Free jazz versus free improvisation. Are they the same? I submit they are not.
Let's take a look at what makes up music. I was taught from the very beginning that music is composed of three parts: 1. Melody; 2. Harmony; 3. Rhythm.
Now add improvisation to the mix, and call it melody, and we have what is known as jazz. The main components of jazz are the improvisations and the rhythms. Without improvised solos it can't be called jazz. From the earliest days of blues to ragtime to swing to bebop to modern jazz, there was always time, chord changes and various rhythms. So what is free jazz? Some purport that free jazz should not have rhythm, a recognizable melody, whether tonal or atonal, and absolutely no harmony. Well is it jazz? I don't think so.
I have been playing free-form jazz for a long time, and when I hear players who call themselves avant-garde jazz players, I sometimes have to laugh. Music is music and free jazz should sound like music; not 2-15 musicians playing anything they want without relating to one another. Jazz players have a distinct way of phrasing. Just listen to John Coltrane
or Albert Ayler
. Whether they are playing free or free on chord changes, they swing. Although free jazz it is not your typical two and four swing, it has its own tempo. And guess what happens when free jazz musicians relate to one another? It becomes harmonic, fugal, contrapuntal, polytonic, and bluesy; and inside all of that, there is a beauty that can't be denied and it all makes senseand it is listenable.
Every free-jazz musician I have ever worked with has studied. They understand harmony and theory, they can read and compose and they can play in time and on chord changes. Ask any one of them about the history of jazz and they can speak at length about their experiences and who their main influences were. And they all grew up listening to Charlie Parker
and all the greats just as I have. What may be missing with the young free players is they start with late John Coltrane instead of studying the past, and their music reflects the missing history in their playing. You can't move forward without reflection of the past.
Free-form jazz musicians choose to play that way as I have. It was a natural progression for me. Do I strictly play free? No! I enjoy playing on tunes and changes. I especially enjoy playing on tunes and taking the tunes out while playing in time. Does that make me a free-form jazz musician-no, but I do play free-form jazz i.e., without form, melody, harmony and rhythm, but when I play free with other musicians, inevitability we play and combine all those ingredients that music allows and it sounds like music, not a mishmash of nothing relatable. Cellist, Tomas Ulrich
says "the main difference between free jazz and free improvisation is that free jazz is blues oriented," and I agree with him.
Is free jazz or free improvisation really free? Connie Crothers
thinks it isn't. She says it's a style of playing and I think she is right. When I compose for one of my groups, invariably in the arrangement you may see Free Form or Collective Improv and what I mean is style.
More and more, you hear classically-trained musicians playing free-form improvisation. We are seeing symphonic musicians improvise. They don't have a jazz or harmony background, but they can improvise. Their training comes from years of playing classical music or solo pieces which were mostly started as improvisations by the composers.
Then we have the other component of improvisers, the noisemakers and the screeching, metallic, feedback distortion that is supposed to be avant-jazz. Ok, I'm a little prejudice and maybe old fashioned, but when I listen to Cecil Taylor, I hear music. When I hear noise, I hear bad rock and roll. FXs are sound devices that some musicians use, but sometimes those devices are used to hide bad musicianship. I believe in soundscapes, but do it with notes or the natural sound FXs from your instrument without pedals. Chaos is also fine as long as it is used with discretion. All I am saying is be musical. I mean you're called a musician for a reason, so be a musician.
Improvised music players come from varied backgrounds such as rock, blues, classical but again I say they should not be bunched together with jazz musicians. You may be a great instrumentalist, but if you can't play jazz or a blues, you're not a jazz musician.