Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Improvised Music: Is it Jazz?

In both Demolition Duo presentations at Clackamas Community College (CCC) on May 10th, and at Portland State University (PSU)  on May 22nd, groups of students performed free improvisations together. We held the the sessions in the students' regular rehearsal rooms, which aided in creating a relaxed and informal atmosphere at both performance-workshops.These sessions were also scheduled during regular rehearsal times, so many students had their instruments and were ready to play.

Four CCC students (two tenors, drums, and trumpet) performed three different improvisations.The first one, which I sat in on, featured a recurring pitch center that everyone orbited around, each musician occasionally touching the pitch, but never settling completely on it. This approach created a cyclical sense of phrasing was neither static nor too predictable. The second improvisation was longer with clearly delineated sections. Some of these sections were arguably too long, which was a good talking point. Knowing when to stop playing is one of the hardest things to do in free improvisation! This particular improvisation led the students to discover the possibilities of impromptu duos, trios, and soloists. Ken and I both suggested that this improvisation had many good ideas and that an improvisation like this one, if recorded or notated in some way, could be used to construct a more “formal” composition. In the last improvisation, I suggested that the students play for no more than 10-30 seconds, and to play loud! In relating to this, Ken commented that not every improvisation needs to start softly or sparsely, but that a variety of basic initial concepts (loud, soft, fast, slow) can be used to begin an improvisation.

PSU’s students performed two separate improvisations with tenor sax, drums, flute, electric guitar and piano. Afterward, we suggested that each individual performer can initiate more dramatic musical textures and gestures if the music becomes “stale” or gets in a rut. In other words, not everything needs to change amorphously. Clearly articulated changes in musical texture can make an improvisation exciting. Jazz pianist and PSU professor George Colligan helped facilitate the workshop, and at one point he asked, “is this jazz?” A valid question, and our answer went something like this: we have jazz backgrounds, therefore there is often something in the way we play the rhythm in our improvisations that comes from a jazz place. Other people also come to free improvisation from rock (Ken mentioned Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth fame), various classical music backgrounds or other musics, and those players bring sounds and ways of playing music to free improvisation that somehow relate to their “home” musical languages. In this way, everyone can come to the table of free improvisation, bring their respective sounds, and the music remains vital as players of different backgrounds feed off of each other. For me and Ken, our free improvisations may rely heavily on the syncopated and propulsive aspects of jazz, but there are also influences from other sources such as Webern, Cage, minimalism, modern chamber music,  and electronic music. For example, Ken's A Swarm of Yellow demonstrates various rhythmic influences from jazz, but its pitch arrangements are heavily influenced by the compositional aesthetics of Webern or Messiaen.

It has been my experience that people who identify themselves as free improvisers don’t necessarily feel the need to identify and categorize the music specifically as jazz. In fact, many distance themselves from the label entirely. My question is, what does it do to categorize this music as jazz? Perhaps it changes people’s opinions about it (positively and negatively), or maybe to label it “not jazz” serves to shore up the boundaries of what jazz is by some people’s measures. I think both are true, but believe that by categorizing free improvisation as jazz it runs the risk of being misunderstood. For example, free improvisation cannot necessarily be evaluated by many of the same criteria that might be appropriate  for bebop or swing styles, e.g., swing feel, playing the changes, and motivic development to name a few. Instead, assessment for free improvisation may rely more on factors such as how well performers inter-relate, how do performers move from section to section, and how effectively do performers of free improvisation create textures. Development of a player’s technical language, that is, his or her personal vocabulary of contemporary sounds, is also a possible area for evaluation. Also, if free improvisation is labeled as jazz the label itself may become a subtle barrier for musicians who might improvise but who do not play jazz or have jazz backgrounds. Why should free improvisation be so exclusive? This, I feel,  is one of the basic problems of teaching improvised music  in most colleges and universities (and certainly in students in high school  and even younger): the tacet assumption that improvisation equals jazz, and if you don’t play a “jazz” instrument, i.e., a standard big band instrument, you are excluded from participating not only in jazz traditions, but improvisation entirely! I've seen this happen with many of my high school aged flute students. 

In light of all of these things, I think it would be helpful for all of us, performers, educators, and listeners alike, to broaden our listening and involvement in improvised music. To help in this, there are organizations that promote improvised music such as ISIM and the Creative Music Guild. I am most familiar with them, but I'm certain there are many others across the globe. It's important to remember that there exists a vast network of performers from all backgrounds who participate in improvised music making. These artists may not be well-known celebrities, but many of them have been slogging it out for years, perfecting their craft, and bringing amazing sounds to the world. Seek them out, they are well worth listening to!