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Andrew Bain: On Playing With(out) Boundaries


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It's interesting to see the fallacy of thinking that in free-improv there are no rules, that it's completely free and you can do whatever you want. Of course, anyone who does it knows that that's nonsense. We're constantly relating to each other and to the music.
—Andrew Bain, drummer, educator at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire
Scottish drummer and educator Andrew Bain has performed in a wide variety of projects, from playing with Dave Liebman during his years with the Guildhall School of Music Jazz Orchestra, or collaborating with the late Kenny Wheeler to having taken part in joint efforts with the likes of late pianist John Taylor and other modern British improvisors such as Iain Ballamy or Jim Hart. Among many other releases, he can be heard playing alongside the British saxophonist Tori Freestone on Andre Canniere's Ghost Days (Whirlwind Recordings, 2020) as well as handling the drums on Paul Booth's Patchwork Project (Pathway Records, 2015). Beyond his work as a sideman however, Bain has spent the most recent years developing his own music within the context of his Ph.D. thesis— entitled "A Self-Reflexive Approach to Contemporary Jazz Improvisation."

Marked by stark compositional contrasts and a variety of differences in their approach, Bain has created a trilogy of musical essays that touch upon the subject of his thesis. The second part, Embodied Hope (2017), and freshly released third installation of the trilogy No Boundaries (2020) are both published on Whirlwind Recordings. The first part of the trilogy—a live concert from 2015 called Player Piano—hasn't been released but represents just as important a part of his research. While the latest and last case study of the trilogy, No Boundaries, takes the free-improv aspect to its most extreme, the first two essays follow a more compositional approach, though executed in very different ways.

Case Study I: Player Piano

When talking about the trilogy, Bain emphasizes that, more than anything else, the three case studies are focused on the creation of the music itself and music as an autonomous form of art rather than an academic subject- matter: "The most important part about the Ph.D. was the music that I was going to make. I knew from the beginning that I was going to do three case studies because that way I had a starting place, the possibility of contrasting it and then subsequently try and go full circle. The first project [Player Piano] was initially going to be a project featuring John Taylor—who I'd gotten to know pretty well during his time as a visiting tutor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and a subsequent run of concerts with him—as well as Kenny Wheeler and Michael Janisch in 2011. However, John [Taylor] tragically passed away just before we were going to do the Player Piano concert. So in the end it became a one off project in which I followed a basic musical structure which Taylor had given me, featuring Gwilym Simcock on piano, Mike Walker on guitar, Iain Dixon on saxophone and Steve Watts on bass." A mix of Kenny Wheeler compositions, John Taylor tunes as well as Bain and Walker originals, the one-off project was rehearsed on the day of its live performance, resulting in a unique and successful gig captured on audio and video, which, as of this writing, are purposed for the Ph.D. only.

Case Study II: Embodied Hope

The second installation of the trilogy, following in 2017, was immediately released for a wider audience on Whirlwind Recordings. Embodied Hope saw George Colligan joining in on piano as well as fellow Manhattan School acquaintance Jon Irabagon on saxophone and Michael Janisch completing a quartet performing a set of extensive compositional arcs that form a suite-like program. "Embodied Hope was the logical extension of the Player Piano band, but this time around a 14-day endeavor and again dealing with a notion of preconceived boundaries within the musical language. Even though I wrote a suite of music—which had just organically evolved to become exactly that, a compositional suite— the project still focused on questions of trust and cues within the context of a band and how we collectively feel our way through the music. In that way it worked as a reaction to case study 1 [Player Piano]."

Like the constant downward spiraling motion of a waterfall, the music on Embodied Hope flows seamlessly from one idea to the next. Muffled percussion accompanied by arpeggiated piano strokes and whaling saxophone lines are the protagonists of an ensemble which elegantly moves from lush elegiac forms to groove-infused ostinatos while continually working in delicate rhythm changes and tasteful harmonic shifts. Semi-titletrack "Hope" gives a good overview of these different qualities and sees them bound together to utter coherence, not only by the compositional tightness but moreover by a conversational band whose individual members steadily grow together as a unit throughout.

Case Study III: No Boundaries

The approach taken on the third and final case study contrasts Embodied Hope in pretty much every possible way. Based around the idea of creating music with "as close to no preconceived boundaries as possible," No Boundaries finds Bain in a bass-less environment playing without any compositional frame at all, but merely the knowledge of who his collaborators are and how impulses can be reacted upon. His Ph.D. largely dealing with empathic interaction and what happens in the moment, No Boundaries exhausts these topics to their most extreme places. But even without precomposed material or elaborate rehearsal, some common ground and therefore frame is always given by the musical language itself and the experience with it. "No preconceived ideas, that's what I'd set out to do with No Boundaries, but of course the first automatic preconceived idea was the band. Knowing my collaborators and how they play is a preconception. Knowing that there was not going to be a bass was also a factor that affects the range of possibilities. Also, I know how Alex Bonney works in terms of processing the music and so on. So, naturally, there are always preconceptions in music, but the project was trying to adhere to the approach as purely and clean as possible."

The two extensive musical landscapes featured on the two sides of the vinyl-only release were created in the moment. Joined by Bonney on electronics, Peter Evans on trumpet and John O'Gallagher on saxophone, the gathering of sound heard on the LP was played and recorded on December 14th, 2017 for the very first time and without any rehearsal. Accordingly, more than anything else the music is based on interaction. Impulses are reacted to in real-time and the lack of rhythmic, harmonic or melodic definition lets the musicians stretch out almost infinitely. "The first thing we played that night in Birmingham is what you hear on the album. The first set. No talk, just a short soundcheck and ahead we went. But knowing the musicians playing with me well is definitely a factor that plays an important role in how we interact on this recording."

Bain had played with Evans for a while when based in New York from 2001 to 2007, where he'd worked at Manhattan School. Bonney on the other hand he got to know through working with him in Michael Janisch's Paradigm Shift band. "I was really into what he [Bonney] was doing with contact mics and live-processing of our sounds. It's remarkable how he takes fragments of our playing in the moment and feeds them back, thereby becoming a part of the performance." Last but not least, Andrew Bain works alongside John O'Gallagher at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, where O'Ghallager is completing his Ph.D. about John Coltrane. Having played in a trio formation together (again with Michael Janisch), Bain knows O'Gallaghers qualities well which becomes very apparent in their smooth interplay on the record.

Titled "Improvisation I" and "Improvisation II," each running at just over 16 minutes, the waves of sound flowing out of the speakers go from ambient sound-searching to explosive breakdowns and sometimes even a couple of groovy measures will sneak into the picture, demonstrating the band as a unified entity. The more textural and deconstructed improvisational phases bring to mind the New York creative-free scene based around the Pi Recordings label, while the more meditative and rhythmically defined sequences, as presented in the first couple of minutes of the second improvisation, are more reminiscent of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew-era approach to fusion. But more than reminiscence, the music here bears originality and innovation and sees a quartet following their creative instinct to a point where the individual parts become one single organism.

On Playing With(out) boundaries

When asked to compare the three seemingly very different projects and to describe his experience with them, Bain observes the same amount of differences as similarities: "Of course the case study 3 [No Boundaries] was really freeing. We were able to just play freely, and I wasn't stressed at all. Putting together the 14-day tour for Embodied Hope, flying in the American musicians, dealing with booking and accommodation as well as getting the release together and everything that that entails, was a lot of work and made for a tight schedule. For No Boundaries we really just played, and that was it. But there are similarities in the way we dealt with the music and ultimately that's what the Ph.D. is about. That's where this 'Empathic interaction' comes to play. Putting yourself into someone else's head and trying to anticipate or speculate what they're going to do. That notion rings true in all three case studies. This may be true for any musician in any genre, but as jazz musicians especially we don't want to loop back to what's already been done before or what we've already played. You can say the same thing for all of the greats, just think of Miles Davis for example. That was also absolutely true for all three case studies. And the fact that you don't want to repeat yourself adds another preconception to what is supposed to be a completely free presentation."

Apart from Bain, the musicians involved in No Boundaries didn't know much about the academic research behind the project or what Bain was getting at specifically, but were interviewed before and after the three sets and asked to share their observations. They all noted that the second set evolved to become something quite different than the first. One main reason for this could be the fact, that they all tried to go a different way than they had before. "It's interesting to see the fallacy of thinking that in free-improv there are no rules, that it's completely free and you can do whatever you want. Of course, anyone who does it knows that that's nonsense. We're constantly relating to each other and to the music. We're trying to bring an arc to the set, no matter how long the performance is and there's that same desire not to repeat yourself, for each other's sake as well as for the music."

Bain also emphasizes the idea of there being "formed creation in the moment" in connection with No Boundaries, referring to something his mentor Dave Liebman had shared with him as a student in London and New York. "When he [Dave Liebman] talked about free music, he always thought about it as free from restriction, not free of restriction. I like that idea a lot! The reality of free music is that you're making judgments based on what your collaborators are doing. And when you look at it from that perspective you aren't ever just doing whatever you want and you're not ever really free."

"With No Boundaries we weren't playing a set of standards and we weren't playing an original suite of music but were dealing with blocks of sound and moving them around, creating forms. So If you look at this trilogy just based on the notion of structure, you could say that the structural proportions disappear progressively from one study to the next. The most structured of the case studies was number 1, where we had nine tunes, things were pre-arranged and pre-composed, and we even kind of had a solo order. Case study 2 was somewhere in the middle, between things being composed and improvised, while case study three was as free as possible"

A limited to 250 copies, vinyl-only release, No Boundaries offers some of the most exciting and forward-thinking improvised music out there today. Between electronic soundscapes, crashing cymbals, rumbling toms and a soaring trumpet dialoguing with percussive saxophone cries, the preconceptions Bain talks about are audible, but somehow only add to the feeling that for well over half an hour, there truly aren't any boundaries.

Photo Credit: Olivier Burnside


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