Free Music—At Last!

Firstly, thanks to all who commented last week. However, I’m seeing more and more evidence that letter-based chord symbols originate in music for guitar. It may go back as far as pre-Frescobaldi passacaglia and ciaccona. I’m waiting to get access to JSTOR and see what the journals say. I’ve always felt that these two linked forms are what song-form based jazz improvisation is based on. Some like to say “theme-and-variation,” but in that practice, the actual melody is the basis for development. But jazz improvisation, like the chaconne and passacaglia, expounds on chord progressions. If it’s true that the two forms were—like tomatoes and the sarabande—imported from the New World, jazz improvisation becomes a kind of magnifying mirror, reflecting its own image through a centuries-old lens of European musical development. Even though the image is refocused through the same lens as before, it’s a new set of eyes looking through it.

Working on my “Brilliant Corners” analysis for John Howland‘s big band class, which I’m auditing at Rutgers University, has given me a new appreciation of Thelonious Monk. I’ve heard his solo now about 50 times (in order to transcribe it) and he is very much about theme-and-variation improvising on his material. He constantly reworks the melody of the song that he’s playing, sometimes to the degree that a new song is created on-the-fly. It’s like a constant rush of melody that holds close to its original motivic statement. And its his own tune that he’s focused on—only instead of the lens being that of a supercultural music industry, its his literally subcultural “outcast” lens doing the magnifying. But his vision is greatly influenced by the industry’s ophthalmology, which critical reception about the recording indicates was clouded by this time. Now I want to revisit his initial recorded solo and really try to understand this cataract!

Speaking of rushes of creativity, I went to The Stone on Monday to hear violist Mat Maneri perform with bassist Ed Schuller and drummer Randy Peterson. Mat is the son of Joe Maneri, a brilliant composer, clarinet- and saxophonist, and theorist who taught microtonal theory and composition at the New England Conservatory until his passing two years ago. Mat is a fantastic musician who worked with his father regularly along with Schuller and Peterson (in fact they all studied with the elder Maneri and have been playing together regularly for decades).

They played two pieces: the largely aleatoric “Love Lines” by Joe Maneri, and a free improvisation that ended on a bebop rhythm-changes tune (I think). I found their performance mesmerizing—partly because I had never heard either Maneri or Peterson before, but mostly because of the effortless flow of their improvisations. Usually, when I hear concerts of free improvisations, I sense that there’s an initial period of “group-grope,” where the performers are settling into what they’re going to do. This wasn’t the case on Monday. While it was clear that they were freely improvising, they were so “in tune” with each other that their improvisations were examples of musical perfection. It was like the Wall Street occupiers saying that they don’t know what the final result of their efforts will be, but they trust that they’ll do the right thing to get the right results.

What I’ve described is the second set of the evening. I also managed to catch the last piece of first set, which was performed by Maneri and pianist Kris Davis (who I also had never heard before) and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock (who I had). What I heard was a beautiful piece composed by Davis (the title of which I didn’t hear). Again, the improvisations were incredibly well-meshed and the overall performance was soul-satisfying. I know that I’m probably in the minority for not having heard Mat Maneri before, but now I’m a fan!

I had hoped to go tonight (Thursday) to the new Roulette to hear Trio X (on the bill with Elliott Sharp and Andrew Cyrille as part of the Interpretations series) after my performance with Alt.Timers at Somethin’ Jazz Club (formerly Miles Café), but the weather wasn’t good to schlep a bass around in. I’m hoping next week is dry for my two gigs (w/ vocalist Vicki Burns and vibraphonist extraordinaire Bill Ware—check my website for details). Since it’s a slow week for me, I’ll be determinedly reporting on more selected goings-on in the realm of musical indeterminate form.

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