Between Worlds:

The Embodied and Ecstatic Sounds of Jazz


David Borgo[1]

Open Space, vol. 5 (2003)


“It’s really free, spiritual music, not just free music” 

n     Albert Ayler


"My music is the spiritual expression of what I am, my faith, my knowledge, my being."

n     John Coltrane




Since the 1950s and 60s, spirituality has become an increasingly prominent feature of contemporary Western music in general, and jazz and improvised music in particular.  Authors willing to engage the subject in both the scholarly and popular press have tended to rely on ethnographically-rich descriptions of the subjective experiences of performers and, less often, listeners.[2]  Other authors discussing jazz and improvisation have shied away from the topic of spirituality entirely, preferring instead formalist treatments of the subject.[3]  Aspects of both ethnographic and formalist approaches are certainly important, but the question still lingers, how does this music actually reflect the spiritual awareness and experiences of the performers and/or a listening audience? [4]  Beyond the purely theoretical and oftentimes paradoxical aspects of spiritual awareness, are there identifiable musical components that contribute to the induction of ecstatic states or other altered states of consciousness?

            In this essay, I will chart a middle ground between a formalist musical approach on the one hand, and strict social and cultural analysis on the other.  I will provide a theoretical discussion of the ecstatic states often associated with contemporary improvisation and investigate the use of specific musical devices and approaches as one means of symbolically and experientially structuring these states for performers and listeners.  First, I situate the ecstatic states discussed by many  Brings Mathematics into Being. Basic Books.d intereacts.  See Grady, Oakley and Coulson (1999) for a comparison between the two jazz musicians within the literature on altered states.  I provide a brief theoretical argument for how music may be considered – not as a physiological triggering device for ecstatic states – but as an organized, symbolic system that structures spiritual experiences for participants.  This structuring, I argue, operates in a manner similar to the way in which metaphor, grounded in our fully embodied self, appears to structure both our entrenched and short-lived conceptualizations and communications.   Second, I  focus on the sounds and techniques themselves as a symbolic reflection of the performer’s spiritual state and as a means of communicating or imparting those experiences to involved and receptive listeners.  These discussions are based in part on my subjective experiences playing the saxophone for more than twenty years and on my research in avant-garde improvisational settings for much of the past decade.[5]


The Experience of Ecstasy


            Avant-garde jazz evolved beginning in the late 1950s in the United States as musicians began to progressively explore less overtly structured modes of solo and collective improvisation.  Many sought an ideal mode of expression based almost exclusively on lived experience instead of the tune-based style of improvisation – ubiquitous in the earlier styles of jazz – involving cyclic melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic forms.  Spirituality was and is paramount for many of these musicians.  Both practitioners and listeners of this music often report ecstatic, trance-like states involving the total abandonment of the individual ego to the ebb and flow of the musical moment.  As William Parker expresses it:


Free music can be a musical form that is playing without pre-worked structure, without written music or chord changes. However, for free music to succeed, it must grow into free spiritual music which is not . . . a musical form; it should be based off of a life form.  It is not about just picking up an instrument and playing guided by math principles or emotion.  It is emptying oneself and being.[6]


The ecstatic states associated with avant-garde jazz, as with many other altered states of consciousness, seem to thrive on paradox.   Categorizing these experiences according to the often-cited work of Arnold Ludwig on altered states of consciousness can be extremely problematic.[7]  The sheer energy and density of sound frequently experienced in collective improvisation seem to imply a state of hyperstimulation verging on sensory overload.  While motor activity is not always significantly increased, some musicians appear to reach a trance-like state simply through the physicality of their performance.  Total mental involvement is cited by some, while others describe a complete annihilation of all critical and rational faculties.  Musicians stress performance goals ranging from total relaxation or catharsis to a transcendental feeling of ego-loss and cosmic consciousness. 

            Gilbert Rouget’s excellent book Music and Trance attempts to “demystify” the role played by music in inducing trance states, emphasizing instead its “socializing” capacity in ritual and performance.[8]  I agree with Rouget that manipulating the trance state depends in great part on the culture-dependent ideological systems at work.  But the symbolic structuring power of music qua music and the shared biological and cognitive aspects of human perception and communication should not be dismissed so easily.  Music psychologists and cognitive science researchers would be quick to point out that humans share certain physiological and cognitive capacities and limitations that structure our perceptions of the world and our mode of being in it.  And aestheticians and philosophers might add that each individual’s experience with music is unique even within a given culture.

            Rouget's work relies on binary divisions between ecstasy and trance, and spirit possession and shamanism; divisions that are problematic when transposed to the world of avant-garde jazz. Many avant-garde jazz performers discuss trance-like performance states.  Cecil Taylor claims to enter a trance every time he plays.  The idea of spirit possession also appears in the avant-garde jazz community, albeit with less frequency.  Saxophonist Jameel Moondoc describes a time when "the music got so intense that spirits came into the room, just hovering around, and in one aspect it was incredibly scary.  It was almost like we were calling the ancestors, and they came."[9]  More often musicians describe a voluntary and active form of trance (following Rouget's terminology) involving either a lucid state and total recall or selective amnesia depending on the individual circumstance.  Several musicians I interviewed also felt that since they voluntarily self-induce a state of trance and lead the audience on a spiritual “journey,” that they were adopting the role of musical shaman in society.[10]  Woodwind player Vinnie Golia told me: "I like to have the listener come in at a certain place but leave at a higher place. That entails taking him through a journey through the music… The purpose of the music is to have players playing as a unit who are communicating together impart that to other people and take them on some kind of journey."  Percussionist Adam Rudolph also believes that “artists are the shamans of today.”[11]

The diversity of experiences and interpretations among avant-garde jazz performers reflects the diversity of belief systems among these practitioners.  Many performers have created elaborate systems to describe and to facilitate their own practice (e.g. Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, The A.A.C.M.), but little commonality pervades the avant-garde jazz community.[12]  There seems to be little agreement on terminology – and possibly even no noetic religious dimension to the experience of ecstasy associated with avant-garde jazz.  The most commonly reported experience is one of mysticism, or direct awareness of experience and an associated state of ego loss.  Many avant-garde jazz performers feel instinctively that the music they play has the ability to transform the perceptions and belief system of willing listeners, but can the transformative power of music be investigated without resorting to structuralist or formalist interpretations? 

Anthropologists have long investigated the ways in which the inner experience of the subject may be guided or shaped by the objective structure of the rite, seeking comparisons with the process of metaphor, metonymy, and iconicity.[13]  Contemporary cognitive science has also demonstrated that bodily states influence thinking, environments influence thinking, and human beings arrange their environments to serve, extend, and alter their thinking.  Francisco Varela and his co-authors in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience argue that “cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs.”[14]  For these authors, “knowledge depends on being in a world that is inseparable from our bodies, our language, and our social history – in short, from our embodiment.[15]

Recent work in cognitive linguistics has offered substantial evidence that metaphor is not simply a manifestation of literary creativity, but rather is pervasive in every-day discourse and is often grounded in our bodily experiences and perceptions.  George Lackoff and Mark Johnson, in their influential book Metaphors We Live By, proposed that conceptual metaphors provide a basic structure of understanding through which we conceptualize an unfamiliar or abstract domain, the target domain, in terms of another more familiar and concrete one, the source domain.[16]  For example, the rather abstract target domain of "understanding" is frequently expressed through the metaphor of vision.  For example, to "see" also means to "understand" and countless experiences related to vision serve to link both domains.  We can easily understand the following phrases: "The committee has left me in the dark about this matter," or even the more imaginative "You'd need an electron microscope to find the point of this article."[17]  

Another common conceptual metaphor Lackoff and Johnson discuss is our tendency to perceive state of being in terms of our orientation in vertical space.  This orientation maps relationships in physical space to mental and physical states: for example, "I'm feeling a bit down today," or "we need to raise her spirits." [18]  In his recent book, Conceptualizing Music, Lawrence Zbikowski argues that the "high" and "low" used to describe pitches and melodic contour in contemporary Western practice reflect a similar conceptual metaphor, one which is not always found in other cultures (e.g., Balinese, Kaluli, or Suya cultures) or in other times (Ancient Greek theorists used oxys, "sharp," and barys, "heavy," to characterize pitches).[19]  While conceptual metaphors may be culturally linked, our shared sense of embodiment makes some intuitively better than others.  As Zbikowski writes, "pitches and fruits just do not seem to be a good match."[20]  In contemporary Western musical practice, pitch relationships as relationships in vertical space does correlate well with a system of music notation that permits the visualization and the preservation of musical works, while in Bali, a system of "small" and "large" pitches correlates well with the physical characteristics of their indigenous musical instruments  (large and small metallophones).

Robert Walser was one of the first music scholars to champion the use of embodied metaphors to describe at the same time culturally specific, polysemic signifiers and pre-conceptual human experiences.[21]  He argues that language and music are mediated by our experiences of our bodies and our interactions with the rest of the material world, just as our bodily experiences are, in turn, mediated by language, music, and other aspects of culture.  Walser focuses his treatment on the forceful musical timbres of heavy metal guitar playing and singing.  We can all experience the physical aspects of vocal screaming or overdriving audio equipment, yet heavy metal distortion and power chords have been used in differing musical and cultural circles to sanctify the Devil and exalt the glory of God.  The powerful timbres and textures of free jazz have also signified in varied ways, from Black Power in the 1960s to transcendental spirituality or post-modern angst and confusion.  As a tradition which represents considerable cultural and stylistic blending, jazz and its improvised progeny provide a rich context for extending cross-domain mapping between formal musical syntax, social interactive processes, cultural understandings, and potentially even ecstatic states


The Sound of Ecstacy


Over the past half century, the sonic palette of jazz and improvised music has been greatly expanded by a vast array of innovative and influential performers reporting diverse spiritual experiences.  These performers use a wide variety of so-called "extended" techniques, including the use of extreme vibrato, exaggerated articulations, harmonics, extended range devices, multiphonics, vocalizing effects such as growls, sung tones, and smears, and musical devices including kinetic shapes, circular breathing, and recitation tones.  Can the specific musical structures and devices used by free jazz musicians symbolically and pre-conceptually transform the subjective experiences of performers and listeners?  And do these practices serve as metaphors to blend together distinct perceptual frames to create new meaning and to structure our perceptions of the world?  According to David Such, "Like the way in which metaphors structure a new idea, music should generate a novel and strikingly positive awareness that will perhaps transfer to the listener's view of life; thus it may prompt him or her to improve upon its quality."[22]  In what ways can the rather abstract state of ecstasy, or expanded consciousness, be conceptualized in terms of the more familiar and embodied aspects of sound production and reception?

Despite the tendency of avant-garde jazz to be a “catch-all” of musical, cultural, and spiritual practices, on the whole it appears to contradict one of the main tenets of many treatments of music and altered states – that music assists in inducing trance through its highly patterned and repetitive nature.  Herndon and McLeod, for example, argue that “music is always redundant in comparison with other forms of activity” and that “constant and exact repetition through time is the ideal for many forms of liturgical music throughout the world.”[23]  The spontaneous and flexible nature of much avant-garde jazz makes a strong argument that mystical music need not be simple, predictable, “mesmerically” repetitive or “hypnotically” metered to produce ecstatic states in performers and listeners.[24]

            Vibrato is a common device used to enhance and embellish a musical tone in diverse musical traditions from Western classical to Korean sinawe. Vibrato was common in the early years of jazz and was used to great advantage by musicians like Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges, or more notoriously by the Guy Lombardo saxophone section.  In contrast, the bebop language developed by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and others, used a straight, vibrato-less tone so that the often rapid eighth-note, triplet, and double-time runs could be more easily discerned by the ear.  The heavy vibrato of swing-era musicians was seen as an un-hip remnant of days gone by. 

Avant-garde jazz represented, in certain respects, a rebellion against the fast tempos and complex harmonies of bebop and the possibility, for many, of a more spiritual kind of playing. When these musicians liberated themselves from what they perceived as constraining musical forms and stylistic practices, they felt free to reintroduce a broader range of expression to the use of vibrato.  The variations of sound possibilities for a single note frequently became as, or more, important to avant-garde musicians than the virtuosic display of technique evidenced in most bebop playing.  Saxophonist Albert Ayler spoke to the importance of the spirit of early New Orleans jazz in his musical practice: “There was also Sidney Bechet... for me he represented the true spirit, the full force of life, that many of the older musicians had – like in New Orleans jazz – and which many musicians today don’t have.  I hope to bring that spirit back into the music we’re playing.”  Possibly the best example of an artistic move towards a wider, more expressive vibrato can be heard in the playing of John Coltrane.  Coltrane’s recordings, even his ballads, until about 1963 or 64 show little use of vibrato.  But after falling under the influence of several of the newer generation of saxophonists including Ayler, his later recordings including Ascension, Meditations, Om, and Expressions, incorporate a much broader vibrato of varying speed and intensity.

            How can something as simple as vibrato be important in the creation of ecstatic states?  Vibrato is created by varying the pitch of a note in an oscillating manner.  While the European classical tradition generally calls for a steady, controlled oscillation of pitch within a very small spectrum, the vibrato preferred by avant-garde musicians may involve anything from rapid and small fluctuations to extremely slow and wide variations of pitch or any conceivable combination of those factors.  For receptive listeners, the variations in, and deviations from, a central pitch may serve as the source domain – one which is embodied in our history of listening to or performing music – that serves to structure the more abstract target domain of extended consciousness.  The musical departure from stylistic expectations or tempered pitch norms provides an altered experience that may provoke accompanying changes in attention and consciousness.

            Contemporary improvisers also take full advantage of a wide array of articulation possibilities.  Depending on the type of sound-producing instrument used, these can include slap, double, and triple tonguing devices, variations in buzzing style, placement and speed, and contortions of the larynx or vocal cavity, or a variety of other devices that explore and extend body-related sounds.  At times, articulations, fingerings, and airstream may not even synchronize, creating a multi-layered effect to which the performer and listener can attend either as separate, conflicting parts or as a conjoined whole.  Adam Rudolph described these devices as "kinetic shapes" involving rapid and repetitive cascades of notes used to blend together entire ranges of the instrument in a seamless fashion and produce a wash of sound and motion.[25]  While these flurries of sound, articulation, and gesture may seem inscrutable or even inappropriate to novice listeners, for those already venturing beyond the cultural norm in their musical activities, these embodied (yet curiously otherworldly) sounds can provoke participants and listeners to move beyond the comfort zone of a culturally-sanctioned self understanding.

On wind instruments, circular breathing allows for an uninterrupted stream of air by using the cheek muscles to “exhale” while quickly inhaling through the nose.  Improvisers able to perform this counter intuitive feat can weave lengthy and hypnotic figures together unceasingly for as long as their physical endurance allows.[26]  Not only can this stream of music that defies standard breath-length phrases have a profound effect on listeners, but also the practiced "denial" of a basic human physical need can contribute to a metaphorical blend with the expansion of everyday awareness.  Ali Jihad Racy has noted from his fieldwork in the Arab world that the technique of circular breathing often connotes a certain performance mystique and may be an important factor in triggering states of elation and psychological transformation among listeners.[27]

            Harmonics – also known as overtones or partials – are components of every sound in nature except the pure sine wave.  The timbre of a given instrument or voice relies to a great extent on the characteristics of its harmonic series.  Timbral differences are most easily demonstrated by singing a single pitch and altering the vowel sound used to produce it, which alters its harmonic spectrum.  While the pitch should not vary, the quality of the sound changes dramatically.  Contemporary instrumentalists and vocalists frequently exploit the richness of the harmonic spectrum by selectively varying specific overtones.  Whether produced by alternate fingerings or alterations in the shape of the larynx, these variations can produce startlingly different tonal qualities and significantly extend the expected range of a given instrument.  The accustomed ear may easily differentiate these harmonic timbres from notes produced by standard methods or fingerings.  Exploring the upper partials can also greatly expand a musician's range and the searching and frequently unpredictable quality of these extended harmonic forays has been interpreted by many as conveying a sense of spiritual yearning.

The ability to produce more than one note on a single-note instrument – referred to as a "multiphonic" – can also convey a sense of transcending the inherent capabilities of an instrument and, through a metaphoric blend, transcending the individual's capabilities and expectations.  Vocalizing through a horn can also allow a performer to create polyphonic lines, a growl effect, or to smear together pitches in a continuous fashion, transcending the normal boundaries of a Western chromatic scale.  Certain players have used vocalizing devices to literally speak through their horn (e.g., Dewey Redman) in a fashion similar to the glossolalia (speaking in tongues) experienced in some Pentecostal or other charismatic churches.

Lewis Porter adopted the idea of "recitation tones" from the intonational chant of African American preachers to illuminate John Coltrane’s improvisations from the album A Love Supreme.[28]  A recitation tone refers to the pitch apexes consecutively used in spoken or musical sermons to signify intensification, exaltation, and spiritual ascension to listeners.  Ethnographic data drawn from diverse sources including African American communities, Sufi musical ceremonies, and Western art music traditions, supports the idea that the use of recitation tones, normally in progressively ascending fashion, may symbolically represent and organize the idea constructs and experiences of participants concerning spirituality.




While I do not wish to posit simple structuralist answers to the complex relationship between music and ecstasy, as an improvising musician, I know the power of playing the right musical gesture at the right time to create, and hopefully to communicate, a feeling of ecstasy in performance. Investigating isolated musical details necessarily paints a limited picture of music and ecstasy relationships, but so too does a culturally rich description that avoids the question of musical structures and structuring in performance.  Products of cognition do vary across cultures, but modern humans share the same basic cognitive operations.  In line with the need for more "cognitive" social science, I argue here for the integrated study of personal and public events and the cultural and neurobiological aspects of musical performance to illuminate further the production of meaning.[29]

            Music provides a cultural and symbolic realm in human society for the exploration of spiritual states, but the question of how and what music symbolizes may always remain something of a mystery.  Susanne Langer calls music an “unconsummated symbol,” one whose ambivalence of content allows the possibility of expressing opposites simultaneously.[30]  This ability of music to symbolically express paradox and its temporal organization may explain why it is so often linked with transcendental states across various cultures.  Music, linked with ritual, provides a cultural space and a spiritual means for involved and willing participants to dissolve the apparent duality of self and not-self.




[1] David Borgo is a saxophonist and composer with a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology from UCLA.  He is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego.  He may be contacted at

[2] See, for example, Walerie Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life:  The Story of the New Jazz (Allison & Busby Ltd., 1977),  David Such, Avant-Garde Musicians Performing 'Out There' (University of Iowa Press., 1993), and David Borgo, “Emergent Qualities of Collectively Improvised Performance: A Study of an Egalitarian Intercultural Improvising Trio,” Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 8 (1997).

[3] See, for example, Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz (Da Capo Press, 1975) and Roger Dean, New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music Since 1960 (Open University Press, 1992).

[4] See Ed Sarath, “A New Look at Improvisation,” Journal of Music Theory 40/1 (1996) for an intriguing analytical perspective of improvisation centered on temporal and spiritual concerns.

[5] See David Borgo, "Synergy and Surrealestate: The Orderly Disorder of Free Improvisation," Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 10 (2002) for a self-reflexive ethnography of the author's experiences with Surrealestate, an improvising collective in Los Angeles CA.

[6] David Such, Avant-Garde Musicians Performing 'Out There' (University of Iowa Press., 1993, 131).

[7] Arnold Ludwig, “Altered States of Consciousness,” In Altered States of Consciousness, edited by Charles Tart (Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1972).

[8] Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations Between Music and Possession (University of Chicago Press, 1985).

[9] Pete Gershon, "Jameel Moondoc: Organically Grown," Signal to Noise, Summer 2001, 15.

[10] David Borgo, “Emergent Qualities of Collectively Improvised Performance: A Study of an Egalitarian Intercultural Improvising Trio,” Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 8 (1997).  See also Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton University Press, 1964) for a discussion of the symbolism of “journey” in shamanic practice. 

[11] Both quotes from personal interviews with the author.

[12] See John Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (Da Capo Press, 1998), Graham Lock, Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton (Duke University Press, 2000), and George Lewis' forthcoming book on the A.A.C.M. for more in-depth discussions.

[13] See especially the work of Victor Turner and Terence Turner.

[14] Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (MIT Press, 1991, 9).

[15] Ibid.,149.

[16] Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, in The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and The Mind's Hidden Complexities, Basic Books, 2001), have proposed a more recent, related theory called conceptual blending.  Blending theory extends the analysis of metaphor to a variety of other linguistic and conceptual phenomena.  Their approach adds a 'generic' space, representing conceptual structure that is shared by both inputs, and the 'blend' space, where material from the inputs combines and interacts. 

[17] Joseph Grady, Todd Oakley and Seana Coulson, "Blending and Metaphor," In Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics, edited by G. Steen and R. Gibbs (John Benjamins Press, 1999 - also available at

[18] Recent work by George Lackoff and Rafael NuĖez (Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being, Basic Books, 2001) has even proposed that mathematics, far from the "objective" or "Platonic" system it is often presented as, is actually based on metaphoric extensions of the human body.

[19] Lawrence M. Zbikowski. Conceptualizing Music: Cognitive Structure, Theory, and Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2002).

[20] Ibid., 70.

[21] Robert Walser, “The Body in the Music.” College Music Symposium 31 (1991, 121).

[22] David Such, Avant-Garde Musicians Performing 'Out There' (University of Iowa Press, 1993).

[23] Marcia Herndon and Norma McLeod, Music as Culture (Norwood Editions, 1979, 112).

[24] See, for instance, Margaret Kartomi, “Music and Trance in Central Java” Ethnomusicology 27/2 (1973, 206).

[25] See David Borgo, “Emergent Qualities of Collectively Improvised Performance: A Study of an Egalitarian Intercultural Improvising Trio,” Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology 8 (1997) for further discussion.

[26] British improviser Evan Parker frequently uses circular breathing to extend the phrases and explorations of his solo saxophone style.  See David Borgo, "The Chaotic Self, or the Embodiment of Evan Parker," In Playing Changes: New Jazz Studies, edited by Robert Walser (Duke University Press, forthcoming) for an in-depth analysis.

[27] See Ali Jihad Racy, “A Dialectical Perspective on Musical Instruments: The East-Mediterranean Mijwiz.” Ethnomusicology 38/1 (1994, 50).  The ecstatic state evidenced in avant-garde jazz performances may in fact most closely resemble the emotional trance of the Arab musical world discussed by Rouget, although I disagree with several of his conclusions regarding the efficacy of purely instrumental music.  Many African American jazz performers, beginning in the 1960s, looked to the Near East, and Islam in particular, for spiritual belief systems in accord with their own, although for some this also reflected a more practical response to the pronounced racism in the United States at that time.

[28] Lewis Porter, "John Coltrane's A Love Supreme: Jazz Improvisation as Composition." Journal of the American Musicological Society 38/3 (1985).

[29] See Mark Turner, Cognitive Dimensions of Social Science (Oxford, 2001).

[30] Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (Harvard University Press, 1967).