People think that free-jazz/free-improvisation is self-indulgent. I agree – but I think it misses the point. A virtuoso (Lang Lang banging away at Rachmaninov) is self-indulgent too. He indulges the worst features of a performer and the basest desires of the audience. Everyone might as well have gone to the circus and watched the trapeze act.
But free-jazz/free-improvisation indulges one person’s pure musicality against another person’s pure musicality. If an audience wants to be there, to hear the music and to hear connection, they are welcome. But the music does not depend on an audience – all that is needed are two players and the will to play.
I do most of my music making at home, alone. I overdub, cut and paste, pretend I can play the accordion and hopefully at the end of an afternoon I may have a track that sounds nice. But I long for the interaction that continually draws me to listen to free music.
This week I met with an old acquaintance who has an interest in free music and plays the drums. Here is a snippet of what we did:
I also made some recordings of myself playing the drums. And when I had some time later on in the week I put a bass vamp over the drums and did my best Cecil Taylor imitation over top of them:
I’m quite pleased with my piano playing on this. The piano is my favourite instrument, but I think it is the instrument I’m worst at. Practicing the piano is a very public thing to do and when the only material you have to play is what is inside of you, that’s hard.
The piano is also the hardest instrument to mic – but with the aid of my handy new Zoom Handy Recorder H2 I have actually been able to record some good piano sounds.
This also lacks the visceral punch of music played in the moment by a group of people. One day I might just have the balls to start a piano trio.
I know it’s self-indulgent to put seven minutes of yourself free-improvising on your music blog. But I have over 30 minutes of recordings of drums-saxophone duets, so I don’t think I was as indulgent as I could have been.
(The wonderful drums on the duet are played by Matthew Dunn.)
Certain things you hear hit you and hurt you. I remember coming out of my punk rock phase into the arms of “Money Jungle” by Duke Ellington and being enthralled. What were these sounds? Who could make such noise and thunder with just a piano and bass and drums? Was there really rage after (for me) and before (for chronology’s sake) punk? How could one note on the piano express such beauty and such discontent?
The Duke has been with me ever since.
And so has his most detested label: jazz. But by the time I came to buy “Unit Structures” by Cecil Taylor I had (like most arrogant youths) a pretty good idea of what was and what wasn’t jazz. And what jazz wasn’t was Cecil Taylor. Muscular, sure. Full of rage, you bet. But to my well seasoned ears (I had been listening to hard-core punk since I was 11 and Duke Ellington since I was 15) Cecil just didn’t have the goods. So at the tender age of I6 gave up on Taylor and all the subsequent avant-jazz and became a mouldy fig.
At 18 I came back and tried with no results.
Same at 20.
Again at 22.
I kept coming back to “Unit Structures” and I kept getting rid of it. In fact, it is a record I have bought and sold 5 times.
Which brings me to the moment where a sound hits you and hurts. The next time I came back to Cecil I decided to skip “Unit Structures” and hear “Silent Tongues” and “Air Above Mountains (Buildings Within)” – two records of Cecil in his grandest form playing live and solo. I was devastated. I heard it all. Everything that arrogant critics claim they can hear: Brubeck, the church, and most of all Ellington. It was all there, just waiting for me to hear it in the right way at the right moment and for it to sucker punch me in the right spot.
I don’t try to convert people to Cecil. You can’t. All you can do is tell your loved ones over and over again “His music is beautiful, just keep listening”.
As winter winds its way down and the spring itch sets in, I’ve been more interested in going through some old projects than making new ones. I’m a little disappointed to find themes that I never took past their nascent stages, forgotten sonic spaces, influences left behind and directions left unfulfilled.
One area which I obsessed over years ago was creating northern sounds – tones and timbres that would immediately call to mind images of the windswept boreal. Here is one from almost two years ago:
Northern Sound Archive 1
I wish I had kept notes on how I made these recordings. I was either using my Tascam porta-studio MKII:or my younger brother’s Boss digital 8-track:
Please excuse any hisses and pops. This is from the early days of my home recordings.
The Cubase interface changes the way you make music:
Neither of these machines let you see your wave forms, so the only picture you have of your music is auditory. I think I’ll get the Tascam out and start using it again. No fades. No cuts. No pastes.
Ok. Let’s be honest. The last piece of music I posted owed very little to David Darling & Ketil Bjornstad. It owed a lot to Harold Budd. I admit it.
But did you know that Harold Budd and Albert Ayler were in a military band together? Ambient piano or other, that is a serious piece of credibility. A big hunk of it.
I’ve wanted to do a series of recordings of Albert Ayler songs in a Fahey-esque guitar style. Ayler’s lovely, folksy melodies perfectly match the pastoral Americana of Fahey’s finger-picking. But I thought this week I’d try to do it first in a new-age style, because I’m on a new-age kick.
Here is ambient piano, double-reverbs, harmonic stasis and a guitar theme inspired by Alyler’s lovelier moments:
A New Age Tribute To Albert Ayler
It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks Ayler and new-age are not incompatible. A simple google image search revealed this:
This morning I had to prove that I could snap out of this reverb-drenched funk. I recorded the Theme for Albert Ayler without allowing myself a single digital effect:
For Albert Ayler
Pat Metheny made a record with Ornette Coleman. Harold Budd served in the US Army with Albert Ayler. Sometimes the distance between avant-garde and easy-listening is only a reverb button.
I’m working my way through the TIFF-Cinematheque’s best of the decade list. So far I’ve gotten through two movies, both of them late and elegiac films from darlings of the French New-Wave; Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Eloge De L’Amour.
Both of these movies are interesting, to say the least. And, like most art-films, not unbearable to say the most. I was particularly struck by the beautiful music in the Godard film.
There are two things we haven’t talked about yet. The first is that I hate hearing my music described as sounding like movie music. The second is that I love ECM records. Let me explain.
ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is a truly wonderful label. It has a strong aesthetic. Its catalogue and artist roster are diverse. Its albums are filled with some of the most hauntingly beautiful and some of the most tumultuously avant-garde sounds on record. ECM is commonly slogged with the descriptive non-entity of being new-age. If it is, I don’t care. I love their reverb drenched sounds.
“Movie music”, usually given as a compliment and always taken as a pejorative, is the easy way to describe music that doesn’t have lyrics. And while I revolt at this description, it really is apt. In fact – like the music from the Godard film – movie music has been an enduring source of inspiration. But I digress.
The Godard film features the incessant and repetitive use of a strain of music taken from David Darling and Ketil Bjørnstad album Epigraphs, released on ECM. And even though I refuse to concede the point, I was inspired to mic the piano and record some ambient improvisations:
I continue to shock myself with my love of reverb, floating melodies, harmonic stasis. I was also shocked to find that I now love the look of digital video (something I thought was in profound bad taste when I was younger) and neon lights.
What’s happening to me? New age? Neon lights? Cheap over-saturated digital video? I’m scared I’m becoming an adult.