Sandy Brown Jazz

[A computer might ask you to allow the music to play on this page]




Free Improvisation

and the music of

Martin Pyne and Stephen Grew

by Howard Lawes



Improvisation is a significant part of jazz. Take a piece of music and improvise on it. Spontaneous composition. But what if you free yourself of the constraints of an original piece? Musicians continue to experiment with improvisation and for those who thought that the first sorties into free jazz would not last, there is a thriving part of jazz that continues with that experimentation. Howard Lawes reflects on how the improvised music of two musicians, Martin Pyne and Stephen Grew, fits into today's jazz scene:

The recent surge in the popularity of jazz music among young audiences, particularly in London, has to a large extent involved strongly rhythmic music from across the world including the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, but very quickly young musicians have explored new avenues. Among them are MOBO award winners Binker and Moses who describe themselves as ‘semi-free improvisers’ and Cath Roberts, Dee Byrne and others at Lume who are successfully promoting original and improvised music.

In this video, Moses Boyd and Binker Golding playing and talking about the making of their album Dem Ones.





‘Free’ or almost free improvisation is probably one of the more difficult styles of music for a novice audience to appreciate since to the uninitiated rhythm and melody seem to be almost entirely absent, but the likes of Binker and Moses are popularising a style of jazz that has actually been around for a while.  It originally gained some popularity when Ornette Coleman and others started experimenting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and in the UK around the same time, a band called the Spontaneous Music Ensemble became a focus for several free improvisers such as Evan Parker, Trevor Watts and Dave Holland who went on to become well known in the field. [A re-issue of the classic SME album Karyōbin (are the imaginary birds said to live in paradise) with Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Dave Holland and John Stevens from 1968 was released on the Emanem label in November 2017 - click here].

Here is a video of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble playing in 1972 with Trevor Watts (saxophone), Julie Tippetts (guitar and voice), John Stevens (drums) and Ron Herman (bass).




Stephen Grew is a pianist and keyboard player whose music is totally improvised and over the last 25 years has established himself as one of the leading exponents of the genre, his albums have included collaborations with erstwhile Spontaneous Music Ensemble members, Evan Parker and Trevor Watts. Martin Pyne is a percussionist, vibraphone player, composer and accompanist for live ballet and silent film, he also loves free improvisation.  The two musicians met for the first time in a church in Lancaster on a bitterly cold day and Martin describes the process of creating their album, Winter Landscape, as follows:

Stephen Grew


"There was, (as is usually the case in free improv), no prior discussion about what we would play, though I would equally say that, as with any improvisation, we had both spent a lifetime preparing for that moment. What I mean by that is building a wide frame of musical reference through extensive listening, working on developing and evolving an individual musical vocabulary, or voice, on our respective instruments, developing a strong sense of  musical structure (short and long term), and developing the ability to very quickly assess available options at any given moment and make almost instant decisions."

Stephen Grew




Listen to the track Shiver from the album





Winter Landscape album



Winter Landscape is that type of album, it is a complete, unedited sequence of improvisations and by definition a one off. (You can listen to the music if you click on the album cover to the right).






For many people music is simply an ephemeral entertainment, a beat they can tap their foot to or a melody they can hum.  The established jazz audience has different priorities for as well as foot tapping and humming they can admire new arrangements and the imaginative and skilful improvisation that goes with the Great American Songbook and countless other lovely compositions both new and old.  New audiences are embracing jazz via modern versions of Afrobeat and Indojazz but are also enjoying contemporary music that is becoming ever more free. 


Martin Pyne


To quote Martin Pyne again:

"Contemporary music listeners do not expect a composer to follow a specific preordained path. One of the beauties of this kind of performance is that the players have no idea of the musical destination. They have to enter it in a very open state of mind. The same is necessary of the listener........ you need to clear your head and listen to what is there."


Martin Pyne





Visit us on Facebook Facebook logo

Other pages you might find of interest :

Serge Kuryokin The Spirit Lives
Jazz Bass Trombone
Video Juke Box
Jazz As Art

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2018

Click HERE to join our mailing list