Improvising a Moment

I don’t believe that music, as it exists in our world today, is a language in the true sense of the word—that it’s capable of communicating any part of our thoughts or intentions with any level of precision. But I do think that, like language, music is culturally significant and “belongs” to societal units (villages, tribes, institutions, etc.) and enhances our ability to communicate. One of the reasons I’m so disappointed in the state of public education is how it describes musical training as an elective (read “optional”) activity, one not vital to the health of a society and the prosperity of its people. Fortunately, music survives the demise of civilizations, although not necessarily in the same form. But it will survive and be a vital part of whatever culture rises from its ashes. For reasons I can only guess (population growth? hegemony of literate society? market forces in music production?), the life cycle of the American musical phoenix has shrunk to years instead of decades or centuries. Instead of identifying with geography and/or generational difference, musical development is increasingly influenced by the spending habits of adolescents with genres reflecting socio-economic status and style representing age group.

This presents working-class improvising musicians with the job of being conversant in many styles and genres of music. These musicians usually find themselves applying stylistic considerations one job at a time or, occasionally, two or three (such as mixing show tunes with bossa novas and pop music). Less occasionally, one might find oneself changing styles and approaches every couple of minutes, like the accompaniment for the artists performing at the “Shelebration” concert mentioned two weeks ago, when pieces would switch from folk to jazz to rock-a-billy to funk to Dixieland to blues and on and on. Even more rarely, a situation arises where several musicians from very different styles will be involved in a project where they are to create something they don’t normally do. The NonJazz festivals produced by Omar Tamez in Monterrey, Mexico, is an example of this kind of situation.

Last week I was involved in such a project, albeit homegrown, that takes the idea to a new level. It is a film about a concert that occurred in 1991 as a tribute to singer/songwriter Tim Buckley. The original concert included performances by Eric Andersen, Greg Cohen, Anthony Coleman, Chris Cunningham, Sharon Freeman, Yuval Gabay, Cheryl Hardwick, Richard Hell, Julia Heyward, Shelley Hirsch, Suzanne Langille, Gary Lucas, Loren Mazzacane, Wilbur Pauley, Bob Quine, Barry Reynolds, Hank Roberts, The Shams, Elliott Sharp, G.E. Smith, Syd Straw, and Jeff Scott Buckley. The last of these, Jeff, was Tim Buckley’s estranged son who went on to become a rising star in the 1990s until he drowned accidentally in the Mississippi River. The only musicians from the original concert who are included in the film so far are cellist Hank Roberts and guitarist Gary Lucas. The other musicians included in the cast are Knox Chandler (guitar, musical director), Rob Burger (keyboards), Jennifer Turner (vocal, guitar), Kate Nash (vocal), Frank Bello (vocal), Frank Wood (guitar), and William Sadler (guitar).

Not being able to resist the temptation, I made a PITA of myself by asking everyone about their use of and relationship with improvisation. I didn’t ask Hank Roberts, who is well-known as an improviser of the highest order from his work with Bill Frisell and Gary Burton, but the guitarists, all more known for their work in the rock and world music genres, had very interesting things to say. Knox Chandler, whose work includes stints with the Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, R.E.M, and (more recently) with Lou Reed and Cindi Lauper, has a broad knowledge of theory and harmony as well as a superb command of recording technology that gives his work an eclectic overview. He played a recent piece of his for me, a sound sculpture for solo guitar using only delay that was stunning in its density. Improvisation for him is a tool that he uses whenever needed, which (I have the feeling) is most of the time. But Gary Lucas, who has worked with artists as diverse as Captain Beefheart, Dr. John, Iggy Pop, and John Zorn, as well as producing albums for Tim Berne and Peter Gordon, doesn’t consider himself an improviser at all! Kate Nash uses improvisation purely for her own inspiration while songwriting. Jen Turner, an immensely accomplished guitarist, now plays bass in Here We Go Magic, a band that incorporates improvisation in their live performances to get a “50 percent” ratio with written material. Frank Bello, who plays Richard Hell, told me that the band he plays in, Anthrax, uses group improvisation to write their material, a kind of composition-by-committee. I didn’t get a chance to talk with Rob Burger about the role improvisation plays in his music making, but I could tell that it’s a pretty important part of his arsenal as well.

I also spoke with the actors Frank Wood (who plays Gary Lucas), and Norbert Leo Butz (Hal Willner) about improvisation in their work. They told me that their meetings with the film’s director, Daniel Algrant (who has agreed to discuss his ideas about improvisation when we resume filming), included quite a bit of improvisation that will reflect in the final product. We were filming the rehearsal segments this week and will film the concert segments in mid-September. The actual concert won’t be recreated note-for-note. I have a feeling from what little recorded documentation exists, as well as reviews of the concert, that it wasn’t a total artistic success. I haven’t contacted everyone who was involved in it yet, but plan to between now and the time of the final filming.

What is fascinating to me is how the music of Tim Buckley, who sang in an Irish tenor, inspired the new wave and punk music scenes. His music evolved from folk into jazz and avant-garde toward the end of his life. The 1991 tribute concert produced by Willner, some 16 years after Buckley’s death, included many of the musicians Buckley inspired and launched Jeff Buckley’s career. In turn, the younger Buckley has inspired another half-generation of singer/songwriters and now, 14 years after his death, further tribute is being paid. Of course, I’m honored to be part of it.

To be continued…

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