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The Free Musics by Jack Wright

Daniel Barbiero By

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The Free Musics
Jack Wright
316 Pages
ISBN: 1537777246
Spring Garden Music Editions

Saxophonist Jack Wright's first encounter with free jazz occurred in 1967, when a chance meeting with Charlie Haden resulted in Wright's being invited to see Haden play with Ornette Coleman. Wright, who had been a conventional jazz saxophonist, describes the music as having struck him as "chaotic" and the experience as having been "traumatic." Nevertheless, five years later he was moved to seek it out again. Staring into the abyss had been frightening but compelling. So much so that by 1979, Wright was himself playing free improvisation; since then, he has gone on to sustain a decades-long career as a free player.

Wright's attraction to free playing—and the inherent attractiveness of playing freely improvised music at all—is captured in what he wrote to describe the aspiration behind his first recording: To play "a music deep into the present time...done for the love of playing...risking itself for its own sake." It is music that goes "beyond the score, genre or prepared aesthetic" and consequently is "a blank tablet on which to write experience not known to be musical." This is the spirit common to those varieties of improvised or otherwise spontaneously created music that fall under the encompassing category of free music. But this spirit needs to be embodied, and an interpretive history of the forms it took is what Wright sets out to give.

Wright's book is a genealogical anthropology of free playing. It traces the historical roots of contemporary free playing while at the same time seeing that history as the product of concretely situated practices developed by generations of musicians who formulated them, took them up, modified them, and otherwise worked with them. It is in addition very much a personal history, filled with sharp observations and often shrewd judgments, with a focus on North America. It doesn't claim to be a comprehensive history or exhaustive description of free improvised music in America, but is instead an insightful account by a long-involved, widely-traveled participant.

The Free Jazz Period

Wright's starting point is the upsurge of free jazz around 1959 and its development through the 1970s. Because he was a jazz musician he was introduced to free improvisation through free jazz, and the jazz tradition remains for him a central point of reference.

Free jazz debuted during a period of ferment and radical challenges to established artistic conventions not only in music, but in other disciplines as well. Free jazz specifically challenged the norms that had governed the formal and expressive language of jazz. The most obvious challenge came with the initial shock of what might be called the phenomenology of the music, or the way it appeared to the ear. This was certainly the case with Coleman's free jazz. What Wright first heard as chaotic in Coleman's music was the way it had been organized along new, more egalitarian lines.

Coleman's music disrupted the standard structure of jazz—music improvised within the confines of a pre-existing harmonic and rhythmic cycle and in which a distinctive solo voice was prominently foregrounded against a supporting rhythm section—and replaced it with a more fluid, polyphonic form. Wright emphasizes Coleman's innovation in blurring the leader/sideman distinction and introducing a general measure of ambiguity into the normal functions of the jazz ensemble's constituent parts. Early jazz had also used collective improvisation, but within limits set by the composed song form and melody. Free jazz showed how to free players not only from a rigid figure/ground distinction of soloist and accompaniment, but from song form and rhythms divided and defined by the barline. To be sure, other free jazz artists—and Coleman himself at times—retained some semblance of the soloist/accompanist distinction, but in principle the way had been cleared for a collective improvisation of equals.


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