Free improvisation is a tool, just as paint or the written word, in the process of making art. Art critic Clement Greenberg might roll over in his grave that I quote him on such generic art-making terms, but his oft-repeated line on the modernist process carries some weight here: "Modernism... [is] the use of the characteristic methods of the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence." Free improvisation (or free jazz) might be seen, then, as a tool to understand better the medium of improvisation or the idiom of jazz, a necessary engagement that will strengthen and improve both the art and the artist. All as each new group engages free improvisation, the process and the medium areor should becalled to the stand once again.
In the case of Babardah , a Michigan-based quartet consisting of reedman Piotr Michalowski, trombonist Sarah Weaver, violinist Mike Khoury and bassist James Ilgenfritz, this is a personal process. It isn't an assault on traditional sonorities that any regular listener of New Phonic Art, early Instant Composers Pool or Company recordings wouldn't be familiar with. The improvisations themselves, while not taking any great chances, are filled with contrast and depth: low blasts from baritone colliding with lithe violin scrabbles, or piercing string harmonics meet amplified breathing and guttural effects from Weaver's trombone. The musicians are all rather adept at creating a blurred stew of sounds, often from indeterminate sources and though moments of heady intensity do arise, the improvisations generally tend to the spare and moodyharmonics blend, chirps and burbles blur. Yet there is a hint of a different side to Babardah: long sonorous violin and trombone lines herald romanticism in "Rostador," giving way to a bass solo that would make Beb Guerin proud.
Whether or not Babardah 's contribution to improvisation is a valuable new direction is irrelevant. We only have a window onto these improvisations; future projects may help the open ear grasp the scope of their art, but suffice it to say that their personal engagement is worthy of the term "free music."