Reeling the Out Sound In

What the Bay Area's world-class improvisational music scene is doing to put more butts in the seats

He further proposed that there are any number of legitimate ways to think about improvisation, implying that no single ethos holds true for everyone, which likely explains why the very definition of this ancient art form has been both long debated (by those who swear by its aesthetic value) and misunderstood (by those who deride it as a mere pretext for making noise). Frith good-naturedly toyed with the most prevalent stereotype: "All improvising means is making stuff up!" Then he turned right around and debunked another, namely, that it's all about freedom to do whatever you want. "Freedom is a beautiful mirage," quipped Frith, quoting the late master saxophonist Steve Lacy.

Such koanlike paradoxes no doubt confound a general public more comfy with predictable certainties, like the beatbox grooves of hip hop or the serrated power-chord progressions of punk. But appreciating improvised music, both as a player and a listener, doesn't have to hurt your head. Much like life itself, it's all about giving in to the journey. Frith talked about how the "evolution of improv" is a fascinating enigma. Referring to his European free-music predecessors, like fellow Brit guitarist Derek Bailey, who in the '60s was hellbent on eviscerating musical conventions, he said, "Improv was once created with spontaneity and now it's [made] with rules, which may be contradictory to its origins, but it's part of the process." For Frith, as well as for many of today's leading practitioners, the process is "an exercise of resistance [that] redraws the territory to get more out of less." In other words, many players today tend to impose structures (like the graphic scores previously mentioned) on their improvs to limit their choices, which serves to better focus their "total commitment to one movement in one moment." When executed with personality, precision, and imagination, this, once again, is the art of the improviser.

But what happens when the music is uninspired or overwrought? Even the most agile performers can have an off night. What about inexperienced improvisers who lose their way? One might argue that this is all part of the learning curve. But audiences for this notoriously marginalized genre won't often stand for anything less than a total mind-blow. They go to these kinds of shows to be dazzled. And if the level of performance doesn't meet their elevated expectations, they might just write off the whole enterprise. Newbies, in particular, will rarely forgive a mediocre gig; it just confirms their preconceptions that this stuff is a sham. Which is an odd reaction. After all, what other style of music evokes such disdain? For instance, if you saw a sloppy rap group, would you give up on hip hop? What about a booooring classical recital? Would you blow off the three B's? Of course not. But there's something about improvised music that makes concertgoers dubious (i.e., how do we know it's for real?).

Vocalist Pamela Z: "If they already know, you can use 
whatever term you like. If they don't know, there's no 
term that explains the work."
Lori Eanes
Vocalist Pamela Z: "If they already know, you can use whatever term you like. If they don't know, there's no term that explains the work."

This is an image problem, which derives from a faulty public perception that can be attributed, in no small part, to our linguistic conundrum described above: What do we call a chameleonic genre founded on exploration and experimentation that isn't bound by a single set of standards other than those agreed upon by the players in the moment of the playing?

When legendary artists like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman were coming up in the '50s and '60s, their inventions were labeled "Free Jazz" and the "New Thing," or the pooh-poohed "Avant-Garde" and "Out Jazz." On the other side of the pond, European innovators like Bailey and Evan Parker were labeled perpetrators of "Free Music," a nebulous term that tried to indicate their rejection of American jazz-based forms. More recently, the phrases "New Music" and "Creative Music" have been making the rounds. But honestly, what's really new? Or, if the playing is contemporary, how is it notnew? And what does this exactly mean anyway?

Likewise, as Rova saxophonist Bruce Ackley says, "I don't refer to it as 'Creative Music.' ... Don't most musicians, regardless of genre, consider what they do creative? And isn't it? Therefore, aren't we, in this particular music camp, a little full of ourselves trying to own 'creative'? We're all 'creating.' One could say that improvised music is spontaneously creating, doing it on the fly. But I don't play 'improvised music' either, although the kind of sound I like to create usually involves a large measure of improvisation, usually structured." And they grouse about critics who shy away from their music -- most just don't know what to call it.

This is why the "Improv:21" series could be a boon to the scene. Creative-improvised-new-spontaneous-free-outside-avant-garde-concert music fans, given the chance to discuss this music with some measure of eloquence and thus potentially educate the uninitiated, might translate into broader support for Bay Area players, which in turn would fuel their innovations and raise the level of performance across the board.

In the end, as Frith maintains, this is "very difficult and challenging music" -- whatever we choose to call it -- "that very few people either enjoy or understand [or] ... that everyone loves." Embracing this paradoxical reality is perhaps the most crucial art of the improviser.

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