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"

1 comment:

  1. I really need to spend more time editing my posts...oh well!