Free Play: Improvisation In Life & Art

Never mind AI, a greater threat to actual jazz might lie in Stephen Nachmanovitch's idea that 'every form of conversation is a form of jazz'


The back inner-sleeve of this reader-friendly volume – a sort of superior “self-help” book – tells us that the American Stephen Nachmanovitch (born 1950) “performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist, and at the intersections of performing and multimedia arts, philosophy and ecology. In the 1970s he was a pioneer in free improvisation on violin, viola and electric violin.”

What you can’t glean from these words is that Nachmanovitch, a Taoist-touched Zen Buddhist with a love of the music of the Indian sub-continent, has both a keen intellect – he wrote his PhD dissertation on William Blake – and a most fortunate sense of humour. You can sample both in the extensive June 2022 YouTube interview (which includes some improvised duo playing) conducted by violinist and podcaster Leah Roseman in her series Conversations with Musicians.

An extensive, albeit in part questionable, bibliography is testimony to the endeavour which has gone into a project which, in the 1980s, no less a figure than Yehudi Menuhin encouraged Nachmanovitch to develop. And no less a musician than Keith Jarrett has this to say on the back cover of the resultant Free Play, now in its third edition: “Nachmanovitch tells it like it is in the most important book on improvisation I’ve yet seen.”

Such an endorsement from one of the most remarkable improvisers in the history of jazz might reasonably lead one to expect Free Play to contain at least some sustained consideration of that life-affirming, world-ranging music. From time to time, Free Play does touch on jazz, but only very briefly – and to a jazz mind or sensibility, this is the one major disappointment about the book, and an issue to which I shall return.

Although there are several passages where one might nit-pick about Nachmanovitch’s assertions, there are certainly many things to admire about Free Play. First up is the lucidity with which the author addresses an interwoven range of challenging ideas, concerning, e.g., blocks to the creative process and how to overcome them; different notions of beauty, and the need to avoid succumbing to any pressure to be “accessible” in one’s art, surrendering rather to the deeper impulses of the inner creative flow of life.

Ranging across personal experience and philosophy, painting and sculpture, poetry and music, Nachmanovitch has a good ear for a pithy phrase, such as “Improvisation is intuition in action” (p 42) and “For art to appear, we have to disappear” ( p 55). And any book which finds space in its bibliography for the masterpiece that is the early-1960s publication Creativity and Taoism gets my vote!

However: it is in the bibliography (or rather, what is not in the bibliography) that a jazz mind is likely to discern cause for complaint. The sole bibliographical reference to jazz is a Whitney Balliett interview with Stéphane Grappelli – who, let’s not forget, when pressed elsewhere about the difference between his approach to music and that of Menuhin, observed that, supreme as the world-ranging classical maestro was, he lacked what Grappelli called “my little blue note”. I find this a more telling remark than the concluding fanciful assertion in the quote from Grappelli with which Nachmanovitch opens his first chapter, It’s A Mystery: “ Great improvisers are like priests; they are thinking only of their god.”

While it’s disappointing that fine volumes like Christopher Small’s breakthrough Music, Society, Education (1977) and Jonathan Harvey’s Music And Inspiration (1999) – which between them prefigure or parallel a fair few of Nachmanovitch’s ideas – are nowhere referenced here, to me it’s simply astonishing that there is no mention of key, jazz-inflected texts in the field that most concerns Nachmanovitch – i.e., the affirmative interplay of art and life afforded by a creative and spiritually oriented approach to the practice of improvisation: books such as, e.g., Peter Michael Hamel’s Through Music To The Self (1978) and Joachim-Ernst Berendt’s Nada Brahma: The World Is Sound. Music And The Landscape Of Consciousness (1988).

In the 2022 interview with Leah Roseman, Nachmanovitch reveals that Western notions of harmony and related structure have never meant all that much to him, and that he wouldn’t be interested, e.g., in responding to an invitation from others to improvise on something in, say, a particular key and 4/4 time, preferring as he does to work from the more open stimulus of what he calls “inner parameters”. It’s difficult then to understand why the bibliography in Free Play makes no mention of free guitarist Derek Bailey’s Improvisation: Its Nature And Practice In Music (1980) – much of which builds on the distinction between idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation.

As remarked, jazz is referenced in Free Play, but always in a simplistic way, with no details of era, stylistic school or individual aspiration and achievement. Reminding us that before the 20th century, improvisation was very much part of Western classical musical culture, Nachmanovitch acknowledges its reappearance “notably in the field of jazz” (p 10). And jazz quotations head up two chapters, The Power Of Mistakes and Quality. The latter has the title of the classic Ellington piece It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), the former a remark from Miles Davis: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” Does that “Do not” (as opposed to “Don’t”) sound like Miles to you? Me neither.

An assessment of the relation of jazz and improvisation comes out like this, in the chapter Inspiration And Time’s Flow: “Good jazz players have innumerable tricks they can fall back on whenever they get stuck. But to be an improviser you have to leave those tricks behind, go out on a limb and take risks, perhaps occasionally fall flat on your face […] A creative life is risky business.” (pp 22-23)

It’s unclear here whether Nachmanovitch feels that jazz players, whether good or not, are willing and/or able to take those risks. What is clear is that, apart from the aforementioned quotations from Grappelli and Davis, he is not interested in instancing a single jazz musician (or group) who might illustrate or exemplify his overarching – and most welcome – theme: namely, that “The creative process is a spiritual path” (p 14).

But don’t worry. If we take the focus away from the real-time creative process and spiritual paths of, say, John and Alice Coltrane, we can celebrate ourselves as jazzers. How and when would that be? According to Nachmanovitch, whenever we open our mouths (and ears) and engage in a conversation. For, according to Free Play, “Every form of conversation is a form of jazz.” (p 17)

Really? Metaphors can be expansive in effect. They can also diminish and demean. What was it that Ray Brown once said? Something like, “Some people think we jazz musicians just wake up, roll out of bed and play the blues in D flat, no problem.” It would have been pleasing if a book called Free Play, which roams far and wide – and often most fruitfully – across time, continents and genres, had at least seen it fit to accord a simple name-check to what has long been considered a seminal recording in the history of improvised music in America: namely, the 1961 release Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation By The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet. Wouldn’t it?!

Free Play: Improvisation in Life & Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch, with a foreword by Ruth Ozeki. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2024. Pb, 234 pp with 27 b&w illustrations, bibliography and index. £12.99. ISBN 978 1 80530 192 9