Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

The late Derek Bailey said there was no such thing as free jazz, though he made gruff exceptions for Peter Brötzmann and Milford Graves. This is a nice example of that old saw about being divided by a common language, a peculiarly European, perhaps exclusively British, distinction. Some of the more cautious American commentators tried to diminish ‘free jazz’ by suggesting the term was a pleonasm – isn’t freedom a defining characteristic of jazz anyway? – while Bailey, for all his gruffness one of the most cogent commentators on improvisation, seemed to imply that it was a faulty adjectival conjunction: if it was jazz, then it was bound by certain clear parameters; if it was free, it wasn’t jazz.
To clarify the British context, the usual consensus is that the players of Bailey’s generation came out of post-Coltrane jazz – or swing, jump, jive and music-hall in the guitarist’s case – but cast it off like a larval casing in order to become ‘free improvisers’, exponents of a process-dominated music that had no more relation to jazz than a fossil lemur had to Diana Krall. (There should be a footnote, or a disclaimer, there, but what the hell? we’re among friends.) The key text for anyone unpersuaded of or simply seeking evidence for division by a common language could be the 1974 London duo concerts of Bailey and rising-star visitor Anthony Braxton. Half a lifetime’s distance adds either nostalgic sheen or a horrible clarity, and these much-loved performances – released on Emanem – still sound to me like a dialogue of the deaf. The two met shortly before the performances: Braxton did not want to improvise freely; Bailey did not want to play predetermined structures; the compromise was to designate certain ‘areas’ of sonic activity – when commentators refer to improvisation as kind of ‘negotiation’ they aren’t kidding . . . The results are weirdly patchy, but the mésalliance wouldn’t, I suspect, have been any easier if they’d had three months to ‘rehearse’ or a full-scale territorial treaty to divide the Wigmore Hall down the middle. The US bicentennial was just two years away, there wasn’t much talk in those days of a ‘special relationship’ and the Atlantic had never seemed wider.
It remains true that British musicians, and to some extent European improvisers more generally, are strict-(de)constructionists when it comes to avoidance of any settled groove, metre, harmonic hierarchy or fixed architecture, while American improvisers tend – a word which allows a good deal of leeway – to make some reference, direct, allusive or plain satirical, to the forms and histories of jazz. And yet it seems to me that in recent years, with a healthy and vital musical trade in both directions, there has arisen what might be called a Third Way which when examined closely rather strikingly resembles that old chimera ‘free jazz’.
Terminologies are difficult johnnies, and almost always subjective in import. When I hear references to ‘Fire Music’, I always think of Handel rather than Charles Gayle or David S. Ware (an unconscious echo of Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks). ‘Energy music’ makes me think of isotonic drinks for joggers. "Avant-garde"? A 19th century concept, best left there, but even at best highly ambiguous; I’m with George Harrison on this one: ‘Avant-garde? "Aven’t gard a clue!" Then there’s ‘The New Thing’, which simply sounds like a new line of summer clothes. There were other, more expressive attempts to capture what that new thing was about. Charles Mingus’s conceit of music as a dartboard or archery target, where the old philosophy demanded you hit golds or bullseyes every time, getting every note bang where it should be in the progression, every beat right inside the wire, while the new allowed a more progressive approach to scoring. And then there was Jackie McLean’s idea – strangely not much discussed now – of ‘the Big Room’, where the basic rules of bop were given augmented freedom.
It comes back always to that difficult term, and to what John Litweiler called The Freedom Principle. As ever, the uneasy relation between freedom from (rules, conventions, harmony, set rhythm, blues form) and freedom to (wander, explore, subvert basically) has led conservatives to suggest that freedom in music or anywhere else really is an illusion and best not oversold.

It never did much good going head to head with Derek Bailey but I think he was wrong, even if only posthumously so, for suddenly ‘free jazz’, or at least something that sits better with that definition than any other available one, is all around us, vital, strong, something close to a Zeitgeist language. There are technical reasons for it, and there may be wider cultural ones as well. Overselling freedom is only an issue when freedom is a given. When Ekkehard Jost published his fine study of Free Jazz in 1975, terms like ‘free zone’ and ‘free world’ had a resonance in Europe that couldn’t be fully understood in the West. A more recent commentator, Jedediah Sklower writes about free jazz in France under the rubric – and it takes a great title to follow a name like his – La Catastrophe féconde and writes about a world ‘éclaté’by the new music. It doesn’t seem surprising to me, by a straightforward historical logic, to find that free jazz thrives in post-Desert Storm, post-9/11 America. I’ve yet to put names to this new movement, but names are a hostage to fortune. Pick any one, from Matthew Shipp or Vijay Iyer, or going back a generation to Billy Bang or Roscoe Mitchell, and it’s easy to present a counter-argument that proves these and others actually don’t belong under this leaky umbrella.

Litweiler sets his terminus a quo in 1958, which in his case of course means Ornette Coleman. Sklower picks 1960, which is the cusp of a historically enchanted decade, but close enough, and usefully also the year of Ornette’s Free Jazz. Given that, it’s worth remembering that if free jazz has a documented start-point, it’s Lennie Tristano’s 1949 experiments on ‘Digression’ and ‘Intuition’. In British terms, free jazz arguably begins with Joe Harriott, whose concept of the ‘Big Room’ was both narrower and more poignantly daring than his fellow-altoist’s. The simple truth is that free jazz either represents or reacts to the ‘fertile catastrophe’ that followed the Second World War. It’s probably important to see the noun in more than usually neutral terms, closer to the sense used in catastrophe theory. How René Thom’s work, or Christopher Zeeman’s, applies to free jazz is the work of a whole graduate thesis, and not for a speculative column like this, but if the Lyapunov function operates in free jazz (and I think it does) it should be possible to locate the fixed points, the patterns of stability that exist in or emerge from ‘chaotic’ situations.

That is where it gets difficult. Free jazz is almost always defined according to a subtractive logic, in terms of what it isn’t, or what has been taken away. At least one reference book definition characterizes free jazz as an evolution of the music that has abandoned non-essentials like fixed harmony or a regular metre, and there’s something almost fatalistic about this approach, as if free jazz is the music’s equivalent of crabbed age, shuffling into view sans chords, sans tunes, sans swing, sans everything. Conservatives like the notion of free jazz as the music’s decadence or senescence but that doesn’t work. Every indication is that free jazz was a reassertion of its largely untapped youthful potential.

The other historical parameter worth considering here is the approximate coincidence of free jazz and rock music, which channeled a residual post-war appetite for un-freedom and which, more crucially, captured the commercial market at an important moment. All that’s behind us now to a large extent. The commercial playing field, despite what anyone will tell, far more open and far more thoroughly Balkanized than at any time in jazz’s still-short history. Its various freedoms have never before had such scope and liberty. Like the novel, jazz looks set to survive its own obituaries, as well as its own minor revolutions and counter-revolutions – bebop, fusion – and return to something like its original polymorphousness. I once used the term only very carefully and specifically, and once said on a live radio program (if it hadn’t been live I might have immediately withdrawn or qualified it) that the only was ‘free jazz’ should be used was in italics and in reference to the Ornette album with the Jackson Pollock cover. There have been attempts to explain free jazz and Abstract Expressionism (or their critical underpinnings) as episodes in Cold War propaganda, but politics is never able to totalize culture completely and critics can go quietly mad trying to explain away Ascension or Conquistador as exotic weapons of the CIA in the war against Communism.

If rock guitars were the axes of evil (sorry, had to use that somewhere), the saxophone took on an awkward libertarian role. Much of that self-consciousness has now gone. One of the few benefits of so-called post-modernism is precisely that the baby was thrown out with bathwater, allowing the other babies to grub around unwashed by critical concepts, building up their own precious immunity to fixed category. I think we’re moving into immensely exciting times for jazz. If for one intend to talk about free jazz every chance I get and run the risk of sounding like a nostalgist, though I don’t think for a moment that free jazz is a closed chapter. It’s barely under way. So let’s talk about it, and talk about all the things it is and, more importantly, might be. Let’s spend less time talking about the things it has set aside.

Brian Morton©2009

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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