(This, and everything marked before May 2018, was originally written as part of "Matt Riggen's Jazz Blog", a blog which I kept on-and-off as a college student. Some of it is edited for style, namely the presence of gendered language and for clarity in the writing.)
So about a week ago I got a chance to see the free jazz colossus Peter Evans at Dreamland in Louisville.
Of course, it was incredible. Hamid Drake and William Parker were the rhythm section. I was in the front row, very close to Hamid (who plays drumset like baguazhang masters fight) and immediately across from Peter. He played tenor for a total of 30 minutes in a 2-hour continuous set, and it was some of the most electrifying playing I've heard out of anyone. The last tune, he started with this saxophone invocation that was so loud the whole room of ~70 people startled. I could go on and on about dozens of aspects of Peter's playing--his control over timbre, his animal power--but one stood out in particular.
When Peter played, it didn't sound improvised.
I'm not saying he was rehashing old ideas or resting on his laurels; that would be ankle-biting and wholly inaccurate. I'm not saying it was dull or uninteresting; this was the first time in a long time I ignored a rhythm section to listen to the horn player, including an experience I had seeing Wayne Shorter. I am saying, though, that it sounded like those notes had always been there, and Peter was just tapping into them. I in no sense got the feeling that he was developing motives or ideas (where, in contrast, Drake and Parker did nothing but that), but that he was playing ideas that had been developed already, far far away. What Peter did felt more like launching a kayak into rapids and then emerging back on the bank downstream; the rider was not responsible for the water he traveled in.
The parallel between notated music that SOUNDS improvised and what I heard that Friday at Dreamland has been turning over in my head ever since. Take the classical tradition of the Impromptu, for example. Typically a piano piece, it's made to capture the two strengths of improvising and composing--the intensity of energy and power that comes from immediate thought, and the enviable ability to self-edit. To this end, it should sound like a stream-of-consciousness idea. One long breath that captures the thought of the moment, and (more importantly) that cannot be divorced of the personality of the player.
This is, of course, opposed to what one usually hears in a classical work, which is the presentation of the ideas of another person. There tends to be that detached aspect; if you're used to hearing a Sonny Rollins, say, with all the personal shading he puts in his playing, it's easy to tell when that personal aspect is gone from the soloist in a Mendelsohn work.
I have a few examples of classical soloists who manage to make the works they play come under their personality (Hakan Hardenberger comes to mind).
But never before have I heard someone who improvised like Peter, where it sounded like the music had been there all along, waiting for someone to give it voice.
This is likely an idea that I'll turn over for a long time.