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Reeling the Out Sound In 

What the Bay Area's world-class improvisational music scene is doing to put more butts in the seats

Wednesday, Mar 16 2005
On any given night in art houses throughout the city, you'll find some of the 21st century's most dynamic musicians exploring unheard-of sound combinations that bend ears and spin heads. Drawing stylistic elements from jazz, classical, and countless other familiar genres, their innovations imply an all-music tradition with a global reach. But the turnout for such gigs is typically dismal. World-class improviser/composers such as Fred Frith, Rova Saxophone Quartet, and Pamela Z have encountered more receptive audiences in Europe, Japan, Russia, even Chile -- i.e., anywhere but here -- which is a curious phenomenon, given the Bay Area's reputation for attracting outsider artists.

The problem seems to stem from a lack of definition. Like most everything else in the United States, musical performance is a commodity that needs a hook for a soft sell, a simple catchphrase easily recognized by concertgoers. But even the scene's top players disagree on a name for their efforts.

Saxophonist Dan Plonsey sees his work as grounded in a kind of fantastical geography. He calls it "Music of El Cerrito" to stress its function as "building and maintaining community," but there's an unusual caveat: His El Cerrito "is an imaginary city, in the great tradition of magic and mystic cities."

Pianist Matthew Goodheart believes that "defining music by its cultural function" is a better way to go. Thus: "Concert Music." He explains, "It's music you're supposed to sit in your seat and listen to, just like Beethoven." While he says, "I think that's most accurate," he admits "it doesn't do crap to promote my music to a target audience." To pay the rent, he gives piano lessons and is the band director at a local church.

"Spontaneous Composition" is a fairly popular, relatively precise term, favored by drummer Garth Powell: "The idea being that any pre-defined style could occur within the context of the concert, but the structure initially is either nonexistent, or it is very loose and can adapt to swift changes that are demanded in the moment."

Bassist Damon Smith holds fast to the ubiquitous "Creative Music" moniker with the qualifier that the "music needs the creativity of the musician, as opposed to just the composer's composition, to exist."

Summing up this identity crisis, vocalist Pamela Z says, "Any term is problematic for people who don't already know what you're talking about. If they already know, you can use whatever term you like. If they don't know, there's no term that explains the work -- and the breadth of what's included in the field -- thoroughly enough not to still require a lot of explaining."

Rova:Arts, the nonprofit backbone of Rova Sax Quartet, is attempting the ambitious task of bridging this gulf. Throughout the year the organization will be hosting "Improv:21," a series of teach-ins or "informances," as it likes to call them, "on the art and practice of improvisation," which is arguably the cornerstone of the scene's wide-ranging character.

So there they were: a couple of laid-back middle-aged guys sitting at a table onstage, playing CDs, and talking about how the music was made. At first glance, this might have seemed like any other Q&A forum one would find on, say, VHI or PBS. But the ideas presented at "Improv:21"'s debut installment were anything but mundane.

The event took place in late January on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the city. Despite the unseasonably sweet weather, 50 or so devoted music fans and musicians filed into a dark Dance Mission Theater to listen to Fred Frith expound on his musicmaking process with KPFA radio host Derk Richardson. Frith was an excellent choice for this inaugural production. Not only is he internationally renowned for his pioneering prog-rock inventions of the '70s and early '80s in U.K. cult bands Henry Cow and Art Bears, but also over the past three decades he has been at the forefront of the creative improv movement, working with fellow innovators like Rova and John Zorn, performing one-of-a-kind solo-guitar gigs all over the planet, recording soundtracks for award-winning indie films such as Rivers and Tides, and currently, under the title of distinguished visiting professor of composition, co-directing Mills College's 20-plus-member Contemporary Performance Ensemble. Given Frith's far-reaching expertise, his viewpoint on the often thorny topic of "organizing improvised music for large ensembles" would have to be taken seriously.

He explained how he employs various strategies like conducting and cue cards or graphic scores (e.g., photographs to elicit a certain mood in the players) to steer the massive sound of big-band improv. Such devices, commonly used by forward-pushing combos like Rova and Zorn's Cobra, enable a group leader to suggest (if not 100 percent dictate) the trajectory of a large-scale piece of music according to his intuitive feel for what needs to happen in the moment. Being open to intuition -- Frith described this as "empty, receptive to all you've ever been" -- is, in a nutshell, the art of the improviser. He elaborated on this point when he said that a performer needs to be constantly tuned in to the questions: "What just happened? What's gonna happen next?"

He further proposed that there are any number of legitimate ways to think about improvisation, implying that no single ethos holds true for everyone, which likely explains why the very definition of this ancient art form has been both long debated (by those who swear by its aesthetic value) and misunderstood (by those who deride it as a mere pretext for making noise). Frith good-naturedly toyed with the most prevalent stereotype: "All improvising means is making stuff up!" Then he turned right around and debunked another, namely, that it's all about freedom to do whatever you want. "Freedom is a beautiful mirage," quipped Frith, quoting the late master saxophonist Steve Lacy.

Such koanlike paradoxes no doubt confound a general public more comfy with predictable certainties, like the beatbox grooves of hip hop or the serrated power-chord progressions of punk. But appreciating improvised music, both as a player and a listener, doesn't have to hurt your head. Much like life itself, it's all about giving in to the journey. Frith talked about how the "evolution of improv" is a fascinating enigma. Referring to his European free-music predecessors, like fellow Brit guitarist Derek Bailey, who in the '60s was hellbent on eviscerating musical conventions, he said, "Improv was once created with spontaneity and now it's [made] with rules, which may be contradictory to its origins, but it's part of the process." For Frith, as well as for many of today's leading practitioners, the process is "an exercise of resistance [that] redraws the territory to get more out of less." In other words, many players today tend to impose structures (like the graphic scores previously mentioned) on their improvs to limit their choices, which serves to better focus their "total commitment to one movement in one moment." When executed with personality, precision, and imagination, this, once again, is the art of the improviser.

But what happens when the music is uninspired or overwrought? Even the most agile performers can have an off night. What about inexperienced improvisers who lose their way? One might argue that this is all part of the learning curve. But audiences for this notoriously marginalized genre won't often stand for anything less than a total mind-blow. They go to these kinds of shows to be dazzled. And if the level of performance doesn't meet their elevated expectations, they might just write off the whole enterprise. Newbies, in particular, will rarely forgive a mediocre gig; it just confirms their preconceptions that this stuff is a sham. Which is an odd reaction. After all, what other style of music evokes such disdain? For instance, if you saw a sloppy rap group, would you give up on hip hop? What about a booooring classical recital? Would you blow off the three B's? Of course not. But there's something about improvised music that makes concertgoers dubious (i.e., how do we know it's for real?).

This is an image problem, which derives from a faulty public perception that can be attributed, in no small part, to our linguistic conundrum described above: What do we call a chameleonic genre founded on exploration and experimentation that isn't bound by a single set of standards other than those agreed upon by the players in the moment of the playing?

When legendary artists like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman were coming up in the '50s and '60s, their inventions were labeled "Free Jazz" and the "New Thing," or the pooh-poohed "Avant-Garde" and "Out Jazz." On the other side of the pond, European innovators like Bailey and Evan Parker were labeled perpetrators of "Free Music," a nebulous term that tried to indicate their rejection of American jazz-based forms. More recently, the phrases "New Music" and "Creative Music" have been making the rounds. But honestly, what's really new? Or, if the playing is contemporary, how is it not new? And what does this exactly mean anyway?

Likewise, as Rova saxophonist Bruce Ackley says, "I don't refer to it as 'Creative Music.' ... Don't most musicians, regardless of genre, consider what they do creative? And isn't it? Therefore, aren't we, in this particular music camp, a little full of ourselves trying to own 'creative'? We're all 'creating.' One could say that improvised music is spontaneously creating, doing it on the fly. But I don't play 'improvised music' either, although the kind of sound I like to create usually involves a large measure of improvisation, usually structured." And they grouse about critics who shy away from their music -- most just don't know what to call it.

This is why the "Improv:21" series could be a boon to the scene. Creative-improvised-new-spontaneous-free-outside-avant-garde-concert music fans, given the chance to discuss this music with some measure of eloquence and thus potentially educate the uninitiated, might translate into broader support for Bay Area players, which in turn would fuel their innovations and raise the level of performance across the board.

In the end, as Frith maintains, this is "very difficult and challenging music" -- whatever we choose to call it -- "that very few people either enjoy or understand [or] ... that everyone loves." Embracing this paradoxical reality is perhaps the most crucial art of the improviser.

Guitarist and electronics maven Nels Cline (of Wilco fame) discusses "Rock to Coltrane to 'OUT' and plays saxophonic influences on electric guitar" at the next "Improv:21" event on Saturday, March 26, at 3 p.m. at Dance Mission Theater; call 273-4633 or go to for more info. You can also find a calendar of local concerts at

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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