Friday, August 25, 2006

molten... but apart (part 1)

Will Layman's article on fusion is another good installment in his column. It focuses on Wayne Horvitz, Bobby Previte, Ben Goldberg, Don Byron and John Zorn.

today the act of fusing jazz with other forms of music is so essential — and so natural — to what jazz musicians do that it typically involves more than one fusing at the same time.
Naked City played super-tight sets that sounded like they were controlled by a very hip two year-old with a remote control in hand: reggae crosscut to Bugs Bunny music crosscut to death metal crosscut to film noir soundtrack. In that group's first disc from 1989, the gauntlet of the new fusion had been thrown: jazz musicians could now play absolutely anything in their way, but only best would be able to make the great crush of American variety truly their own.
[Horvitz and Previte's] relatively early work had a characteristic "fusion" sound, but it was hardly the sound of squealingly precise guitars or funked-out jams. Taking their cue from soundtrack music, Camera and Claude's were works of melody, atmosphere, and arrangement, with rock and pop rhythms taking their rightful place beside swing as valid ingredients in a "fused" American music. That these musicians improvised with authority and within a certain musical vocabulary meant that it was still "jazz", but the word was clearly being bent in new ways.

"Echos d’un jazz libre d’Amérique," an article from the French review Multitudes, takes a different bunch of players (Tim Berne, Jim Black, Amy Denio, Ellery Eskelin, Gerry Hemingway and Ken Vandermark) and draws on interviews conducted between 1997 and 2003). Though it doesn't explicitly talk about fusion, it does draw up a taxonomy that's related to Layman's description:
Their invention is characterised by (a) the hybridisation of disparate genres (free jazz inherited from the Ornette Coleman generation, punk's abrasiveness, Balkan folklore, the klezmer tradition), (b) the integration of instruments and phrasing borrowed from noise-rock (echoing and distorted guitar) or chamber music (cello), (c) situating improvisatory spaces within ambitious thematic structures (generally refusing the classic theme-solos-theme form), and (d) iconoclastic attitudes (from excessive volume to shocking album covers). This New York scene thus established an expressive space that linked the jazz explosion of the 1960s (Coleman, Dolphy, Mingus, Coltrane, Ayler), contemporary chamber music (Boulez, Ligeti, etc.), aleatory explorations (Cage), the noise subculture (Japanese hardcore, Sonic Youth), funk (Prince), jazz-rock (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and 1970s European Free Music (Brötzmann, ICP) and even prog-rock (Robert Wyatt).

Ellery voices his oft-repeated view of the contemporary situation, which echoes the concept of the Age of Everything and explains why today's fusion sounds so natural to Layman: it's about fusion rather than Fusion, a way of doing things rather than a style.
The scene is characterised by its very fragmentation: there is no dominant voice, no clearly imposed creative method - which seems to me an excellent environment to create music. Now that the more or less major upheavals of the modernist movement have taken place, we can get to making music with everything at our disposal, instead of being limited by one or the other philosophy that imposes a narrow conception of art or music... This conception of "freedom" is complex, however... For me, to be postmodern means to be "free" to draw on any idea and any influence, while being "free" to displace them into a different context, to mix them in a unique way and to recombine them with different ideas.
Tim Berne brings some grist to the current "who needs a label" discussion (cf. visionsong's interesting, personal and pragmatic take), even though his interview dates back to 1997, the CD-selling heyday:
I've had a lot of disappointments with labels. Most of the time, even if you sign with a major, the discs end up wasted, the company goes bankrupt or is sold. Musicians are used to being insistent and resilient, they hang on even when the financial conditions are bad. But the major label employees only know one way of selling CDs, which is to place them in stores and wait. They do that for a month or two, then they get bored. They can't think on a smaller scale, adopt a more grassroots approach. They're hooked on the system and can't see beyond it. To promote a CD, they just sign a check for $50,000 and put an ad in Down Beat or Musician.

By starting my Screwgun label in 1997, I sought to reach people more directly, because we play all over the world and people always want to know where they can get our CD. That tells me that distributors aren't doing their job. I didn't want to go on like that, so I take my albums with me to sell after concerts. You can also get them by mail or order them from the web site, alongside the distribution networks in the stores. Also, I didn't want to be subjected to other people's calendar and whims: this way, we make a record, we put it out and we move on to the next one. It's worked very well, it's totally viable. It was easy enough, except that it's a huge investment of time and energy.