Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Five (5) Benefits of Playing Free Jazz

Playing free jazz (or improvised music) is something I find myself doing more and more these days. Even though I consider myself a straight-ahead player at heart, playing improvised music has increasingly become an important part of my musical identity. Many who knew me as a budding young tenor player at the Berklee College of Music, knew I didn't like playing anything that wasn't in 4/4 time, that didn't have at least one chord change per bar,  and, of course, it HAD to be swinging.  In recent years, I've become increasingly more comfortable with the freedom existing within the free jazz context.

Coming from a straight-ahead background, I certainly understand why some musicians might not embrace free playing--often rejecting it as "jiving." It is true that it’s not as harmonically and rhythmically demanding—two hurdles separating the boys from the men in the world of hard bop. And yes, free jazz can attract less disciplined players who sometimes use the title of "free player" as a crutch for not studying the history of jazz, nor their instrument.  I get it. 

However, after having played numerous free jazz gigs, there are certain things I have discovered which can be gained from playing in this style—even if it's not your cup of aesthetical tea.

1. You learn to play more spontaneously.

While most styles of jazz require you to be spontaneous; however, free jazz requires you to bring logic and order to the music from scratch. So of like going for a drive and creating a map on the way. This happens as a soloist and collectively. Being able to perform from a space with no agenda other than making music is a good skill, no matter what style of music you're playing.  Playing free jazz is a constant negotiation between satisfying your agenda as a soloist and being in tune to what's happening within the ensemble. To perform in front of a live audience with no idea of what you're going to play for the next hour is frightening, yet liberating.

2. You're forced to listen to others more intently.

Playing in a more conventional setting, you're not always required to listen as intently as one might think. Since musicians are performing a set role, you could conceivably play your improvised solo with little regard to what the other members of the ensemble are doing. And trust me, I've heard many do just that.

In fact, I remember once at a Dave Liebman master class, while discussing the importance of listening, he told this humorous anecdote about a well-known tenor player who already knew what he was going to play on the tunes before he even got to the gig. When performing in a freer context, perfunctory roles are not so easily performed.  Anything can happen at any time. Musicians may not even be playing their instruments in conventional ways. You have to listen intently just to hear the direction the piece is going.

3. You learn to think more about texture and dynamics.

Playing jazz in a more conventional format, the common vocabulary tends to consist of lines and patterns. Whereas free playing is more inviting for exploring sound and texture. Since the music can be static--meaning that the pulse is not always being driven by walking bass lines or the driving ride cymbal of the drummer--this allows players to think more about creating moods and texture, than playing with rhythmic and harmonic accuracy.

4. It's a good platform for extended techniques.

The free jazz is a great platform for players to display their sonic vocabularies of extended techniques. I'm referring to everything from two-fisted chordal clusters, to saxophone multi-phonics, to hitting the drums with a set of eating utensils. Again, because the music tends to be more static, utilizing sound and texture becomes more viable options. In fact, many free jazz saxophonists I like sound like they don’t know the tradition of jazz very well. And that's OK. If I want to hear the tradition played authentically, I'll listen to traditional players.

5. You're forced to think more about the pacing of your solo.

In a more conventional format, an improviser mainly thinks about how to get from point A to point B. So your only concern musically is navigating the harmonic and rhythmic hurdles along your path. In a free jazz context, it’s a bit more complex. You have to create form as you go along--thinking like an improviser, a composer, and an orchestrator.


So as you can see, even if you have no intentions of leading an ensemble at the next Vision Festival, you can still learn a thing or two from those who tend to be more left to center that can enable you to bring more depth and openness to your music. And yes, the free cats can certainly learn a thing or two from the hard-boppers as well.

But in closing, I'd like to tell about the time I did a free jazz gig at Smalls Jazz Club a while back with Andrew Cyrille, Ethan Iverson, and Oliver Lake, and someone came up to me after the set and asked, "Who wrote that last piece?" It was nice to be able to say, "We all did."


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