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Freeform in the U.K.

Sammy Stein By

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Freeform and improvised jazz is having a hard time at the moment. Venues have to make tough choices between pleasing what is a smaller cohort of customers and bringing new, maybe transient, but paying clients who are attracted by big names, standards and music they know. Customers have less cash in these difficult economic times, so they may come to fewer gigs. This means that, for a manager, though the venue may have once been able to support freeform jazz and justify putting on gigs because they could rely on regulars, the decision has to be made whether to risk the costs of their licenses, putting on an act and paying staff for a gig which may attract fewer customers than usual, or getting some guaranteed income.

Many managers supportive of freeform choose the "middle road" option, with a program offering known and predictable attractions who give customers what they expect, interspersed with free players and bands. They may inwardly balk at this compromise, but finances dictate and venues need to survive if they are to be there at all, to carry on offering more left-of-center music.

There are some exceptions. London, in particular, has seen a resurgence in support for freeform gigs, with some venues encouraging wholly experimental evenings. Some freeform players are well-known enough to almost guarantee full houses, whilst others need somewhere to start. It is here where venues like Café Oto and The Vortex have stepped up to the mark, offering customers both worlds. Saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson and Evan Parker are almost regulars, offering customers a journey into freeform and improvised sound, whilst Oto, in particular, intersperses these acts with those just starting out.

Other venues offer free players an arena to get a start. Venues such as Ryan's Bar put on events like FlimFlam. Here, players like saxophonists Alan Wilkinson, wordsmith and drummer Terry Day and violinist Benedict Taylor can play to full houses, but also will not get kicked out if there are only three or four in the audience. The manager has a convivial eye for musicians trying for different sounds and introducing people to new music.

It is worth, for a moment, considering why freeform and improvised music remains on the fringes to many people's thinking and it is something which has to be recognized, if freeform is to continue developing and remain available for both casual and regular customers. To many, the phrase "freeform" is unclear and used to cover such a range of styles that sometimes it is unrecognizable, even to stoic supporters of the genre. The scene changes, with different subgenres developing and becoming accepted within the overall freeform mantle. There remains an association with 1960s political and spiritual beliefs, and many people do not understand how the music has developed away from these origins to some extent, yet still remains the most spiritual jazz genre, uniting a good player's ideas and feelings with those of the listener. It is still changing; such is the nature of improvised music. Once a form of improvisation becomes regularly played, it is no longer true improvisation and sets the scene for more creativity.

Also, it has to be said, some improvised music is hard to listen to. It is not all sublime cosmic bagpipes. Sometimes it is screeching, wailing and the destruction of tunes which many hold dear. Often "tunes" are hard to hold onto, but sometimes also that very destruction and painting of different sounds develops into something so utterly sweet that it whispers to your soul such divine messages, you do not know quite what to do with yourself. Many people go to freeform gigs for just such moments and are willing to experience hours of pain simply to gain that place of absolute bliss. Most freeform players who truly communicate with their audience provide them with something akin to spiritual blessings, once they have tuned into the audience of the moment, but it takes work on both sides and can change in a heartbeat. Other times, it works for ages and you simply tune into each other.Of course, jazz genres other then freeform can be just as creative and spiritual.


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