Featuring a quartet of expert improvisers Peter Evans (trumpet and flugelhorn), John O’Gallagher (alto saxophone), Alex Bonney (electronics) and myself, Andrew Bain, on drums and percussion, this practice-led research project investigates the importance of an empathically creative connection between freely improvising musicians in a live context with no pre-conceived ideas and details the development of instantaneous group composition. As such, (no)boundaries had no pre-composed music, there was no rehearsal period for the musicians, and we had never played together before the first note of performance. In my research to date, the dynamic between pre-learned knowledge (embodied) alongside intelligent transactions during live improvisation (enacted knowledge), has been useful in helping to better understand the process of jazz improvisation. Even if there are pre-conceived elements, how the music is realised each time is unique. Conversely, even if we set out to have no pre-conceived ideas, in reality, we are still intuitively informed by our experiential and musical knowledge in performance. The two seem inextricably linked. This research asks the question: how can an empathic approach to improvisation affect group attunement in a freely improvised setting?

(no)boundaries showed that group attunement in performance is possible with no pre-learnt repertoire or rehearsals, in an appropriate setting with the right co-performers. Even though no pre-conceived ideas were intended, (no)boundaries evidenced improvisations guided by similar principles of standard jazz performance, pointing to the existence of a common performance mode.


Choice of Musicians

My first compositional choice – the choice of performers – was relatively straight forward. Due to his virtuosic technique and uniqueness in the world of contemporary improvisation, my first choice was American trumpeter Peter Evans. Having played together in various guises previously during our over-lapping time as musicians in New York (2001-7), our most common collaboration was in freely improvised situations. On securing an available period between dates in his European touring schedule, I decided to build the project around him. 

In discussion with Evans about collaborators, our first choice was UK master improvisor and saxophonist Evan Parker. Having performed together at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2010, Evans himself had also collaborated with Parker many times previously and, with him being one of the main focuses of David Borgo’s Sync or Swarm (2006), would have contributed greatly to this project. Unfortunately, the date range we proposed did not work with his schedule. Our equally able replacement was new UK resident alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, also fluent in a variety of contemporary jazz situations. Although familiar with his playing (having both lived in New York City for a number of years), Peter Evans had not performed with O’Gallagher before, so this would create a unique opportunity for collaboration.

In this research project, I wanted to experiment with the line-up of the group. Inspired by the instrumentation of the Paul Motian Trio (saxophone, guitar, drums), I decided to replace the role of bass in this quartet with electronics. My one and only choice of musician was UK-based improvisor Alex Bonney. Having previously worked with him in various live situations, in amongst his own array of sequencers and electronics, I observed him using contact microphones on each acoustic instrument to enable live processing of all players onstage, and felt this would bring a uniqueness to the ensemble construction with more sonic possibilities. Bonney is also a great trumpet player, so this left open the opportunity to adapt the ensemble at will and have two trumpets in the band. [1]

Due to the compact schedule of performances (resultant of Evans’ small window of opportunity between performances in Europe), we did not have time to make a studio recording, therefore documentation of our live performances proved essential, and to give us maximum control over the recording in each venue, I decided to hire a sound engineer that would travel with us.



As declared above, there was no agreed repertoire as we would perform free improvisation. However, the instrumentation itself was an invitation to re-imagine free improvising groups of a similar nature, while also informed by our knowledge of each other’s playing. The roles of each instrument were also challenged by replacing bass with electronics; a compositional choice that would leave much more space in the lower register of the group.

Choice of Venues

As this music was free in nature, I targeted relevant promoters and used their venues, or those that they preferred. As champions of new music in the UK and both familiar with all musicians in the ensemble, I decided to work alongside Tony Dudley-Evans in Birmingham and Oli Winding from The Vortex in London. 

Dudley-Evans chose The Hexagon at the Midland Arts Centre (MAC) to house the set. Part of the original arts centre, this unique space is much like a mini-amphitheatre, so provided a dramatic and intimate atmosphere for the performance. It was also perfect for our post-concert talk as the audience felt empowered to contribute in this environment. The audience capacity there was modest and, due to the venue only having a below par P.A. system, we had to provide our own. In London, we performed at Winding’s club, The Vortex. As a jazz club with a world-class reputation for bringing the finest contemporary jazz artists to London, it was a perfect fit. We used the P.A. system in situ, but, due to the lack of a sound engineer that night, we had to persevere to get a workable sound. [2] 

Musical Context

Implicit in my choosing of the above players was an understanding that we shared a common approach to free improvisation and explicit in the context of my performances (free improvisation with no pre-conceived ideas) was an understanding of our performative roles. Central to this was an eagerness to explore the unknown with no pre-determined constructs. These, as it turned out, would develop organically. Due to the specific expertise of the chosen musicians and their ease in freely improvised contexts, the music created would be a direct result of this synergy. The importance of a shared musical context in jazz improvisation can be extremely useful in accelerating the journey to attuned performance. In (no)boundaries, the instrumentation and lack of pre-composed music would serve to inform the musicians in advance of performance.

Performances and Recording

There were three performances between 14-15 December 2017. The first was at the MAC, Birmingham; the second at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire; and, lastly, two sets at the Vortex, London. The released recording captured the MAC concert: the first time we performed together as a group.

Player Reflections

To enrich this research, I asked all players to complete written reflections for the project (before; during; and after) and to participate in video interviews. [3] I anonymised the responses for added candour.

[1] This ended up happening on our last date at the Vortex Jazz Club, London on 15 December 2017 - set 2.

[2] This put considerable pressure on Bonney to correct (as he was ultra-reliant on amplification and monitors) and took up too much of the sound check, which, he reflected later, affected his first set performance.

[3] One group member did not provide his reflections despite me asking many times. Having the post-concert talk from Birmingham recorded on 15 December 2017 was invaluable in filling the gaps in that knowledge.

Andrew Bain

Drums & Percussion

Peter Evans

Trumpet & Flugelhorn

John O'Gallagher

Alto Saxophone

Alex Bonney