Assif Tsahar - tenor sax/bass clarinet, Peter Kowald - bass, Gerald Cleaver - drums
Knitting Factory Old Office, NYC
Arguments over Free Jazz take on the vehemence of political debates. Those who dispute its worth are fully convinced that it takes no effort or skill and provides only imagined benefits to the listener. Its advocates hail it as the only visionary jazz remaining, and decry anything else as staid and boring. What cannot be disputed is that, even in New York City, Free Jazz attracts a limited audience, and it is always the same small crowd of people. Peter Kowald, German improvisational giant and one of the big three of avant-garde bassists (along with American Barre Phillips and England's Barry Guy), making an infrequent appearance in New York, drew only seven people for a Tuesday early show. It could have easily been held in the confines of my tiny Lower East Side apartment.
Several truisms can be learned from seeing a man like Kowald play. The bass, once thought of in inconsequential terms, is in actuality the most wide-ranging and difficult instrument to play well. Kowald began his playing before the Free Jazz bassist was a common animal. His techniques, as well as those of his peers, are innovations on the same scale as Coltrane's sheets of sounds or Miles Davis' use of modalism. Low rumblings, percussive pops, clearly articulated bowing above the fret board are now considered universal; imagine these advances in the mid-'60's when even traditional forefront instrumentalists were being decried for varying from tradition.
Free Jazz, whether the atonality and abandon thrill or disgust, is to be lauded for not putting the musicians and audience at ease. One cannot predict when the bass solo will be, or if inspiration will drive a piece for five minutes or an hour. The peaks are not ascended by virtue of a composed melody and the introspective segments have to be really introspective. The audience cannot ignore any segment or let their attention wander if they are to understand the piece as a whole, integral to appreciating extended Free Jazz.
Kowald is a pleasure to watch. He imbues his playing with tension, everything a violent struggle between man and music. Tsahar can be faulted for something common to many Free Jazz practioners- adherence to the Peter Brötzmann school: being avant-garde first and a musician second. His tenor playing often becomes a series of hollow squeaks and shrieks, having little empathy with those around him. While Free Jazz falters when everyone is not wholly involved, one person taking over also has its drawbacks in what is supposed to be a democratic genre. His bass clarinet playing is much more respectful to this dignified instrument and his fellow musicians. He utilizes a far wider array of sounds and tonalities and the music becomes more luxurious as a result. Drummers in Free Jazz are given an autonomy not found elsewhere. The question is what they do with it? Liberation from timekeeping seems positive, but requires creativity that few can muster. Cleaver seems up to the challenge but relies too much on a "bag of tricks" rather than finding creative outlets through traditional kit playing.
The first set consisted of two segments: one 35 minute piece which had all the fire and all the serenity that one could hope for; and one seven minute piece which seemed like a confused afterthought. Tsahar has problems with time management. His music would be most effective as one full outburst rather than trying in vain to recapture stimulation for four to eight minutes. This proves discomforting at a show but does demonstrate the two sides of Free Jazz: heavy intellectual musing and disjointed unfocused meandering. He would be better served playing until someone taps him on the shoulder to stop. If this trio becomes recurrent, Kowald, veteran of countless improvisation sessions, would be the best choice.