Improvisation is a difficult task in any art form. However, true collective improvisation can lead musicians to an area they never would have explored on their own. Many people think of “The Grateful Dead” when they think of improvisation or of the legions of jazz pros that turned extended, un-premeditated playing into an art form.

However, for my money, the best improvisational group (that operated within a semi-rock paradigm) was Can. This German group began in 1968 and has released new studio material in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s while releasing several live albums and outtake albums in the 90’s,00’s and 10’s.

Can was made up of four musicians: founder Irmin Schmidt, keyboard extraordinaire, composer and former student of Stockhausen; Holger Czukay, bass player, horn player, guitar teacher, producer, editor, unacknowledged leader of the band as well as a former student of Stockhausen; Jaki Liebezeit, former free jazz drummer who steadily pushed the band into the future; and Michael Karoli, former student of Czukay’s, band sex symbol as well as their rock and roll/blues/reggae heart.

Can’s formula was simple: Czukay and Liebezeit would play down a groove for extended periods of time over which Karoli and Schmidt would offer support, texture, harmony and wild solos. The band rarely if ever truly soloed over: usually, they worked hard to create a technically complex, sonically demanding, yet highly emotional and atmospheric piece of music that showcased no singular talent above all.

Of course, their studio albums were the results of hours of careful editing: Czukay edited the 20 minute “Yoo Doo Right” down from six hours of jamming! And the band sometimes went areas that weren’t too exciting: however, they were very uncanny and keeping only the very best of their material.

They band was also very diverse: no two albums sound alike. Their first official album is a very Velvets-inspired rush into garage rock glory. The second is a bit more melodic with flourishes of acid rock and progressive rock. Later on, the band flirted with world music and reggae to some success.

I should also mention the band did include vocals, which have been a source of controversy. Their first singer, Malcolm Mooney, was an African American ex-pat who used a loud, hoarse, beat poet inspired approach to ranting and raving. He usually loomed larger than live over the rest of the proceedings.

Second singer, Japanese American Damo Suzuki featured a slighter, more melodic and more fully integrated singing style. As a result, the best works by Can are usually said to be their works with Suzuki. After he left, Karoli and Schmidt took over vocals for a few albums at which point American bass player Rosco Gee (formerly of Traffic) took over for a series of critically maligned albums.

Can’s influence ranges from modern day jam bands, the techonphile sounds of Radiohead all the way up to modern dub steppers. Check out a great live version of “Paperhouse” from their third album, the double “Tago Mago.” Also be sure to check out their live albums, where the band truly and utterly goes mad in a good and bad way.