FreeSessions has its 18th session coming up this weekend, making it old enough a full-circle guest artist seems right in order.
The first session was held in December 2017, with Seattle transplant Naomi Siegel heading the teaching and improvisation event with her conduction orchestra.
Each session since then has followed a similar format, with a guest artist performing, teaching or introducing a musical idea for the first 30 minutes, followed by a 90-minute improv session led by the guest artist.
“Listening is of the utmost importance,” Siegel said. “Also, improvising, experimenting, trying something new.”
And — as Siegel told reporter Cory Walsh in a story on the first FreeSession: “no perfectionism.”
That’s key as well to the FreeSession model, which encourages any interested person to show up at Imagine Nation Brewing, whether they consider themselves a serious musician or not. Attendees are welcome just to watch, too.
“Sometimes people are just in the brewery and are like, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ which is part of the reason we like doing it there,” she said. “But some people will come (watch) the improvisation, too.”
This month’s guest artist is Seattle saxophonist Neil Welch, who helped found the Racer Sessions in 2010, which were the model for Bill Kautz and Siegel’s FreeSessions.
“Both Bill and I moved here from Seattle around the same time,” Siegel said. “We wanted to create a place where Missoula musicians and artists from all mediums could meet and cross-pollinate.”
Siegel noticed Missoula, like many artistic towns, had a lot of musicians that were separated into different pockets, based on location, genre or preferred venue.
FreeSessions has the ability to bring those people together, along with amateur musicians who may be intimidated by other performance spaces.
“We wanted a place where the country musicians are hanging out with the jazz musicians, the rock musicians … and those who wouldn’t even call themselves a ‘musician,’” Siegel said. “Stripping down the genre barriers can often create a space for raw expression.”
Welch is one-half of free-jazz duo Bad Luck, along with percussionist Chris Icasiano. The group played a show at Free Cycles in 2017, where they showcased their atonal improvisation, following Welch’s lead from warm '50s jazz-inspired tone to the more experimental, loop- and pedal-based avant-garde realms.
He co-founded Racer Sessions to provide a space for experimental artists to collaborate and perform, and has seen the model take off in other towns like Missoula, though he credited Siegel, Kautz and the other Missoulians organizing FreeSessions on establishing an exceptional take on the format.
In a visit to FreeSessions early in its run, Welch remembered a dancer and poet performing in the improvised session, something he’d never seen in Seattle.
“What I was really struck by was how open people were to having artists collaborate who weren’t musicians,” he said. “It was just really fluid and natural.
“I would imagine that wouldn’t take place in too many spots.”
When he started Racer Sessions, the focus was on the jam portion, Welch said. That’s where the unique musical identity of the attendees comes to the fore. That identity can change depending on who’s there, and what city the session is being held in, making the Racer/Free Session model vary greatly.
“Musicians all over the country are finding that their community has value,” Welch said. “It’s an absolute thrill.”
For his visit, Welch said he planned on bringing four saxophones: a bass, C soprano, alto and tenor, to demonstrate multiphonics techniques (playing chords) as well as airflow and air manipulation players can use to draw unique sounds from the instrument.
That will lead into some experimental realms, yes, but also some John Coltrane-influenced tones, Welch said.
Then, the improvised session, again, open to all players of all abilities.
“We really want it to be a place where people are creating something new in the moment,” Siegel said. “And, you know, sometimes it goes better than others.”