By Tom Burris
“I am learning how to play and how to write, and that is superior to the pretense of knowing.”
- Jack Wright
Chances are that if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re aware of Jack Wright. Often referred to as “the Johnny Appleseed of free improvisation,” his reputation as a fearless crusader of the purest form of musical expression is fairly well known (at least in the U.S. underground). His own music is as free of studied technique as a proficient musician could create. It’s admittedly impossible to get back to zero once you know your way around a thing. You're not going to be a virgin again. You’ll never experience anything for the first time twice. But it is admirable to set out on that impossible journey in search of a specific type of purity. You sure aren’t ever going to be literally born again; but you can be a Holy Fool for life if your commitment is deep enough. And you can teach humanity a thing or two about life – via music or a book-length essay. The Holy Fool is always the foremost speaker of truth and wisdom in worldly matters, whether he’s Milarepa, Louis C.K. or Derek Bailey.
But I’m not here to attempt to canonize Uncle Jack into the pantheon of spiritual leadership. I’m also not going to attempt to tell you everything this book is about. This book is so packed with ideas and concepts (and personally acquired knowledge, of course) it would take an essay 1/3rd the size of the book itself to even summarize them all. This is a meaty pack o’ paper for sure. I made my way through it with the help of a yellow highlighter marker, knowing there was no way I could ever cover 98% of what's going on within its pages during a short review. No trees were wasted in the printing of this volume.
The book is divided chronologically into sections “Jazz & Free Jazz,” “Free Improvisation & Free Playing,” then the concluding sections called “The New Old Things,” in which, among many other topics, Wright laments the unchanging divisions between the various forms of free playing, primarily what we call “Free Jazz” and “Free Improvisation”. Wright seems to prefer the term “free playing” over either of them, which is the style he says that applies to both.
Wright covers all the early bases you expect to see: the jazz wars, Ornette, Coltrane, Ayler, Cecil – but criticizes free jazz for setting itself up in the way of not allowing for any later purveyors of the form to be considered equals with its earlier titans. In Jack’s words, “The egalitarianism of free jazz depends on everyone being unequal to the giants of yore. These have been passing away one by one and leaving no vacancies, not even standards the epigones could hope to match and surpass. This has set up a dilemma, for the long view would see free jazz in progressive decline with no prospect of recovering from irreparable losses.”
On the other hand I don’t think Jack is saying a listener of, say Mary Halvorson, can’t get the same feeling of temporary samadhi that Coltrane inspired in deep listeners on “Chasing the Trane” from the Live at the Village Vanguard set. I think he’s simply asking the question “How many more obstacles have been created to this by the structures of a highly codified marketplace?”
This goes hand-in-hand with the reality that artistic innovations have taken a backseat to technological advances. If free jazz was built on the idea of constant innovation, then where is it in the here and now of the digital age? Wright applies this pattern of circular logic to every subgenre you can think of – and it is this unflinching eye that makes this book absolutely essential reading to anyone involved in any aspect of free music, including – and maybe even especially – the listener / consumer (for whom those subgenres were primarily created).
I’m including a section of the book here simply because it is instructional and liberating to anyone who has participated actively as a listener, but never as an active participant in freely improvised music:
“For the reader who hasn’t ever engaged music actively, the best way to grasp this is to put yourself into the situation of actually playing. Just make a sound, then another, without singing. Do this in private, with no one in earshot to judge you. You might be surprised how difficult it is, a kind of embarrassment, an attack on your self-image as a mature adult. Or get your hands on a physical instrument. Maybe a cello and bow, those aura-endowed objects only a priestly caste is supposed to handle. The thought of it can be frightening – what could I possibly do? Why am I doing this? Draw the bow across the strings and say to yourself, “This is the sound I’m making,” a simple statement of fact. You are in the existential situation of being free from any external judgment and face to face with your full capacity to humiliate yourself. The superego voice rebukes you as foolish; it defeats you or you go ahead – your choice. Each sound you make will fly in the face of that voice, and you will be slashing it to the ground with every untutored stroke of the bow – with no one but yourself to hear it. You will not approximate a “real” cellist, but in listening you will discover a new relation of your ear and your sound-making body. You will be drawing energy away from the straw man that has been mediating your relation to music, and gaining power for yourself you never knew possible. Since you are not aiming to become a musician, this power will have no roots in identity. Moreover you will be within the circle of those who play freely in performance, and will immediately get what they are doing. When you ask to play a session with us we will do it.”
Jack wears many hats over the duration of this heavy tome; but it is Professor Jack, Holy Fool, I appreciate the most. He shows you how to do it. He is pointing the way toward creative freedom, whether you’ve played music for 50 years or just picked up an instrument for the first time. The Holy Fool is, again, the wisest man in the room, calmly showing us that to be completely open to the next experience is all there is to freedom.
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