Fingers and arms as improvisational guides

•August 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

One of the most fascinating conversations had between improvising musicians is the balance act between one’s own “vocabulary” (one’s phrasing, sound, ways one develops motifs or other musical materials) and the musical ideas that we inherit (“traditions,” what one has learned from teachers, previous players, originators of a musical approach).

Less often discussed is another question of balance: between thought, and memory—during the present performance by oneself and by others, references to compositional elements, to history—and muscle memory.

We improvisers prefer to consider what we do as intentional translations of thoughts into sounds. And there is something to that. This year, for instance, I have been thinking more in terms of harmonic structures when I play at home, just for myself. And there are people who imagine, conceptually, what they will play, doing what some have called composing in real time. Previously in these blog postings, I’ve discussed the dynamic of active, close listening between improvising partners. The interplay between those dynamics and issues of the body, our muscles, is worthy of discussion. But its not today’s topic.

Honestly, I think that much of what we improvisers do is unconscious. Often, we play before we are even really cognizant of what we’ve played. Among the modes of improvisatory cognition is muscle memory. Some may define this as “habit,” and sometimes it is. But there’s an element to playing, at least for me, that is substantially physical. It arises in the ways we shape or move our fingers, our lips, mouths, feet, doing so in ways that our body knows are right. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as habit; it is simply another way of intuiting and knowing. I find that what I play is more often what my body wants to do than is usually acknowledged by musicians (including me).

Placing trust in my fingers and arms does not come easily since I was rigorously trained to trust only in sheet music. So much so, that it was hard for me to even trust my memorization of sheet music. Only in mid-adulthood did I rediscover my early childhood free abandon at the keyboard, before ever starting lessons.

One of the gifts I discover when trusting my body’s judgment is that I allow great latitude to making mistakes. By mistakes I mean places where my fingers or hands go when I had intended them to do something other than what they’ve chosen. This can be akin to jumping from rock to rock while walking in the woods, but missing and finding myself on a different rock than I had intended. The results requires me to change how I balance my body, to lean in a different direction, and sometimes, to tread a different path entirely. This is improvisation based upon a chance occurrence. Herbie Hancock often tells the story of how Miles Davis made something musically meaningful from a “wrong chord” that he (HH) played early in his time with the Quintet. The “error,” rather than leading to a disastrous mess, was allowed to lead the way and suggest new possibilities. Such is where my hands sometimes lead me and I am learning to treat these representatives of my body as a guide and teacher.

Where does muscle memory – as guide – diverge in a positive way, from muscle memory-as-habit? Habit can lead one to combining and recombining the same overly-tread motifs. There are musical traditions (for instance, with many rock guitarists) where improvisation is defined as recombining a favorite collection of motifs. I place this on one end of a spectrum, across town from constant invention and non-repetition. But everyone has their vocabulary, their favorite ways to shape lines, to build textures, to craft rhythmic constructions. This is true however freely we understand ourselves as playing. This realization leads me to better appreciate (on good days; feel compassion on bad days) recombination.

It is my body and its, sometimes, unknowable wisdom that leads me away from overly wearing my favorite habits. These are the instincts akin to editing a composition, where our favorite parts can be what most needs paring for the music to really “work.” Isn’t it ironic that the same body can enforce musical habits through muscle memory – that also generates mistakes, leading me to take notice and break those habits? I’ve built versions of software-based improvising partners that operate on various levels of chance. But none of them ever made quite such surprising mistakes as human beings can do, causing me to listen as deeply as my arms demand when they go their own way.

Again, these thoughts sidestep the multitude of fascinating questions about listening to fellow ensemble members. One of the joys of my life is having opportunities to play with terrific listeners. Imagine sitting in a room, playing with abandon while listening closely, realizing that each of the musicians is following their own bodies, leading them to musical gestures they never cognitively intended.

Conversing with Jerome Cooper (1946-2015)

•May 8, 2015 • 3 Comments

Jerome Cooper, wonderful drummer and a totally unique human being, passed away on Wednesday, May 6. The last surviving member of the Revolutionary Ensemble, and not quite 70 years old, Jerome died of cancer. I first saw him play in the early-70s when he was playing with the Revolutionary Ensemble and had the chance to meet him for the first time following a solo concert he gave in New York. Decades later, in late 2011-early 2012, I recorded a series of conversations we had in New York City. Here are some excerpts. Many more excerpts will appear in my forthcoming book “The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and other Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, to be published in late 2015 or early 2016). I hope you appreciate the transparency of the book title. Since these are excerpts, the conversation topics skip around a bit. Jerome was a total delight and will be sorely missed by many.

Jerome Cooper: In Chicago I was working my ass off. I was doing TV shows, I was working with Chad Mitchell at the Happy Medium [Theater], I was working with Oscar Brown Jr. at the Plugged Nickel. I worked all the time. And I just got tired of it, so I moved to Europe.

Bob Gluck: This is the late ’60s? When was this?

JC: I went to Europe in 1968. And I went to Copenhagen.

BG: To Copenhagen?

JC: I don’t know why! [Laughter] The only reason I can think of is, I used to read Downbeat Magazine and they would talk about all these jazz clubs in Copenhagen. You know, Montmartre, Jimmy Drew and Lester Gordon, and all these people.

BG: People were making a living there.

JC: Well what happened when I got there, I saw it was different, then I went up to a place called Aarhus, which is in northern Jutland (Peninsula, Denmark), and I started at the university there. I was just hanging out and luckily Roscoe Mitchell came to town, and he asked me to go to Finland with him, and I went to Finland and did a concert with him, and he said, “Why don’t you just tour with me?” and I did a tour with Roscoe and part of this tour we played Paris, and at that time everybody was in Paris. And so…

BG: Everybody from Chicago, especially, right?

JC: Everybody from Chicago, New York—everybody was there. It was really beautiful. Paris was really happening. And Roscoe said: “When you finish the tour, why don’t you come to Paris? I’ll find you an apartment,” and that’s what I did. I got to Paris, and I’m living with these French students, Maoists; in those days, they were having all these riots in Paris. Roscoe’s gig in Paris was with Clifford Jordan.

BG: So let me just go back to something: you describe yourself as a drummer, as opposed to a percussionist.

JC: That’s my own thing. The reason I say that is this: to me, a percussionist is kind of timid. I know theoretically, a percussionist is a musician who plays different instruments that you hit. But my experience with percussionists is that they were very timid in how they played their instruments. I’m not doubting that, I’m just saying that basically I’m a drummer and I like intensity.

BG: Is part of what you’re saying that a percussionist is somebody who plays certain instruments, and that a drummer is somebody who does something that’s not about playing a certain instrument but it’s about a whole tradition about communication and about things that are beyond…

JC: It’s more mystical. A drummer is more mystical…

BG: Anthony [Braxton] has really strong feelings about not wanting to be called a jazz musician. Obviously, you don’t share that—or do you? Or do you care? [Laughs]

JC: Well, I don’t care. Right now I call myself a multi-dimensional drummer. That’s how I deal. People hear me play they might hear a horn player, a piano player. You know, it’s multi-dimensional. Jazz—it’s all the same. I came up playing rhythm and blues. It was all the same. Music is music. One of the greatest blues musicians to me was Sergei Rachmaninoff. Because his music has so much feeling. And that’s what it’s about—the feeling, and getting the feeling across.

BG: Were there particular drummers who mattered to you when you were coming up?

JC: The only drummer who mattered to me was Art Blakey. That was my drummer. What I loved about Blakey was his spirit. That’s what I hear in drummers—I don’t hear to how fast they can do all this shit, or how loud. You know, really rudimentary stuff. I listen to their spirit, and I listen for the soul. And Blakey had that, and he was my main man. I got a chance to hang out with Art when I came to New York…

BG: So one of the things about Blakey that always struck me, ’cause I’m not a drummer, was that he was like the gasoline that gets the stove going. It seemed that a lot of his drumming was in service of making the band cook.

JC: And the band cooked. He knew what musicians to get. I mean the cat—you got your shit together with Blakey. I loved Blakey’s spirit; his spirit on the drums. I loved his spirit. That’s all I can say, man. I came up listening to Blakey and he was my favorite drummer, although I liked Tony Williams, I liked Max Roach, I liked Baby Dodds, a lot of drummers. Now the only people I play with is drummers.

[About Sam Rivers and Studio Rivbea]

JC: Sam’s house was total love. I used to go at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sam would always be up. I went back into their living area, saw where they lived. I really believed it was the love between him and Bea and their children. The children were really courteous and nice. That’s why the place was so hi

Learning more about music and communication from an unexpected source

•December 3, 2014 • 4 Comments


Two brief stories: what I have learned from our dog Max
(February 7, 1999-November 21, 2014)

One day, maybe three or four years ago, Max and I were walking on our block. I noticed quite how attuned he was to my stride, as dogs often are, but also how little interest he had in “heeling,” Although we attended his graduation, Max had not been a successful alumnus of dog training academy. His pace was essentially his own, filled with bursts of energy and enjoying to pull and tug. But the closer I paid attention on this particular day, the more I realized how cognizant Max was of the space around him, and of our respective walking paces. What I noticed was that while to me his patterns were seemingly random, they were in fact not that at all. Max closely perceived where I was, where he was, how fast we were each going, and taking all that into account, decided how he wished to proceed. This calculation was constantly changing. What struck me more than anything was that his use of space and time was substantially relational and all I needed to do to relate to him with mutuality was pay attention. From that point I began to listen to musical groups differently, becoming more conscious of how non-verbal and not even obviously musical features played a role in how the players perceived and responded to one another. I began to analyze and describe music in fundamentally relational terms. I noticed how people unconsciously perceive the movement of other people coming up behind them, even when their sounds cannot be heard. There was far more to perceive relationally than what we human beings think that we think about. But dogs know this well. Thanks to Max, that remains my project as a teacher and writer.

More than a decade ago, when Max was sprite and I was recovering from knee surgery, he and I drove to the Adirondacks and hiked Mt. Jo. This favorite spot of mine overlooks Heart Lake. Max walked and climbed by himself when the terrain allowed it, at times running way ahead on flatter spaces and rushing back to be by my side. When the rocks were too steep, he waited for me to lift and carry him up to the next level surface. We reached the top and came back down, returning to our car. I began to drive back towards the highway and suddenly forgetting that Max was a dog, turned towards him to ask how the hike was for him. He looked exhausted but he looked up at me, but of course not saying a word. But what I realized was that Max actually had the capacities to communicate in all the ways that he needed as a dog. He didn’t need anything more than that. Ok, this seems obvious. But what was not obvious was the idea that Max was quite fully communicating throughout the day in his own way, even as we departed from Heart Lake. The adjustment to be made was mine, not his, and I finally and rather fully understood that the line between human beings and other animals is far less distinct or significant than I have always insisted. Hiking with Max has been, over the years, a regular part of my family’s life, in various combinations of Max, Pamela, Allison, and I.

The Rite of Bitches Brew: Miles Davis’s BB in light of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre

•September 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I was introduced to Bitches Brew and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) around the same time, at the same place–at my rabbi’s house. People are surprised when they hear this, but Chaim Stern was one musically and culturally forward-thinking rabbi, and his older son, a guitarist/composer and I played together in a rock band. I sometimes find myself conflating these two musical works. This might have happened because of the juxtaposition in time and place, but the chance experience allowed me to hear some striking resonances.

First there’s the sound of the bass clarinet. Bennie Maupin’s evocative, serpentine lines on this low register instrument are part of what gives Pharaoh’s Dance its distinctive flavor. Often used in orchestral music for textural and sonic contrast and spice, Maupin heard Eric Dolphy playing it as a solo instrument in John Coltrane’s band when ‘Trane came to Detroit, Maupin’s hometown. Bennie Maupin began playing the instrument in 1965-1966 and “was working on it all the time.” Although he saw himself as a saxophonist, he was playing bass clarinet with McCoy Tyner at Slugs in New York’s East Village, when Miles Davis came in to listen to the band. Maupin recalls: “I never did play the saxophone with Miles, only bass clarinet. That was probably one of the greatest things that could have happened to me because what it did for me was set me apart from all the other saxophone players. A lot of people don’t even think of me as a saxophone player, they think about the bass clarinet.[1]

While it is the opening lyrical bassoon passage and the heavily—and asymmetrically–accented strings that Le Sacre calls to mind for most, for me the distinguishing feature was the bass clarinet. The bassoon is what we first hear, as the voice intoning the haunting, opening Armenian folk melody. Eventually a flute picks up the tune and the ensemble becomes multilayered. Melodic variants are tossed between instruments and send it back to the bassoon. The clarinet subtly plays a repeated note figure, and this becomes the grist for that sound – the gravel-like timbre of the bass clarinet, which borrows the clarinet’s stuttered notes, out of which sweep ornamental flourishes, up and down. The bass clarinet returns moments later, its line spiraling melodically downward to cut short a march-like four-note ostinato played by pizzicato strings, right before the first appearance of the heavily accented rhythmic, pulsing motif.

Before either of these musical events, another passage intervenes. Two different textures alternate, back and forth almost like a call and response pattern. One is thinner—fewer things happening at once (and the oboe is prominent)–and the other has a higher density of musical events. The more densely packed moments are where I noticed that Le Sacre, like Bitches Brew, had a “brew” of its own. By this I mean a passage where various instruments are layered, each playing its own line, interweaving or simply juxtaposed with the others. The texture is transparent, so that each individual instrument can be heard with clarity, yet what matters most is the overall sound of the ensemble. And isn’t this exactly a defining feature of Pharaoh’s Dance, most notably its multilayered electric pianos, but also the two basses, and multiple-percussion. All together, they create a distinct but ever-changing overall sound.[2]

The suggestion that Miles Davis or Teo Macero might have been influenced by Le Sacre isn’t all that wild. During his brief period of study at The Julliard School of Music, Davis became acquainted with the work of Stravinsky, Berg, and Prokofiev. In his autobiography he noted: “I wanted to see what was going on in all of music.”[3] Might he have explored this particular score? When in his Autobiography, Davis observes: “I had been experimenting with writing a few simple chord changes for three pianos. Simple shit, and it was funny because I used to think when I was doing them how Stravinsky went back to simple forms,” The reference “went back to simple forms” seems to refer to Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works. In works from the 1920s, Les Noces, L’histoire du Soldat, Duo Concertante, and others, Stravinsky treated short motifs as building blocks. However, Le Sacre also reflects a process of repeating and expanding small bits of melodic or rhythmic material.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre has certainly captivated other jazz musicians. Only two years after Bitches Brew was recorded, flutist Hubert Laws crafted his own nine-minute interpretation.[4] Others, most recently, The Bad Plus, conductor Butch Morris’s The Rites (with Burnt Sugar and Pete Cosey), and the Mobtown Modern Big Band,[5] have done so on a larger scale. Certainly, while Stravinsky himself showed an interest in jazz during the 1940s, as well as with, ragtime only five years after completing Le Sacre, the early date of the rhythmically driven Le Sacre could not have reflected a relationship with jazz.[6] Pianist Ethan Iverson has noted its “earthy groove.”[7] If Miles Davis might have found inspiration in Le Sacre while composing “Bitches Brew,” the connection would likely have been its textures and sonic palate, not its syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms.



[1] Butters, Rex. 2006. “Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond.” All About Jazz, September 12. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[2] There is another “Brew” moment in Le Sacre, at the opening of Part Two, where a dense haze of interlocking phrases in the strings and high woodwinds emerges, out of which a melody flows. This melody will figure throughout the ensuing minutes. This second “Brew” differentiates itself because of the intended lack of clarity. It is an effect akin to looking at a flower garden through a strip of gauze.

[3] Davis, Miles with Troupe, Quincy. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, 61.

[4] Hubert Laws 1971.

[5] For a discussion by the arranger see Brenzel, Darryl. 2010. “More 2nd Clarinet, Please,” Stravinsky For Jazz Ensemble [Blog], Thursday, September 2. Accessed July 9, 2013; Bill T. Jones and theater director Ann Bogart utilize segments of this big band musical interpretation within their dance/theater work “A Rite.” See Macaulay, Alastair. 2013. “Bodies and Voices Riff on ‘Rite of Spring’: ‘A Rite’ Riffs on Stravinsky at Chapel Hill, N.C.,” January 27. Accessed July 9, 2013. Also see Iverson, Ethan 2011. “Mixed Meter Mysterium,” A Blog Supreme. March 21. Accessed July 9, 2013. For a more general discussion, see Jarenwattananon, Patrick. 2013. “Why Jazz Musicians Love ‘The Rite Of Spring,’” National Public Radio blog, May 26. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[6] While Stravinsky’s melodic and harmonic conceptions have been closely scrutinized in depth by Richard Taruskin and others, the same has not been done for his rhythmic ideas. Taruskin 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, Volume I. Berkeley: University of California Press, 881-966.

[7] ibid.



The Bad Plus. 2014. The Rite of Spring. Sony, audio compact disc.

Brenzel, Darryl. 2012. “The Re-(w)Rite of Spring,” performed by the Mobtown Modern Big Band. Innova Records, audio compact disc.

Davis, Miles. (1970) 2010. Bitches Brew. [Columbia Records] Sony Legacy, audio compact disc.

Laws, Hubert. (1971) 2009. The Rite of Spring, CTI, audio compact disc.

Stravinsky, Igor. 1995. Petrushka, Rite of Spring (Le Sacre de Printemps). Pierre Boulez (conductor), Cleveland Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic. Sony, audio compact disc.


Reconsidering Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East (1970) in light of Miles at the Fillmore (2014)

•May 13, 2014 • 2 Comments

The release of unedited live recordings by Miles Davis’s 1960s Quintet and more recently, his first electric “Lost” Quintet has reopened the discussion about his landmark studio recording “Bitches Brew.” My upcoming book treats the evolving history of that latter ensemble and places the studio recording in that context (as opposed to treating the band in light of the studio recording). Sony’s release of the unedited recordings from the June 1970 Fillmore East shows (of what was by that point the MD Septet) is a treasure trove for people interested in the topic. It also sheds much light on Teo Macero’s methods in addressing the concert recording. What I hear in the new release, particularly in contrast with the original “live” recording confirms my thesis that much can be learned by placing the work of that band in the context of the highly exploratory musical world spawned in part by Ornette Coleman, which includes Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble.

In the 1970 release Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East Teo Macero sought to craft a four-sided double LP from four nights of sets. Within the available twenty- to twenty-five minutes per side, Macero offers a cross section of the compositions performed during the stand. “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles” begin with the usual set-openers, the rapid-paced “Directions,” the slower tempo, “The Mask,” and then “It’s About That Time,” which was a vehicle for freely combining vamp-based playing and open improvisation. Most of the sets conclude with “Bitches Brew” and “The Theme.” “Thursday Miles” includes just the first three tunes. “Friday Miles” and “Saturday Miles” focus on the second portion of the nightly sets, beginning with “It’s About That Time” the only constant across all four LP sides (“Bitches Brew” appears on three) and continuing with the ballads “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary”, concluding on “Bitches Brew,” plus on “Saturday Miles,” “Willie Nelson.” The brief “The Theme” forms a coda to conclude every evening’s set, as was Miles Davis’s general practice.

With the March 2014 release of the complete unedited recordings of the four shows, Miles at the Fillmore, it is now possible to closely examine Macero’s choices and assess the nature of his enterprise as editor and producer. From this point, Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East (1970) will be abbreviated LFE1970, and Miles at the Fillmore (2014) MF2014.

In assembling LFE1970, Macero placed at the center of each set an extensive, albeit shortened version of two tunes per evening, using short clips of the other tunes to offer contrast or provide segues between the lengthier segments. The only full tracks are “The Mask” on “Thursday Miles” and “Bitches Brew” and “Sanctuary” on “Friday Miles.” In contrast, “Directions” is shortened from its original ten-plus minutes to 2 ½ and 5 ½ minutes. Thursday night’s “Spanish Key,” unusual in its presence on the road and as a rare encore, doesn’t appear in Macero’s edited version. Miles used the brief ballads “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary,” slightly compacted by Macero, as a change of pace between tunes that were improvisationally free-wheeling and often faster (with the exception of “The Mask” and when Miles slowed it down midstream, “Directions”). A recent addition to the set list, “Willie Nelson” closes out the unedited recording (plus “The Theme” forming a coda), with a shortened version ending “Saturday Miles.”

Steve Grossman’s saxophone solos are retained on “Directions,” “The Mask” and “It’s About That Time” (“Wednesday Miles” and “Friday Miles”), “The Mask” (“Friday Miles”), and “Willie Nelson (“Saturday Miles”), with just ten seconds of his solo retained in Thursday’s “Its About That Time.” Grossman’s saxophone solos are removed entirely from “Bitches Brew” on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and from “Directions” and “The Mask” on Thursday (with the slice trace noted remaining in “Its About That Time”). His most extensive presence is his solo on “The Mask” on Friday and “Willie Nelson” on Saturday, both of which are unedited. Grossman also appears on flute as part of a collective improvisation on “It’s About That Time” on “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles.”

Macero’s focus is on beat-driven performances (although if this were his sole focal point, the inclusion of Friday’s “Directions” would have pushed the balance further in this direction; the same would be true of Saturday’s version, also not included, although the dual keyboard solos from 6:26-9:10 display parallel play as much as soloing within a strict meter). Miles Davis’s own solos, changes of pace between tunes, with some (but limited) allowance for the open improvisation that increasingly dominated the band’s appearances. These sonic excursions extended what had become a regular feature of the nightly Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette free-for-alls, now with the addition of Keith Jarrett on electronically processed electric organ. The improvisations often appeared in the midst of a tune, with Miles Davis off stage. They were generally highly textural, moving in and out of tempo and intonation, speeding up and slowing down in tempo, and featuring rapid-fire cascading runs and intricate interconnectivity between players. The extent of the band’s inclination towards open improvisation and changing tempos was more limited on Macero’s splicing block than in the actual live performances, generally retained but abridged in “It’s About That Time” and “Bitches Brew.” Had Macero decided to include “The Mask” (Friday, only on the unedited recordings) it would have provided additional support for the flexibility with which the band moves between open and more conventionally structured improvisation (the keyboard solos tend towards the former).

Macero’s approach to the band’s proclivity on stage to suddenly change tempo or to substantially depart from strict tempo is paradoxical. While he limits what he retains of these features from the unedited performances, he recreates semblances of them in his most heavily edited—or maybe one could say most compositionally-shaped—versions of the shows, “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles.”

One of the biggest surprises, comparing Macero’s edits with the newly released full sets, is the similarities in approach between the studio version of “Bitches Brew” and its appearance closing out “Friday Miles.” In both cases, an opening section is constructed in post-production by repeating a small unit of material, deleting short segments of the performance, and then repeating the entire constructed section. The result is a whole with a more clearly discernable form yet one that no longer represents the ad hoc spontaneity of the band’s live performances. Listeners have long come to expect the use of post-production as a compositional device for studio recordings, yet there is much dissonance in the idea of its use in something labeled a live performance.

The single performance of the four nights that would best present Miles Davis as a beat-driven, funk-vamp focused, or maybe even jazz-rock pioneer, is “Spanish Key,” played as a Friday night encore. It is not included in LFE1970. It is a rocking, buoyant performance. If there was a single danceable work during these Fillmore East concerts this would have been it (despite the metric and tonal breakdown at the end of Grossman’s solo at 4:42 and continuing through the seven-minute mark with an even more abstract dual keyboard plus Moreira trio). The open improvisation is met with strong audience applause.

More details? I’m hoping to include comparative detailed descriptions of each track in the appendix to my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, anticipated 2015)

Improvisation, Group Process and Interpersonal Communication

•January 6, 2014 • 4 Comments

Improvisation, Group Process and Interpersonal Communication
Bob Gluck, January 2014, Draft 1

Public and private, musical improvisation as an interplay of information

Music making is by its nature paradoxically intimate and public. While there are some who play primarily alone and only for themselves, the musician is a person who believes that there is something to convey through the generation and shaping of sound. A communicative element within music implies a listener. The presence of an audience renders music making–the translation of inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds–a public act, hence the paradox. When sounds are transmitted and then sensed by the listener, one’s hope is that the result will influence that person’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Might further information generated within that listener return to the player and influence that musician’s next move, creating a feedback loop? Some musicians view themselves as solely internally focussed while playing, but it is hard for me to believe that this is ever completely so. In my own experience as player and listener, the act of creation and response to incoming (or returning) information creates a complex feedback loop in which the ears of listeners are part of an open system.

Through the process of musical improvisation, the player generates and tests something akin to a hypothesis, as if engaged in a kind of experimental method. One instantaneously develops an idea, projects it outward and the tests it by observing the response–in oneself, in listeners, in one’s musical partners–as well as from the resonant qualities of a physical space, The analogy of music making as formulating a hypothesis is complicated by the reality that improvisation takes place as the clock ticks and feedback instantaneously accrued.

Metaphors to interpret our experiences as player or listener

We interpret our experience of the world by crafting metaphors. The contention of two philosophers who have thought about this question, Lakoff and Johnson, is that we perceive our relationship to our surroundings by translating what we know from our bodily experience. One example is the tactile experience of exerting pressure–for instance while opening a heavy door. What we feel is the physical weight of an object, which we perceive as resistance. We translate this perception into how we understand and articulate non-physical experiences. For example, when we express an idea; anticipating acknowledgement, instead we face disagreement. We use the term “resistance” to interpret this experience. When the response is more actively disapproving we speak of “push back.” If an idea is of particular importance, we call it “weighty” or it lacks rigor, we may call it “light.” These are translations of a somatic experience into a mental process through the use of metaphor. [Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, 1980/2003]

When playing with a favorite drummer, I have had the experience of feeling pushed forward, as if nudged from behind. Maybe he is slightly ahead of the beat, or at least of where I am at the moment. Or maybe he accents the second beat, creating a similar sensation of accelerated motion. In response, I might land more heavily on the next downbeat, or play smaller subdivisions of the beat (faster notes), creating the perception of increased speed. In this circumstance, the drummer leads and I follow, yet almost instantaneously I fall into a pattern in synch with him, if not moving slightly ahead. What forms is a feedback loop in which each of us is listening closely to the other, exerting pressure, meeting it with equal weight, maybe releasing it, all with anticipation of what might happen next. We each perceive our interrelationship “as if” we are physically connected. This is due to the familiarity of somatic experience and its availability as a metaphor to conceptualize our experiences of interconnection while moving as time passes.

Listening: intentionality and focus, how to notice the inner chatter, restraint

Is not easy to listen and play at the same time. Musicians are taught to focus on a small set of performance details when playing. High on the list is the accurate execution of pitch, degree of loudness, and how long a note is held. When playing on a slightly higher level of musicality, attention is paid to articulation: does a note begin instantaneously or gradually; does it cease slowly tapered, abruptly cease, or something in between?

In an ensemble setting, close attention is at very least paid to whether notes that are to be played simultaneously are in synch. Moving to a higher level of musicality, attention is paid to synchronizing nuance of attack, how notes played together swell in volume; the goal is often to simulate the sound of one instrument. Each musician adjusts what and how s/he plays to compensate for perceived differences that interfere with synchronicity.

Listening on this level is an appropriately admired skill, one that few musicians attain. But in an improvised setting, this form of listening achieves useful, yet limited goals. The musical value may not be the construction of a single unified sound, but rather a juxtaposition of a collection of very different musical personalities, exemplified by the sounds they project. And sound itself, a quality beyond the note/volume/duration concept, may be a privileged musical value. Within this expanded conception, listening takes on a broader definition. Matching or contrasting pitches may be replaced or supplemented by matching timbral attributes. The response to a warm, rich sound might be an equally resonant sound, or by something consciously different in quality. Listening through the lens of a broadened definition of musical attributes demands an ear that is highly attuned simultaneously on multiple levels.

There are positive reasons for a more conventional, narrower approach to listening. Certainly it is more familiar to (at least western) musicians, and by screening out other information, it is possible to most accurately attend to pitch, volume, and duration. It is also very difficult to retain focus on a complex of musical issues in the face of many potential external distractions.

Keeping the focus narrow is also a shortcut to screening out the internal distraction of our busy minds. Yet much is lost by doing so; first, the information one fails to hear, and more important, the deeper skill at making peace with our inner lives. Mastering that most is the only real key to learning how to broaden our attention to our sonic environment.

There are myriad flavors to these internal distractions, from thinking about “what do I want musically in this moment” to “why isn’t the saxophonist not headed in my direction” to “what’s for dinner after the show.” A personal favorite is evaluating my own performance and trying to assess the audience response or that of my fellow players. Musicians all have these thoughts, but each of these are distractions, obstacles to listening. They interfere with our ability to hear what is actually happening musically in the moment.

Ultimately, while performing implies presenting one’s musical ideas, there is a mental and emotional “zone” (as some musicians speak of it) in which creativity flows less censored by self-conscious activity. Some speak of this as “getting out of one’s own way.” An intricate balance must be found between the conscious and unconscious, listening and playing. There are things that can only notice when paying very close attention. At times the closest listening requires not playing at all. One can choose silence as a performance strategy or as a means of taking in more information to inform the next stage in playing.

Self-definition & distinctiveness: shaping one’s own sound, projecting that sound, “what is ‘my’ distinct way or doing x, y, or z”

The question “who am I at this moment of improvised performance” may seem like a cross between psycho- and philosophical babble. In actuality we each have musical personalities that define how we sound and how we project our inner selves sonically to others. It is through our distinct “sound” that we distinguish ourselves musically, assert ourselves in a musical environment, and offer something distinct for improvisational partners to engage.

On a basic level, one’s “sound” can literally mean timbre. The great jazz saxophonists are said to have their distinct sounds. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins produced different kinds of timbres from their tenor saxophones. is the sound full bodied, is it nasal, does is it coarse or smooth in grain? Is there timbral consistency across registers or are there varied timbres in different pitch ranges?

Pianists play an instrument with limited timbral control or variety. One’s sound can be a function of the density of notes (for instance, what kind of mix between thick chords and sparse individual notes)? Are lines played in parallel with both hands? How active is left hand chordal playing? Other elements are shared with musicians playing other instruments. Does the player focus within a particular register (for instance, the center of the keyboard, or high and/or low extremes). Does s/he tend towards playing many or few notes: how “busy” is the playing? How symmetrical are lines and/or phrases? Are there ornamental flourishes like grace notes, portamento “slides’, oscillating octaves (think Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock)? How much variety is found in articulation (staccato to legato, use of accents), degree of rhythmic vitality and variety… A musician’s sound is a composite of a range or cluster of musical features.

What to listen for: distinct attributes, small detail large structures, repeated patterns, variations, references, unanticipated meaning

You’ve strengthen your listening skills and grown in your ability to broaden your musical and other sensory awareness while playing. What then are you listening for while playing with (an)other musician(s)? We’ve spoken about the attributes of someone’s sound, which when discovered help acquaint you with your partners’ musical sound and personalities. The ability to attend within the moment to change and even subtle shifts in what may seem static becomes an important skill. But beyond qualities of “sound” and more conventional concepts of note/volume/duration, what else is there to listen for?

Patterns are one thing: beyond the concrete patterns of notes is the more abstract concept of gestural shape. Is the movement from one sound to the next stepwise or a leap? Upward or downward? Is there a contour you could draw on paper? Similarly, aside from a steady pulse, what other rhythmic attributes can you sense? Are there repeated patterns? Smaller subsets of those patterns or variations within those larger rhythmic structures? When do you sense changing energy levels, propulsion, stasis, a “cooling” down, sudden changes, constant variation?

Beyond literal rhythmic patterns (important to attend to!) can you detect more abstract patterns of shorter and longer durations? (akin to the concept of a melodic gestural contour)?

How does repetition affect the perception of time flow? Do rhythmic patterns lock in a pulse? Do they slow down the perception of motion when juxtaposed with other musical events? Free ir bound flow? Is the metric pulse changing? If so, has that changed more than the literal speed of playing, but other perceptual or emotional qualities in the music?

Do you detect references, musical or extra-musical, intentional or unintentional, that provide clues regarding the meaning of what is being played? Are there musical quotations or hints at specific music or historical/stylistic trends? Might it be useful to draw upon these in some way, or notice them, untouched? If you wish to respond, is it to join in or in some way to counter and play against the grain?

Do you detect larger structures forming? Hint: did you discern the conclusion of a segment during which an idea developed and then concluded (which could be provisionally considered an element in an emergent structure–recognizing of course that an open improvisation may simply move from section to section, or unfold organically without any discernible sen of structure). Do you recall previous structures, small or large that are being referenced? If so, are you interested in contributing this to retrospective episode–or not?

Showing others that you are listening

An important skill to exhibit when playing collectively is empathy. Having enhanced one’s skills as a listener, how does one show others that you are listening? Some very obvious possibilities quickly emerge: one can join others by playing in unison, or in a variation I’ll term “quasi-unison” meaning following the melodic contour to approximate unison. One can exhibit pitch matching–meeting another playing by joining on specific notes. The same concept of empathetically joining another can be achieved by imitating non-pitched or melodic attributes such as sound qualities and timbre.

The individual within a group

The role of an individual within a collective can mean very different things depending upon the rules of engagement. In a conventional formation in which soloist/accompanist, foreground/background binaries rule, the role of an individual toggles between these possibilities. An accompanist in turn becomes a soloist, subsequently returning to the previous role.

In a configuration like those holding sway in the big band era, role playing is more rigid. Players spend most of their time in the accompanist role, emerging less frequently to play a brief solo. In a bebop or post-bop ensemble the interplay between fellow accompanists may suggest greater flexibility between what constitutes soloist and accompanist. Drummers such as Max Roach behind Charlie Parker or Elvin Jones behind John Coltrane show distinctly soloistic tendencies while backing a solo. The interplay between Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, or Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Dave Holland within the two final Miles Davis Quintets was highly collectivist, presenting malleable group formations behind soloists, functionally alternating between collaborative group solos, dynamically changing accompany, and juxtaposition, an alternate reality from that of the soloist.

The role of a soloist, even a momentary soloist within a collectivist structure is complex. Unlike the soloist in a setting where roles are fixed, the soloist within an open improvisational setting must exhibit flexibility. Like all other members, one must be willing and able to adjust to gradual or sudden changes in the group, and open to change direction. One must ask oneself, how does the sound and input of other members impact or influence one’s own musical attitude and direction. The trajectory of a solo may have its own developing internal logic, yet if one is to be fully open to one’s surroundings, it must be possible for new possibilities to emerge in response to the environment surrounding one’s solo. This may be in response to actual changes in what others are playing or simply because the attentive soloist notices something previously undetected around her/him.

The place of an accompanist in any kind of musical setting is to affirm, make space for, frame, and otherwise support the soloist. The manner by which this is achieved can vary greatly, depending upon the rules. In bebop settings, this means predictably maintaining a steady pulse and cyclical chord changes. In a more open setting it requires unusually close listening to determine what it means to affirm another’s individual voice. As discussed earlier, an accompanist can alter the context within which the soloist operates, changing perceptions of time, mood, and trajectory. In some cases, accompanists collectively reconfigure in response to their perceptions of the soloists direction. In others, the goal is stasis against which the soloist can seek contrast, juxtaposition or, alternately, a timeless quality.

Belonging as a nuanced attribute

What it means to “belong” within an ensemble can range across a spectrum: one can seek to merge into a group sound, maintain one’s identity in the group, flexibly shifting between maintaining and giving away one’s individuality. An alternate perspective is to affirm the individualistic side of the spectrum by aiming to stand out, or take on a contrary, conflicting “me and them” perspective. Individuals in a collective improvisational setting, lacking a soloist/accompanist binary can at times each assume this posture. another available role is to operate in isolation, as if separate from the group, not contrary, but simply on an independent plane. The irony here is the for the listener, there can be a fine line between separate and contrary.

Operating in an open improvisational setting requires the ability to maintain multiple perspectives, or at least the ability to shift between vantage points. The roles of individuals and subgroups within the ensemble may suddenly and subtly change and one needs to be alert to the shifting winds. It is equally important to be open to varying interpretations that different individuals may take towards the same musical material. What appears to be gaining strength and intensity to you may be a sudden but intermittent event to another. Finally, and maybe most important, each ensemble member must be able and willing to sacrifice one’s individual ideas, however, creative, to the needs and direction of the group as a whole.

Modes of engagement

The dynamics of listening and response are many and discussed in detail throughout the literature of jazz and improvisation. Already mentioned are various constellations of role playing: solo and accompaniment, collective improvisation, individual within the collective, and others. A conversational mode is a historical attribute throughout music of–and influenced by–the African diaspora dialog. Chief among these is call and response. But equally important is commentary, including forms of variation, contrast, engaging in an interplay of consonance and dissonance (harmonic, timbral, and other), and juxtaposition. Modes of building upon another’s musical gesture include additive and subtractive techniques (repeating, extending, compressing a line). The active listener will attentively track these unfolding changes, using the results to extend her/his palate of musical materials during the improvisation. When playing with others a constant, crucial question should be “how do I inform the musical dialog rather than impose myself upon it,” unless one’s specific goal at that moment is to assert oneself in this manner.

Concentration and abandon

This discussion has so far addressed what it means to focus and attend closely to what one hears around and within oneself while playing music. Left off is a musical value no less significant. The term “play” is an interesting choice of a word for musical performance. Usually, this implies a deeply serious activity. Yet without what we call the “childlike” qualities of play, much is lost in the potential joys and rewards of making music. Is it not possible to play with focus and intensity in a way that is simultaneously playful? Can we be serious with abandon?

Some observations about defining the spiritual in music – An ongoing consideration: 1998 – 2013

•December 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Some observations about defining the spiritual in music – An ongoing consideration: 1998 – 2013 – Bob Gluck – Version III, December 22, 2013

This is a very personal discussion of what I believe to be important musical concerns. It remains in ongoing draft form and is written for my students in memory of my father, visual artist Stan Gluck, who lived his life on the border between art and commerce.


1.“Whoever says You (“Du”) does not have something; he (sic) has nothing. But he stands in relation.” –Martin Buber

[- I and Thou, available in many editions, including Walter Kaufman, ed., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons]

More than anything, art is about moving the imaginative or not fully perceivable into view. What can emerge are understandings and experiences that are usually hidden from sight and hearing, awaiting our discovery. Art is like a living being, it exists in fluid interrelation with life. It offers the magic of discovery that cannot be packaged and consumed and yet remain the same.


2. “I consider that if I have a purpose it’s not to produce records or concerts, it’s in the process of perceiving more. Since my specialty is music, that perceiving takes the form of sound… The only thing that matters is that at the point when you make a sound you’re living and breathing that sound–and the only way is by living and breathing the silence previous to it.” -Keith Jarrett

[- Interview by Edward Strickland, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987]

Jarrett’s solo concerts during the 1970s and 1980s (and subsequent) accepted as their starting point notions of minimal preparation of materials or pre-conceived ideas. His personal hope was to find some level of communion with his audience. His goal for the audience was to engage their listening to sounds as they exist in the present moment.

When Jarrett’s solo concerts became identifiable as a repeatable commodity with a clear audience base and mass audience expectations, did this value become compromised? In his interview with Strickland, Jarrett speaks of an audience member who was upset that he played a Bach prelude in place of a “Jarrett-style” improvisation after a curtain call.


3. “… The decisive question today for anyone who makes music is, in my opinion, whether this planet with its inhabitants is a place of pleasure where people entertain one another in an enjoyable way–for instance, with music–or whether this planet is a school. I am convinced it is a school… You must, however, decide for yourself whether music is used as a means of drawing humanity upwards into higher realms, or whether it merely serves as a way of agreeably passing time.” – Karlheinz Stockhausen
[- Towards a Cosmic Music, essays and talks selected and translated by Tim Nevill. Longmead, UK:: Element Books, 1989]

During the 1970s, Stockhausen’s “Intuitive Music” (Aus dem Sieben Tagen – From the Seven Days) drew upon imagistic poetic texts (“Play a rhythm in the vibration of your body…” “… sound turns to gold, to gently shimmering fire…”) to inspire meditative collective improvisation. The musician was to experience a state of oneness with their instrument, the self, the other players and ultimately with the universe. The line between meditation and musical performance became blurred in a manner unusual in the West.


4. “My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
            – John Coltrane [Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews]

On an surface level, at least some of Coltrane’s music of the 1960s can be viewed as a form of worship. His 1964 Quartet work, A Love Supreme is accompanied by a poem expressing, in theological terms, appreciation and supplication. It is often described as a culmination of Coltrane’s recovery from addiction. The poem begins in this way:

“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what… it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions–time–all related…all made from one… all made in one. Blessed be his name. Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations–all paths lead to God. Thank you God…” – John Coltrane (1964, liner notes to A Love Supreme)

Some find concrete religious symbolism in Coltrane’s work, particularly tied to the Christianity of his childhood. Yet in the pivotal later years beginning with A Love Supreme, Coltrane did not see himself as a Christian. Price understands the seven-year period beginning with Coltrane’s breaking his drug happen in 1957 as a time when “he also merged his religion and his music, fusing them into an inseparable bond. The religion was nothing without the music and the music was nothing without the religion.”* So far so good. But part of Price’s argument is tied to locating embedded religious meaning in Coltrane’s use of triplet note patterns throughout this period. He may be right, but what connection can we make between an artist’s choice of materials and what is conveyed to the listener?

Music is inherently abstract. When there are lyrics, unless those lyrics lock other musical elements into fixed, even semantic meanings (and sometimes doesn’t the music resist or push back?), one can say: this symbol holds x, y, or z concrete meaning. But music more often communicates highly subjective emotions that are heard differently by each listener. Is there significance, beyond analysis or anecdote, to the use of a particular musical device? Opera composer Richard Wagner sought to embed ideas within his “Ring” cycle, but unless one has memorized the intended meaning of each of these many musical figures, they become just elements within the musical fabric. Remember too that other jazz musicians, including Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones used triplets throughout their work.
[*Emmett G. Price II, “The Development of John Coltrane’s Concept of Spirituality and Its Expression in Music”]


5. Coltrane titled the four sections of A Love Supreme: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” “Psalm.” But what relationship can we draw between what may (or may not) have been Coltrane’s original intention behind these titles, and what the listener receives or perceives? Is the value of the religious impulse relevant largely to the composer’s own internal experience? Maybe this is sufficient. Is it possible that Coltrane’s own relationship of meaning changed between conception and performance–particularly when involved other musicians are involved? Can the meaning change?

Might the titles describe Coltrane’s “spiritual transformation or ascent” as some have suggested? If so, what is the significance of this deeper meaning or narrative for the listener? All listeners today experience this work outside of the original recording studio and club settings. Those were not places conducive to religious experience! What then if the listener’s intention is specifically to attempt to re-experience Coltrane’s religious journey? Or to treat the recording as impetus for personal religious experience…? How does this affect the relationship between the titles (or the music itself) and what the listener experiences?


6. “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups… I want to speak to their souls.”
– John Coltrane [from an interview, quoted in Lewis Porter: John Coltrane, His Life and Music. University of Michigan Press, 1999]

Being a musician is personally useful in a deeper way once one moves beyond technique or literal realization of a score. The act of playing can then reveals aspects of oneself that you do not otherwise know. Often this occurs during trance-like moments, when one becomes less conscious of what specifically one is playing. What does Coltrane mean when describing his music as a “spiritual expression of… my being?” If Coltrane were mining his inner self, what would he be looking for? What would he see, learn, or know? What do you the listener sense of your own self in what you hear? If this were your own performance–can you imagine that while listening–what might you learn about, expose, hide… about your own self?

Coltrane suggested on several occasions in the 1960s that a deeper search is what his music was about, not about playing tunes! What the musician can discover-if one pays close enough attention-can be the pretty, the ugly, the embarrassing, the source of pride, the celebration, the mourning, the loss, the surprise discovery… about oneself. Making music becomes a kind of meditation. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition referred to as Vipassana, at least as translated into American culture, teaches that when one is silent, one can notice the contents of one’s thoughts. Instead of stillness, one can experience the chaotic activity and confusion of what actually goes on within our heads, the stuff from which we usually distract ourselves.

Among the sources of this approach might have been Coltrane’s reading of Jiddu Krishanmurti’s writings. You can find a wide assortment of these here:

Krishnamurti used the term “meditation” not in the usual manner—as a technique—but as a way of being. Listen to Krishnamurti (many of his writings were actually delivered as oral discourses and then transcribed):

“Meditation is to be aware of every thought and of every feeling, never to say it is right or wrong but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching you begin to understand the whole movement of thought and feeling. And out of this awareness comes silence. Silence put together by thought is stagnation, is dead, but the silence that comes when thought has understood its own beginning, the nature of itself, understood how all thought is never free but always old – this silence is meditation in which the meditator is entirely absent, for the mind has emptied itself of the past.”

“Meditation is a state of mind which looks at everything with complete attention, totally, not just parts of it. And no one can teach you how to be attentive. If any system teaches you how to be attentive, then you are attentive to the system and that is not attention.”

[- J. Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known]

So, again, what does it mean to learn about oneself? Krishnamurti offers some useful guidance, noting that “knowledge” implies something that is fixed. Rather, one’s being changes from instant to instant. As soon as one fixes on a particular impression-turned-to-“knowledge,” time has passed and what one is aware of is now a memory, impeding the ability to notice what is actually true in the moment.

“… I know nothing about myself. I don’t start with a conclusion – I am god, I am not a god, I am the state, I am not the state, I am the world, I am not the world, or I am the world – I know nothing. Right? So I begin there. I know nothing. What I know is what other people have told me. Propaganda. What I know, what I am is the result of what others have made me. Or in reaction to the world I am. So I really don’t know anything. Right? So I can begin to learn. Right? May I go on? No please, share together. It is not just I go on talking. As I know nothing I begin to learn. So I must find out what it means to learn. What does it mean to learn, not knowing anything, what does it mean to learn? I know, I have to learn a language – Italian, Greek, French or whatever it is. And I store up the words, the meaning of the words, the verbs, the irregular verbs, and so on. So I know a language. I know how to ride a bicycle, drive a car, dig in the garden, or run a machine. I know all that, but actually beyond the technological knowledge I know absolutely nothing about myself. Can we start from there? Can you honestly say, ‘I really don’t know anything about myself’ – not out of despair, not out of a sense of frustration: not knowing myself I am going to commit suicide! You follow?

“… What do you mean by saying you know nothing about myself. What I am. Why I do this. Why I think that. What are the motives, the impressions, the… you understand? I know nothing about myself except the technological knowledge, the information, the activity in that field. So I know nothing about myself. I only know what people have said to me about myself – the philosophers, the analysts, the psychoanalysts, the mothers, the fathers, the books – I put all that aside. So I am going to learn – learn about myself. And so before I use that word, I must find out what it means to learn.

“If I learn about myself, does that learning lead to knowledge about myself, and from that knowledge I act – you are following? I want to learn about myself – learn. What does that mean? I have learnt a language, ride a bicycle and so on. Myself is a living thing, isn’t it? Changing, demanding, asking, lust, anger – all that. I must learn about all that. Now if I learn about anger, that learning can leave the residue as knowledge. Right? From that knowledge I act. Therefore I have stopped learning. I wonder if you understand this?”

[- J. Krishnamurti, Second Public Dialogue at Brockwood Park, September 1973]


7. Coltrane’s work from 1965 until his death in 1967 is too often viewed in terms of its abstraction, relentless intensity–and not as often in terms of spiritual expression. I experience it as intensely emotional music, in some ways not unlike how I experience the act of actually playing music, or how I hear late Romanticism in the music of early Schoenberg or late Wagner. A large body of music exists that reflects the dynamics of periods when conventions of harmony, melody, and rhythm have been pushed to their limits. This is true for both these composers, and certainly Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and others as the 1950s came to an end.

Listen to John Coltrane’s Meditations (1965, recorded near the end of Coltrane’s Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) and to Interslellar Space (1967 duets with drummer Rashied Ali). Ok, Live in Seatle with his final band and… ok, I’m opening up the door to too large a body of great work, so stay with Meditations and Interstellar Space as openers!

Here’s what I suggest you do:

Listen closely through the entirety of Meditations. Listen a second time and then…

Describe in writing Coltrane’s playing, the textures, what they evoke in you.

Choose a fast movement and listen two more times and write again. Write more. Aim for interesting musical details but also images, colors, feelings, patterns, dream sequences you personally experience.

Movement one: what would this look like if it were a painting? A folk song? A building?

Try the same with one of the quieter movements.

Beyond Coltrane’s own personal expression-and that is obviously a strong focus of this music-would this work be the same without the saxophonist’s engagement with the other players? As yourself how the musicians are musically interacting? What are they “saying” to one another, as if this were a conversation? How do they support, jab, foment, ignore, spur on Coltrane? Listen to pairs of players—Coltrane with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner with Jimmy Garrison…

Ask yourself: “what is Coltrane discovering? What is he revealing? What does he have to offer to you the listener.” What do you think he discovered about himself? Is it true that the longer he plays, more of himself is revealed, warts and all? What do you notice about yourself while listening? Your discomforts, resistance, confusions-maybe these at first-but maybe followed by moments of engagement, passages you want to re-hear, joyful moments, and emotions you experience?


8. As an improvising musician, I have experienced art as a vehicle for discovery–discovery of the world and discovery of one’s own self. Personally, music and visual art making began early in the development of my language skills. Music, especially, became a primary means of my own self-expression and it has been a significant avenue through life for my interaction and relationships with others. Music is a prime way by which I often speak, despite my love of language. I also took fifteen years away from playing and so learned about how life is possible in other modes. There are advantages to not having to practice the piano! Yet ultimately I returned and continue my relationship with music as a performer and composer.

I discuss at length the spiritual experience encountered by members of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in my 2012 book You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press). Beginning with their November 1970 month-long engagement at a Chicago supper club, the band found the process of collective music making driven by intuition, close listening and response, joy in discovery, and commitment to living in the moment to guide their musical journey.


9. Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), his collective work for ten musicians, is on one level evocative of the wild abandon of New Orleans jas up to the 1920s, and in another way, the cacophony of parallel play and juxtaposition championed (completely independently?) by Ornette Coleman and John Cage. But for some, including me, it maybe be suggestive of Coltrane’s early experiences in ectastic charismatic churches. He was raised in the Black church, in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME Zion) tradition, in North Carolina. Imagine, literally or non-literally, the multiple horn textures during ensemble passages replicating people speaking in tongues, calling and responding with the preacher at will with multiple layers of “amens…?” What do you think?


10. “To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word. This is how some worshippers of the past would act: ‘They would repeat the same word many times, because they loved and cherished it as much that they could not part from it.’’”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel [Man’s Quest for God, available in many editions]

Coltrane made use of highly repetitive structures in his work during the 1960s. A phrase would be repeated, varied, turned upside down and sideways, again, again, and again. Is this a form of prayer as understood by Heschel?


11. I recall spending summers as a young child during the early 1960s, at a lake colony called “Golden’s  Bridge.”  This was a setting that was founded in thd 1950s by political activists. At times, freedom riders would begin their journey at that colony. We would gather and sing political folk songs, most often “Freedom Songs” of the Civil Rights movement, knowing that within a few days they would cross the Mason Dixon line and likely be brutally attacked. Collectively sung folk songs and spirituals played a key motivational role in that movement, as they have in the Black church. Hymns of praise and hope have from ancient times brought people together. Coltrane’s musical journey encompassed a panoply of the inspirational music of the gospel church, the traditionally secular expression of frustration and desperation found in the blues, the intense virtuosic of the bebop movement, the discipline of big bands, and the interpersonal interplay of Miles Davis’s first great Quintet of the mid-1950s, followed by the beginning of his quest to move beyond the constraints of conventional harmonic and rhythmic structures. This involved endless hours of private musical practice in which he explored all sorts of scales and patterns, in their infinite permutations and combinations. He had a tremendous reservoir to draw upon in strictly musical terms. All of it could be brought to bear in the service of deper personal expression, emotional and spiritual. Would the latter have been possible in a deep way without all that preceded?


12. The term “creative music” was championed by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago in the mid-1960s. My understanding of the term is about the project to point musicians away from that which is repeatable, marketable and consumer driven to that which is that which is expressive of the moment. True, the AACM, at its core an organization dedicated to establishing new, sustainable means of and venues for music making  for Black musicians, placed a priority upon original musical composition (rather than improvisation as the primary value). On this point, read George Lewis’s magisterial history A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Compositions by affiliated composers could often spur or structure within open improvisation. One challenge related to my larger present topic was how recordings of AACM works could be disceminated to reach a listening public in a musical world dominated by the corporate “music industry” Does music that is unique, unrepeatable and humanly focused change when it enters a system that is commodity and profit-driven?


13. The 1960s and 70s work of the AACM sparked musicians around the world, beginning with Black musicians, to explore musical collectively (as well as performances of original compositions). Sun Ra’s Arkestra played a parallel role, as did Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, and the 1970s Creative Music Studios retreats in Woodstock, New York (Karl Berger, Anthony Braxton, Carla Bley and others). Of course these are just some of many important examples.

One aspect of 20th century Euro-American music, especially composers such as John Cage and the early minimalists (Frederick Rzewski’s “Le Mouton de Panurge and Terry Riley’s “In C” come to mind) is an impulse to recapture communal functions of music. Such works motivated collective improvisation, where the expression of the individual and the sound of the whole were inseparable. Some, like David Darling, Paul Winter, and Bobby McFerrin have sought to engage non-professional or “amateur” musicians in freely flowing collective music making.

How can the process of collective improvisation become a useful tool for non-musicians or those who are not professional musicians in their search for personal and collective expression and introspection?


14. “[God is] the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. This is what we understand by God as the creative life of the universe. Religion is the endeavor to invoke these animating and organizing forces and relationships and to get us to place ourselves in rapport with them.”

“To produce art is to be creative, to give new meaning to reality. Since the experience of value in life constitutes our knowledge of God, all sincere art is sacred.”

–  Mordecai M. Kaplan [The Meaning of God in Jewish Religion, New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1962].

Mordecai Kaplan, offering a non-supernaturalist, religious humanist theology, considered creativity and artistic expression to be central attributes of human existance. For Kaplan, the universe, as it were, is a place alive with creativity. By being creative, people imitate God, regardless of whether one conceptualizes God as a force, personality or indwelling. Can music be a secular manner of engaging the religious impulse and understanding suggested by Kaplan?


15. “Whoever says You (“Du”) does not have something; he (sic) has nothing. But he stands in relation.” –Martin Buber

The relationship between Art and commerce is complex and much discussed. Much contemporary music, film, and art is designed for popular consumption, as entertainment. I’ve alluded to the dilemma of non-commercial work entering the marketplace.

The internet age promised a more open society wherein everyone could disseminate their own work and everybody could access all forms of music. Yet things have not turned out in the manner musicians anticipated. Most music is either marketed via and/or for corporate interests, or for free, or both. Individual entrepreneurship has grown yet faces tremendous obstacles in a time of free downloads and internet subscription services that offer meager profits to musicians. The nexus between music and commerce is hardly new, but has the present situation changed the nature of music making? Does the advent of the individual track download turn all music into an object, a commodity? Has the result de-sacralized the process of musical engagement for depth inward expression? Is there an appropriate—or possible–role for Art as a healer in the breach between human values and objects for consumption?

To simply state that commerce de-sacralizes art would be overly simplistic. To suggest that art should belong in a pristine domain separate from the realities of the world is not only a high Modernist idea, but one that is reminiscent of the body-mind split of the Hellenistic-rooted West. In traditional and non-western cultures, there is no clear distinction between life (work, play, ritual, dance, celebration…) and what in the West is the creation and distinctly aesthetic contemplation of work called Art.

Commerce is so deeply imbedded in our culture for it to be possible for art–or anything else–to function totally independent of it. Artists need material sustenance and the fulfillment of desires to have their works viewed and heard by audiences. The AACM explored viable alternatives to move art outside of an exploitative economy; what are routes today towards a livable path for artists beyond holding jobs as educators or in the service industries? In an age of reduced public support for artists and the arts, this is a critical question.


16. A final issue far larger to address easily within the scope of this essay is this: the role of music as a revolutionary force in oppressive societies. The example of Dmitri Shostokovich as a supporter, yet at times persecuted, by Joseph Stalin has been discussed by Alex Ross in his 2009 book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Shostokovich was expected to produce easily accessible works that celebrated the party line of Soviet national struggle and triumph. In contrast, in South Africa, popular and traditional songs inspired and sustained the overthrough of apartheid. The question I raise is this: if music can challenge an oppressive order, need it be populist and accessible to all? Is there a place for music that is more challenging and thus less easily accessible yet as a consequence, aesthetically disruptive? Frank Kofsky and Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) each interpreted the later work of John Coltrane as a revolutionary force precisely due to the latter qualities. [Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, 1970; Jones/Baraka, Black Music (1966), Da Capo Press 1998, excerpts are included in The Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader, Basic Books 1999]. What is a productive yet deeply expressive role of Art as an instrument of social awareness, critique and change?


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