How to listen to improvised music

Posted by John Ray Category: All, Writing

I am passionate about improvised music. It is the focal point of my podcast, Mr. Haircut, it’s what I do in my band RKIII, and it’s what I practice everyday. I don’t actually listen to a lot of improvised music though, because most (not all) of what is out there isn’t what I consider very listenable. There are certainly some exceptions- Keith Jarret, Kneebody, Janek Gwizdala, Dawn of Midi, and a handful of others are able to make very listenable free improv, but most of the small amount of recorded improv that I know about is pretty boring to me. 

Improvisation is used in a lot of music within a composed framework. Jazz usually has a composed form with a melody, harmony and structure, and the musicians improvise within that. I love traditional jazz, but I want to take the improvisation a step further. I love the idea of playing entirely unstructured ‘free improv’ because to me that is music in its highest form; it is pure creation in the moment. What you hear is a snapshot of the time and place it was created, like a candid photograph. 
The improv music I play with my band RKIII and in my podcast can be treated sort of like a soundtrack. The pieces are usually very long- 6 to 10 minutes or so – and usually span lots of different moods and grooves. The music is more symphonic than song-like, and so you can’t go into it expecting a concise idea with an intro and an ending. Sometimes we do that, but sometimes it structures itself in other ways. It can start out as a theme-and-variations and end in a trance groove, or start as ethereal noises and end an up-tempo swing. Sometimes we even use melodies or chord changes from other tunes— we let the music form itself and just kind of ride along. 
When you listen to our music, or any improvised music, you have to let go of any expectation about what it will be. We aren’t trying to play songs. Sometimes songs form during improvisations, but usually not. I like to listen to our music while I drive or jog, because the music itself is a story and never gets repetitive or old to me. 
I listen to the individual musicians, and what they are saying with their music. In a free improv setting, each musician gets to play exactly what they want at all times, and you can hear how each one feels and thinks if you listen closely. There is always a lot of energy with our music as well; each recording is a live performance as opposed to a very structured studio session. I like to turn it up loud and let that energy wash over me. It’s purifying for me, and I like to think that our music can affect the world with positive energy. 

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