Monday, June 25, 2007

Some of my Vision Fest grumblings have been serving as gristle (I meant to say "grist" but I think I'll stick with gristle) over at Darcy James Argue's blog, as well as Dan Melnick's Soundslope. Mr. Argue takes the criticism in stride while Mr. Melnick has some issues with it.

I don't mean to pick on Viz Fest as such too much, it's simply the one time during the year that I'm likely to attend events featuring music of this nature, only because friends from Jazz Corner come to town and I greatly enjoy their company. Truth to tell, I'd rather sit around the backyard of dba and talk, but I figure it's also a good chance to minimally reinvestigate some music I was, more or less, pretty into for a long time. Almost inevitably, what I hear raises the same sort of issues that sprang to mind back around the early 90s when I felt the avant jazz scene was becoming increasingly stale and, in a word, conservative. (I won't go over the exceptions I've encountered yet again, just pausing to say that, as anywhere else, exceptions do occur).

I suppose these feelings have intensified in recent years due to the research I've done on Keith's book, particularly the transition involved with the original musicians in AMM from the sort of (adventurous, surely!) jazz being created by Mike Westbrook and London-based bop bands around 1965. These fellows perceived the situation pretty clearly, how stultifying things had already become and how even those jazz musicians who were breaking away from the strictures of bop still retained their own "security blankets". Now, I'm sure this sort of casting off of crutches is no easy thing by any means and one would necessarily allow time for certain concepts to sink in. (and, to be sure, one is under no obligation to abandon these structures at all; there's perfectly adequate Dixieland being played today, just as there's perfectly adequate bop and free jazz). But if you've chosen to push things, if you're out there advertising your work as "free", well dammit, it should be free. And forty plus years on, there's no excuse for not understanding "free" to mean exactly what it says. It doesn't mean a hierarchy of musicians, a hierarchy of solo order (it doesn't mean solos being obligatory at all!). It doesn't mean constructing a situation where you can't do this and you can't do that, no matter how much musical sense it makes at the time. It doesn't mean you can't stop playing when you have nothing to add. It doesn't mean that when the bassist starts soloing, the drummer automatically reverts to cymbal tapping mode while the horn players look on (they can't play of course! that's against the rules!) and the pianist dutifully punches out a handful of appropriate chords. Many listeners might be able to ignore this structural aspect and just enjoy what the musicians are doing. More power to 'em. I can't.

(I hope it goes without saying, but it probably doesn't, that the issue isn't as cut and dried as I may make it sound here, as hopefully indicated by the good performance of Matt Shipp the other night and other more or less solid sets. The above mixes individual examples with the pervading sense of the Festival, and other concerts in the same territory, I've acquired over the past 15 or so years. Nothing, certainly no art form, can be circumscribed so neatly)

All of these tacks are perfectly fine and valid in certain contexts, of course. Nicole Mitchell created a lovely, Randy Weston-ish set a couple years ago at the Viz Fest but (implicitly, at least) made no pronouncements as to its being "free" and, as a listener, I had no feeling that any such label was being evoked. I saw Harold Mabern a few years ago and his performance has stuck in my memory as both very traditional and hugely creative. But the great majority of music being performed at Viz ain't free and, for my bucks, shouldn't in good conscience mislead people into thinking that it is. Insisting on that aura, imho, weakens the music. For the most part, it's every bit as essentially conservative as what's being presented uptown at Wynton's place. Different veneer, very similar core.



End of rant.

Reading:

Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Charles Mann - 1491, New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus

7 comments:

Crawjo said...

I don't think taomud related recordings are really "free" either.

Brian Olewnick said...

Well, certainly many of them aren't, using a general definition of the term. But, of course, we'd have to qualify what "free" is. In the (loose?) sense I'm using it, your average AMM recording would fit comfortably under the term, maybe more so the earlier ones than the later, something like "The Crypt".

This is all not to deny that everyone has their own set of restrictions, that (say) Tilbury is unlikely to explode into Cecil Taylorisms, etc. But it's one thing on a personal level, another when there's the sense of strictures on a group level, at least for myself.

the improvising guitarist said...

…Forty plus years on, there's no excuse for not understanding “free” to mean exactly what it says.

Except “free” means several different (maybe contradictory) things. One of the points of mutual incomprehension (and creative misunderstandings) between, say, white European and black American improvisers was, to some extent, encapsulated in that word: what is it that you are free from? emancipated from?
I also wonder how if there’s another way to think about the characteristics you’re talking about as barriers to freedom (“strictures”, “crutches” or “security blankets”) without framing them as such.

It [“free”] doesn't mean a hierarchy of musicians….

Although, ironically enough, in order to make that statement you’re suggesting there is a hierarchy of freedom—some practices more free than others ;-)

End of rant.

A rant, maybe, but it was an instructive/illuminating one. (More rants!)

S, tig

Dan said...

Hi Brian, I appreciate your thoughts on the matter. I certainly think this is a good dialog to engage in, and your clarifications help to frame your earlier comments for me. As someone who has a huge blind spot in the EAI as well as the AMM end of things, I'm sure your perspective on free is quite a bit different from mine.

Crawjo said...

But it's one thing on a personal level, another when there's the sense of strictures on a group level, at least for myself.

What exactly is this separation between individual/group that you seem to be gesturing towards in your construction of "freedom"? Is freedom the freedom of the individual? Can there be a freedom of the group? What happens to freedom when one makes the decision to conform to these "strictures," as you call them? Is that less free? Why?

I found your post interesting because I have never really looked at the failure of jazz (and I do think it has failed, or rather, is dying) in terms of freedom, and neither can I say that my interest in taomud is related to freedom.

I guess, hardened cynic that I am, I just don't put much stock in the idea of freedom itself. It seems to me to be an ideal not worth attaining. But I will have to think about it some more. Your thoughtful post has stirred my mind a bit. I agree with the above poster...more rants!

Gary Sisco said...

What's out, what's not. What's free. What's not.

In the end, I don't care, really. I like to listen to free jazz because I like to listen to it. I can say exactly the same for eai or AMM music.

If free jazz is still played more or less the way it's been played since the 60s, I like it anyway because I like to listen to it. I haven't any other requirement for liking music.

I like listening to eai, too, because I like to hear it.

In the end, it's all arranged sound, music. We find it an enjoyable experience or we don't.

Any other considerations are almost necessarily extramusical. They may be interesting subjects but in the end, we listen to the music we like, because we like it.

Sounds in the air. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Anonymous said...

"But if you've chosen to push things, if you're out there advertising your work as "free", well dammit, it should be free. And forty plus years on, there's no excuse for not understanding "free" to mean exactly what it says. It doesn't mean a hierarchy of musicians, a hierarchy of solo order (it doesn't mean solos being obligatory at all!). It doesn't mean constructing a situation where you can't do this and you can't do that, no matter how much musical sense it makes at the time. It doesn't mean you can't stop playing when you have nothing to add. It doesn't mean that when the bassist starts soloing, the drummer automatically reverts to cymbal tapping mode while the horn players look on (they can't play of course! that's against the rules!) and the pianist dutifully punches out a handful of appropriate chords...."

Well. I guess playing free isn't "free," in any number of senses. Clearly, to be "free," one must follow the rules laid down by the critics. One must avoid traditional aspects in every single regard, which is universally recognized as the very definition and embodiment of freedom. Maybe they shouldn't even play reed, brass or percussion instruments. Otherwise, they're just like Wynton. Right?