How to Play Free Jazz

Posted on September 24, 2013 by

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First of all, free jazz isn’t free, and it isn’t jazz. Also, I can’t teach you how to play it. What I can do is offer some reflection on my own developing practice as a way to encourage you to think about yours.

I don’t know who first used the phrase “free jazz” to describe this music, but Ornette Coleman’s recording, Free Jazz, is probably as good a place to start with it as any. Ornette, I think, was responding to the state of jazz at the time, where the object of the game was to take a set of chord changes and “play over” repeated choruses. (This is still pretty much the practice of mainstream jazz.) Lots of folks were wrestling with this regime: the harmonization of the root tune was made more and more sophisticated; the soloist’s palette of notes was broadened (read George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept for a taste of this); composers such as Mingus, Monk, and Sun Ra were writing new kinds of frameworks for improvisation that escaped the 32-bar show tune format and conventional harmony; new instruments and instrumentation were finding their way into bands. There was (and is) a lot of great stuff going on, and to view the situation as “Ornette against the jazz establishment” is a bit overheated.

Ornette’s genius was to reconceptualize the structure of the jazz game. Instead of a repeating chord progression that provided the soloist a harmonic structure to guide his or her improvisations, Ornette wrote melodies that provided thematic elements and a feel for a tune, and then — you know, this is hard to describe — then the bass would freely improvise a bass line, and the soloist would improvise a melody in concert with that. Instead of a planned harmonic structure, harmony emerges from the interaction of the musicians, and likewise the time in the piece would be spontaneously constructed between the melody instruments and the drummer. So, as I said, it isn’t really jazz since the notions of “functional harmony” (a la David Baker) and “swing” no longer operate to organize the tunes.

From there, things wandered off in a bunch of directions. Ornette has stayed with his funky little tunes providing springboards for improv. Coltrane produced the gorgeous watercolors of “Ascension” and other such works — big blobs of cacophonous, yet strangely structured, sounds. Albert Ayler — well, I’m not sure where he got the idea, but his music seems to spring from the realization that Ornette’s concept and traditional jazz (“Dixieland”) are similar: Ayler’s music sounds like Dixieland played by joyous aliens. What they share is that the “vertical” organization of jazz standards (or standard jazz) — the chord progression — is abandoned in favor of the “horizontal” organization of multiple improvising musicians playing melodies and ostanati.

Make sense?

I find it hard to do. I’ve been a practicing free player for thirty years or so, and once in a while I think I make progress, but (more often) I find myself making a variety of subtle errors. Lots of times, you can end up sounding like Spinal Tap’s “free form jazz improv,” or, you know, Phish, because you decide to resort to playing things you know sound good. Or you get into a variety of pissing contests with the other musicians (both of you will accuse the other of “not listening”). And sometimes you aren’t listening, or one of your colleagues is not listening, and either one of you can kill the session. Or you forget about dynamics, or have a need to be impressive. Or you want to be liked. Or you confuse just playing something weird with being free. I can report that this is all bad news.

And sometimes it works. The kick, for me as a listener, is when the music suddenly comes together in a moment of clarity — beauty breaks through.

So what I want to say is that free jazz is both a kind of discipline as well as a target to strive for. But you can’t really “get there” for more than a moment or two. Well, I can’t.

Now, finally, “how to”:

1. Free jazz isn’t free. Not really: we all have finger patterns we like. Work devotedly to root out those finger patterns, and your habits, your (god forbid) “licks,” and generic elements from your playing. You can’t succeed, but you can strive to become more self-aware.

2. Play in the ensemble. You need to listen to everyone and fashion your playing in (or against) that context. Get the “solo” idea out of your head. There may be times when you’re more prominent, or even playing alone, but even then be tuned to your colleagues, the scene, and the overall arc of the piece you’re creating.

3. Don’t play all the time.

4. Maintain the groove. In a high-functioning ensemble, everyone knows where the groove is, even if no one is playing it. “Groovelessness,” in this case, is a groove. Don’t change feel mid-tune unless you just have to.

5. Create a form. Make both your own playing, and the overall piece, have some arc of development. ABA is the easiest, but there are other ways to do this.

6. For the most part, follow the rules that govern the piece you’re playing. That is, try to make pieces different than one another. If you don’t do something, your improvs will turn into undifferentiated mush.

7. Use ostanati liberally. It helps anchor the band. (And you should expect other players to do this too.  You should get plenty of turns to range around.)

8. Once in a while, step out and drive the engine. Other times, follow. Other times, be in a whole different space.

(My old band, circa 2000: Saxman from Planet X)

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