Tuesday, March 07, 2006

free range symphony

Last night I was following up "Complete Communion" with the larger-scale "Symphony For Improvisors" (and Pharoah Sanders's crazy piccolo!) and thinking further about free jazz in general, stoked by Godoggo's comments on the "Complete Communion" post and the amazing concert given by the Ben Sluijs Quartet on the 18th of February during the Lundis d'Hortense Festival. In fact, Dave Douglas has just posted something tangentially related.

Godoggo's comments on Barbieri's changes-playing ability (or lack thereof) crystallised my long-held opinion that as many of the advances in jazz have been made through simplification as through complexification. For example, the simplifications Miles Davis enacted with "Kind of Blue" and "In A Silent Way" opened up new spaces that were progressively filled up. By muting the rhythm, "West Coast" jazz was able to explore other elements. Hard bop simplified certain aspects of bebop. Every time, though, this simplification comes with the knowledge (either direct, through study, or indirect, through hearing/environment) of complexity, which gives the simplicity depth. For example, John Coltrane ending up achieving similar effects on, say, "Impressions" as on the chord-laden "Giant Steps" or "Countdown."

Perhaps the most profound element free jazz brought or furthered is the possibility of foregrounding the simplest and most fundamental (but extremely difficult to truly achieve) element of music: listening. Spontaneously reacting to what is heard, with a certain rigour, but without rigidly predefined rules. The difficulty of doing this isn't restricted to the musical realm: try talking and listening at the same time. Even when not doing both simultaneously, really reacting, in real-time, to what is being said is very difficult: how many times have you participated in or watched debates and felt that everyone was talking past everyone else? No listening going on.

The Ben Sluijs Quartet concert was exemplary in this regard. Until two years ago, Sluijs was known as a highly lyrical alto player with a modernist bent. Think Paul Desmond with a dash of the spirit of the West Coast school who studied with Milhaud. Then he scrapped his piano quartet and got a new two-saxophone one. The line-up's first CD was the excellent "True Nature," which could be categorised as post-Ornette Coleman swing. The music has continued to evolve, increasingly putting the accent on open spaces, listening and reacting. Drummer Marek Patrman may not have played an explicit swing rhythm during the whole concert, but the rhythmic drive and suspensions were immense. Free jazz is often tagged as complex, which it sometimes is, but in many regards it is often vastly simpler than bebop and its descendants, and in the case of, say, Albert Ayler, wilfully so.