Live Together, Die Alone: The Value of Free-Improvisation

Was that improvised or written? I’m an improviser and this question addresses what I feel is one of the most important aspects of musical creation.

Was that improvised or written? I’m occasionally asked this question by an audience member and it never fails to bring a smile to my face. I am an improviser (which is to say that I can improvise) and the question above addresses what I feel is one of the most important aspects of musical creation. It is usually painfully obvious whether certain portions of a performance are improvised or composed. Generally speaking, improvisations are more aimless, less cohesive, and seem esoteric to all but the most interested and informed listeners. Music that is being read from a score, on the contrary, is more clear, predictable (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense), and accessible. The flip side of these observations is that though improvisation lacks the clarity and concision of most composition, it has an immediacy and a conviction that is often lacking in the performance of composed material.

If the fundamental quality of improvisation is that anything is possible and the fundamental quality of composition is that only one thing is possible (the thing that has been chosen before the performance began), then the perfect balance of the two, whether a performance is improvised or not, is that seemingly anything can happen and when it does it feels perfect and inevitable. The question makes me smile because just by being asked, I know that I have succeeded in this musical mission.

Most musicians, even so-called improvisers, spend the majority of their time playing composed material read from a written score, where the room for freedom is limited to the arena of interpretation: tempo, vibrato, dynamics, phrasing, etc. In fact, most improvisation is best characterized as an elaboration of composed material. Furthermore, the improviser is subject to fairly strict guidelines, dictated by the role of his particular instrument. Almost no musician spends any significant time on the other end of the musical spectrum – playing totally spontaneous improvisation. I believe that there is great value to individual and collaborative free-improvisation, regardless of the qualitative success of the musical product. It is through this process that a musician can sharpen his senses and creativity, which positively impacts the rest of his musical life.

What happens when you strip away from music all of the elements of composition: harmony, melody, form, orchestration? You are left with the elements of performance: tone, inflection, feeling, space, and listening/responding; the last of these being the most critical.

Teachers and directors are often heard encouraging their students to listen, but the fact is that an individual doesn’t have to listen well to play written music in an ensemble. Great ensemble playing requires good listening but a group can create an acceptable, even enjoyable, performance without it. Even traditional improvisation doesn’t require the individual to keep his ear open to his fellow improvisers. Each instrumentalist has a role and (assuming a level of individual experience and skill) a group can improvise over a compositional structure and still create decent music without each member listening to what the others are playing.

When a group decides to make music outside the safe confines of a composition they are freed from their traditional ensemble roles. Inevitably the following thought process begins in each individual:

“What should I play? I don’t know, what’s he going to play? I don’t know that either…”

And thus the listening begins. This is not passive, disinterested listening but earnest attention to what one’s band mates will do so that a proper response can be made. Also, since it is nearly impossible to create a traditional musical structure, the performers are forced to compensate by relying on the often-neglected elements of performance mentioned above. Then, when they return to the world of composed music, the camaraderie and the heightened awareness they have gained will breathe life into the inanimate notes on the page.

Notice that I have so far ignored the possibility that the freely improvised music might actually be listenable or enjoyable. Reaching that point takes an enormous amount of trial and error (emphasis on the error!), even for a group of skilled improvisers. Free-improvisation is not something that need be performed publicly by most musicians, but should be a part of every student’s training and is an activity that ensembles of all styles of music should use to grow their skill and trust.

My own experience with group free-improvisation was with the Devil’s Workshop Big Band (DWBB), an ensemble that performed together weekly for almost five years. Most of us were students together in the VCU Department of Music before the DWBB existed and played together professionally in numerous groups of varying genres. Therefore we shared an uncommon level of musical trust and intimacy. Each gig started with the “Free Tune,” which lasted anywhere from a couple of minutes to more than a half-hour and could range from avant-garde gibberish to glorious, cohesive pop vamps. Much of the time it was not the most “listenable” music, but even at its most musically unproductive it put us in a place, individually and collectively, that set the stage for the entire night’s creation. The “Free Tune” was like a trust exercise, but instead of falling backwards into each other’s arms, we jumped into the musical abyss, having faith that we would either remember how to fly, or be caught by someone else who had.

If you were there, you know what I’m talking about; if you weren’t, don’t worry, here is a taste.


The above is an excerpt from the beginning of a 17-minute improvisation that was recorded on a Tuesday afternoon in Bogart’s Back Room in July 2002. It was the day after we recorded our first (and only) album and we spent the day playing free tunes, some completely unguided like the one above, and some with abstract themes like “let’s pretend that we’re all individual bars on a giant marimba.”

The personnel on this recording is:

  • Steve Norfleet (bandleader), JC Kuhl, Colin Killalea, Matt Scott, Tony Forgey – saxophones
  • Bob Miller, Mark Ingraham, Taylor Barnett, John D’earth – trumpets
  • Sam Savage, Toby Whitaker, Stefan Demetriadis – trombones
  • Daniel Clarke – piano
  • Nate Griffith, Colin McEnearney – guitars
  • Matt Hall – bass
  • Robby Sinclair – drums

Taylor Barnett is a Richmond, Virginia based trumpeter, teacher, and composer who is involved in jazz, classical, and commercial music. In 2001 he was awarded First Place in the Jazz Division of the National Trumpet Competition. Taylor was a founding member of Devil’s Workshop Big Band and has has performed with the Woody Herman Orchestra, the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, the Charlottesville Oratorio Society, and with artists such as Gladys Knight, The Temptations, Frankie Avalon, Steve Wilson, Ray Anderson, John D’earth, and René Marie. As a composer, Taylor’s work is published by UNC Jazz Press and has been commissioned by trumpeter Rex Richardson for performances at international music festivals in Australia, Portugal, China, and the U.S. Taylor is an active member of the creative music scene in Richmond as a member of No B.S. Brass Band, Mingus Awareness Project Big Band, and as a leader of his own jazz quartet. In 2007 he formed the Taylor Barnett 10-tet, an ensemble that reflects his varied musical interests in jazz, classical, Klezmer, blues, and rock styles. Taylor’s self-produced album For Someone features original compositions and arrangements for the 10-tet and is available at and the iTunes Music Store.

  • error

    Report an error

Taylor Barnett

There are 4 reader comments. Read them.