Free Improvisation

Let me throw in my two cents about this free-form music business. All I can say is that the more one plays in a completely free way, the more some things become apparent. One becomes aware of tapping into the source of all music. That is, "free" music is the source where all music comes from. All music genres, and others not yet "invented", are abstractions. So free playing is a discovery of this principal source, not an invention.

In the Beginning

Who was the first to play free? Pre-historic humans probably did, albeit gravitating towards rhythm and chants. Though widely regarded as a 20th Century phenomenon, there might still be some precedents nevertheless. It's a hard thing to verify as all we have is musical notation on paper before audio recording was invented. Conjecture is certainly worthwhile.

Possible Precedents from Classical Music

1839: Frederic Chopin's Finale (4th movement) of the Funeral March (Sonata No. 2 in Bbm, Op. 35) alludes to free playing. There is no way to actually know if Chopin played free in the privacy of his own home, but this short little finale suggests the possibility.

1915: Claude Debussy lived long enough to make some piano rolls, but recording was not so commonplace in his day. "Pour les huit doigts" - No. 6 from 12 Etudes for piano - sounds like a free improvisation. It suggests that Debussy may have been dabbling in free playing and attempted to write something down to express this kind of freedom.

1930s: Charles Ives was recorded at the piano in four sessions from 1933 - 1943, and it sure sounds like free playing to me (released as "Ives Plays Ives"). Some of Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky's piano recordings also hint of free playing. In his autobiography, published in 1936, Stravinsky said that he loved to improvise on the piano. Of course we don't know if he actually delved into a free-form realm, but his composing suggests the possibility.

It is interesting to note that while free improvisation was brewing in the 20th century, many composers of the era were also writing music that sounded like that (even though some of the compositions were the result of rigorous procedure, such as twelve tone serialism). The so-called Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) and Edgard Varèse are prime examples but there are many more: Boulez, Ligeti, Schnittke, Xenakis, etc.

Perhaps the most striking embodiment of the spirit of free playing from the classical world comes to us from Stravinsky, as he was reflecting on composing his Rite of Spring. Even though he was enjoying some of the classical music composed by more rigorous methods, he said that he was guided by no system or theory, and very little tradition. He wrote by ear! He wrote "only what he heard" and he felt that he was "the vessel through which it passed".


While there may have been many examples of free improvisation by solo performers, playing "free" together as a group with no prearranged stipulations, listening to each other and playing in the moment - Lennie Tristano's bands seem to have been the first.

1946-7: There are hints of group free improvisation in his Mercury Keynote trio sessions. The band goes into free stretches at the end of many of the tunes.

1949: "Intuition" and "Digression" from the Capitol sessions are full-grown group free improvisations. While some may call this "free jazz" - it certainly sounds as much like jazz as it does free improvisation - it is definitely free improvisation as well.

1953: "Descent into the Maelstrom" sounds like pure free improvisation, albeit achieved on the piano alone with multi-tracking.

In lieu of the fact that many could have been dabbling in this free-playing-business, Tristano realized what it was and elevated it to a status on par with any other form of music making - a major breakthrough that not a lot of music journalists noticed. No longer a novelty, but a valid way of playing music in its own right.

[A good analogy for the rock guitarists out there: many guitarists were dabbling with various ways of fretting notes on the guitar neck with both hands (now called "tapping") before Eddie Van Halen, yet EVH unlocked the secret and blew it wide open - no longer a "trick", but a valid playing technique.]

All of the music above pre-dates John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman by several years. I'm only pointing this out because historically, most music journalists have given these two the credit for the birth of "free improvisation". They did in fact launch a movement of their own, with many contemporaries, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy among them, and there were many more.

A very interesting note, worthwhile of more research, is that jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge has said that he himself had been playing free, on piano, before he was aware of anyone else doing it. I have no personal stake in any of this. I welcome all historical examples of free playing that might come to light.


There are also many examples of free playing in the rock world:

1963: A then-unknown Frank Zappa was including free improvisation in his performances as can be heard on "Mount St. Mary's Excerpt" from The Lost Episodes.

1966: The last track of his first LP, Freak Out!, "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" has the spirit of free playing. From the liner notes: "... what freaks sound like when you turn them loose in a recording studio at one o'clock in the morning ...".

1969: This was a "banner" year. Early in the year, guitarist Terry Kath recorded a wild guitar piece entitled "Free Form Guitar" on the first Chicago album (when they were calling themselves the "Chicago Transit Authority"). Later in the year, the fade out on "Do What You Like" from Blind Faith's debut album (Blind Faith) is free! Perhaps an unintentional nod to Lennie Tristano's 1940s trio sessions? Jimi Hendrix did it all the time with whammy bar and feedback à la his version of the Star Spangled Banner (and many other a cappella guitar solos), but his version at Woodstock from August of that year is the pièce de résistance.

There are many more examples. "Revolution 9" from The Beatles White Album is a standout track. The Doors played free behind Jim Morrison when he recited his poetry. Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead are two more bands that come to mind. Eddie Van Halen himself has dabbled in free playing as well.

Experiencing Free Improvisation

What exactly is free improvisation and how do you do it? To begin with, there are no set key or time signatures, and no form or format. In a group situation, oftentimes one musician will start playing, and the rest will join in. Everyone is listening to each other. There is no thought process involved. In fact, you have to get yourself "out of the way". There is a misconception about improvising in general, that there is a slight delay because the mind is processing what it is hearing and formulating a response. That's because the brain is still in the way. You just have to let go, and the music will start playing itself. You will all actually be creating the music in the moment.

To most listeners, the music will sound completely atonal, but this is not necessarily the case. Whether playing free or listening to others playing free, you will actually begin to experience a range of harmony. "Dissonance" and "consonance" no longer apply, at least not in judgmental terms. They might be opposite ends of a spectrum, useful for descriptive purposes. You will hear strange, beautiful melodies interweaving in this expanded awareness of harmony. The various rhythms that appear will include less machine-like metronomic beats and make way for other more natural rhythms like one hears in nature. The water, the wind, your own breathing, your heartbeat ... the whole experience can be quite profound. Literally, what creation feels like.

How do you know when to stop playing? This one of the most uncanny things about free improvisation - the endings suggest themselves, often in quite humorous ways. The musicians will all seem to sense the ending at once. Most free stretches seem to last a few minutes, but they can be shorter or longer. You just start playing and the music takes care of the rest.

I must admit that when I was first hearing free improvisation that it all sounded like noise to me. It wasn't even atonal music! I needed a portal to find my way in. Most people find their way in via jazz. That's why the term "free jazz" is so prevalent. But it's not the only way. In my case, it was The Rite of Spring that blew it all wide open. That Stravinsky piece opened my ears so that I could finally hear free improvisation. In addition to Stravinksy, I was also listening to Bartók and improvising on all of this material for my own pleasure. One day, I was able to join in. I started by playing on this material, but was soon able to let it go and tap into the source of all music. Voilą! I was improvising freely.

The more you play free, the more your music will expand. It won't hurt any of your traditional music stylings, it will enhance them! Some of the best advice ever regarding free improvisation came from a most unusual source, and has guided me on this free playing journey. Bruce Lee! The advice he gives in his famous "be water my friend" conversation is absolutely invaluable, and is worth seeking out. It's a very brief video clip that can be found on youtube. Also, all of the philosophical ideas that he presents in the film Enter the Dragon - it is well worth watching for those alone. There was one particular idea that I pondered for years (maybe that was the intent), which helped my free playing immensely. He talks about how he must deal with an "enemy", yet, at the highest form of the martial art - there is no enemy. Why?

"Because the word 'I' does not exist."

Music is Infinite

Anyone can play free, of course, but the more one knows music (sans bias) the more rewarding it will be. Open-minded musicians from various genres of music can play free together, if they so choose. There can even be stylistic influences, e.g., "free jazz", "free rock", "free form fusion", but these are just subsets of the whole: pure free improvisation. Free Improvisation was not invented, it was a discovery of the source. No one genre, no one individual can claim to have invented it. Music is infinite: no one has the right to claim it. But what do I know? I'm just a guitar player.

Bud Tristano, June 9th, 2017

© 2017 Bud Tristano