Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Gus Carns - November 17, 2013



Since the beginning of my venture into jazz and improvised music, I’ve considered myself a “free” player, despite that the one language I know well is some sort of hybrid of different “jazz” dialects, so to speak, which typically isn’t associated with free improvisation. When playing in the context of a small jazz ensemble, I find it most satisfying to communicate and exchange phrases and dramatic trajectories collectively, and to me, the best jazz recordings and performances achieve this. This can only be done successfully when the players have the melody and form of the given tune internalized, and a common, firm grasp of the language, or the micro-details, which, in “jazz”, includes the swing feel and certain rhythmic placements, harmonic and melodic devices, etc. When these two things are in place, it allows the players to communicate ideas with logic, clarity and expressivity. However, I’ve noticed that in a lot of jazz today, players who are very strong in these two fundamental areas assume idiomatically prescribed roles, making true collective improvisation and communication very difficult. The end result is that the forms and language that they know so well are used to express not much more than their own grammar, or mere imitations of recordings, rather than using them as effective tools for expressing musical ideas in the moment, without preconceived notions; in other words, the music isn’t free, when it could be.

I used to devote my entire musical practice to getting better at “jazz”; mastering the forms and language, so that I could better express ideas through that medium. Through my exposure to free improvisation in the last several years at Racer sessions and in school, as well as classical music, I have grown increasingly interested in other means of improvisational expression. I love the traditional jazz style, and as of now think of myself as primarily a jazz musician, but I also know that its codified specifics create a specific and limited expressive range. There are so many more ideas to express and ways of expressing them, and this is why I find free improvisation so fascinating and compelling; the slate is blank, the possibilities limitless. However, with this freedom comes great responsibility, and in my own experience, discomfort, from not knowing which rules or parameters to impose, or how to comfortably and intuitively navigate within them. I like to think that the language/s used in the best free improvisation is/are just as structured as the traditional jazz language, albeit according to their own syntax. In my own free playing, I feel like I lack a defined language, or one that is as defined as the jazz dialect that I speak, and so my improvisations are not as clear and fully formed as I would like them to be.

The Performance

There is a rich history and legacy of freely improvised music, the specific techniques of which I don’t claim to know much about, but I’ve always thought that any material can be applied successfully to improvisation. For this session, I chose to compose two etudes, to help give more definition to the specifics of the language of my improvisation, while also giving me improvisational material to work with.

The final “products” are results of a several step process. First, I recorded short improvisations following parameters that I imposed myself. I chose to begin with improvisation, because I feel that some of my best ideas that I could never conceive of in composition happen spontaneously in improvisation, and I wanted my etudes to be pianistic in nature, so that the improvisations based on them would be more intuitive. And I chose to make the improvisations short – no more than a few minutes – to keep my ideas fresh and guided and to avoid the risk of wandering off into tangents.

Then I listened back, considering what I liked about them overall and certain special moments that stood out to me, and took those ideas and composed them further into the etudes that I now have. One is a slowly moving atonal chorale, the other is faster paced and more gestural and rhythmically active. On Sunday, I will perform them with extended improvisational sections following each, and my goal is to make the improvisations as directly related as possible to the etudes - organic extensions or continuations of the composed material. I will finish my set with a completely free improvisation, and if I’ve done my homework right, it’ll resemble some sort of coherent composition. It’s my hope that this kind of practice will continuously give more depth and coherence to my composition and my improvisation that can be translated to jazz and/or free settings, or any other style or idiom.

The Session

I would like groups to form and each play two improvisations throughout the night. The first improvisation should be very short – ideally, no more than two minutes – and focus on one idea. A group may decide on an idea ahead of time, or try to produce something quickly in the moment and then stick to it. An idea can be anything – a general tempo with a certain rhythmic attack, an overall shape, a small shape that’s repeated, counterpoint of some variety, a general interval size, a dynamic level, a harmonic quality, a combination of several ideas, the group may stick to one idea or each member may have their own – consider your options and try to bring an idea to the table. The second improvisation should be a continuation of the initial idea from the first improvisation. Try to remember what its defining characteristics were, and continue where it left off, or try to repeat it then improvise an extended continuation. Each group’s two improvisations will be separated by one improvisation from another group, to keep the first improvisation fresh in the members’ minds, resulting in this order of groups: ABABCDCDEFEF etc.