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Fre-Formation

Freeform in the U.K.

By Published: August 16, 2012
What remains true and is part of modern life is that many customers have got so used to music providing what is expected and known that it is difficult to break the conditioning of the "oven-ready meal" mentality, and break away from regulations and musical expectations. While there is a beauty in all genres of music, with freeform, you have to have an open mind and soul—and for some, not knowing what might happen at a gig puts them in a place they find hard to be. They want the music to be in the background while they eat and chat; hard work and interaction is not part of going to a jazz gig, and standards are far easier in this respect than freeform. If you have never taken the chance of going to a gig not knowing what to expect, it can be a difficult prospect. Sometimes the musicians themselves do not make things easy. Listening to even the greats like Brötzmann, Parker, saxophonists Andy Sheppard
Andy Sheppard
Andy Sheppard
b.1957
saxophone
, Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
or John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, or drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo can be hard work at times and you have to actually listen, which takes energy and effort.

Sometimes, even the musicians do not help clarify matters. Davey Payne of The People Band commented in a letter to The Wire Magazine following a People Band article that , ''As far as I am concerned, we weren't out to entertain, and the audience were often confused, pained and drained. We were not trying to whip them into a frenzy or into primal emotions. I believe that at our best, we were creating music on the highest level, knocking on the tenth door,(referring to the door to enlightenment) and that may not necessarily be a good thing, or maybe it is, for some and not for others, including ourselves. After all, who are we to play the divine conch and bagpipes?''

Yet, the rewards for playing or listening to this kind of music are manifold, and some venues remain fiercely protective of promoting the genre. Unless some are willing to take risks, new music is difficult for audiences to access. Without venues of the past like Paradiso, Amsterdam, The Birdland Club in Manhattan, and more modern venues like Ian Storrer's Jazz at the Albert in Bedminster, Bristol, many musicians would not have the opportunity to play and would be lost to audiences.

Europe is becoming difficult, and even Brötzmann comments that gigs are fewer and further between due to the closure of many smaller clubs and the radio stations who promoted new music right up to the 80s or 90s. So, anyone just starting out has a difficult time getting to play. Bigger venues do not want to risk having new people play, and many are at the mercies of corporate management.

London, however—like much of the UK—remains supportive, and many musicians now find the UK one of the best places to play. Across the world there are many places where freeform and improvised music are growing, and musicians venture abroad to bring this music to the rest of us, but it is London and other UK venues which now draw and encourage these musicians, as well as the homegrown ones, and luckily, freeform remains a strong scene in the UK. This is more than readily acknowledged by the musicians I speak to.

The UK is one of the places on earth where people are still willing to take a risk, and its people love the underdog, the slightly out of kilter and the commercially sidelined. If UK people love something, the more authorities try to push it to one side, the stronger the sense of protection, love and care for it will be. It is like this with freeform music. Although the audience remains relatively small, it is steady and growing. It is almost loved more, because it is different (not commercial), and many UK bands have a definite "British" feel to them. The music, of course, leads but the more commercial organizations ignore freeform in the UK at their peril. The more it is ignored, the more fiercely its continuation will be guarded and guaranteed.

Brötzmann himself is a regular at Café Oto and, whereas once he might have played two or three times a year in London, now he plays far more often because it remains one of the best places for his music.

Many players agree that Café Oto has made a real difference. It is often mentioned, in conversation by musicians, not only because the venue offers such a diverse and interesting program of music, musicians and styles, all of which draw crowds, but because it is a larger venue offering diverse music. A consequence has been they have got younger people into the gigs. More women, it has been noticed, attend now and the scene has taken on a vibrancy which was being lost. Clever marketing means they appeal to a wider band of society and the venue is now very much one of the "in" places to be seen. Wilkinson acknowledges that women are increasingly being drawn into Oto gigs—" it is a lot to do with being anonymous. You can be anonymous at Oto, but not at a FlimFlam gig," says Wilkinson.


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