The Truth Will Set You Free to Improvise

Today is Sunday, my day of REST. So its time to have some fun and think about something unusual, out of my normal life pattern. Rarely do I get to listen to some of history’s greatest creative prodigies talk freely about the creative process. This interview with Bill Evans (1929-1980) is worth watching. He was a brilliant and innovative jazz pianist, and one of the most influential creative forces in the history of jazz. His insights into the creative process extend way beyond music. In this video he is talking about jazz technique, but I’m thinking about my life, relationships and work.  Notice his persistent idea that the jazz innovation emerges from truth. Here, an artist talks about truth in the realm of music much in the same way that a theologian talks about truth in theology. To me that's fascinating.  

 Explaining one of the mistakes musicians tend to make when improvising, Bill says …

“They tend to approximate the product, rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way … it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it.”

Wow, that comment resonates with the creative process in writing as well. This next insight reminds me of how I sometimes respond to others in my role as a dad or a husband, or in my work and relationships … I can also see how this insight can be applied to preparing for a sermon or presentation. Preparing with attention to details increases our freedom to improvise when standing before an audience.

 “To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives one a feeling that they have more or less touched the thing, but in this way, you lead yourself toward confusion, and ultimately you’re going to get yourself so confused that you will never find your way out.”

Hmmm. This next comment rings a bell in my heart as well. I can sometimes feel overwhelmed by challenges and unsolved problems.  A clear vision for some aspect of the future awakens the creative process. We must break down our mission (i.e. the creative process) into tangible steps.  Then, with focused and enjoyable perseverance, we must then press through each step.

“It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning, and knowing that the problem is large and he has to take it a step at a time, and he has to enjoy this step by step learning procedure …”

This next comment speaks for itself …

“It is better to do something simple which is real … it can be something you build on because you know what you are doing. Whereas if you try to approximate something very advanced and you don’t know what you are doing, you can’t build on it …”

Effectiveness requires that we focus our energy on tanglible, measurable goals. With mastery of tangible details, our effectiveness and skill increases. We then have a greater skill set and knowledge base from which to improvise.  As our connection with truth increases, our potential to create expands.

Here’s the final gem …

“You could be too cautious, to the point where you never discover anything. I think you have to have a certain adventurous spirit, but over a long period of time, you have to be aware of what is accurate and what is not. When you are adventurous you have to know when you succeed and when you don’t succeed.”


  1. Thanks, Paul. These reflections have impact. The truth for a musician can shed light on the truth for a manager, a sales person, even (perhaps especially) a teacher. As a teacher, I am a generalist; I am reasonably, generally, competent in a whole range of different areas. Through Bill Evans’ wisdom you have set me a challenge for the next 12 months; one which I’ll issue to other staff and to my senior students. This is really good input for young and old alike.

  2. Great stuff. Thanks for posting this. As a writer I have found that the focus on the daily discipline of writing rather than the end result of some book or story is the very thing that allows the book or story to come to pass. The small, truthful details – like planting a seed hole by hole in the ground. Before long I will have a field of fruit…whereas if I had simply stood and stared at the field in it’s entirety I would have been daunted and overwhelmed, asking myself ‘How in the world am I ever going to finish this?’. Minute truth. Attention to detail. And courage. That’s what I’ve found imperative in the creative process.

    *Almost finished with “A Certain Risk” and I must say it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s like you wrote it for me! I guess that’s a sign of greatness….applicability to the reader. We need to get it out there, man! People would be so impacted. I’m going to recommend it to my church.

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