Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Free Jazz and Free Improvisation (A response)

The following blog post is a response I made and emailed to the writer Douglas Detrick of THIS article on Free Jazz and Free Improvisation. Long story short if you don't read his article, it is about the definition of the two terms and albums representative of them. "Free Jazz" as a genre is defined by Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" and "Shape of jazz to come" while "Free Improvisation" as a genre is defined by Anthony Braxton's "For Alto." I disagreed and lay out my points below. This subject is something that has been on my mind for years now, and so below is my response:

I came across your recent article about free jazz vs. free improvisation, and found no room on the site to comment on it, so I thought I would shoot you an email. It's an interesting idea by the way, dissecting the differences between the two. I was wondering with the article who your target audience is as well, is it for other musicians/music fans, or more for the laymen? Anyway by the way I'm checking out your own music on your site while writing this, good stuff!

I'm interested in your beginning statement about how free jazz tends to through out swing, chords changes, and formal structure, and I have to say I disagree with you. I DO think that this does happen from time to time in some freer musics but not necessarily in free jazz all the time, at least in your definition of it. Ornette's Free Jazz (which I transcribed the collective improvisation sections), does have pretty set formal ideas and themes in the music. I wasn't there obviously to know what instruction Ornette gave his musicians, but they tend to play busily, and then long tones (maybe a prescribed chord they hit together in a format) and then busy again, or some variation of that, but are doing it very much together. As far as the form, they stick to a very solid form of ensemble sections met by solos with open ended backgrounds, and everyone solos with the same backgrounds, except for the drum and bass solos (which are still accompanied by the other bass player, or other drummer. And the entire thing does swing, Billy higgins plays a medium swing pattern the entire time (virtually) and Ed Blackwell plays double time to that (virtually). It really only breaks free at all towards the end with the bass and drum solos. I'm working on Coltrane's Ascension currently, which also has a similar set form of solos and collective improvisations, also with a set of chords and modes which the performers follow or choose not to follow. Coltrane instructed all the soloists to end their solos with a crescendo. Just in general as well, collective improvisation isn't new, in fact its very old, and early jazz/dixieland records feature a lot of that. Ornette Coleman, by the way, swings very hard, and plays very much blues and bebop related material, he himself though stretches out harmonically and melodically, by basically modulating all over the place (but doesn't play free in the same sense that Roscoe Mitchell or Anthony Braxton plays free.)

You move on to talk about Shape of Jazz to Come, and yet again I disagree with you. The music is freer than the music before it, but if you listen to it, especially having heard Ornette's records on contemporary, "Tomorrow is the Question" and "Something else" you hear some of the same ideas starting to take form in the atlantic period of recordings, like the tune "Lorraine" which in someways has similar material to "Lonely Woman" or "The Sphinx" which on the bridge to the tune is rubato, but the rest of the head is in swinging 4/4 time (with a 5/4 bar) thrown in. To give you an example from "Shape of Jazz to Come" check out the tune "Peace" Listen to how the band plays the head, and then listen again to the solos and try to sing the head during the solo sections. There are very composed hits/chords that Haden is playing and Higgins is playing off of rhythmically (much like the tune Lorraine from tommorrow is the question). On "Lonely Woman" Haden plays off of the same bass line/chords from the head even going into the bridge with don cherry behind ornettes solo.

My argument is that Ornette and his band rehearsed constantly and took things into a new level of arrangement and approach to the music, but the music still very much swings and all the players swing, and chords are still in play (at least on a certain level) and form is definitely still followed. They are "free" in the sense that Mingus' bands were "free" which means they rehearsed a lot, knew the tunes inside and out, could compose and come up with forms spontaneously, but also had a LOT of stuff worked out and pre-conceived, especially on the studio records. You say on "Free Jazz" the album, that there are no melodies in unison, but what do you call the verbatim unison melodies in the melody of the piece, pure chance? And hes only going backwards in jazz, looking to early jazz via dixieland, new orlean bands, where there was a high level of collective improvisation that you could say sounds just as free as Ornette's bands.

I agree with you that Free Improvisation goes out of the realm of jazz (which is confusing because you say free jazz did the same, getting rid of jazz idiomatic notions) and then you go into Anthony Braxton, which I would have to say very definitely embodies the "free jazz" idiom. I personally hate having to make genres out of things, but Braxton plays the saxophone, and usually plays with other jazz/free jazz musicians, sometimes in a much more conventional sense than other free improvisational players. Braxton has a lot of tribute albums out there to Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker, and standards records where he plays in his own way jazz standards with a conventional jazz rhythm section. Sure his solo improvisational music (similar to Steve Lacy) is solo saxophone, but partially because it is a saxophone, it is still pretty close to jazz territory, even though the music is based on graphic notational systems. I can see Braxton being on the fence basically between what you would call free improvisation and free jazz, but I still would lump him closer to the jazz category for how much time he has spent in that idiom and world. For me personally, if a musician is still dealing with playing standards, I would not consider them a free improvisational player, as much as the people that ONLY play free improvisational material (or original music that has little to no jazz-ish elements). Ken Vandermark is a musician that always writes tribute titles in his pieces, to photographers, painters, composers, musicians, etc... but even still I would label, if I had to label, him close to a free jazz world than free improvisation, even though he does both, it just seems he works closer to a jazz idiom.

Your mention of John Cage is interesting, in that many of his compositions do provide almost exclusively free improvisation of some way or type. Sure there are instructions as to what to do, or how to come across it, but with Cage's "Variations" pieces they are open in such a way where you there is more improvisation than there is through composed music. With Braxton's solo saxophone music he developed motives and graphic notation to work out music to play, and therefore is not completely freely improvised, just as Cage's music although composed and some of it is completely improvised coming from the score, might sound more improvised, especially depending upon the players. I also disagree that individuality and improvisation is the priority, I think the priority is to make music that is close to you, and music that you are hearing on your own level.

Overall I like what your article set out to do, but I do believe your approach is a little overtly simplified, and that your examples are not "pure" like you say they are. I don't know if I could give you a "pure" example to be honest, unless the liner notes of a record or an interview with an artist specifically says something along the lines of "This album is a collection of purely free improvisations" which comes out a lot these days. In the music of Ornette, Braxton, Cecil Taylor, etc... I don't know as to how much of it is "free" in a sense, or how much of it is personal systems/forms/structures that people have spent a lot of time working out and explaining to other musicians to work together.

To me free improvisation, like you said, is about getting ridding of genric influences, but due to instrumentation its hard to do that for the listen's ear picks up on comparisons (our brains like to organize material) and so free music to one person, say via Sonic Youth, to others just sounds like rock music, or free music using orchestral instruments might sound like 20th/21st century contemporary composition, or if you use a bass, drums and saxophone, it might just sound like jazz to people. For me the closest group to totally free improvisation would be AMM with Keith Rowe, Eddie Prevost, (and other various members through the years like Cornelius Cardew, Lou Gare and John Tilbury) and depending on the incarnations of that group it has been compared to free jazz (lou gare played sax, prevost drums) or to 20th century composition, because of John Tilbury's piano playing. I just released a CD recently, and some of my friends have commented that the music sounds like movie music, soundtrack to films, even though what they are talking about are freely improvised tracks with jazz musicians.

As far as "Free Jazz" I just think that is made up of people coming out of jazz, usually using jazz instruments in whatever combination of their choosing. The closest I have heard would be some of Alan Silva's large ensembles from the late 60s, or Michael Mantler's large ensemble work, or even Albert Ayler's groups, but even with those I think forms are thought of, compositions are there, and truly free improvisation didn't come until later. I think in all those groups they had an idea of what it was they were doing, unless the idea became "let's just play and not talk about it" which is what the group AMM was doing.

My point is that just because things sound free, doesn't make them free, as well as just because something sounds composed, doesn't always mean that it is composed. Anyways, you may or may not read this, but I have a blog as well and will re-post this on my blog too. Thanks for giving me ideas to think about with your article, I don't mean to be harsh by any means. The idea of "free" music has been on my mind for 5+ years now since hearing Ellery Eskelin's trio with Jim Black and Andrea Parkins (again free music, that very much has composed elements to it, with exception to a recent live album that group put out) and have I thought a lot about free jazz, free improvisation and 20th/21st composition involving improvisational elements.

Thanks, and I enjoyed the clips off of your site, nice playing!

-Matt Smiley"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Band!

The single most lacking thing I have come across since moving to Colorado is the concept of the BAND. Note to anyone reading, this post will be more directed towards personal thoughts/music, as opposed to too many specifics pertaining to music I am checking out (although that will come into play). I miss being in a unified group of musicians, being on the same page, hanging out, rehearsing, playing and the like. In Virginia I was fortunate to basically have three bands throughout college that I can think of that fit this mold that I have in my head.

The first group was a quartet consisting of Matt Coyle, Matt Johnson and Josh Reed (drums, sax, trumpet respectively). This band formed out of variations of playing in a larger jazz combo with Coyle and Josh, but then rehearsing and practicing with Matt Johnson duo. My memory is shady as to how long it took for us to start playing as a quartet, and we did play with Jamie Barnes on guitar in a various version of this group, but unfortunately was short lived as Jamie graduated and moved. Either way I remember a lot of nights just hanging out with these guys again and again, listening to music, talking about music, talking about concepts, and generally coming at music from different points, but being open with one another. There was a general consenses that we should all get good at straight ahead jazz, and yet we were listening to avant garde music, and world music, and contemporary jazz (ie Dave Douglas, John Hollenbeck, Ellery Eskelin). I was always on the bounds of wanting to push it farther "out" and playing gigs at a coffee bar, the artful dodger, gave us the chance to stretch out, especially in our limited repertoire (I wish I could go back and add more charts/tunes to our sets). Luckily the artful dodger didn't care as music about what we were doing, and we were given for the most part free reign. There were certain tunes I can remember, like a few masada tunes, footprints, autumn leaves, etc... that we would experiment more with and go "out," which Coyle and myself were usually the first proponents to do so. We played many gigs with Coyle on vibes, and those harmonically stretched out in various pedal point/noise sections. The music did get very loose from time to time, and we were all pretty young, but it was invaluable to my growth, and I would think as well for everyone else.

This band/quartet mentioned above sort of morphed as people graduated and moved away, and became a larger group of retaining Matt Johnson, adding Bobby Gregg on saxophone, Greg Lyons on drums, and Paul Forrester on guitar. Some of the gigs we were playing with the quartet, turned into gigs for this larger group. I was at a spot in my life where I was finishing school, and during the time had a lot of free time to arrange music and book gigs. This group didn't last longer than a year, but was still a very memorable experience, because personally I was doing more to get a band rehearsing and performing, which I hadn't taken as much initiative in the quartet. (which I would later on with the quartet, during breaks when we would get together and play and record music). This larger group didn't hang out as much as a whole, as everyone was coming in from different parts in their life, but still we came together musically and for the most part focused. And the main thing to emphasize is that we were a BAND and in it together, working on our sound together.

The last, but not least BAND mention is the great experience I had in a trio with Matt Coyle and David Pope. Between the two bands mentioned already and this group, I feel like I grew and learned the most during these three groups. This trio was exciting, I started playing in it after only a semester of college. In retrospect I would do a lot of things over again, as far as what I was practicing (and how much) and bring charts in and the like. This trio was a lot of fun, and a lot of hard work, and was a great experience in how to accompany. I am incredibly fortunate to have had that opportunity and the opportunities to play with all the other bands as well.

Now to my point of the issue. I feel like since I have been in Colorado I have not been in any bands (in my own definition). Everything I do out here, in my opinion are projects. I have gotten to play in a LOT of groups in Colorado and it has been a lot of fun, with great players, but with these groups they all are mostly things where you show up to rehearse/play a gig, but there isn't much hanging out. Maybe I'm wrong though, because there are bands in which I play in where that does happen, and maybe what's different is I and the people I'm playing with are older, and all from very different parts of their life. The bands have their own concept usually, be it 50/60s swinging jazz, more modal/modern jazz, funk music, rock music, vocal/r&b jazz, etc...

On my own I have formed temporary groups for gigs/recordings and have played in settings with two drummers, double quartets, free improv with all sorts of different musicians, chordless quartets to replicate the quartet from virginia (as best I could approximate), and those have worked, but nothing has lasted too long.

My lament maybe goes to not feeling like I have a group to fully express what I personally want to do musically, but also incorporating in what everyone else wants to do musically. With most gigs I play, it is to play very specific music for a specific function, but I miss being able to play music with a long term group of musicians, to play, not necessarily for certain social functions. The closest I have gotten is with the COBRA ENSEMBLE, whereas we started with playing COBRA by John Zorn, then added more contemporary classical music/improv into the mix. The longer the group was together, the more of a band it felt to me. It was also nice just not having to have the pressure of confirming to a specific audience want or desire, but doing what we wanted to, and letting the audience coming and going. I also enjoyed that at times the group was 10+ people, because with something like that, the players can become the audience. I have been reading a lot of Cornelius Cardew lately and reading about the Scratch Orchestra, and remembering how that was the first music we attempted in COBRA that wasn't COBRA.

The larger, uncontrollable group of the COBRA ensemble was great, especially with it's fluctuation in membership over the years (it is still being run by other musicians now). There must have been at least 40+ members throughout the past 3 years in different incarnations of the group, from having a group with violins and cellos and basses, to having three bass clarinets, to multi percussionists, and having brass, not having brass. The current group performed last march, and the new concept was electrification, every instrument was electrified, which is interesting to me how that can affect the sound and especially the dynamics, given that it is also a smaller ensemble.

In bringing this up I wanted to say that of myself now I wish I could form a AMM-ish group, but playing compositions. I want a small group, trio to sextet size, that would be dedicated to playing group compositions/arrangements to the best of their abilities, and with the least amount of restrictions. Ideally this band would have diverse instrumentation (percussion, strings, winds, electronics) and might feature people from different genric backgrounds (rock, jazz, classical, etc...). But more than anything I want it to be a band where there are no subs, although the group could perform in smaller ensemble versions of itself (duo concerts for instance) and would be together for a long time. I have ideal musicians in my head, some I've mentioned from these earlier bands, but the problem is everyone is always moving around, and the musicians I want to do this are all in different states around the country.

The lament and point of this is that I miss being in a band, and I have an idea of what kind of group I want to play with, and even specific people in it, but that at this juncture it isn't possible. Maybe later on in life, when I live in a different area, or find the right combination of musicians, then it will work. Until then I will continue my projects and work as a side man, which is very fulfilling, just very specific on a musical level.

My apologies for this self centered post. I have a future post coming up, on the Music for Merce Boxed Set, and also on composition(s).