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As an improviser, I value creative music practices—opportunities to play and listen to music where the focus is on taking risks, exploring sounds, and working both within and outside of the parameters of the jazz tradition. While I play mostly straight-ahead (and/or) contemporary (and/or) originally-composed jazz, I have an affinity for freer music, and often find inspiration both through performing and listening to freely improvised music. Free improvisation, and all improvisation for that matter is always informed by what we listen to, what music traditions we practice, and the sounds around us. While spontaneous in one sense, it’s certainly not spontaneous in the sense that we bring what we know to improvisation, and use what we hear and what we’ve practiced.

Last week I had an opportunity to play a house concert with saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Kay. Kay travelled to Lethbridge this month as part of a project by Amandine Pras, a professor in the Digital Audio Arts program at the University of Lethbridge. Originally from Toronto, Kay has spent most of the last decade in India, where he has studied the North Indian Classical music tradition. His dedication to learning and living in a new music culture is intriguing, and his fluency in both the jazz tradition and North Indian classical tradition showcases his dedication to growing, learning and making music(s).

Our performance together was primarily freely improvised, on soprano (Kay) and tenor (me) saxophones. We share a common music tradition (we’re both jazz saxophonists by training—Jon studied at Humber, and I studied at the University of Toronto), but I have remained in this tradition, while Jon has engaged with Indian Classical music both on saxophone and traditional Indian instruments (bansuri and esraj). Before playing, I was a little apprehensive that my unfamiliarity with the music he has dedicated the last decade to would make our encounter less fruitful, but it was truly enjoyable. We met in the (free) jazz tradition, and we interweaved what we have learned into something that spoke to what each of us do.  

After playing with Kay for about an hour, he played a raga on the esraj, an uncommon Indian stringed instrument. I won’t try to describe what I heard, because the intricacies of the music he has learned are far beyond my ears. It was encapsulating and engaging and illuminated the intensity of Kay’s dedication to learning Indian music. You can read more about his journey in an article he published in the journal Critical Studies in Improvisation

https://www.criticalimprov.com/index.php/csieci/article/download/3340/3720/

One of Kay’s recent collaborators is Tony Malaby, a New York-based saxophonist I will see live with drummer Nick Fraser’s group when I visit Toronto next week. His range of expression on the saxophone is awe-inspiring, and I always gain a renewed love for creative music after hearing him play. Here’s a clip of Tony Malaby playing with Jonathan Kay’s group Kayos Theory at the Rex in Toronto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bWgptFOJ1E&feature=youtu.be

Opportunities to play and listen to freer music are not commonplace in Lethbridge. But I’m excited about some developments in the city over the past year or so:

  • At the University of Lethbridge, Digital Audio Arts assistant professor Amandine Pras is very engaged with the free improvisation scene in New York and worldwide. She brought Jonathan Kay to Lethbridge for a variety of activities this month including a masterclass, a lecture and a screening of her documentary, A Home Away from Home https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SSY1fEflVF4
  • On a local level, the jazz scene has seen definite growth in the last year. Metrik Jazztet, a 10 piece Lethbridge-based group I help lead , plays every first Saturday of the month (from September to May) at the Owl Acoustic Lounge. I’m also in the process of putting together a free improvisation session in Lethbridge that I hope will pique the interest of fellow creative musicians, and highlight collective, participatory improvisation in a low-stakes environment (details soon)

Free improvisation can be intimidating at first, but at a basic level, it just works with what we know and hear, and gives us opportunities to expand our listening and playing. As a listener it can feel too ‘out’, but the more you listen, the more you appreciate the music, just like any other music. I know I have encountered music that at first I disliked but later found I was just not very well acquainted. Try listening to some freer music and see where it leads you—I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and will grow as a listener and/or performer.