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How Far Is Too Far Out?

By Published: April 8, 2005

Here in America the avant musicians blame the critics and the record companies for not promoting this kind of music as Jazz. Most avant players call themselves "improvisers" not jazz musicians. They are so angry at the way they have been treated by the public and the "straight ahead" jazz musicians, they would rather have it said they play "improvised" music or even "world music", and some adamantly deny they are jazz musicians! The truth is that most of the public isn't aware of jazz artists no matter what kind of music you call it. "Jazz" has so many categories now, you have to be a musicologist to keep up. Some well-known and influential jazz radio stations in the U.S. will not play artists like Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy or present day David S. Ware, Nels Cline, Anthony Braxton, Matthew Shipp, Dom Minasi, or Peter Brotzman. In order to hear these, and many other artists, you must tune into the alternative stations. So the question is: How far out is too far out?

When you listen to Cecil Taylor play or some of the new crop of musicians that has sprung up from his influence, what do you hear? Some say you hear "noise" but, if you listen carefully, you will hear a musical exploration. There is always a relationship between what the soloist plays and what the rhythm section plays. In the case of a solo instrumentalist giving a solo performance, the same applies; except the relationship is between the player (his mind & spirit) and what is being related to an audience and how the audience relates to the player. There is a constant underlying feedback; a kind of back-and-forth that happens when there is a live performance—whether it is solo or group. Piano genius, Borah Bergman, is the perfect example of a soloists' relationship with himself and the audience. As he plays his two-handed figures, with each hand functioning on its own and creating its' own contrapuntal lines, the audience is sucked into the sheer force of energy that comes from Borah's creative touch. In turn, Borah can feel it and respond to it in kind. The best way to experience this is to be sitting in the audience. Recordings rarely ever capture this.

When listening to free-form avant-jazz, it may seem like anarchy rules, but if you listen closely, there are many things happening at once and they are happening with a purpose in mind. Sometimes it is to create dissonance. Sometimes to create tonality and sometimes chaos rules, but for only a brief moment; because the masters understand that the rules of harmony?" yes, harmony—cannot be sustained by chaos. This is where the conflict lies. Some of the so-called avant-garde musicians fail to realize that without a sense of harmony it is not music. When I say harmony, it does not mean the ideological meaning of what we think of as traditional harmony. In the 21st Century, harmony consists of many things: including tone clusters and abnormal dissonances. Add to the mix the single note lines and uncommon or unnatural intervals and the individual quirks of each instrument (horns- squeaks. honks etc,) and there is enough to bend an audience out of shape—make them angry, or just leave! In some cases, they actually stay and cheer or give the artist a standing ovation. Why is that? Because, in the hands of a real master, the music can be exciting, emotional, funny, demanding, exhausting, entertaining, even spiritual; and it will bring you to places and heights you rarely experience in other settings. One thing is for sure: you will not be bored. The trip you take is worth the price of admission, but the price of admission must be worth the trip!

Many musicians claiming to be avant-garde or new music aficionados are in reality failed jazzers who are not very good avant-garde players either. Put simply, they can't play. Somewhere along the line someone should have told them to stop. But in the arts, it is forbidden to dictate to another what he/she should play. It is not up to us to tell another to give up and go home, but we can guide them by suggesting they study more. Who are we to know what art really is? There are some who have the audacity to claim they know what jazz is or suppose to be. They never consider the "out players" as jazz players even though many of the avant musicians are better-trained in both the classical and jazz worlds and are just as comfortable playing "inside" as they are playing "outside". They are dismissed as being non-essential. Consider pianist Michael Jefry Stevens or trumpeter Dave Douglas or trombonist Steve Swell. Many of them choose to play that way because it is an extension and a growth of who they are. They see themselves as explorers, exploring uncharted territories. The ride is exhilarating! To them, it's all music. How simple it would all be if we all looked at it that way.

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