Skip navigation

Greg’s post about Springtime, an Improvisation touched on a lot of what I want to talk about here, and I think he did a great job of preparing the audience for a pleasant experience by providing background information and listening tips.  Although, rather than preparing the audience for weird music, I want this post to be about  what we go through preparing weird music for an audience – what draws in listeners and what shuts them out?

So before we can get into that, what do I mean by free improvisation?  The short answer is: “I don’t know.”  What people often mean when they talk about free improv. is something like “improvised music which avoids sounding like established musical genres at all costs,” but that’s not what it means to me, or to the best of my knwlege, my bandmates.  In fact, the name ‘free improv’ is  misleading since a fair amount of planning/structure goes into most compositions of this nature, and what does a plan  do?  It attempts to limit/control a process and make  the outcome predictable.  What’s so free about that, eh?  The best answer to that is an example: listen to the first 2+ minutes of our recording of I’m so Lonesome I could Cry (dedicated New Music Sundaes post forthcoming) and consider what genre that is.  I call it ‘free improv,’ even though the band agreed beforehand on a loose key center, the cello only plays drones, and there is some pre-conceived melodic material.  It still feels free to play, and I think that comes across to the audience as something ‘different’ and/or ‘kind of strange’ – but we’re also very focused on keeping our improv. engaging/fun/cool (not to imply that we always succeed).

So now that I’ve established a completely nebulous and subjective definition of free improvisation, I’d like to explore how musicians draw in their audience with this ‘non-genre.’  Turns out that many rules of ‘western composition & arranging’ work – even without a strict key center/groove/written directions.  Form  is a huge part of ANY music that’s intended to hold an audience’s attention; people get bored fast, and the gradual development of a texture/melody can only hold their attention so much longer before they want the music to ‘go somewhere new.’  This is a difficult  issue to address without any written music or an underlying meter to follow, so the easiest solution is adding/eliminating players, which not only changes the sound quality/quantity, but adds/subtracts the subtleties of individual players’ tendencies and mannerisms (which are hingly emphasized in free improv).

If someone gets bored listening to music that he doesn’t know much about, it’s easy for him to assume that he just doesn’t “get it,” and  as a musician that’s the last thing I want.  I’m all about being entertaining and communicating with listeners, and one easy way to do that is by playing something recognizable. In this case a groove, melody or even a texture will do the trick, but you can also achieve a similar effect by introducing and developing something new to the audience, taking it away and then bringing it back – 99% of  music incorporates one of these two strategies, and most of the remaining 1% is intended for something other than entertainment.

Oh boy, this post is already too long, but there’s so much more to talk about!  If anything is missing/unclear, or if you have any questions/comments please share!  Help us make music that you’ll like – you won’t regret it.




  1. Since the beginning of my formal education in jazz, I have been attempting to listen to “free” music. I had to take a jazz listening course in middle school for two weeks at a camp I was attending and there I was exposed to the music of Cecil Taylor (who has been regarded by many as coming from the European Avant Garde rather than the American Jazz tradition, I wont get in to that), the melody ridden “who the f#^% does he think he is” Shape of Jazz To Come life-changer Ornette Coleman, and the later works of the great John Coltrane. I hated them all.

    Now, I was young, and listened to a lot of Jay-Z and Nelly, but thats really not unlike most of popular culture today. So the problem is, how do we draw in an audience that isn’t really interested in this music in the first place, and further, is that even the point of this music?

    Well, I believe it IS the point of this music, because I believe the point of ALL music is to reach an audience through some sort of emotional, political, social, or other kind of statement. So that falls on the performer. That falls on us. Most importantly as a band, we need to know each other, and be able to anticipate each others’ next thoughts.

    In all of those free improvisation jam sessions I have attended the theme from our coach or instructor has always been the same: YOU PLAY TOO MUCH. The tendency for young musicians is to play too much, and then listen to the other players only when it is convenient for them. The problem is that these young musicians, in my humble opinion, have no business playing free music in this kind of setting. They need to be put in a room with 1 to 5 close friends, and just hack away. The fewer people the better, for beginners.

    So that brings me to Lulu’s Playground and why I believe the everyday listener will (hopefully) enjoy what we do, even when it is “just free improv.” We’re all close. We’re friends. We hang out and eat food together, we go out and listen to music together, we play other musics together, we drink together, we laugh together, and finally we make free music together. We know each others’ tendencies, we respect each other, and we LISTEN to each other. Communication is such a beautiful, attractive thing in music! Some of the most inspiring sessions of free music I have listened to on recording or seen live have been played by old friends with a gift for telling a story. Just listen to Ornette’s “Lonely Woman,” or Coltrane’s suite “A Love Supreme.” Both are thick with passion and an intense sense of awareness, and could both be characterized as “free” music. And they are two of my favorite recordings ever.

    I heard drummer Dave King say once that audience members can feel the intention behind the music. They can sense the feeling. He said it is your intention that draws audience members in to free music. When posed with this same question in a master class, the great NY trumpeter Russ Johnson said, “Never underestimate your audience, you’d be surprised how much they can handle.”

    I guess I’ll leave you with that.

  2. I think a great example of how well this group works is how much we all think alike. I completely agree with both Cory and Adam in both of their posts, and because I like to ramble, I’ll throw my two cents in as well.

    It’s been my experience, both in performance and in educating, that many musicians (young and old) are hampered by their ego when they step up to play with others. It stops being about creating a sound together and more about impressing or one-upping each other. An audience can tell when this is happening, and they often become bored (at least I do). The presence of communication, imagination, and an open mind in this kind of music is tantamount to creating a link with the audience.

    Cory and I were discussing once a group of composers we knew who were involved in an improvisational group at Lawrence (this group has since rotated many of its members and taken on a very different direction). Many of the musicians in this group weren’t trying to make a connection with their audience, but rather were focused almost entirely on making them uncomfortable. I agree that there is some merit to pushing people’s boundaries when it comes to art, but I personally believe it should always be to reach a new level of understanding about their own reality and how we define art in general. People like John Cage and Ornette Coleman are wonderful examples of this. Composers who, rather than trying to squeeze into a suit not tailored for them, chose instead to make the clothes themselves. To be true to yourself (as cliche as that is) is I think what Dave King was referring to in Adam’s comment about an artist’s “intent”. I can tell when someone isn’t expressing themselves as fully as they could. My mom can tell. Hell, my cat can tell. But, I also think this perception only goes as far as someone else is willing to open their mind to it. Like Adam talked about how he viewed Coltrane or Coleman when he was a kid, I don’t believe that people can always approach music and “get it” the first time.

    My personal goal in this group (particularly in our improvisations) is to become as much of a blank slate as I can. To accept whatever I’m hearing as if I’ve never heard anything remotely like it before, and to dissociate any memories or preconceptions I may have about the music I’m playing and hearing. This is quite possibly the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do, and is much like learning to walk all over again. Personally, I think that the audience “getting” what we’re playing is merely when they approach the music with that same state of mind. That is to say a state where you can truly interpret the music through your own lens, rather than from any other societal, cultural, or other pressures and preconceptions you may be burdened with.

    When I first started to get into Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way by Miles Davis was when I started being able to hear the subtle communications between the players. It REALLY became obvious to me how important communication between members of a group and connecting to the audience when I saw Kurt Rosenwinkel at the Village Vanguard in New York. That was practically a religious experience and completely changed the way I approach both listening and playing music in general. Now when it comes to “free” music, or music with a strong free improvisatory component to it, the communication between the members is the only thing giving the music any movement or direction. Since each one of us is experiencing the music through our own perception of reality, there are constant barriers between a level of true understanding. But I believe that the more we play together, the more we spend time together, and the more we come to know one another, these barriers break down and we discover one unique sound that we all create together, and will never have when we are apart. I have seen flashes and glimpses of this in every rehearsal we have, and I’m sure that if you, the listener, keep an open mind, our sound will reach you. Then maybe you can reach us with yours, and together we can all create a song. Each performance of that song as unique and diverse as the people involved in it.

One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By News » Ah, to be free… on 27 Mar 2010 at 6:09 am

    […] this is my blog, I’ll re-post my comment to Cory’s initial post.  I hope you enjoy it. “It’s been my experience, both in performance and in educating, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: