Mad Explosive Spontaneity

Borne out of history, cultivated by study, updated by an all-inclusive generation of young players, the new jazz movement is making unprecedented music accessible.

Listening to improvised music is like wading into a rushing river. Your physical presence barely registers. More immediate is the feeling of flow: balance in motion, constant impermanence, a sort of fearsome beauty. Discreet moments arise and vanish with innate grace.

Or it’s like witnessing a car wreck. Barraged by confusion and violence, the impulse is to duck your head and flee to safety.

Improvisation is built on risk. It demands unplanned, potentially uncomfortable engagement—not only between musicians, but between musicians and audiences—so it’s risky for the listener, too. Which is part of the thrill of participating in improvisation in real time: You may be witness to transcendence, if only for an instant. Or not. Either way, nobody ever broke new ground by doing the same old thing.

Mainstream pop is the opposite, designed to mitigate risk, the result of market-researched reiteration. Punk, indie rock and hip-hop, forms established by breaking away from the status quo, have been mass-produced into formula. They can be entertaining, but nobody expects these styles to deliver surprises. The cultural currency of the “recording artist” has superseded that of the musician. The music industry elevates the consumable product over the process of producing it.

In a mediated society that caches its culture in digital perpetuity, improvised music is ephemeral by design. The experience is the thing; it’s a one-shot deal. You can buy an album of improvised music but it won’t be as satisfying as being there. Improvisation, for better or worse, is an act, not a commodity.

In Seattle, improvised music comprises a crossbreed of influences. It’s most often associated with jazz, but check out any of the regular sessions around the city—there’s at least one every night of the week, year round—and you’ll hear rock, electronic and classical braided into sounds that may be propulsive and danceable or diffuse and abstract. Ask most of the musicians—young or old, trained or not— who travel this terrain to name the sounds they play and they’ll say, I play music. No qualifiers.

Improvised music remains a fringe pursuit, so those nightly sessions happen in the city’s more offbeat venues—funky cafes, neighborhood bars and underused concert halls that many avid live music fans have never visited. On a regular basis, these places host the architects of the style, up-and-coming innovators, meticulous composers and fledgling players first discovering their sound. Seattle is incubator, laboratory and home to all of them.

If these musicians had it their way, improvised music would be welcomed as a necessary catalyst, flouting commercialism and complacency, pushing into brand-new territory and bringing the rest of us along, willingly or not. It would involve artists from across the stylistic spectrum and emotionally connect with attentive listeners. It would offer enough compensation and activity to offer a credible livelihood. Improvisation would be embraced as not only an approach to making music, but an approach to living life.

“There’s so many different ways of expressing oneself that’s not limited to what’s on the page—to create mood, feeling, color, a story,” says Evan Flory-Barnes, upright bassist and one of Seattle’s busiest professional musicians. “That’s a powerful thing to have your music’s essence be about, those creative voices coming together to create something beautiful, something real, something challenging, something provoking. Whatever the moment calls for. That’s an empowering thing. It’s a thing to celebrate. It’s a thing to share.”

* * *

You know you’re stumbling blind into terra incognita when the performance you’re attending comes with an artists’ statement. And also a blindfold.

A few Sundays ago at Café Racer, a tattered Bohemian hangout in the U-District, clarinetist Beth Fleenor led a structured improvisation with her seven-member Workshop Ensemble. Before the band took the tiny stage, Fleenor, street-smart casual in black pants and tank top and ponytails neatly bunched against her head, passed out copies of an essay titled “Focusing Agents, the Interconnected Web & the Necessity of the Individual.” It read, in part:


Life is a form, and we’re always improvising the content—all of us are—all the time…

Just interacting with matter, with the elements, with the experiences that come…

And improvising with them—dancing with them.


Accompanying the essay was a photocopied diagram of the improvisational structure—basically a flowchart hand-drawn on graph paper—that the musicians had memorized. Fleenor circulated a Ziploc bag full of lavender-scented padded eye masks among the musicians, then among the 20 or so audience members seated on undersized classroom chairs and at a big wooden dining table in the back.

“Listening is a full-body sensation, not just for your ears,” she told the crowd. “These are exercises meant to eliminate courtesy and competition on stage. Those are ego decisions, not musical decisions.”

Inside the café’s open door, a floor fan hummed at the heat. Cloudless sky filled the tall windows behind the band, belaboring the day’s waning sun. Onstage were a vocalist, bassist (Flory-Barnes, a frequent Fleenor collaborator), drummer, keyboardist, bass clarinet, sax and Fleenor on alto clarinet. I pulled an eye mask over my head. Smells wonderful. To synchronize the blindfolded musicians, the drummer gave a single cymbal tap—blzzzz—and the music started.

I can’t recall much detail from any of the band’s three guided improvisations. Each lingered in time, though I couldn’t say whether for five minutes or 15. There was no verse/chorus/verse structure, nothing cyclical. Sounds orbited around crescendo and eschewed discernable groove, cohering in ways I couldn’t enumerate but made emotional sense. They appeared spontaneously, assumed immediate presence, almost solidity, then were gone. The musicians onstage never wavered in their intent or power, then ended in unspoken unison. For all its structural ambiguity and lofty purpose, the music evoked a very real sensation of collective exploration and consensus resolution.

“The more I practice improvisation artistically, the more I see it play out in daily life, which is beautiful,” Fleenor tells me the next day. “I get angry about the lack of respect or compassion in the world. We have limited resources and we all have something unique to contribute, so how can we create something that benefits everybody? Because there’s space for everybody.”

Fleenor is one of the more visible and vocal members of Seattle’s improvised music community. She works as a publicist, promoting events and musicians within the community, and plays in half a dozen bands and ensembles. She’s played clarinet for 22 years. She moved from Tennessee to Seattle in 1998, she says, to learn to improvise.

“I was desperate for another perspective and I had no idea I had found one of the most creatively open cities in the world.”

Cornish College of the Arts (where Fleenor studied) and the University of Washington (Flory-Barnes’ alma mater) offer world-renowned jazz programs. They’re fed by award-winning jazz programs at Garfield and Roosevelt high schools, recognized as some of the best in the country. Forward thinking instructors at all levels enforce fundamentals and foster the integrative creativity that moves music forward.

Beyond academia is the music’s public-facing front. Earshot Jazz is the most visible organizational proponent of jazz and improvisational music; it’s produced an annual, month-long jazz festival since 1984. But other, equally active collectives abound: Monktail Creative Music Concern has promoted outsider jazz and improvised music at venues across the city for over a decade. The Seattle Improvised Music Festival recently held its 28th annual multi-day event at the regal, undersung Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford. Nonsequitur has also put on “adventurous music and sound art” events at the Chapel for several years. And, since 2011, Zero-G has programmed cutting-edge music at the Comet and Mars Bar (RIP)—venues not normally associated with jazz.

Without going into it too deeply, the history of jazz and improvised music in Seattle spans a century. The Big Three are Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson; the origin was Pioneer Square in the ’20s, then the Central District in the ’40s and ’50s. Though it’s been documented and celebrated, the music still dwells on the margins, not pop and not classical, misunderstood or altogether ignored. But right now, the local jazz community is on the precipice of critical mass. More artists, listeners and venues populate the city than ever before. Growing self-awareness might push it over the edge.

“We’ve arrived a point where the art and its development has never been this far ahead of the audience, where the gulf seems so far, seems impossible to overcome,” says Cuong Vu, head of the UW jazz program. This gulf is a double-edged sword—good for creativity, bad for accessibility. “We have to be entrepreneurial and figure out how to get this music to the people. There are other people out there that want something that’s not forced down their throats.”

Vu has been a professional musician most of his 43 years, touring (and winning a couple Grammys) as trumpet player with jazz-guitar guru Pat Metheney. When he returned to Seattle from New York in 2006 to teach at UW, he encouraged the social aspects of music making as much as the technical: Develop a scene, he suggested, and people will come. Since then, UW jazz students have launched the weekly Café Racer sessions; Table & Chairs Music, a record label dedicated to improvised music; and the Improvised Music Project, or IMP, a student collective that produces an annual three-day festival. This youth-led groundswell is what Vu means by “entrepreneurial.”

“The artists are the ones looking ahead and pushing their craft forward, and it takes time for the audience to catch up,” Vu says. “It’s always been that way.” He cites Schubert and Beethoven as universally recognized masters who were snubbed in their heydays. There’s as much a tradition of composition in jazz as there is in improvisation in classical, he says.

Vu’s point is borne out in the work of Seattle improviser/composers like trumpet player Samantha Boshnack, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and guitarist Bill Frisell. Horvitz and Frisell, especially, are veterans of improvised music who have dwelled on both coasts, pulling jazz and its attendant modes into unforeseen territory. All three are linked by a distinct disdain for genre boundaries.

In this sort of benevolent miscegenation, the term “jazz” becomes less useful and more limiting. In 2013, improvised music is just as likely to incorporate laptops, effects racks, obscene volume and arena-sized ambition as traditional jazz signifiers. It’s an all-inclusive free-for-all, and most musicians will tell you that’s how it’s meant to be. An iPod shuffles through 5,000 songs in an instant; young improvisers do something similar with flesh and blood. Today’s best players distill a century of recorded music—from Louis Armstrong to Aphex Twin, Django Reinhardt to A Tribe Called Quest—into every solo, every composition, and they do it with magnetic focus and intent. Being around that kind of expression is like tuning into the eternal mixtape, if only for an instant.

“As you study jazz and improvised music, you shed off these excess layers, and the end goal is to have a raw expression where just yourself is left, so anything you play is purely you,” says Levi Gillis, a fourth-year jazz student at UW and organizer of the IMP Fest. “It’s not a songwriter or a producer, it’s an accumulation of experiences working their way to become a unique voice. That sounds cliché but it’s true.”

The Northwest doesn’t hold a monopoly over unique voice, but it is famous for it. Fleenor recognized Seattle as an “openly creative” place for a reason. Geography has as much to do with the music’s emergence as timing. Seattle is isolated physically, isn’t mired in old-guard tradition, and is brimming with young culture fanatics that want the “something else” Vu described.

“I like to say that Seattle has the potential to be the farmers’ market for arts and culture,” Flory-Barnes says. “Even in the little food court section of the farmers’ market, you don’t see those cats vibing each other, being like, ‘Don’t go get the empanadas, get the papusas right here.’ The idea is that the environment is holding quality. It makes people get more specific about who they are and what they want to do.

“In improvisation, you use everything. Everything you’ve learned, every influence,” he continues. “And as far as art and music and nature and people, Seattle has everything—except that feeling of some kind of establishment. You can do what you want to do.”

Before his Workshop Ensemble gig at Racer in May, the last time I’d seen Flory-Barnes perform was with the band Industrial Revelation in January. They played the Comet, Seattle’s last punk rock dive bar. They wrecked the place, figuratively, and their instruments, literally. Flanked by his cohorts and unleashing music that bore closer resemblance to Radiohead or Explosions in the Sky than “jazz,” Flory-Barnes thwacked his bass so hard he snapped the neck from the body. The quartet continued as a trio for the next 40 minutes, sweating and pulsing with an energy and abandon worthy of their hard-rocking environs. Then they closed with an instrumental cover of “The Longest Time” by Billy Joel, the drunk, jubilant audience whoa-oh-oh-ing along.

This music is playful and it is powerful. And it’s happening all around us, all the time.

* * *

I spent a couple weeks in April and May immersed in live, improvised music. Much of it took place in the venues holding down the old, weird Seattle vibe. A lot of it was really good. Almost all of it was free.

The last night of IMP Fest happened on a Saturday evening at the Chapel. King Tears Bat Trip, an ensemble of four drum sets, percussion, guitar and sax, thundered like an avalanche through a 40-minute set. They were preceded by a trio called Japanese Guy that improvised dark, industrial-dub grooves and happened to feature Skyler Skjelset, formerly of Fleet Foxes, on guitar.

One Thursday night inside Capitol Hill’s sultry, spacious Barça, bassist Phil Sparks and drummer Adam Kessler hosted an open jam session that swung with rakish gypsy-jazz. A dozen or so players cycled through. The duo’s been hosting musicians every Thursday for four years.

On a Monday evening at Lucid Jazz Lounge in the U-District, a duo called the Syrinx Effect floated beautiful, ambient murmurs and moans above a tiny, rapt crowd. Trombonist Naomi Siegel played samples from her iPhone into the mic; barefoot saxophonist Kate Olson blurred her horn with a wah-wah pedal. A ferocious improvisational trio followed, featuring Monktail mastermind John Seman on bass.

On a Friday at the Royal Room in Columbia City, the Samantha Boshnack Quintet improvised elegant solos over Boshnack’s recent compositions.

One Tuesday night at the Copper Gate in Ballard, the Suffering Fuckheads blasted through aggressive, skronky jams, relentlessly chasing a groove inside a room shaped like a vagina. They’ve played here every Tuesday for the last two years. Across town at Capitol Hill’s Electric Tea Garden, a loft above an artificial limb company, Monktail held its weekly improvisation session, led by drummer Mark Ostrowski and Rhodes player Stephen Fandrich. Ostrowski and Fandrich, who live across the street, have played ETG every Tuesday night for more than 40 weeks straight.

By midnight, the guests had stepped in: Wayne Horvitz improvised cinematic sweep on the Rhodes, jigging with Beth Fleenor on effects-treated clarinet. The dark, cave-like space was nearly empty, which was no concern, because the players weren’t playing for the semblance of an audience. They were playing for themselves, for the music. The music came and went, alternately buoyant and ponderous, transfixing and exceptional. It’s happening again next week.

Photo by Shanna Petersen