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Free Improv

Discussion in 'Ask Steve Lawson & Michael Manring' started by stephanie, Jul 14, 2001.


  1. stephanie

    stephanie

    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    Hehe. Hey Steve, started this thread here since you said you'd write more on free improv.

    Also, I'd love to hear your experience of the looping tour.

    See? I have a nice thread awaiting you. :D

    Cheers,

    ~Stephanie
     
  2. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Hi Steph,

    The free part of this last looping tour was so invigorating that it got me thinking about it all over again, so here's a bit of a random collection of thoughts on the subject.

    Firstly, I guess I ought to define what I mean by free playing, mainly cos the term 'free jazz' has all kinds of associations with a particular movement in jazz starting in the very late 50s and moving on from there, which implied a new found freedom from the constraints of conventional harmony, and lead to the music being very dissonant, harsh, atonal and often involved the players employing extended techniques on their instruments to get certain effects, a lot of which were dissonant multiphonics on horns or various types of sqeaks and squawks on other instruments.

    That's not what I mean by free - to me, now, that doesn't feel like free playing - playing 'out' no longer feels like freedom. Free playing, and free improv to me means that all sound is acceptable, and can be used to reach an end. As a result, there's no musical or aesthetic distinction drawn between gorgeous diatonic melodies and clashing industrial noise. Both are sounds to be employed as part of the journey. So on this tour, we drifted from sounding like nice new age mood music, to really poppy funk grooves over two chords, to dissonant heavy distorted atonal stuff that sounded more like Slipknot or Painkiller, all in one gig, without it feeling forced or incongruous. The only rule was that whatever anyone played was valid and you went with it, no pulling it apart in terms of 'good' or 'bad' but you reacted to what they did, and added your own spirit to the peice. Sometimes that was easy, and sometimes it was a wrestling match. The San Jose gig was effortless - loads of different bits of music, some really short some really long, tonnes of styles and sounds etc. Santa Cruz was much more fractured, with the music pulling in different directions, wrestling and eventually resting in certain places but remaining unresolved for most of the night... We didn't draw lines around it, it just 'was'. San Jose did feel rather special, but that in no way invalidated the other nights; there was just a slight euphoria when we came off stage.

    So how does one get into this stuff? Well, I was very fortunate to have my musical beginnings in a really dull town, where just to kick against the normalness of everything, my musician friends at school and I would buy the weirdest music we could find - to start with it was mainly prog rock, but eventually I got into a lot of weird jazz, as well as hardcore punk, one of the guys got into metal in a big way, and one was really into German electronica and psychedelia. The influence on the music we made was that we would swap instruments, use odd sounds like drum machines sped right up or taps running, or crumpled crisp packets, or contact mics attached to our throats, or anything else to get weird noises. There was no great artistic plan behind this, we just didn't draw lines round our music making. It was all meant to be fun, which meant we could make stupid noise just as music as we could make 'proper' music. Guitars we dragged on ropes behind cars to see what effect it would have on the sound, and we even had a plan to form a busking band of bass, bongos and a guy in heavy duty work boots dancing on a wooden board mic'd up through a delay unit!!!

    With that as my beginnings in music (and BTW, none of that stuff is worth listening to at all - it was all rubbish, and I couldn't play bass at the time to save myself, but it was important as a beginning...), it meant that what I considered to be music was wide open. I bought records by free bands, but also by pop bands - I still listen to everything from John Zorn to the Spice Girls, Kings X to Harry Partch, Ali Farke Tourre to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Michael Jackson to SadHappy, Bill Frisell to D'Angelo... any music, in fact any sound is measured on its own merits, not by any seemingly falsely imposed cultural construct. Now, I'm not for a second suggesting that I'm not influenced by my culture - of course I am, hugely, but I am willing to reach beyond that, to attempt to discard that when the aesthetic imposed by that culture fails to provide the tools to engage with a certain type of art. I'll try and meet the artist where they are coming from, rather than drag them into my world and dismiss what they do because it doesn't meet the criteria of what I already know...

    So the wonder of this last tour is that it really was a case of anything goes. Michael and I even did an impromptu duet on 'fly me to the moon' in Big Sur, and Rick Walker's collection of percussive sounds, vocal sounds and 'prepared bass' ideas were just incredible... both musicians seemed willing to go anywhere... That kind of tour runs the risk of completely imploding if any one musician decides to try and dictate the kind of direction the music should go. For it to really work as free music, it has to be egalitarian, and it has to be spontaneous. If not, then start arranging things, cos the half way point gets very messy, trying to freely improvise to meet someone else's musical needs... It may well be that the next time we play, we'll have some more structured peices. We recorded every night of the tour, so hopefully we'll be able to pull apart the improv stuff and maybe come out with some compositions based on that stuff - use those tapes as research and development for the next tour when we tour supporting the live album, and end up playing some of what is on the album, even though its genesis was free improv...

    does that make any sense? I hope so. The bottom line is, it's really difficult to let go of what you think 'music' is, of what is acceptable or not, of what other people around you should be playing. I have a friend who about 6 albums into his career decided to do a 'band' album, to get in players and share out the duties - he ended up sampling all the other guys sounds and programming it, cos he couldn't let go - his own sense of where the music should be was too strong. Which is fine, if you're honest about it, and aware of the limitations therein.

    Sit down with other musicians and just play, no expectation. It doesn't matter what instrument, or what noises they make, just play, and see where it ends up. Listen and react, don't impose limitations on how you react, it doesn't have to be 'in tune' or 'in time', just try to remain aware of what's going on, and in control of your own playing, even if in exercising that control you decide to do something completely random - that's an act of control... :oops:)

    Most of all, have fun! - free improv is about play - watch a little kid with their first drum, they just enjoy the sound, they don't worry about whether it's groovin' or not, or what else is going on, they just hit the damn thing! try it, it's fun, enjoy it, make a racket, make a melody, make noise, but have fun, interract, and see what happens...

    peace

    Steve
    www.steve-lawson.co.uk
     
  3. Josh Ryan

    Josh Ryan - that dog won't hunt, Monsignor. Staff Member Supporting Member

    Mar 24, 2001
    Cool man, thanks for posting that.
     
  4. stephanie

    stephanie

    Nov 14, 2000
    Scranton, PA
    Yeah, thanks Steve! That was great! :)

    This reminds me of a friend (who I unfortunately haven't seen in quite a long time) who's house I use to go over. He'd invite a bunch of ppl over to 'jam'. His house was loaded with all different instruments: from basses and acoustic guitars and loads of different kinds of drums to a squeezebox, a mandolin....anything you can think of. We'd all sit down with a chosen instrument and just jam with it. It was a lot of fun. :) He recorded a couple of our jams I believe.

    Oh, and for the record, I still bang on a drum like a little kid. :D

    Cheers,

    ~stephanie
     
  5. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    ...keep on banging that drum, girlfriend! :oops:)

    Those kind of jams are so important - playing whatever instrument is around, playing two spoons and a biscuit tin - whatever comes to hand. Spontaneous musical fun - the stuff of life... :oops:)

    Steve
    www.steve-lawson.co.uk
     
  6. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    As the others have said a very interesting post and which makes a lot of sense to me in terms of musical influences and finding the wierdest stuff you can - just a quick question - did you mean Slaphappy, rather than "SadHappy"? I remember them as a very interesting group and well worth checking out?
     
  7. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    thanks for that bruce, glad it connects with you.

    Definitely SadHappy though - weird punk/jazz/avant group featuring Michael Manring, Paul Hinklin and Evan ?? on drums - two bassists and a drummer. Stunning stuff...

    Steve
     
  8. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    Oh well - that's a new one to me then!

    I remember SlapHappy as one of the most interesting experimental bands who made records with Henry Cow ) - Fred Frith etc.

    Dagmar: voice, Peter Blegvad: guitar, voice; Anthony Moore: piano; John Greaves: bass guitar, Chris Cutler: drums
     
  9. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    hello all,

    just signed in for this thread (steve l. is on a list i'm on and suggested people there check this thread out).

    first a small intro. i'm a guy who has done most of the usual rock band things, some jazz touring, some playing in symphony orch., etc. now i devote some 80% of my time to free playing - - if one also includes writing compositions that utilize free improv in each piece (and no, composition and free improv aren't necessarily mutually exclusive).

    okay . . .

    i think steve is pretty much right about the free improv things that he discusses. with all due respect, however, one quibble i do have is that his discussion of the history of "free jazz" is somewhat pejorative - - he uses terminology that is less than kind when he talks about it. i don't have a problem with his opinion per se, but as a history lesson (which it sort of was) it could've been a little better worded - - in my humble opinion, etc. to be honest, i don't care for all of that stuff myself, but it was important and valid to the creators at the time and to the present day - - and is still valid important to the many listeners who still enjoy it. also, as in most genres of music, there's the good stuff and the not-so-good stuff.

    another line on this is that dissonance/noise is in the ear of the "behearer" (so to speak): someone who doesn't have experience with the industrial music that steve likes to use as a touchstone in his free improv may find it godawful dissonance, whereas they may love overblown saxophone harmonics. i personally like both in measure. (something else to consider in all of this, some people thought beethoven was unholy noise when some his pieces were played at first, so it's all a matter of context on one level.)

    for me, it all comes down to doing something in moderation - - being able to do the pretty melodies and the noise. in this regard, i think that steve is quite right.

    lastly, if you look at the history of free jazz, you may find that part of the aesthetic was the rebellion against being inundated by prettiness all around - -and some people have followed that down to the present day. in a certain way, this parallels the whole punk rock thing (and other aspects of rock) to a certain extent.

    i'd be interested to know if any of the other folks here are interested in doing free improv.

    anyway, that's probably enough,

    stig
     
  10. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Stig,

    thanks so much for signing up and throwing in your thoughts.

    I wasn't meaning to be unfair about the free history - I do think that the advances made by those guys were vital and had a political resonance that very little music since has managed to match. I really enjoy some of it, and appreciate the thinking behind much of that that I don't chose to listen to...

    I guess the distinction I was attempting (perhaps falsely, and with too broad a brush) was between the reactive stuff that you mention - kicking against the overt niceness of much music, as opposed to the kind of freedom that says anything goes, all is valid...

    Thanks for your thoughts - I think you helped to clarify my thinking there. If you have time to share your own journey towards free improv, i'd love to hear it - I really like the Quartetto Stig CD that I've got here...

    cheers

    Steve
    www.steve-lawson.co.uk
     
  11. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    hey steve,

    thanks for the clarification. i think that your comment about the political charge of much early free jazz is well taken - - though it was not always overtly so (again there is a parallel with some punk rock here). this also elides with some thoughts below.

    as for my path to free improv (etc.), it may be too lengthy to go into here. so, i'm gonna post a link to my bio on the cryptogramophone web site (they're releasing my next cd on 31 july). it's longish but probably explains what needs to be explained: http://www.cryptogramophone.com/artist.asp?id=22

    i had loads of thoughts after i clicked on submit reply on my last post. so here are some more:

    a lot of what (total) free improv is often about is the emotion of the moment - - what's happening right now (and if i'm feeling angry, then it's gonna have some anger to it, if i feel "pretty," it's gonna have something pretty about it, if i wanna rock, it's gonna rock, etc.). in this way it is probably unlike any other music people play; for even when people are "in the moment" playing a composition or song, they are still involved with a process of dealing with something that was written before they even woke up that morning, and it is therefore a product of a moment, or series of moments, that occured in the past. (not a slam on composition!)

    while a lot of this stuff is about what one is FEELING at the moment, it also goes to how one reacts to the other people (assuming one is not doing a solo improv) involved. this is often an intellectual process (e.g., so-and-so is playing fast 8th notes, i can either join in and emulate that texture, or i can layer a different texture - - say long tones - - on top of that). in my mind, the most succesful people doing this bring a compositional approach to what's going on. in fact, many people who do free improv would say that it is really "spontaneous group composition." at its best, i think this is true.

    in many ways, one could say that free improv is really just like conversation - - filled with good give-and-take, laughs, etc. like any conversation or communication, it requires attentive LISTENING to the others involved. (ever have a conversation where someone isn't listening to you??? it's not very productive or fun.)

    many people would say that free improv is just anything-goes wanking . . . and for some people it is (though i would debate whether or not it is really free improv in this case). for the people who do it best it is a fairly disciplined approach to making music without pre-determined musical elements, but - - assuming one has the vocabulary - - with an infinite amount of possibilities at one's fingertips.

    i'm sure this is too verbose, sorry!

    stig
     
  12. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I mentioned to Steve elsewhere about a trio gig I saw at my local Jazz club - Trumpet, Sax and Guitar - Kenny Wheeler, Stan Sulzmann and John Paricelli.

    They started playing an Ornette Coleman tune and played the "head" all 3 in unison, which was a very short and fast blues. But then they got into the blowing and John Paricelli used his midi-eqipped guitar and a boomerang phrase sampler to stack up very weird strings-sounding chords - to create an almost orchestral sound of very slow chords, that sounded more like Olivier Messiaen than Ornette Coleman while trumpet and sax improvised freely over the top!

    So in relation to Ed's point of "playing" the song we got about half a minute or less of Ornette and 20-30 minutes of free playing that could not have been further away from this tune!!

    But at least it serves the pupose of identifying the piece - so hopefully, I will get to see John Paricelli next week and will be able to say to him - you remember what you did on that Ornette Coleman tune when you were at Brighton Jazz club - what chords were you using? Whereas if the whole gig had just been "free" with no starting points, it would have been very difficult to identify what or when I meant ! ;)
     
  13. Bruce Lindfield

    Bruce Lindfield Unprofessional TalkBass Contributor Gold Supporting Member

    I'm interested in hearing more - that is, both free imrov and more of your thoughts - we like verbose! ;)


    I would like to do this, but am still in a learning process myself - there is still so much I want to learn. But once I feel confident enough to interact with good musicians on this level, its definitely something I want to explore.

    I like the idea of spontaneous composition and this can find audiences if the musicians are good enough - like the gig I mentioned above.

    I have done some workshops with Alex Maguire, who is a pianist very much into free improv and love what he does. One of the higlights of the Jazz Summerschool I attended last year (off again on Sunday to the same one!) was the Tutors "duo" spots/masterclasses.

    So there are about 15 - 20 tutors who play varying instruments and they put their names in a hat and two are picked at random and they perform a spontaneous free improvisation together - in a sort of "chamber music" setting. So there were many different combinations - like sax and piano,drums and trumpet etc and all the tutors did this in two slots on two days.

    In terms of the student interest and concentration of listening this was the most appreciated event although there was a Jazz Club every evening where conventional tutor groups played arranged and improvised pieces.

    So I think that although the vast majority of Jazz gigs are still mostly around pre-determined sequences and arrangements, I think there's still room for more free stuff and I would certainly go out of my way to go along to gigs like this.
     
  14. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Ed,

    I think for me the difference is the tyranny of the word jazz - those who avoid it are often (not always, but often) the ones I am drawn to. Describing Bill Frisell as a 'jazz musician' would fall woefully short of his contribution to everything from country to hardcore, and although there's a jazz sensibility that informs some of his work (and some of his side-man work in particular is well within the remit of jazz), he doesn't seem to operate under that banner. There are a lot of players who are being grouped under that non-burns jazz thing that seem to have little to do with jazz, beyond tapping into the history of experimentation that jazz has embodied on and off for a hundred years.

    I don't think my take on this stuff is particularly new, and wouldn't want to attempt to set myself up as any kind of authority on the subject - my thoughts and feelings on it are informed predominantly by my own playing experiences, and though spending a lot of time thinking about music from that angle, and also through listening to all manner of music, enjoying all kinds of music and trying to reconcile seemingly disparate elements within my taste, but realising that there's no reason why i should have to - it's all ultimately just sound, so what I do with that is completely up to me... :oops:)

    cheers

    Steve
    www.steve-lawson.co.uk
     
  15. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    If it was truly a free gig then there'd be no repetition without it occuring spontaneously - on the 5 gigs of the Manring/Walker/Lawson tour, we didn't repeat any material - by that I mean, the starting point for each improv was different. I'm sure there were chord shapes that were used more than once, and I guess we slipped into 4/4 on more than a few occasions, but we didn't tackle variations on the same theme twice...

    In my own gigs, it's kind of half 'n' half - the initial loop is often prewritten, but where it goes after that is defined by a prearranged order of effects, rather than a note based thing. So it's improvised stuff over a familiar loop with familiar sounds... at some point I'll post 8 versions of the same tune on my site from different gigs, so that anyone truly bored enough to want to can hear how they change... :oops:)

    Requests are a strange thing to deal with, especially if you see the 'arc' of a gig as being part of what makes it work... I had a song requested at one of my gigs in Calfornia, cos the guy was leaving, which I hadn't planned to play til later and as a result I kinda fudged my way through it, which was a little annoying... maybe if I'd left it til later it would have worked... perhaps next time I'll say 'no' to a request... who knows, I'll make it up as I go along! :oops:)

    Steve
    www.steve-lawson.co.uk
     
  16. Michael Manring

    Michael Manring TalkBass Pro Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Thanks for asking me to have a look at this thread Steve. Interesting comments from everyone!

    I too, grew up doing the free jam thing with my friends and I've been lucky enough to be involved in various kinds of improvised music throughout my career. Some "free" music isn't really without rules as the performers tend to be bound by conventions and idioms, but I don't think that necessarily invalidates it artistically. Even in improv without boundaries, the players are still limited to common vocabulary. If you start playing the head to "Confirmation" in the middle of a jam with players who have only ever played rock music for instance, it's unlikely they'll suddenly join you at the bridge.

    One of the things that strikes me about free improv is that it's relatively rare. In my experience, even most improvised-based musics in the world are actually quite structured. Why our culture should be one of the only ones to be comfortable with music that has as few rules as possible is a question that I find intriguing.

    There are pros and cons to free improv as there are about any other kind of music. My favorite thing about free playing is that it offers an opportunity for especially deep listening and interaction. In fact in my opinion, it really isn't worth playing free music at all unless everybody is really tuned in and sensitive. But when they are it can be a mighty nice little journey.
     
  17. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    hi michael.

    interesting that we "meet" this way as we have mutual friends/playing aquaintences in alex and nels cline.

    i think that you're quite right about conventions and idiomatic expression (i think that steve also touched on this when he discussed not existing in a cultural vacuum). i just read an interview with a guy who does a lot of free music (bassist dominic duval). he was saying that "improvisation" (per se) does not really exist in that we all bring our already-existing ideas and vocabularies to an improv. for the most part i think this may be correct - - with the exception that there are those amazing moments when one finds oneself playing something or utilizing a new technique that one hasn't yet done. again, i think this harkens back to the analogy of a conversation where one brings ideas but can learn something new, as well.

    in terms of our culture (and here i'm assuming that you mean american [and by this i mean the totality of that culture]/western european culture and anyone who follows the music being created out of those traditions) being one that seems to have
    music of this nature with almost no rules, i think it is a product of the continuance of the idea of the primacy of the individual. one can probably chart this as beginning by at least the renaissance.

    you, know a lot of people are using jam and improv as being the same thing and i'm not sure that this is something i agree with. if you have a bunch of rock people doing a "jam session" i don't think it is the same thing as people who identify themselves as improvisors - - same thing with a jazz jam session, which almost always goes to tunes anyway. it may be a matter of semantics, but i see them as being different things.

    as far as doing confirmation in a improv, i was on tour with this guy julius hemphill who did some pretty adventurous improv sections in his pieces; one night it was time for a bass solo and i decide to do the melody to autumn leaves. definitely got some interested looks!

    the deep listening thing is true . . . but i tend to think in ratios of success: it used to be anything around 70-30 (good-bad) split was a good improv gig, not it's more like 80-20 or 85-15. it's sorta like any human acitivity - - conversation, sex . . . when it hits it's great, but even if it's marginal you still enjoy it or learn something from it. there can never be any guarantees of it always being great, you go and do it and try to make sure you're in the moment and with everyone. so i think it can always be worth it . . . practically speaking it isn't always. (but don't you feel that about playign written stuff too?)

    stig (the verbose)
     
  18. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    steve said:

    In my own gigs, it's kind of half 'n' half - the initial loop is often prewritten, but where it goes after that is defined by a prearranged order of effects, rather than a note based thing. So it's improvised stuff over a familiar loop with familiar sounds... at some point I'll post 8 versions of the same tune on my site from different gigs,

    ** see, to me, this wouldn't really be "free improv" - - it's a composition or compositional framework that you use for doing improv (sorta like the head in a jazz standard). if you see what i mean.

    not saying it's "bad," just saying it's not the same thing as free improv. (for what it's worth, i do similar things.)

    stig (mr quibble)
     
  19. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Great stuff Stu/Michael!

    I'll post more later, but just to say that I don't think that what I do in the setting described above is free improv either.. :oops:) I was confusing things by talking about semi structured improv and free improv in the same post...

    I say semi structured because of of the things i do is to lay down the initial prearranged loop, record a separate non-sync'd loop against it, and eventually fade the original loop and play against the improv'd loop... :oops:)

    I don't think that what i do in that setting fulfills any of criteria of free improv, even though the tunes do go in all kinds of directions... :oops:)

    Steve
    www.steve-lawson.co.uk
     
  20. steubig

    steubig

    Jul 17, 2001
    locustland, ca
    okay steve,

    no problem. i was just drawing a distinction because of the title of the thread.

    for me, i tend to do a lot of music that incorporates free improv - - or directed free improv, if you will (an oxymoron, no doubt) - - into a written structure. i write stuff for people and then say, it's wide open, let's go . . . and then bring back thematic material later.

    i quite like the tension between "free improv" in this sense and the written stuff. (what i really like is when the improv is so seamless that people can't tell where the written stuff ends and the improv begins.)

    so, i get where you're coming from, but felt that we needed to parse the words a little more closely.

    thanks for having me

    stig