By Martin Schray
A critical view on the preface and the central concept of free playing
Books on free jazz, free improvisation and improvised music (or whatever you might call it) seem problematic. There are only a few which are convincing, such as Ekkehard Jost’s Free Jazz (The Roots of Jazz), Jon Corbett’s A Listener’s Guide to Improvisation (at least from a listener’s perspective), Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life (from a sociological point of view), or Felix Klopotek’s How They Do It (if you read German). That’s why I look forward to new publications on the genre, especially when they might provide fresh musical insights, but I’m often disappointed. I found George Lewis’ A Power Stronger Than Itself too academic and tough to read, Arthur Taylor’s interview collection Notes and Tones too superficial so far as the music was concerned, and Johannes Rød’s Free Jazz And Improvisation On Vinyl (1965-1985) is really no more than summary of labels and albums. Even Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom, by David Toop – a man I respect for Rap Attack and Ocean of Sound – is too digressive, doesn’t get to the point and is overly-ambitious.
Jack Wright’s book looked promising, and some favourable assessments (among them Tom’s and Fotis’ yesterday) apparently confirm that. Wright’s a well-respected musician who’s been on the scene for a long time and his language is refreshingly absent of jargon. Apart from providing a historical background to free music, his main point is that he distinguishes between free jazz, free improvisation and free playing, the last being the most interesting for him. Tom’s review was right stating that “this book is so packed with ideas and concepts it would take an essay 1/3rd the size of the book itself to even summarize them all“. However, since a lot of rightfully positive feedback has been given, I’d like to focus on some critical points mainly in the preface and the chapter called “Free Playing“.
First of all Wright concentrates on the North American scene. It’s the scene he knows best but on the other hand it’s doubtful if a distinction between North America and Europe makes sense in a world which is highly globalized. Many American musicians tour regularly in Europe (think of the Chicagoans, for example), lots of Europeans live in New York (Ingrid Laubrock, Sylvie Courvoisier, Thomas Heberer).
Already in the preface Wright focuses on the social reality music is said to reflect – he refers to it as “social order“ - and for him, free jazz has lost its revolutionary and collective character.
Free jazz has become a subgenre minimally supported by a music world whose larger job is to maintain and distinct taste categories. Its advocates consider it a marginalized extension of jazz, which itself is promoted as achieved freedom… However, the strength of free jazz rests on reproducing a fixed and even hyperreal image of the earlier age. Musicians are overshadowed by the iconic, resurrected figures of the sixties… Whatever the political intentions of the players, the social order has accommodated them, as if to say, “free“ no longer means trouble-making.
Which musicians are actually overshadowed and exactly how the social order has accommodated the players is not mentioned. He continues:
Free playing may be the originary base of current free jazz and free improvisation, but under the unwritten agreement with art consumers and the music world professionals are pressured to work under the yoke of conformity to what is expected from identified artists. Musicians say "We’re free to play what we want," but they must fulfill a contract. In free playing they might also say that, but they won’t know what they want until they play it.
If Wright was talking about pop, rock or even mainstream jazz I might agree, but he also includes free jazz and - at least in parts - free improvisation (something he sums up in the fourth and the last question of yesterday’s interview). He suggests that mainstream media, companies and even musicians are part of a larger plan to prevent musicians and listeners to play and listen to free music.
...the marketplace pounds it into us that our music is not good enough for the public purchase, and the institutions that fund music have consistently avoided anyone who cannot promise pre-existent form and stylistic homogeneity.
I guess we all agree on the fact that there could be more subsidies for free musics but there are exceptions to the rule as well. Ken Vandermark was awarded with the Mac Arthur Prize (at the age of 35) and Nate Wooley got the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artist, supporting the recording and production of [Syllables] (Pleasure Of The Text Records, 2017), a solo work consisting of four CDs, a book of essays, and a book of scores, which raises questions about the necessity of success and failure in instrumental technique. Here Wright makes it too easy for himself. He tries to solve this by stating that free music cannot be written, that it’s actually not important if the music is good, that it’s the process which is more important. But in trying to present a solution, he plays the genres off against each other by devaluing free jazz and composed music:
The bulk of such music has some compositional, pre-structured element, which enables it to be identified with a known category…The present moment of making sounds is completely open in what it can be, even with no vision a different. The past can be retrieved from centennial celebrations, predictable festivals, academic biographies, and quasi religious worship. These create a false sense of continuity, identity and completion, yielding an image of us following in larger footsteps, while they only take us around in circles.
What may sound interesting taken out of context, is actually ambivalent. A musician like Ingrid Laubrock is deeply rooted in free jazz, she falls back on the great music of the sixties but she is also a great improvisor trying to explore new musical territories on the basis of tradition without making too obvious use of it.
Wright might have a point though mentioning festivals, if you think of the well-respected Konfrontationen in Nickelsdorf, for example- which, although the music is often of an extraordinary quality, presents many of the same musicians. If Wright had named names his line of arguments would have been much stronger.
As mentioned above Wright claims that it’s the act of playing itself which is the crucial aspect, not the result, suggesting that music can be constantly invented anew. But music isn’t created out of the blue, it has a history and musicians are well-aware of it, they are standing on the shoulders of giants. Wright follows the thinking of Derek Bailey, who felt that free improvisation was no longer “non-idiomatic“ in his sense, as it had become a recognizable genre and musical style in itself*. Bailey was looking for a styleless area in which to work, but even at that time there were other points of view. Evan Parker, undoubtedly a great improvisor, sees his work as “coming out of a particular tradition“ and was “inspired to play by listening to certain people who continue to be talked about mainly in jazz contexts. People like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor - these were people that played music that excited me to the point where I took music seriously myself “. And wasn’t it Cecil Taylor who said that the first step of a “composition“ is the selection of the players because you know what kind of sound and style you invite?
In the end, Wright’s concept is nothing new (in fairness, he doesn’t claim that it is) but one might ask why he puts old wine in new bottles. The most serious shortcoming of this chapter of the book however, is that there are hardly any examples provided to support his contentions (see above). Almost no names are mentioned here, making it difficult to get a tangible grip on his theories. For instance: he says that in more formal and recognized venues or recording studios, internalized pressures often come to life and threaten the adventure. Who has had that experience, where and when, and on what basis is it typical?
At the end of the chapter Wright concedes that free playing is not free of rules, but there is at least one. He demands that playing has to be so interesting, so capable of ambivalence that the end cannot be imagined. The question remains if this isn’t somewhat random and artificial.
In the conclusion to the book, Wright admits that some things he writes might “seem harsh and disturbing where it concerns free jazz, tenured professionals, career pursuits, and the stagnation of the avant-garde, but it’s what many know and hesitate to say in public.“ Again: who and why? The allegations aren’t backed up with any real evidence.
Wright proves that he can do better in the final chapters of his book when he describes what he calls “lower case music“ illustrating his points with the example of Bhob Rainey and Nmperign. I wished he had done this before more often as well.
In a nutshell, I would still recommend Mr Wright’s book to those interested in free music, it provides interesting intellectual approaches even if I don’t agree with him in some aspects. And I guess the ultimate book on free improvisation has still to be written.
*I have used the terms ‘idiomatic’ and ‘non-idiomatic’ to describe the two main forms of improvisation. Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom – such as jazz, flamenco or baroque – and takes its identity from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called ‘free’ improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity. (Derek Bailey)