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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Capturing free jazz in words

"Listening to a recording of free jazz is a bit like watching travelers in a busy train terminal. People of all sizes and colors are moving in every direction; some of them are headed out of town, while some are on their way home. What these folks share is the need to get to the platform or the street straight away, and each pace, sidestep and sudden, momentary halt serves this heightened sense of purpose. Before long, what was initially perceived as a formless mass becomes perceptible, if constantly changing currents, carrying people to their destinations. There is no superstructure to it per se; but there is an organic quality that is fascinating to behold.

One reason this analogy holds any water lies in the sophistication of free jazz practitioners as travelers, one that extends far beyond the ability to bob and weave through a crowd. It is the acuity that comes from regularly being in transit, the sharpened sense of time and of the changing options each moment brings, that is most pointedly applicable to free jazz. Free jazz is music of, by and for the moment, a navigational, not an architectural endeavor. Certainly, each moment brings formal considerations to the fore; yet, the appropriate response is to deal with them in passing, as the next moment will present more. In doing so, the integrity of free jazz as a method – as opposed to a genre – is maintained.

This adherence to methodology gives free jazz a unique and intriguing projection of form unfolding in real time. Mature practitioners understand the rigor entailed in being responsive, but not over committing to any material. The causeway to the next moment has to remain open, and locking into a phrase or a rhythm may well work against that priority. Without the anticipation of and a clear path to the next moment, free jazz becomes clogged with pastiche. What distinguishes free jazz is not idiomatic references or even flares of virtuosic brilliance, but the conveyance of spontaneous interaction and invention.

Free jazz has retained its vitality in large measure because it is resistant to codification – there’s no fake book for it. This is extraordinary, given that free jazz has now been extensively documented and strenuously scrutinized for approximately a half century, roughly the time span between Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Now in a cusp where early practitioners are collaborating with their beneficiaries, free jazz can reassert its values within a context that gives priority to history or to the moment, which exists beyond the clutches of history."

Bill Shoemaker, March 2009

(liner notes for Brian Groder & Burton Greene's "Groder&Greene".)

© stef