Tim Buckley

Capturing Magic with Gypsy Woman

Tim Buckley

When the general population thinks of "improvisation in music", the first thing that often comes to mind is jazz. After all, improvisation is a defining component of jazz. The genre was created from it. Although this is a very reasonable thought process, improvisation is actually present in all music, just as it is in all creative facets of life.

Tim Buckley's "Gypsy Woman" is a great example of this. While this ambiguous haze of a folk song is heavily inspired by the West Coast style of cool jazz, it is also indicative of the "jam-sesh" era of the 60s as well.

The Man Behind This Melding of Worlds

Tim Buckley was an American composer and rock vocalist who first emerged on the music scene in 1967. His eclectic style merged progressive jazz, psychedelic rock, and folk music, and was either constantly pushing boundaries, being recklessly inconsistent, or doing both simultaneously-- depending on how you look at it. 

After two popular albums that indulged in the psychedelic sounds of '66 and '68, Buckley began to explore his interest in jazz on his third studio album, Happy Sad. The songs are written in a long-form style and incorporate instruments like the vibraphone, a percussion instrument used primarily in jazz stylings. 

Gypsy Woman, the 12 Minute Improvisation

Gypsy Woman in particular, is twelve minutes of spell-binding improvisation strung together by Buckley's howling, at times incomprehensible, vocals. This track is definitely not everyone's cup of tea; it is melodically and rhythmically challenging, and acoustically outside of the conventional music bubble. However, there is an argument to be made that this type of music is more of a testament to how it was created rather than the product itself.

Listening to "Gyspy Woman", there is a raw energy in how the ensemble feeds off of each other. It embodies the idea of play: the only limitations being those of the instruments and musicians themselves. The factor of shared anticipation between the performers and audience differentiates listening to an improvised record compared to a fully produced one. This tension is palpable through the way that the drummer hesitantly begins driving the beat awaiting Buckley to finish his vocal riff, or through the bass gradually diversifying its own line as the piece takes off.

Tim Buckley - Gypsy Woman (Live at the Troubadour 1969)

In this spirit of play, there is only collaboration. Even Buckley, arguably the star of this song, uses his vocals to add texture to the ensemble rather than draw attention away from the instrumentation. Without this genuine collaboration, successful improvisation is next to impossible. 

A musician's ego and urge to compete with their partners would be only another limitation that restricts creativity, therefore hindering the cooperative process of improvisation. In this vein, collective improvisation in music differs from its counterpart in comedy. For example, in Whose Line Is it Anyway, there is both an illusion of the game and the reality of it. Although there is no real winner at the end, the comedians still act independently while on stage together, and there is a spirit of competition that pushes the scene to its funniest extremes, each actor trying to out-joke the other.

So what makes improvisation in music any different? There are still people on stage together who act independently and must have egos to some degree. While this is true, it comes back to what was said previously, that this type of music is more of a testament to how it was created rather than the product itself. Each musician is getting more out of the experience than the end product. In comedy, the goal is to hit the punch line and make the audience laugh. With this type of music, there is no goal in mind, hence why Buckley's songs can seemingly go on forever. 

The feeling of competition is alleviated as there is nothing that can be attained, not even the faint feeling of superiority from landing the last guitar strum. In seeing where the song takes them and enjoying the experience itself, the musicians can revel in the pure playfulness that is collaborative improvisation.

Analyzing music can seem futile at times. Everything is quite subjective and up for interpretation, and the process that ultimately leads to the final product will always contain gaps of information as the artist is the only one who can truly understand their point of view. Regardless of this, the theory behind improvisation can help to fill in these gaps so that art can be seen not just for the final result, but for the creative journey taken to reach it as well.


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