exploring the art of live improvisation –

Image: Red Bull presents Round Robin

Read between the lines on interviews with the UK musicians commonly grouped together as the “new jazz generation”, and you’ll notice they’re not hugely enamoured by the four letter label. What they lean more towards is a style, a feeling, an approach to playing that unites them all: improvisation. This intuitive method – built up through mastering your instrument, communication and flexibility – forms the backbone of the energy that makes their sound so compelling, but is by no means limited to just that group.

As part of the Red Bull Music Festival London, the Round Robin event (11th Feb at EartH) brings together improvisers from across the musical spectrum, through a series of spontaneous duets. Participants include: Emma-Jean Thackray, composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, bandleader and DJ; Joe Armon-Jones, pianist, producer and Ezra Collective band member; and Nik Colk Void, one half of post-industrial experimenters Factory Floor. We explore their approaches to improvisation, discuss their favourite improvised music and hear tips for aspiring improvisers.

EMMA-JEAN THACKRAY

“Know your instrument, have something to say, and be able to say it well.” [Photo: Emma in session for Red Bull Music]

Much of this new generation of jazz musicians talk about it more in the lens of improvised music than a continuation of the four letter word that started in the 20s. What does improvised music mean to you?

To me, improvisation is everything. It’s the foundation of performing and the basis of my music. Jazz can mean so many things that sometimes it’s easier to say that I don’t make jazz. But my music is influenced by so many things that maybe it’s not, who knows, who cares. To be honest I kind of hate genre labels. They’re for journalists and record store racks, they’re not for me.

Who are some of your idols in improvised music that you’ve channeled into your own career, and why have they had such an impact?

Miles Davis has been a huge influence on me. Despite his huge ego away from his instrument, when he played he only ever served the music and played what was needed. It’s an approach I’ve always used, too. He was my beginning and his music has stayed with me ever since, and I think probably will until my last note. Aside from him there have been so many others. There’s obviously loads from within the jazz world, like Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, but there’s improvisation in so many musics: grime freestyle battles, or Talking Heads improvising and then going back and cutting things up to make their records. Improvisation is just composing in the moment, it doesn’t matter what language you’re using.

What’s your favourite pieces of recorded improvised music, and why?

There are so many, I can’t choose. I guess I’ll pick ‘Call It Anything’, which was from Miles Davis’s set at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, and later released on Bitches Brew Live. It’s such a special set because so much happened organically and wasn’t pre decided. There are melodies played throughout, largely from the album Bitches Brew, but around that, the band is just listening to each other and letting things happen. It’s perfect. I try and bring as much of that energy into my own live sets as I can.

Who’s your favourite artist to improvise with, and why?

My Band. Whether on stage or just jamming with some shakers and dicking about, always those guys. I experiment with them all the time, and I should also say experiment ON them, too. I deliberately under rehearse tunes to keep them alert when on stage. I book recording sessions without rehearsing or even telling them what we’re recording until the red light is on. As we’re walking onto stage I’ll whisper a groove, a baseline and a chord sequence and tell them we’re starting the show with that new idea, all because I want to keep that improvisational spirit alive. We’re playing the same tunes show to show, but aside from the basic building blocks like the melody and the chords, things change from gig to gig. We might change the whole feel of something in the moment. I once even changed the time signature of a tune half way through. You just gotta listen and be open.

From an audience’s perspective, live improvisation done well looks seamless, but behind the scenes it’s only achieved through top tier musicianship. What are some of the skills necessary for improvisation to be effective, and what, if anything, can you do to prepare?

Know your instrument, have something to say, and be able to say it well. Improvising is like a conversation. The most effective communicators have an interesting point to make, and they say it in the simplest way they can. If you ramble on, people will tune out. If you interrupt others all the time, people will get irritated. Know when to speak and when to listen. Make sure what you’re saying is appropriate and on topic. Don’t start talking about something else abruptly, but if you want to change the topic then gently guide the conversation there. And just like in conversation, you have spent a lot of time learning words, sentences, ideas, you’re not just randomly making sounds and hoping people understand. Learn notes, phrases, melodies, ideas, and then learn different ways to piece things together, different ways to respond. Improvisation is a conversation.

What are some of the challenges you face while improvising live to an audience, with no room for error? How to you ride them out with less than a beat to adapt?

There are no errors. If you know your instrument well enough and have a strong sense of musicality, you can make anything work and turn anything into music.

Talk us through some of the technicalities of an effective live improvisation. Is the style or energy settled on prior, to give a rough remit before you start? Is there a lead or director that keeps it on track? What signals a transition into another movement?

That’s a huge question. It depends. If you’re playing a jazz standard, then the soloist dictates, and the rest of the band follows them. If you’re playing your own original music, you’re the band leader and you’ve probably explained what you want to the band. Free jazz is similar to playing standards, except what you’re doing is more linear and you’re not necessarily following a written chord sequence. Free improvised music (as in spontaneous music, not jazz) is about the ensemble really listening to each other, and it’s a whole other skill. I could go on and on about the different ways to improvise, but what matters most is that you’re open to everything, you’re communicating with the musicians you’re playing with – musically and visually – and you have something interesting to say.

The Round Robin event at the Red Bull Festival pairs up musicians for a one-off five minute duet. Who’s your partner and what have you got planned for it?

I have no idea who my partner is and I’m definitely not planning anything. Going in with preconceptions about what you wanna do boxes in the other person and limits their creativity. I will say though that you’re not just playing for your duets, but rather the whole night. From the first note of the first musician to the last of the last, it’s one giant piece that you need to get inside. When improvising you need to not just think about the note you’re playing, but the architecture of the phrase you’re playing, and the architecture of your whole solo, and the architecture of the whole piece and how you fit within it. I’ve played in a Round Robin before, in Berlin, and it was really fun, but I did feel like a few people barrelled in when it was their turn and didn’t consider what had happened before. They had probably planned what they were going to say rather than letting things happen organically.

For any young musicians who come to the Round Robin and feel inspired, can you recommend any regular get-togethers or jam sessions, where they can drop-in to hone their skills and meet similarly-minded people?

If you’re just starting I’d suggest getting together with friends before going off to regular jams. Play with people that you like and respect the musical taste of, and people that you trust: somewhere where you feel like it’s okay to experiment and find your voice without judgement. Once you’ve got a good level of technique together then venture out. Every jam has its own character and people are going with specific intentions. Some jam sessions are to show off and prove yourself, some are about exploring sound away from jazz language, some are women and non-binary only. You’ll find your people eventually.

JOE ARMON-JONES

“I think there’s bare room for error in improvised music, it’s how you deal with them that can change them into real ideas.” [Photo: Joe performing live and improvised on Worldwide FM and The Lot Radio with Femi Koleoso]

Much of this new generation of jazz musicians talk about it more in the lens of improvised music than a continuation of the four letter word that started in the 20s. What does improvised music mean to you?

Fully improvised music comes from a particular part of the brain I think. It’s a state where you are informed by everything you have learnt in your life, and then use that information subconsciously to create something completely new. And there are endless possibilities for new music.

Who are some of your idols in improvised music that you’ve channeled into your own career, and why have they had such an impact?

Ahmad Jamal for me is the definition of an improviser, so much so that he will never become dated and out of touch, because he doesn’t rely on licks and phrases from other musicians to solo with. Also King Tubby and Lee Scratch Perry. The improvisational approach they used in dub music is very inspiring and impossible to copy, just like the best jazz musicians.

What’s your favourite pieces of recorded improvised music, and why?

Funkadelic – ‘Maggot Brain’.I just love the story behind this song, guitarist sat in a dark room surrounded by amps, George Clinton telling him to play the song like he had just lost his mother. Pretty dark but the song is mad beautiful! Also ‘La Fiesta‘ by Chick Corea & Herbie Hancock. I used to listen to this all the time when I was younger, two of the best pianists ever playing their hearts out and improvising off each other.

Who’s your favourite artist to improvise with, and why?

Very difficult to answer really. It’s a different experience with every single person I play with, but have always had a mad connection with Femi Koleoso when we play together

From an audience’s perspective, live improvisation done well looks seamless, but behind the scenes it’s only achieved through top tier musicianship. What are some of the skills necessary for improvisation to be effective, and what, if anything, can you do to prepare?

Yeah being good at improvising on stage doesn’t mean only practice improvising. I remember watching Shabaka Hutchings warming up before a gig in New York , he was running all kinds of jazz/bebop lines quietly in the corner, somebody asked him if he was practicing what he’s gonna play on the gig, he said “no I won’t be playing any of this on the gig, this is just for practice”. You practice lines, technique, harmonic knowledge, rhythmic knowledge and accuracy in the practice room, then abandon it all on stage and just see what happens 🙂

What are some of the challenges you face while improvising live to an audience, with no room for error? How to you ride them out with less than a beat to adapt?

I think there’s bare room for error in improvised music , it’s how you deal with the errors that can change them into real ideas not mistakes. Play a wrong note, find a chord to go with that wrong note to back it up and suddenly it’s not so wrong anymore.

Talk us through some of the technicalities of an effective live improvisation. Is the style or energy settled on prior, to give a rough remit before you start? Is there a lead or director that keeps it on track? What signals a transition into another movement?

Listening properly, not just to your own playing but the room as a whole and all the music in it.

The Round Robin event at the Red Bull Festival pairs up musicians for a one-off five minute duet. Who’s your partner and what have you got planned for it?

Me and Maxwell Owin gonna fuck shit up

For any young musicians who come to the Round Robin and feel inspired, can you recommend any regular get-togethers or jam sessions, where they can drop-in to hone their skills and meet similarly-minded people?

Tomorrows Warriors , Jazz Re:freshed and Steam Down.

NIK COLK VOID

“Knowing your tool of choice and understanding its limitations presents you with a trusty friend to use as your voice. Having the confidence to use this helps present a seamless performance.” Photo: Nik performing at Philharmonic Music Room, Liverpool. By Vicky Pea for Getintothis’]

Who are some of your idols in improvised music that you’ve channelled into your own career, and why have they had such an impact?

Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti is a good place to start. Working with them as Carter Tutti Void gave me a nod of reassurance, the coming together felt natural and transgressive. Both of their approach to their tools of choice, I instantly connected with – investigative and sometimes punishing – a sense of release and control, chaos and unity. It has taught me that the ability to invent on the spot within that space of time with a collective or solo is a work environment I much prefer. In going forward, this is what I seek in other artists that I like to work with.

What’s your favourite pieces of recorded improvised music (single track or live album), and why?

I have only just recognised – it’s taken me a while – how location, culture, gender, age and society play a big part in the partnership of musical improvisation. This is evident almost like a silent member in Care by Simon Fisher Turner and Klara Lewis and this is why I have chosen their recording as one of my favs. The recording beautifully plays out their digitally manipulated field recordings and found sounds. Through the art of doing, they can make new configurations that sometimes clash, snippets from their environments and their choices become a dialogue of who they represent in their worlds and what interests them as well as merging them to create something new.

Who’s your favourite artist to improvise with, and why?

Peter Rehberg, as I feel our performing is more parallel in terms of tools, conditions, and as people. We perform as NPVR – I live in the UK and Peter lives in Vienna. We go into our performances cold, with no exchanges of pre-formed ideas, file shares or practise preparation. On most occasions we have new additions to our eurorack modular setups. Individually our setups can change due to new additions brought to the table during the gap from previous performances, so our individual sound can radically change. Saying this, the more we perform together, the more our signature is developing and our identity is forming into something I like to call New Industrial. Our performances have taken us to places like Tresor Berlin to Ina GRM CENTIQUATRE studio 104 Paris. To me it feels completely fresh and liberating. The risk involved makes it challenging and demanding, but I am coming away learning a lot from this, about myself, about trust and collaboration and how different locations play a part.

From an audience’s perspective, live improvisation done well looks seamless, but behind the scenes, it’s only achieved through top tier musicianship. What are some of the skills necessary for improvisation to be effective, and what, if anything, can you do to prepare?

I began with guitar and found that once I developed my process of unlearning – the way I was taught and developed my take on it – this was a good place to begin. Over the years, via improv performance and in the studio, this opened up new approaches to playing, so now I feel I know my guitar so much more than I did when I adopted other peoples’ methods originally; being the guitar this was often very masculine. A few years ago I moved to modular synth, which I find is more flexible in terms of developing my take on sound, along with the ability to cross genres. This is now my main tool of choice. I know it very well but as the setup changes and the random nature of these setups, the unexpected often happens, which with practice I can harness on the fly when in improv situations. Preparation of knowing your tool of choice and understanding its limitations and nurturing its natural parameters of sound presents you with a trusty friend to use as your voice and having the confidence to use this helps present a seamless performance.

What are some of the challenges you face while improvising live to an audience, with no room for error? How to you ride them out with less than a beat to adapt?

Losing concentration can lead to error, but generally, I have been improvising for a few years now and remember that it only really started to happen for me once I put aside the idea of ‘error’ and ‘mistake’. If you approach a collaboration or solo performance worrying about making mistakes when improvising, then I’m not improvising. Or you could look at it another way, allowing accidents can open up new ground.

Talk us through some of the technicalities of an effective live improvisation. Is the style or energy settled on prior, to give a rough remit before you start? Is there a lead or director that keeps it on track? What signals a transition into another movement?

I’m still forever learning, this is what is so great about improvisation. Some collaborations I have sounds prepared in my studio from experiments I have explored with my modular system and sampled these, so live I can play these back and manipulate further. In other cases, like for example working with Ashly Paul, we decided to use prominent sound triggers to direct us to the next stage of the composition. On certain occasions, like when performing as Factory Floor I would have a loose structure in mind, as with electronics different sections require different settings and sequences. With Carter Tutti Void I play the guitar with extended techniques using bows and sticks with effects and controlled feedback which can produce a unique sound differentiating one track from another, my tools are armed with the distinct sounds to unite with Chris Carters recognisable beats, but they would never be so close to being reproductions of the album tracks, but living versions. Mix this with the other many elements that come to play within a live situation, emotions, the energy you get from the room, the artists you play with and your reactions to their playing, when it begins to feel natural that you almost fly, this is when it all comes together and make sense on so many levels.

Emma, Joe and Nik perform at the Red Bull Round Robin on 11th Feb at EartH, alongside Femi Koleoso, Flora Yin-Won, Lapalux, Lucinda Chua, Maxwell Owin, Mira Calix, Nabihah Iqbal, Nubya Garcia, Oscar Jerome, Remi Kabaka Jr. and Swindle. Grab tickets from the Red Bull website

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