Free Improvisation

The next of level of freedom in improvisation is to eliminate chords entirely. Depending on how far you are willing to go, you can also dispense with traditional melody, rhythm, timbre, or form. There are many different approaches to free playing, but by its very nature, there are no rules. Instead of technical details, examples of other musicians will be used for the most part.

Many of Ornette Coleman’s compositions have no chords at all. Most of his freebop quartet recordings with Don Cherry for Atlantic fall into this category. The head consists of a melody only, and the solos are variations on the melody or on the feel of the piece in general, not on any chord progression. For the most part, these recordings still show a very melodic approach and are accessible to many listeners. A walking bass line and 4/4 swing drum beat are constant throughout, and the forms are the standard head-solos-head forms.

Ornette’s album Free Jazz, featuring a double quartet including Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, is decidedly different. Here Ornette is not only putting aside traditional concepts of harmony, but also of melody. There is no definable head to the one performance that comprises this album, and the improvisations are less melodic than on the quartet albums. The double quartet also experiments with form on this album, often having several improvisers playing at once. This idea is as old as jazz itself, but was largely forgotten with the advent of the swing era. The free players’ idea of collective improvisation is much less structured than the dixieland players’, and the results are more cacophonous.

John Coltrane made similar advances late in his career, in albums such as “Ascension”. Coltrane also experimented with rhythm, especially in albums like “Interstellar Space” that do not feature any definable pulse. Both Coleman and Coltrane, as well as musicians influenced by them such as Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, also experimented with timbre, finding new ways to get sounds out of their instruments, even to the extent of playing instruments on which they had little or no training, as Ornette did with the trumpet and the violin.

Cecil Taylor plays the piano in a completely free manner, utilizing it as much as a percussion instrument as a melodic or chordal instrument. His performances generally do not contain any traditional harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic structuring elements. He creates his own structures. When playing free music in a solo setting, you have complete freedom to change the directions of the music at any time, and are accountable only to yourself. You can change tempo, you can play without tempo, you can vary the intensity of your performance as you see fit. When playing music with no set form in a group setting, communication becomes especially important, because there is no automatic frame of reference to keep everyone together. Cecil Taylor does play in a group setting as well, and other groups such as the Art Ensemble Of Chicago are known for this type of freedom.

It is hard to analyze these styles of music in terms we are accustomed to using. The music must reach us on an emotional level in order to be successful, and each person’s emotions may be affected differently. It often seems to be that the more free the music, the more intensely personal the statement. You will need to decide for yourself how far you are willing to go in your own playing, as well as in your own listening. You should also be aware that this type of music is often more fun to play than to listen to for many people. The challenge of the communication and the excitement of the free exchange of ideas are things that some listeners are unable to appreciate. This a gentle way of saying that your experimentation may alienate some of your original audience. However, there are audiences that do appreciate this music. You should not be discouraged from playing as freely as you desire.