The ability to spontaneously express emotions on an instrument leads to a unique bond forged between musician and audience. It's why improvisation has been such an integral part of music from the days of the mediaeval organ to more modern jazz and rock. But you have to know the rules before you can break them.
One band certainly able to look past the sheet music is Gov't Mule. Formed as side project in 1994 by guitarist Warren Haynes and bass player Allen Woody, both members of The Allman Brothers Band, they were joined by drummer Matt Abst, whom the pair met through guitarist and fellow Allman Brother, Dickie Betts. Gaining a loyal fan base through live shows and a series of acclaimed albums, Gov't Mule became known in jam band circles as a group able to deliver the goods in a bluesy southern rock style, performing tightly knit tunes but also not afraid of a bit of exploration.
After Woody's death in 2000, Gov't Mule went through a heavy rotation of bass players until finally dubbing bassist Andy Hess and keyboard player Danny Louis as permanent members. Now a four piece band, this current line-up is on tour supporting Deja Voodoo. It'll be to the delight of fans to see Gov't Mule return to their old sound, while exploring new territory, thanks to the addition of various keyboard sounds.
"In the keyboard world, especially if you're using vintage instruments, like I do in Gov't Mule, there's a palette of colours to work with," says Louis from his hotel room in San Francisco. "Our fans are also responding very favorably to the new material. Gov't Mule hits hard."
Louis' favorite aspect of the current tour is the growth and development of the new songs from Deja Voodoo. "It all comes down to a lot of intangible ingredients" he explains. "Chemistry is a commodity that you can definitely identify but never manufacture. It's pretty amazing."
Not all of touring is so amazing.
"I miss my sweetheart," he laments.
Louis plays the trumpet, but uses it sparingly, usually going three or four shows without it. It keeps it fresh for the band while adding a new element for audiences blessed to hear it. "It's definitely placed an additional colour in our fans' laps."
Gov't Mule fans are also able to download quality sounding shows from their website featuring a 48 hour turnaround. A nice touch from a band who can go three shows without repeating a song.
How does Louis feel about Gov't Mule being labeled a jam band?
"I think it's totally fair," he laughs. "I like it. To me, it's a re-aquaintance with rock music not only as a song form, but as an improvisational form. If you were to go back to the sixties, a lot of the greatest groups would be considered jam bands today. Jimi Hendrix would solo for hours."
Hendrix, along with many fellow musicians, built reputations on jamming at live shows as well as in the studio. No concert was ever the same and recordings reflected that.
"Albums by high integrity groups like The Grateful Dead, Sly And The Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane and The Allman Brothers, who survive to this day, contained all kinds of improvisational stuff. Jamming was part and parcel to their music and they took pride in their prowess at doing that. As rock got corporatized, that went away. To me the jam band label, especially as it applies to our music, has a positive ring to it."
But fans should worry about that. Because if there is a first rule to improvisation, as Louis puts it, "Experience it live if you can."