Russell Mofsky. Front row: Eric Rasmussen, Allan Chase, JC Sanford. Not pictured: Satoko Fujii (piano). NEC 1995-6.)

When we talk about teaching free improvisation, a few frequently asked questions are:

What is free improvisation? The phrase is a commonly-used shorthand for improvisation that is open in form, where the form is improvised or flexible rather than specified in detail in advance; also, usually, there is no precondition about tonal or modal harmony. It doesn’t mean there can’t be any agreed-upon structure, any criteria or values, or any predetermined (stated or understood) guidelines for playing together, or that “anything goes.” Free jazz is usually used for music that has more characteristics of jazz — for example, in the roles of rhythm section instruments, or the way a composed theme is used — but has an improvised form (not specified choruses of predetermined length) and/or freedom to move anywhere tonally.

• How can you teach something that you can’t evaluate? What basis could you have for assessment of free improvisation in an educational setting? This question seems to be based on the premise that bebop improvisation is the norm in jazz education, and it is measurably right or wrong (the student is making the chord changes or not). There’s some truth to that, although simply making the changes is a small part of the art of bebop improvisation. But many things are taught where the form and details are not predetermined or strictly measurable as right or wrong: contemporary classical composition, creative writing, abstract visual art, modern dance choreography, and many other things. Teachers are not afraid to teach these subjects because they can’t assess every aspect of them quantitatively. If you’re concerned about assessment and measurable learning outcomes, you can make a grading rubric that weighs musical aspects — success in achieving the goals of the piece or project — as well as participation, effort, improvement, and productivity, as you might for a visual art or writing assignment in a class where students may have a range of ability and experience.

• How can we do this while maintaining control of the classroom? I think this is determined largely by the messages the teacher conveys. If the teacher or leader says this is serious but fun, a creative but structured experience, and we’re going to make something interesting, and gives the right amount of structure (process, duration, roles to play), then students can get started on a positive track, and they’ll respond well to greater freedom later. On the other hand, if the teacher is apologetic, anxious, disrespectful of the music (a free section was often called a “freakout” when I was a young jazz student in the early 1970s, with predictable results), or implies that something out of control is about to happen, then the results will probably reflect those expectations that the teacher has created.

Who likes this music? Not all jazz educators have learned to listen to and appreciate free jazz and free improvised musics. Some have a tolerance or sincere liking for Ornette Coleman’s early quartets and/or the freer music of contemporary players who have ostensibly “proven themselves” in post-bebop harmonically determined music — the Wayne Shorter Quartet, David Liebman, Joe Lovano, some ECM artists, etc. — but they may not “get” the music of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, the AACM, or the European free improvisation scenes, for example. It’s important to know that the appreciation of this music is gained by listening and curiosity. Learning about the historical and cultural context and the artists’ biographies can help, too. You don’t have to like this, or any style of music, but it is a significant 60-year-old tradition at this point (free jazz has been around for more than half the history of recorded jazz) and there’s a worldwide audience for it which I would estimate is as large or larger than the audience for, say, traditional bebop instrumental jazz today. For example, the Big Ears Festival takes over Knoxville, Tennessee for four days each year with multiple simultaneous sold-out theaters full of people listening to a Milford Graves solo drum set concert, Evan Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet, the ROVA saxophone quartet and guests playing “Ascension,” and dozens of others. The Moers Festival in Germany, Victoriaville in Quebec, and several others have been successful for decades, as are many small record labels and publications dedicated to this music. There are free improvisation venues and scenes in almost every major city, and in some small cities around the world. It’s a small portion of the music industry, of course (as is jazz as a whole), but it’s vibrant and ongoing, and comparable in size to many other traditional and avant-garde music scenes.

I think it’s important to point out that “free improvisation” and the related “free jazz” are not single styles of music. There have been, and are, subcultures of free improvisors and free jazz players that have developed quite distinct aesthetics, practices, and materials, and often they don’t interact with one another easily. The differences, it seems to me, are bigger than, for example, the differences among the swing-era players and New York and Los Angeles bebop players who appeared together on Jazz at the Philharmonic jam sessions. They shared a repertoire and enough assumptions about form, harmony, instrumental roles, and interaction to play music effectively together, even without rehearsal. Major innovators of free jazz and free improvised music coming out of jazz — for example, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Roscoe Mitchell, Evan Parker, and John Zorn  — have rarely performed with one another and have quite different musical ideas and repertoires. There are many prominent circles of players in free jazz and free improvisation that have had little overlap of players over decades. Some of this is social and geographical, but it’s also because they have different ideas about music. There have been some interesting encounters between these groups, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.

I don’t use the term “non-idiomatic improvisation” because, as others have pointed out, if it’s recognizably, audibly a thing, then it has musical characteristics (including the absence of certain common musical elements) and is an idiom or style. Everything I can think of that’s been called “non-idiomatic” has sounded like post-1945 new music in the international (initially European and American) style due to a tendency to avoid tonal, conjunct, conventionally metric material. There are also certain recognizable traits in the pace and types of interaction and development over time. Often subgroups of improvisers within this field have very specific ideas about repetition, development, imitation, and metric agreement, or the avoidance of them. It seems a little inaccurate and perhaps self-flattering to suggest that this recognizable body of music is the only one that is not idiomatic. But categories and names for musical styles (including, of course, “classical” and “jazz”) are always incomplete and contentious and their boundaries are fuzzy, as they should be. The names of musical styles are just nicknames for loose groups of musics that have a family resemblance to one another.

I’ll write about teaching the history and analysis of free jazz, and about the music of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Sun Ra (the subject of my M.A. thesis) in future posts. I’ll also try to follow up with a list of further resources for teachers: books, websites, listening materials, colleagues’ ideas…and free jazz playalongs (yes, they exist).

See also: allanchase.com