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.


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