Learning to Play 'Free Jazz'

This statement was posted on a Facebook music group the other day:

“I wish there were more resources on learning free jazz drumming techniques or finding your style... Even the less skilled free jazz drummers make some of the most technical rock drummers look like they don't know shit...”

I found this statement fascinating, as I play mostly free jazz/improvised music. There is a lot of misunderstanding and mystery surrounding this type of playing. And yes, many free jazz drummers have technique that would frighten away most drummers in other music genres.

Playing free jazz with fellow drummer Paul Westfahl

Defining Free Jazz

I always found the term free jazz to be a bit bewildering. To me, jazz implies the swing cymbal pattern—ding-ding-a ding-ding-a dingbehind the music. If you are truly playing free, then there should be no repeating swing pattern. I prefer the term improvised music, because that is what it really is: music improvised in the moment. It may at times have elements of swing, but that is not the main thrust behind it. It may also at times have elements of a driving 8th note rock groove at times, or there may be no discernible repetitive rhythm at all.

Many years ago I interviewed some world renowned free jazz/improv drummers for a series of articles in MODERN DRUMMER magazine. I asked them what they practiced. Surprisingly, they all said “the basics,” like rudiments, sticking patterns and coordination exercises. The consensus was that in order to play free, you needed to have a strong technical foundation. That’s why a lot of these drummers have amazing technique, even though they don’t play the standard time based music. They also felt that there was a right way and a wrong way to play free or improvise. The prevailing thought was that in order to break away from playing standard time based music, you had to have experience playing it and understanding it. Again, they always emphasized having a strong musical foundation to give you a base to explore from.

Entering The Free Zone

“Learning free jazz drumming techniques or finding your style” is another thing entirely. As a drummer who both plays mainly improvised music, and also teaches drumming, I find that improvising is NOT something you can teach from a book. Improvising is as much an experience as it is music. Because of that, it is learned more by direct experience than trying to woodshed any sort of free jazz chops. 

The first place to start, is like learning any style of music: you need to immerse yourself in listening to all types of artists playing free jazz. You need to really know the vocabulary as it were. Although free jazz has no real set style or techniques like other musics, it does have certain parameters. Improvising is more about waves of energy, although time may be implied, or even dictated through repeating patterns. 

And most importantly, you need to improvise with other musicians. As I wrote earlier, playing free is as much an experience as anything, so you have to get out there and experience playing it with others. 

What Are You Hearing?

The biggest thing about playing improvised music is that it's all about LISTENING to the other players. It's really no different than having a conversation with someone: you listen to what they say, react, and then say something back. This process repeats back and forth. Improvising is essentially talking to each other with your instruments. Everyone involved may be playing at the same time, but it's still all about LISTENING. 

My friend, the great Swiss drummer, Fredy Studer, said to me that improvising drummers (and all improvising musicians for that fact) need to have big ears. Think about it. 

You need to have big ears. 

You have to listen to what's going on around you and react accordingly. I find that improvised music fails when one or more players don't listen and just play what they want, imposing their will upon the music being played. This becomes more a speech than a conversation, because it's all about one or more individuals, rather than the whole group as a collective. You can't be a successful improvisor while always trying to call attention to yourself. If that's what you really want, then you should always play solo.

What Are You Saying?

So what should you play? What are you feeling in reaction to what is going on around you? While it's difficult to quantify, improvising is all about emotion and reaction. When I'm playing, I'm essentially feeling the gestalt of the group, whether it's a duo or a 10 piece ensemble. There are many directions I could go:

  • play along to what is being played
  • play against what is being played
  • play fast if they play slow
  • play slow if they play fast
  • play high if they play low
  • play low if they play high
  • play a static pattern against all the movement
  • play completely random, avoiding repetition
  • play implied time or actual time
  • play a combination of any or all of the above
  • Etc, etc, etc…
For me, I often find improvised sessions seem to lack a sort of coherent center that everyone can connect to. In this case, the music seems too random or chaotic, although that may be what the musicians are going for. 

When I play, I like to imply some sort of rhythmic sense to what I'm doing. I always see what I'm doing as moving forward through time, moving the energy from point A to point B. I tend to play pulse more than time (like jazz swing or rock groove). To me pulse can be seen more as waves of energy with a sort of order to them. The rhythmic sense may be in standard measures, or it may be in much longer arcs, where the actual time is not so apparent.

Sometimes I don't play at all. I stop. Maybe I don't have anything to say at the moment, or maybe the music just needs some space to breathe. Sometimes I stop so I can listen to the music that is happening without all my sounds stomping on top of it. In this case, I may also be opening up the space for the audience, so that they can hear what I'm hearing. You don't have to play all the time and take up all the space!

Where Do We Go From Here?

If you are a musician interested in improvising, start by listening to a variety of recordings featuring improvising. Get a sense of what is happening and how things are interacting. 

Also, go out and listen to some live improvising musicians. If you have a chance, talk to them and ask a few questions about how they approach improvising. Most musicians are glad to talk about what they do. 

Look for improvised music sessions where you can sit in and play. If there isn't anything around, start something! Invite some people over to your place to play, or find a club to host a session. The only way you'll ever learn and improve is by playing with others.

And remember, always listen to what everyone else is playing!

~ MB

For those looking for a more on improvising, I wrote a series of 8 blogs on a recording session I had where I improvised with a series of guest musicians, many whom I met for the first time. Parts 1-3 are my ideas on improvising. Parts 4-8 feature videos from the recording sessions and my analysis of what I played and why I did it.

Improvising - Part 1

Improvising - Part 2

Improvising - Part 3

Improvising - Part 4

Improvising - Part 5

Improvising - Part 6

Improvising - Part 7

Improvising - Part 8

Here are 3 additional videos that I didn't blog about:

Bettine/Binder Duo

Bettine/Schoenecker Duo #1

Bettine/Schoenecker Duo #2

Deconstruct Yourself™


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