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18 April 2019

A new book: Experimentation in Improvised Jazz - Chasing Ideas 

A new book: Experimentation in Improvised Jazz - Chasing Ideas 

Free jazz is a disruptive child in the musical family: the one who insists on being contrary wherever possible, unwilling to be polite at the dinner table, most likely to be angry and frustrated with her siblings; the sort of child about whom adults despair because they know full well that should she decide to, she could play very nicely with the other children but is unikely to pay heed.

This first sentence in the introduction of Andrys Onsman and Robert Burke's book Experimentation in Improvised Jazz - Chasing Ideas (Routledge 2019) sets just the right tone for this new volume that, in the spirit of free jazz, encourages and embraces open conversation. In this article, Onsman and Burke write about ideas behind their book, which can be purchased in hard copy or ebook format via the publisher's website.

Experimentation in Improvised Jazz: Chasing Ideas came about as a result of the on-going conversation between Rob - an internationally acclaimed jazz musician with an interest in cognition - and Andrys - a cognitive psychologist with a life-long love of playing and writing music. We are both interested in the how, what and why of improvised music. Although we take the topic of the conversation very seriously, our modus operandi is broad-based, argumentative, humorous and based as much on our own experiences as it is on the literature. We were keen to ensure that the book retained all the qualities of an in-depth conversation. Whenever we disagreed on some point or came to an issue we weren't sure about we'd read the research or ask our colleagues and then, armed with new data, come back and talk some more - much like a good free jazz improvisation.

The key idea that we want to promote is that free jazz is an environment that develops through experimentation with new ideas. We propose that nothing in that environment is static or fixed; instead, every aspect is deliberately fluid, dynamic and volatile. Of course, today's free jazz environment has roots in both the African American jazz tradition and in the European free improvisation tradition, but nowadays it transcends both, and it accommodates other 'free' forms of art, including the advent of increasingly sophisticated computer-generated music.

For the moment, at least, the one characteristic that distinguishes free jazz from other forms of free music (or any free art) is that the ideas are articulated with a jazz sensibility, but even that distinction is (rightly) under siege. More contemporary musicians are going out of their way to transgress all and any of such boundaries. Whatever has come before, however, remains in place: the American jazz canon; the European jazz tradition that arose from classical music; the South and Central American on-going fascination with movement and rhythm; the increasing adventurousness of subcontinental merger of raga with jazz, and so on, all have a place in the broad church of 21st-century jazz. This is particularly apparent in Australia where jazz reflects the polyglot nature of the country, freely mixing and matching genres from anywhere while at the same time searching for ways to bring its Indigenous music and narratives into its compass.

We go on to examine how musical ideas are made manifest in practice by asking musicians to talk about their intentions and ambitions. Following Siri Hustvedt's suggestions that what artists think they do and what they actually do isn't always the same, we are especially interested in how (or whether) what they say reconciles with what they do. As well as drawing on the latest neuro-cognitive research, we talked with Australian and international jazz musicians recognised as amongst the greatest exponents of improvised jazz, asking them about how and why they create free and improvised jazz and the decisions they make while playing that allow them to chase ideas. What are they responding to? What are they depending on? What are they thinking? How did they develop their improvisational intelligence? How do we hear that in their music?

We assume that the 'soul' or 'feel' of jazz music is what the musicians put into it rather than what the listeners find; that it is a failing of the audience if they don't 'get it'. But is that an accurate understanding of the environment? The 'I don't know much about art but I know what I like' response evokes both a defiant resistance to and an apologetic withdrawal from the process of countenancing the new.

We are convinced that robust ideas are well-served and shaped by experimentation, and in free jazz the basis of experimentation is improvisation: the trying out of ideas to hear what they sound like and to generate cues for new ideas, new music. Such trials depend as much on musicians having the expertise to turn their ideas into practice, to actually make the music they want to hear. The success of 'what if I try this?' depends on the ability to play 'this'. On the other hand, there will probably never be hard and fast boundaries around concepts such as expertise, freedom (or 'free-ness'), jazz and music. Experimentation in Improvised Jazz argues that this is the defining characteristic of improvisation, because without boundaries, trials have no error - given that, as Miles Davis said, 'If you hit a wrong note, it's the next note that you play that determines if it's good or bad'. Apparently Davis played a note that rescued Herbie Hancock's wrong note by turning the sequence into an unexpected but fitting chord. This is what we mean by improvisation demanding expertise, and why we regard Miles Davis at his peak as a genius in his field.

One of the questions we asked ourselves was 'Who listens to free jazz' and a propos the current zeitgeist we asked Siri (not Hustvedt this time, but Google), and she opened another Pandora's box: the online conversation (!) among musicians, critics and the general public. As we are card-carrying members of all three groups, we wanted (and still want to) make sense of how the internet has changed the production, dissemination and the critique of free jazz and how each affects the other.

We believe one of the defining characteristics of free jazz is that the music finds its own structure as it is being created by the musician(s). By any stretch of the imagination, it is a complex, dynamically volatile and irretrievably uncertain process. Because we consider free jazz to be more than simply a product, something that exists apart from its creation and its reception, we do not believe that we can ignore the function of the listener in the creation of a free jazz environment. The musician has editorial and curatorial function, which are often tied to notions of how well the product embodies her initial ambitions, always allowing for the serendipitous, the unintended moments of brilliance as well as a myriad factors existing beyond the music's control. This is why, the book argues, such self-critique is as much curatorial as it is editorial: the music has to be considered worthwhile but it also has to be reconciled with the musician(s)' intent. It is why even in free jazz there may be several (very different) takes and the preferred takes are mixed and mastered according to individual aesthetic.

The traditional role of the critic is to affectively and cognitively respond to and explicate music that is performed live or recorded. However, the advent of the internet has impacted greatly on the role of the professional critic. The meme 'everyone's a critic!' is fundamentally true. The trend-setting function of the critic has largely (but not entirely and perhaps not permanently) been taken over by influencers; a cross between a paid spruiker and an excited fan who appeals to selected demographics.

The self-proclaimed seriousness of free jazz works against the reach of influencers: no one expects free jazz at the experimental end of the continuum to be popular. It isn't until the music has assumed a mass behind the vanguard that it seeps into the mainstream, and even then there are more people who have heard of Ornette Coleman's 'Twins' than those who have actually heard it, and even fewer who have actually listened to it more than once. Perhaps, like the Bible, merely owning the CD is enough.

Further links

Onsman & Burke: Experimentation in Improvised Jazz - Chasing Ideas - book details (AMC Online)

Onsman & Burke: Experimentation in Improvised Jazz - Routledge (hard copy & ebook purchases)


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