The Other Side of Nowhere
Jazz, Improvisation, And Communities In Dialogue
Edited by Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble
Wesleyan University Press
2004, 460 pages
No topic in jazz is as notoriously resistant to easy explication as improvisation. The most ambitous book ever published on the topic, Thinking In Jazz by Paul Berliner, is utterly masterful and maddening because many musicians discussing their improvisations become verbally vague, try as Berliner does to fairly represent their thinking. A handful of other books over the years have attempted to explain improvisation with various degrees of success, and I'm grateful for all of them. After all, I try to teach jazz to college students who usually don't have the slightest idea about what improvisation means, and if they do, think it means "faking it."
So this book comes along as an anthology on improvisation and cultural theory, meaning that the editors, two Canadian professors from the University at Guelph, focus on various theories of race, gender, homosexuality, and communication across and within cultures. It is not, as I had hoped, a book of various perspectives solely upon doing jazz improvisation. Less than a quarter of the essays are rooted exclusively in the making of jazz. But the book is a well edited assortment of highly stimulating perspectives on improvising cultures in jazz.
Want to know how it feels to be an improvising woman instrumentalist? Sherrie Tucker's "Bordering on Community: Improvising Women Improvising Women-in-Jazz" dramatises the challenges jazz women face lucidly. Looking for a better understanding of cultural hurdles musicians have to jump when doing cross-cultural recordings? Michael Dessen's essay on Steve Coleman's studio improvisations with traditional Cuban music is enlightening.
Beware that some essays are steemed in postmodern academic jargon and require patience to decode. But in the opposite vein are interviews with jazz record producers who discuss editing improvisatory sessions for album release with simple humor and attractive candor.
Perhaps no ultimate book on jazz improvisation will ever surface, so this heady and lively essay collection is a welcome addition to the modest group of texts about the heart of jazz.