In an effort to tap the mysteries of spontaneous invention we turned to some of the most combustible heat sources in New York City’s modern jazz drumming scene, and asked Mark Guiliana, Nasheet Waits, Tyshawn Sorey, and Dan Weiss to describe the indescribable.

In the opening seconds of “If I Were a Bell,” from the 1956 classic Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, you can hear the prince of darkness himself croak, “I’ll play it and tell you what it is later.” The remark, directed at producer Bob Weinstock, could be viewed as one of many examples of Davis’ legendary self-confidence. But it also reflects his attitude toward the recording studio at the time.

The two sessions that became Relaxin’ (and four more hard bop albums) were supposed to be breezy and without introspection. Davis’ approach: We’ll lay down a handful of well-known tunes, but we’re not going to concern ourselves too much with how we get there. If Philly Joe Jones drifts into a two-beat halfway through a song, so be it.

Improvisation has always been a foundational element of jazz, a genre that has defined itself by its reluctance toward categorization. Though Davis and Jones are long gone, today’s generation of jazz musicians—if they’ll even concede to such a title—continues to carry the torch for music that veers, surprises, and most of all, defies repetition. Drum! sat down with four talented young drummers—Nasheet Waits, Mark Guiliana, Tyshawn Sorey, and Dan Weiss—at Steve Maxwell Vintage And Custom Drums in New York City to talk shop, laugh (a lot), admire Elvin Jones’ late ’70s Camco drum kit, and explore the role improvisation plays in their playing.

Drum!: How difficult is it to explain what improvisation is to someone who doesn’t get it?

Guiliana: For me the easiest thing is to draw analogies to everyday life and take it away from the drums. Right now, we’re improvising. This conversation isn’t scripted. We’re just using the vocabulary we’ve built and rapport we have with each other. For me, the things that are repetitious in a given day — you wake up, you brush your teeth — you’re still improvising in that moment exactly where to go with that toothbrush. You have to change the perspective and make improvising seem like an everyday thing. It’s something you already do all of the time. Now you’re just bringing it to the drums.

Sorey: That’s a very good point. Even in the millisecond that you do those things, you’re not really determining it so much. You are improvisation, in terms of how your body reacts, how your body deals with the day. Each day, each hour, each minute, your body is doing different things. Improvisation for me is not something you do, it’s really something you live and that already exists inside of you. The way to go about it, as Mark said, is to try to change your perspective of what that is and gain a deeper understanding.

Weiss: I think in order to improvise you need to be in the moment and let certain things guide you and be able to let go. In a lot of situations, you need to be flexible and really go in with an open mind and open heart in order to improvise in a true way. That’s very important.

Waits: Everybody hit on some good points. It could be cooking, it could be whatever. You have a template: “I’m going to make some scrambled eggs.” You have a recipe. But you could throw some cheese in there.

Weiss: I’d put some curry powder in there.

Waits: Exactly! That’s the thing. The variation is something that contributes to improvisation.

And you’re making decisions in the moment. “I want this much curry powder.”

Waits: There’s definitely an extemporaneous quality that makes it even more, I don’t know, pleasurable? For someone like me, anyway. That’s what I like, the unexpected. But it could be taking a route home from work. Everybody has a certain route. “Today I think I’ll go this way.” You’ll arrive at the same place, but you’re taking a different path. Or maybe it’s a different end result and you wind up somewhere else entirely. It’s the ability to do that.

“We’re living in an age of all this automation, but there’s still a quality of being human.”

Nasheet Waits

Let’s talk about how improvisation was first explained to you. My first drum teacher likened it to a bird flying.

Weiss: I don’t think anyone ever explained it to me. I was just given records: “Here, check this out.” I was just absorbing by listening. I can’t remember if anyone ever sat me down and taught me improvisation.

Sorey: Same for me. No one ever sat me down and said, “This is improvisation.” Of course there are facets of improvisation that you learn over time, if you’re curious about dealing in different areas of music. But it’s a thing that comes back to you and depends on how open you are. You have to find out for yourself. It’s an autodidactic thing.

Waits: And what exactly are we defining as improvisation?

Well, that’s exactly it. I’m leaving that to you.

Waits: Well, I’m right. [laughter] I was just thinking—that definition applies to just about everything.

Sorey: The way you play a double-stroke roll.

Waits: Exactly. It’s all improvised. You don’t necessarily have to apply that to just soloing. It could be accompaniment. Tuning. Preparation. It could all be a part of that definition.

Guiliana: For me it was jazz. I didn’t know about jazz when I started playing drums. And then it was like, “Okay, here’s jazz.” In a very formal way: Buddy Rich, stuff like that. But eventually, there’s a melody, there’s a song, and after the song these guys are going to improvise around that song, or within it. That is a nice foot in the door of having a theme and elaborating and manipulating that theme. That’s something I try to use to keep some sort of focus. Sometimes it can be really intimidating to say, “Okay, improvise. Play whatever you want.” It can be really difficult to have a center.

Tell me a little bit about constraints. A writer has a blank-page problem. Do you come in with a general frame of mind? Give yourself different boundaries? How do you manage too much freedom?

Sorey: But really, what is freedom? It’s one of the biggest questions, I think. When I get into a situation when I’m getting ready to play in a performance, I try to go to a completely empty space, every time. Even when I’m learning music, I try not to learn it in the same way another drummer has learned it. I really want to find my own way in terms of the language. So when I’m getting ready to play, accompany, or solo for a couple of bars, I try not to think too much at all about anything I’ve heard. I try not to put that in there. Just be 100 percent in tune with the moment, the room, the audience, the players, the instrument, my body. Context.

Weiss: I’d second that. Go in with a blank slate. Know the situation you’re dealing with, the context you’re playing in. Charlie Parker said you gotta learn your instrument, practice, practice, practice, then when you get up on the bandstand, forget it all and just wail.

Guiliana: That’s what’s implied in what Tyshawn said. All the work. You’re relying on lots of hours. You’re relying on technique that you’re not thinking about.

Weiss: How you’ve trained yourself to listen. How not to react.

“Sometimes it can be really intimidating to say, ‘Okay, improvise. Play whatever you want.’”

Mark Guiliana

How do you look at improvisation in a practice setting?

Waits: I was always taught to play something for myself in practice. The way I came into music may have been different than somebody else because my father [Freddie Waits] was a drummer. I had the music around me all the time. It was a really organic situation to learn about it. From the beginning, I was practicing. I didn’t know how to read music; I didn’t know any rudiments. But I would practice for hours a day. A lot more than I ever do now. I’d listen to a record — [Lee Morgan’s] Live At The Lighthouse or something like that. I’d play along to it.

That’s helpful in those situations where you have a blank slate and you’re like, “Okay, I need to create something.” It’s intimidating. That’s the first thing I ask of any student: “Okay, play me something.” Ninety-five percent of them sit there for about five minutes and then say, “Okay, what do you want me to do?” I say, “That’s not what I asked of you. Play something.” It takes a lot to liberate yourself from the constraints of having to think. And then the students play a beat or something like that. Rarely does anybody play something that’s not somewhat regimented in terms of a pattern.

No one starts with a drum solo?

Waits: No. Maybe one time. Now, once I started playing I realized, okay, there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know. So I had to really be more disciplined and get a foundation. But even then, it’s helpful to just leave all that alone and just hit. That Charlie Parker quote—somebody was telling me that they were taking lessons with [saxophonist] James Moody and he was showing them some stuff and then after the lesson he was like, “Yeah, but I’m not thinking of any of that when I’m playing.” You learn all this stuff so it becomes second nature and a part of you. This is music. It’s a representation of your life. We’re living in an age of all this automation, but there’s still a quality of being human. It’s not perfect. Nobody’s the same. There’s beauty in that. So when it comes time to hit…

“I get very frustrated sometimes, but in the end it comes down to the music.”

Tyshawn Sorey

What happens when you’re in a situation where you need to make music and, creatively, it’s just not coming? You’re too frazzled thinking about the business side of music or something personal and your mind isn’t clicking. What do you do in that situation? When the spark plugs aren’t firing in a performance situation?

Weiss: Go to the bar maybe? [laughter] For me personally, as Tyshawn was stating before, so many things affect the way that you play in a live situation. The audience—for me that’s huge. The reciprocity. How they perceive, react, what the energy is. If the lighting’s busted, it might bust my lot.

Waits: You have to embrace that. When you’re feeling f**ked up, you feel f**ked up.

Weiss: Yeah. “This is this gig, it’s not going to be the best gig in the world, this is the situation, and whatever.” I always try to play my best, but the other stuff sometimes you don’t have control over.

Guiliana: It sounds meta, but the music is the safe place. If there are elements that are throwing me off, I try to hide inside the music. I rely on the other guys on stage and the community and the friendship. I’ve been lucky that I get to play with people I really admire and share a strong connection with. We all have that, I think. Everybody’s going to have an off day now and then. So it’s like, “Okay, I need you tonight.” I might feel not my best going into a show, but usually the adrenaline helps me truly lose myself in the moment and is the cure. Some nights it happens when you sit down. Some nights it’s an hour in.

And the rest of you? Do you just let it all hang out?

Sorey: I get very frustrated sometimes, but in the end it comes down to the music and how you react to it. I don’t feel that doing this is some sort of a job, even though the conditions can sometimes make it seem that way, like they’re making me work and deal with a f**ked up drum set or something. Stuff like that. I complain, but what good is it in the end? When you have music in front of you that you’re going to play and give to people, what’s most important is how to make the instrument become you in those situations. Everywhere I go I schlep my own gear so I don’t have to deal with those problems. I don’t go to performance spaces to babysit drum gear. I want to get there and communicate with the people and my fellow musicians. And in situations where I can’t do that, I have to gain a different perspective.

Waits: I had a lesson one time and the drums were in poor condition. My face scrunched up. I studied with Michael Carvin, and he said, “Man, don’t have that attitude about the set, because that’s going to inhibit your ability to get inside the music because you’re going to be concentrating on dealing with this. You’ve got to let that go and embrace it.” And I was like, “Okay.” When you’re traveling, sometimes you’re in situations where you have to let that go. Bass players are trying to find settings on an amp and I’m like, “We’re hitting!” Let’s try to get inside the music. The sun isn’t out every day.

Weiss: And that’s going to make the music go in a certain way, if he’s frustrated. The music might reflect that.

Guiliana: So often things feel like they’re falling apart and it goes to this new place that would never have been found if things had just been working. Even something as simple as a bass drum beater falling off. Now you have a brand new vocabulary with this restraint. Getting back to restraints and improvising and avoiding the blank page: Sometimes things out of your control — your cymbal falls off, and you can’t use that to express yourself. Or the floor tom leg falls out. But you’re in the moment and the music is inside you and how can you get it out?

Sometimes I try—again, to have a center or focus—to self-impose some limitations. That comes back to a discipline thing. “Okay, I’m going to stay on the snare drum the entire time for this solo. I’m not allowed to leave.” This constraint could then create some brand new stuff. There’s always an asterisk, though. “Okay, if I really hear something that takes me to the rack tom, I can go.” But it’s for the benefit of the music. If I don’t do those things, I can fall into the comfortable stuff.

“That honesty when a musician is really improvising—they’re risking it.”

Dan Weiss

When you go to see other drummers, including each other, can you tell when someone is improvising? Is there something different about their playing—that they’ve flipped a switch?

Guiliana: Thinking about these guys here, I feel like they’re never not improvising. As a drummer in our musical world, very rarely are you handed exact things to play. There are certainly situations where you get parts. But when I see these guys, I feel like they’re improvising the whole time. Thinking about friends who are in rock bands where they’re playing the same set every night, though—well, the definition of improvising is that even if you’re playing a part you’re improvising touch and changing your sound to the room and reacting to different elements of that moment, even though you’re playing the quote-unquote same thing. It’s tricky. All of my favorite guys are always improvising.

Weiss: Yeah. I think the audience can really pick up on that. That honesty when a musician is really improvising—they’re risking it. There’s a tense energy in the air, and not in a bad way. It’s really nice. They might have a different reaction when someone’s coasting. The give and take, that’s really important.

Are all happy mistakes happy?

Sorey: I don’t see them as being either. Happy or bad, you should embrace it. A mistake can also affect the music in a way that you might not have anticipated before. Quite often, at least for myself, I find it to be most rewarding because it’s like, “Wow, that’s something I’ve never worked on.” It can capture some things about yourself that you didn’t realize. Or say things about your failing to realize the full potential of what you’re able to do as an improviser. The concept of a mistake has a connotation of something to be avoided. But it depends on how you view it and how you “correct” it. Mistakes don’t exist for me.

I listened to this recording recently—I was teaching a course in jazz—an early Count Basie recording, “Lester Leaps In.” What happens in the middle—I guess they had it arranged where Lester Young takes the first chorus, Count Basie would take the second chorus, they return back to the head, that whole thing is a train wreck. When Lester finishes his first chorus, he keeps on playing, and Count Basie comes in and starts improvising too. So you’ve got two people improvising at the same time. And then, around the eighth or ninth bar, Count Basie just backs off. That’s one of the classic takes of the jazz repertoire that people still talk about to this day. Yeah there was a train wreck and a mistake, but you shouldn’t view it as that.

Weiss: [Jazz pianist] Art Tatum, that was a big part of how he used to practice. The wrong chord changes or fumbling the runs that he used to do, how he’d recover from that. That’s always stuck with me.

How do you learn from your mistakes if nothing is a mistake?

Weiss: You call them things you don’t intend.

Waits: Otherwise you start being cautious. To be indecisive is worse.

Guiliana: I learned a lot when I started writing my own music and playing my own music. “The melody needs to be these notes, at least kind of.” From a producer standpoint, I think, “Let’s assess what our core responsibilities are for this song.” This melody needs to be here, this harmony needs to exist, there needs to be this general feel. There can be a mistake, but it’s more: “I love you, but I need the melody to come in here, please.” And even if the melody didn’t come in, you’re still going to recover; you’re still going to use your musicianship and experience to make it happen.

Waits: Freedom and discipline, I don’t think those things exist without each other. That’s like two ends of the same spectrum. One’s not possible without the other.

Weiss: You practice to be free.