It's difficult to come to terms with a situation where you can play literally anything you want. What happened initially in my case is I played a lot of anything but not much something.
What helped me, ironically enough, was playing on forms and learning how to navigate them effectively. If I had a good idea of how to construct a performance on say, a blues, I could use those same principles toward something that was being formed in the moment.
As always, listening helped immeasurably.
Time has passed and I now find myself lucky enough to play in a few situations where nothing or very little is predetermined and lo and behold, it's helped me play on forms, find ways to stretch them, think in bigger arcs, etc.
As usual, I find that extreme views create traps.
If you want to play better bebop, work on playing free.
If you want to be a better player in an open situation, work on standards!
It was enlightening to see the footage of Han Bennink playing with Wes recently. He could definitely play straight ahead and used that knowledge and experience to inform the open music he's playing now.
A great Canadian example of this in Montreal's Guy Nadon.
I used to go see Guy play often when I lived in Quebec, and he was always very inspiring!
Locals tell me that Claude Ranger also used to go to see Guy, and I can definitely hear the influence.
I'm posting the 1991 film about Guy The Roi Du Drum (The King of the Drum).
it's all on French but even if you're uni-lingual you get to see some great footage of Guy doing his thing. Rumour has it that he might consider retiring. If that's so, thanks for all the great music Mr. Nadon!
Go Guy go!