Free Form Evolution

Free Form Evolution
Sammy Stein By

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Since free form tentatively emerged during the 1940s and '50s it has evolved with both the times and changing audiences. Now, free form elements cross genre boundaries and many musicians use elements from free form in their works. Because it is music which draws on the spiritual feelings of the players, social dramas and the atmosphere of the time, it is still developing. Long ago, it filled a niche because it was music where musicians took standards, blew them apart, improvised and eventually found the freedom to shake off constraints imposed by commercialism and convention in order to bring a new way of playing to the attention of the world. It was associated early on with political rebellion, philosophies and different takes on life, but has now evolved and what free form means has become hard to pin down. It seems to mean different things to different people; different musicians, promoters and listeners define it differently. Unlike other genres which can be defined by time—even a place—maybe the very lack of definition allows free form music its continued fluidity and freedom.

On this, saxophonist Ken Vandermark says, ''I think it's necessary to start by trying to define the terms and vocabulary being used. Personally, I don't think that labels like 'free form,' 'free improvisation,' or 'free jazz' are very helpful. In the case of free jazz, if the title was applied in a similar fashion to the category of music known as bebop, it might have some practical value, at least designating a period and style of music within a set of understandable parameters. Instead, the term 'free jazz' is used to 'define' everything from Ornette Coleman's music from the early 1960s to Joe Morris' music of 2012—more than half a century of varied activity by artists all over the globe. The term in this case defines nothing. The same is true for the way 'free form' and 'free improvisation' are generally utilized. Are they descriptions of a type of musical activity, or a style of music and, if a style, from what period? What does the word 'free' actually imply—freedom from structure, or the replacement of one kind of structure with another? [Music is organized sound. Its organization, whether spontaneous or pre-determined, indicates structural ramifications.] Until there are some specific definitions in terminology, the discussion about contemporary jazz and improvised music will remain hyper-subjective and confused. A clear set of vocabulary has to be developed; the term 'free form' is not clear."

Today, musicians have the freedom to develop free playing to a far greater extent than the pioneers of the'50s and '60s. Some play completely free, others improvise, whilst others still experiment with scales, rhythms and tempos—sometimes all in the same piece! Like Vandermark says, it is hard to define something which now transcends such a timeframe and range of styles.

Yet, just as it appears to have the chance to develop at a greater pace than ever before, free form is becoming limited by the grinding wheels of commercialism. Players have seen massive changes in their musical freedoms and our times have seen a huge drop in venues willing or able to support free form musicians playing to small but loyal audiences.

In these economy-driven times, some venues shy away from any form of improvised or experimental music-making, preferring instead to offer customers something they know, does what it says on the tin and gives them music they expect. This attitude stifles the evolution of music of any form but free playing most of all. A few venues remain supportive but in others, managers remain steadfastly indifferent to music which threatens their sense of what is established, what draws people in and they feel the need to offer people what they expect and know. The motivation is money, not the music.

Andy Sheppard, of Trio Libero and Sax Massive comments, "Improvised jazz has always had a small audience and gigs are difficult to find. It is harder now than 20 years ago." Alan Wilkinson, of Flim Flam (Ryan's Bar) laments the reduction in the number of venues willing to offer a platform for free form players."There are definitely less places to play" he says."When I started playing this music in the late '70s/early '80s and until relatively recently, you could go to an improv gig every night of the week. There'd be nobody there but you could play and watch it. The fall off maybe coincided with the changes [the] Labour [Party] made to music licensing laws in the UK, making it harder for casual gigs to happen. Now venues have to abide by strict and expensive regulations and are much more conscious of needing to get people in. With Ryan's Bar, where Flim Flam happens, I'm very lucky because I have a long and good relationship with the owner and don't get thrown out because there's only three people in the audience. In order to grow, free form needs places where there's no pressure to fill the place."

Peter Brötzmann, a founding father of free form comments, "In the 1970s it was possible to spend weeks travelling north to south down Europe. There were small venues and radio stations which gave new players a chance. But then the small venues and radio stations that welcomed new players began to want known 'names,' larger audiences and nights when new players could play to a handful of customers disappeared."

Now the venues are scattered and disjointed in Europe with gigs in Lisbon, Oslo, London and Madrid perhaps. This is good in many ways but in order to work you have to be prepared to travel a long way from home. Brötzmann says, "This is not good for youngsters who miss the social experience of music. For young people, being on the road, playing to a different audience and maybe different musicians each night is important but this is missing so Europe needs more places for them to work and particularly smaller venues."

There are exceptions and a few enlightened managers realize the continued value of supporting free from music. Ian Storrer, promoter, Jazz At The Albert in Bristol, comments that," For me, this style is the contemporary form of jazz as much as modern art is to painting, installation art and sculpture. However, in order to make a living in jazz, the music is perceived to need a widespread audience to be successful and attract a following that is not readily available in the free movement." Luckily, Ian supports free gigs. Improvisation remains important in free playing because out of improvisation, has come different ways of playing. As Storrer says, "Many projects have emerged from new and improvised jazz, developing in different ways to end up within the mainstream of jazz.'' If we lose small venues willing to encourage free form players, music as a whole will be poorer.

There is acknowledgement among players and promoters that, while gigs remain small and less commercially attractive, free music offers an opportunity for great things to happen. Many promoters accept that if they are to be taken seriously they need to offer a varied and responsive repertoire and free playing is very much a part of this. Some compromise by offering free form gigs among ones which draw in the crowds to cover their license fees and realize that free form offers musicians a chance to continue developing and breath renewed life into jazz music.

Free drummer Terry Day says, ''One of the things about getting gigs and why it might be difficult for me is that when people book me they never know what I am going to do. Sometimes I play the drums, sometimes I might squeak my balloons or read poetry.'' Should musicians be willing to compromise to get regular work? Should they offer a branded product? Or should more venues be willing to take a chance on free players, knowing that often, something magical happens? When you speak to Terry, there is no arrogance. He just can't imagine playing anything other than what he feels like at the moment."It depends on the audience, the mood and the feelings,'' he says.

However, the changing economic situations mean commercialism has stormed in and stolen some of the freer sides of music making and, in order to have venues to play, players need to adapt in order to give something back to supportive venues. They need to attract clients who will stay, drink at the bars and listen. Many players, therefore, tailor their craft to suit a paying audience and intersperse free playing amongst more popular genres which keep them economically afloat.

In some ways, the very fact that free players have to adapt, play other genres perhaps and change how they play in order gig, has maybe even added to the evolution of the music. After all, the essence of free form is reaction to social changes, and economics is part of that.

Speaking to managers and promoters, they agree that free form should attract a far wider audience, given the fact it is peopled by musicians of great talent but there are some hangovers from the past which put some people off experiencing a free form gig. When they speak to customers, some consider it exclusive and too many have experienced gigs where "arses" of players have treated them to a workshop-like experience, completely forgetting about communication and playing in such an experimental and introverted way, the audience feels forgotten and completely outside the experience. There is a discernible difference between sitting in a bar listening to free players communicating with the audience and trying new ways of playing and sitting listening to players playing purely for themselves.

"Sometimes," Wilkinson says, "there is a problem with improvised music when it becomes a series of 'noises.' The problem with most 'noise' music is it doesn't tend to involve a lot of listening. I feel the music is of secondary importance to the activity. With the improv side of things the sound is still trying to be appropriate to the situation, to develop it in some way. It's very difficult to describe without sounding exclusive."

That sense of exclusivity is another factor which alienates some from free form. Many people feel the musicians are part of a separate philosophy, involved in a spiritualism which is hard for some to understand. Yet, whilst many players are interested in spiritual things and certainly early on, free from attracted players who were into different philosophies, it is only because this way of playing is about expression, seeking a greater sense of where we are in the cosmos and communication. The players are not out to create separatism but simply seeking understanding themselves.


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