Fellow pianist/writer Peter Hum over at the Ottawa Citizen has been posting a steady stream of blogs discussing his experience with free/avant-garde/creative jazz with candor. The latest entry includes excerpts from Ottawa pianist Steve Boudreau (whom I met at the Kenny Barron masterclass at the National Arts Centre), currently studying at NEC. Boudreau writes:
I think the highest regard goes to musicians who can integrate these (free) elements with their own music. So not just out stuff, but a good mix of musicality with a total open mind.
This summarizes my own experience with avant-leaning music. My favourite musicians are those that can play both completely open and free, as well as in song-form or through-composed settings, and do so with equal conviction and clarity. Through free improvising, my approach to song forms and compositions retains that sense of freedom. And conversely, by playing a variety of different songs and compositions, be it jazz standards, pop tunes, ethnic folk songs or classical repertoire, I become more varied in my interactions in free improvising. I find that balance truly fascinating. One of the most eye- and ear-opening experiences at the Banff Centre was hearing Dave Douglas burn on bebop tunes at a jam session in the pub. Memorably, Douglas said that "all 'free' means is the freedom to make any musical choice at any given time," which runs counter to those who posit that many free players play free because they can't do anything else. It may be true of some, I suppose.
The avant-garde can be daunting, because there are so many subsets of it stylistically, and even within certain scenes, the styles of player to player (or the same person project to project) can vary widely. It's only when I was confronted with "avant-garde" music and started to deal with it on its own terms, away from descriptions by journalists or other musicians, that I started to enjoy it and embrace it. Two moments catalyzed my exploration of avant music:
On a high school band trip to Chicago, we went to see Medeski Martin & Wood in an acoustic setting with Eight Bold Souls opening, at Symphony Centre. As a DownBeat-reading adolescent jazz snob, I knew the Eight Bold Souls were part of the AACM. My only knowledge of AACM music was, maybe, a couple of Art Ensemble tracks where they were all playing "little instruments," and photos of Lester Bowie in his white lab coat. I had just gotten into MMW's groovier stuff like It's a Jungle in Here and A Go Go (with Scofield). I went in expecting to love MMW and despise Eight Bold Souls. It was the opposite: Wilkerson and co. played most of the music from Last Option, with tunes like "Pachinko" and "Brown Town" swinging in their raggedly jolly way, and more brooding tunes brought out by the unconventional and bass-heavy instrumentation. The MMW set, very similar to their album, Tonic, went way over my head at the time. Medeski and Martin would hint at these deliciously funky grooves, and instead of indulging them, find any way to subvert them. As a kid, this was intensely frustrating. It was only years later that Tonic, and that style of group interplay, really clicked for me. I wish I had the tapes of that show now.
The other spark was through CKUT. One of the first Jazz Euphorium shows I hosted solo was a preview of the Suoni Per il Popolo festival. Many artists on the program I knew by name but had never checked out. Steve Guimond, the program director at the time, asked that I do a feature on the upcoming Suoni shows. I headed into the library with dread, pulling albums out by artists coming to town. The one that really knocked me out was Roy Campbell's Ethnic Stew and Brew. I knew of William Parker's playing through some of his playing with Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware; I had given the most cursory of listens to that stuff in the past and flat out didn't like it. I was not expecting the infectious bent reggae of the Pyramid Trio, and I had new ears for Parker's music. With that mindset, I approached many artists, old and new. Some of it I still don't care for, honestly, but I've fallen in love with a whole host of music (Braxton's 70s work, Henry Threadgill, William Parker, Roy Campbell, Marc Ribot, Ken Vandermark and friends, among many others) that I would have dismissed out-of-hand previously.
The final recommendation I'd make for those dipping their toes into the waters of the avant-garde is to go see free improv live, if you can. There's something about the physicality of certain improvisers, being witness to the decision/music-making progress, that gives it a certain kind of coherence that doesn't translate on record all the time. I don't know that I'd listen to a Roscoe Mitchell solo album, but his solo concert last year was truly impressive, and a great part of that was being able to see what he was doing.