There aren't that many books that deal with free improvisation. Not that there is not a great story to tell, but what can you write about music, and most of all, niche music for niche audiences, and then on top of this music that is so beyond any grasp of known descriptions, that any attempt is doomed to fail. Or is it?
In his "Perpetual Frontier", guitarist, bass-player and musical educator Joe Morris gives it a try, and a welcome try at that. Not much has been written about 'free music' as Morris likes to call the composed/improvised genre we are reviewing on this blog, and we can agree with the name. It's more than 'free jazz', and different from 'free improvisation'.
The book is more than welcome, because it offers a kind of foundational explanation of what 'free music' is, and then in an almost academic fashion. Morris presents "The Properties Of Free Music", a description of the constituents and building blocks of the music, with definitions of the known ingredients like melody, harmony, rhythm and their absence and their alternatives. He describes the conceptual methods and systems that musicians can use in establishing their sound, the essence of what musicians try to achieve, and they can do that through synthesis, interpretation and invention, by using known forms or by creating new ones. He writes about musical platforms, about interaction, about open forms, templates and layering, about melodic structure. He explores four theoretical frameworks of free form in a little more depth : Ornette Coleman's 'harmolodics', Cecil Taylor's 'unit structures', Anthony Braxton's 'tri-axiom theory', and European Free Improvisation.
The explanations, the definitions and the conceptual framework offered here will be of high value to students of music, but also to interested listeners, who will find here a great toolbox of ideas and explanations for what is possibly the least codefied of musical genres. Joe Morris is of course very much aware of this, and his text is a open-ended as the music, an offering of possibilities for musical creation.
Next to this academic first part of the book, he has had the great idea to ask individual musicians to answer a questionnaire and talk about their vision on the music they play. We get the insights of Marilyn Crispell, Rashid Bakr, Agusti Fernandez, Simon H. Fell, Mary Halvorson, Katt Hernandez, Joe McPhee, Nicole Mitchell, William Parker, Jamie Saft, Matthew Shipp, Ken Vandermark, Alex Ward, Nate Wooley and JackWright. Quite an impressive list of musicians, and what they write is a wonderful complement to Morris framework. Why? Because they write about the human aspect of making music, they talk about emotions, spirituality, being enriched through interaction, about the audiences with whom the music resonates, about intimacy, about the joy of making music, about the tension, about the magic of it, about the unknown.
The testimonials are sometimes elaborate, with the musicians apparently eager to tell their story, to tell their vision. Interestingly, all of them talk about instrumental skills and technique as essential but totally uninteresting unless it leads to great music.
Many of the musicians have different opinions, as much as they have different backgrounds, and influences, and musical concepts, but that makes it interesting.
As a non-musician, I found it all very revelatory, but what surprised me most was the limited attention given to the audience, to the individual listener. That's why I liked Nicole Mitchell's text so much : "I like stretching beyond the comfort zone to make discoveries of my own and to guide listeners to the other sides of themselves". I also like the way Jack Wright writes about it in his very personal story "Musicians would do well to ask themselves not whether they want to please people but how. Obviously you can please people by giving them what they expect to hear; the reward path for that is assured. But there is another kind of pleasure for people when they are not sure what they are getting and don't know how to judge it, who even enjoy being confused a bit". Yes, we, the listeners, can relate to that.
A very valuable book that will be of interest to many musicians and fans of free music.
To end with a quote from William Parker: "Theory in itself did not free people to reach into a deeper area of sound. It was those who altered, abandoned, and redefined the elements of music that got closer to the true source".
This books gives you the options ...