The Praxis of [Ahmed]

Pat Thomas

This text is composer and improviser Pat Thomas’ contribution to a series of essays, commissioned by REMAIIN (Radical European Music and its Intercultural Nature), a project that investigates non-European cultural influences on the experimental, avant-garde and innovative music of the present and the past. It is co-funded by the „Creative Europe” programme of the European Union. 

Pat Thomas born 1960  Oxford began playing  piano at the age of eight. He studied Classical music and reggae was an early interest. Thomas was inspired to take up Jazz after seeing legendary pianist Oscar Peterson on television at 16, by 1979 Thomas was performing seriously as an improviser, and has played with Mike Cooper, Geoff Hawkins, Lol  Coxhill, Tony Oxley, Steve Beresford, Alex Ward, Derek Bailey, Eugene Chadbourne, Jimmy Carl Black, Evan Parker, John  Zorn, Joe Gallivan, John Butcher, Okkyung Lee, Bill Dixon, Roy Campbell, Marshall Allen, Moor Mother, Luke Stewart, Matana Roberts. Current activities include Solo Piano, Black Top with Orphy Robinson, Scatter with Phil Minton, Roger Turner, Dave Tucker, Valid Tractor with Lawerence Casserley and Dom Lash, Shifa with Rachel Musson and Mark Sanders, Bleyschool with Tony Orrell, Dom Lash, Educated Guess with Thurston Moore, Dave Tucker and Mark Sanders, Ahmed with Seymour Wright, Joel Grip and Antonin Gerbal, a duo with  Steve Noble, a trio with William Parker and Hamid Drake, and  Bagman with Raymond Strid and Sture Ericson. Recieved Paul Hamlyn Foundation Award for Composers in 2014.

The term improvisation unfortunately is still misunderstood, and in regards to Free Improvisation even more so. Some people assume that free improvisers start with a blank canvass and are trying to reinvent the wheel. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. A great improviser will have developed a personal  vocabulary that he/she puts to practice every time they perform. Free improvisers are interested in making music that still gives them a sense of wonder and surprise from when they first performed. Extended techniques, are just part of the armory free improvisers use in keeping the music fresh. Attacking free improvisers for using similar material to create their music, is like attacking a composer such as Beethoven, for using sonata form.

Improvisation played a major role in western music until the end of the 19th century, when it starts to have a less prominent role.

Improvisation.  From the Latin improvisus, “unforeseen,” and ex improviso, “without preparation.”  In music, improvisation denotes the art of a completely spontaneous performance without a preliminary plan.  Formerly, improvisation was regarded as integral to the craft of composition.  Organists were emboldened to improvise freely on a given hymn tune.  Among the greatest improvisers on the organ were Frescobaldi and Buxtehude.  Bach was a master of organ improvisation in the fugal style.  As a child, Mozart included improvisations at his performances at the European courts.  Beethoven’s improvisations for his musical friends left an overwhelming impression.  At his recitals, Liszt asked musicians in the audience to give him subjects for free improvisations and amazed them by the spontaneity of his invention.  Organ improvisations have continued to be the stock in trade of organists in the 20th century, but public improvisations by pianists gradually fell into disfavor.  Jazz players have brought the art of improvisation to a new height of brilliance.

As Slonimsky tells us improvisation was at the core of western music. So what Happened? In my view the rise of Capitalism and the role of publishing, and the concept of copywrite, the living composer/performer is replaced by the major works of a dead composer and the invention of repertoire , “If you spend your life trying to be Charlie Parker, who will be you? We fail musically when we try to be something other than ourselves. The problem is that we go to music school, and music school is never interested in developing the music inside.” Instead, Parker advocates for the opposite approach: “Musical instruction should consist of training the senses to act as a filter or conduit for sound, to know how to react to the music that flows through us.”

This statement explains, what happened to Western Classical music, pedagogy designed to help create an individual with a personal voice, now used to reproduce the great master who has departed. We now see in Jazz an over emphasis on recreating past glories, talking abou a mythical Jazz tradition, that one must adhere to. Rather than a real-time continuum in a state of flux, the mistake of reducing a great seeker like Charlie Parker, who was dubbed anti Jazz in his time now used to prop up mediocrity, hoping to be part of the university music curriculum.

Leo Smith, a young trumpeter who grew up in the Mississippi Delta, summed up the musician’s attitude: ‘I never considered the blues to be twelve-bars, I never considered the blues to be a closed form. The blues is exactly, in my understanding of it, a free music.’ To Smith, a strong believer in total improvisation, the blues lay behind all his musical activities, the opinion of critics notwithstanding. ‘They say that what we were playing wasn’t really anything.

The lack of respect accorded the musical creations of Blacks knows no bounds. Ornette Coleman, who was himself accorded fulsome praise by Bernstein when he first came to New York, went to London to record his symphonic work Skies of America. During the early part of the session, two ’cellists with the London Philharmonic Orchestra were discussing the score. ‘It almost looks like music when you see it written down’, said one of them. Several of the musicians engaged to play Coleman’s music sniggered as the conductor ran through individual sections of the piece. Eventually, even the normally imperturbable Coleman had had enough of it. He picked up his saxophone and played the entire passage under scrutiny from start to finish. The smiles slipped rapidly from the dubious faces when they realised how neatly the various sections fitted together. There was an embarrassed silence.

As Europe became the dominant world power, it started to see itself as very different from the people it colonized. White supremacy became established a different cultural aesthetic emerged with composition and the diatonic scale becoming distinct markers.

The rise of classical music also coincides at its peak with the infamous Berlin conference of 1885 and the invention of nation states in Africa, which has had devastating consequences for Africans. In my view the disparaging comments about mere improvisers especially its importance in the 20th Century Art Form Jazz is a symptom of White Supremacy.

The main feature of free improvisation is its practical application Praxis rather than theory,in the group [Ahned], central to how we could play Ahmed Abdul Malik’s music, was working through the pieces by just playing with them we realised very quickly that a polyrhythmic approach was needed,every one is playing rhythmic motives but this  is only decided in real time.Paradoxically free improvisers performing pieces. The beauty of Ahmed Abdul Malik’s music is it openness, this encourages a kaleidoscopic approach  and becomes a excellent vehicle for free improvisation.

[Ahmed] is interested in intensity, by concentrating on microscopic elements we are capable of using minimalist material in a maximalist way. The subtle interplay between Joel and Antonin,who have mastered the art of elasticity allows the pointillist approach to melody Seymour and I use to maintain intensity. We are constantly finding new ways to play the material and up the intensity. When we played in Riga at the amazing Hanzas Perons Theatre  on September 24th to over 1000 people standing room only, we had just heard the sad news that Pharoah Sanders had just passed away. This had a profound impact on the music we played. One of the greatest practioners of the Saxophone ever. We thought about his immense legacy, and used the devastating news to play without doubt our most intense performances to date. This is where Praxis of improvisation, allows one to make a statement unique to the surroundings. The audience was dancing to our music! Even to this day I found it hard to comprehend how this happened we were playing improvised music!

The importance of praxis over theory is best exemplified in the great living music tradition, of the Ney and the importance of interacting with the environment as part of the total experience. Banu Senay Musical Ethics and Islam talks about the need to keep things fresh and to form new ways of relating to other selves. Among other things, it involves cultivating a particular way of inhabiting the city and making competent use of its urban affordances. It also involves, in the words of Neyzen Salih Bilgin, “becoming a good citizen [vatandaş].” This participation in a guided shaping of one’s life entails ethical change, including in the first place a new valuing of craftsmanship in diverse areas of practice.And yet there is no one method of becoming a neyzen in Turkey, Rooted in the long-term master-apprentice learning relationship (usta-çırak; hoca-talebe), meşk refers to imitative learning based on repetition and memorization (Behar 2012). By establishing a context in which the learner’s connection to the artistic tradition is strongly mediated through the master, the pedagogy grafts the apprentice into a certain lineage (silsile) through which a particular style (üslub), repertoire, and techniques of the craft can be acquired.

This learning method transcends “mere” musical technique in profound ways. Talebes receive an education in myriad practices that are in many respects extramusical and have entailments both for enskilling them in musical knowledge and for shaping their sensibilities.This sums up to me the [Ahmed] aesthetic.


Nicolas Slonimimsky Lectionary of Music McGraw Hill 1989
Cisco Bradley Universal Tonality The Life and Music of William Press Duke University Press 2021
As serious as your Life Black Music and the Free Jazz revolution 1957-1977 Serpents Tail 2018
Musical Ethics and Islam The art of playing the Ney Banu Senay University of Illinois Press 2020