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