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Short Take on Thumbscrew Live at Ironworks (Vancouver, 7 February 2015)

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara (obscured behind people and a post)
Thumbscrew offered up two provocative and powerful sets at Ironworks on Saturday night. Building mostly on compositions from their eponymous album (released on Cuneiform last year), the trio’s music combines infectious come-and-go grooves with rhythmically angular, kiltering melodies and collaboratively deconstructive improvisations to create warmly engaged yet restlessly exploratory performances. Mary Halvorson’s guitar alternated between keening warbles and electrified growls, mixing bendy Johnny Smith-like chords with harder-edged Hendrixisms, cross-purposed and glassily recursive loops with tensile, open mellifluence. Her focus and calm demeanour on the bandstand seemed almost belied by the metallic, clarion fierceness of her sound. Michael Formanek’s firm, resonant bass prodded the trio forward, pushing at the leading edge of the beat. He frequently smiled, looking back and forth between his bandmates as his he drew reverberant, lithe lines from his instrument – which underlined the joyful intensity of their collaborative playing. Tomas Fujiwara’s drumming danced in and out of the pocket, by turns muscular and fleet, turbulent and tight. His body angled slightly back from his kit, he tended to face away from his bandmates, eyes closed, but only to increase what felt like his closely attentive, kinesthetic enmeshment in the group’s shared sound, their collective pulse. A few of the pieces were counted in – 1, 2, 3, 4 – but, still palpably embedded in a fixed metric, they were able to pull and surge and suspend and attenuate the beat to the extend that time itself became organically elastic, fluid, distal.  
The first set list, as far as I could make out from their announcements, started with “Line to Create Madness” (Halvorson), followed by “Buzzard’s Breath” (Formanek), “Nothing Doing” (Fujiwara), a fourth piece the name of which I missed, something called (I think) “Barn Fire Slum Brew” (Fujiwara) and “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” (Formanek). After the break, they returned with “iThumbscrew” (Formanek), “Falling Too Far” (Halvorson), “Goddess Sparkle” (Fujiwara), a new piece by Mary Halvorson called “Convularia” – which she said had been named at her father’s suggestion after a “sweetly scented and highly poisonous plant,” the contrariety suggesting something of the tensions between the lyric and the spiky in her own and in the trio’s playing – followed by a fifth piece that might have been “Fluid Hills in Pink.” They were called back by an enthusiastic audience to play an encore – “we have exactly one more song” in their repertoire, they joked – which was an edgy ballad, to close a terrific evening of music by a brilliantly innovative trio.

A Short Take on Vertical Squirrels, Time of the Sign

Time of the Sign, the third album from the improvising collective Vertical Squirrels (and their second on Montreal’s Ambiances Magnétiques label), is a modest masterpiece, and ranks for me among the very best recordings of 2014. Vertical Squirrels formed as a quartet in 2008 in Guelph; its core members are faculty at the university there, three of them researchers with the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICaSP) research initiative. Pianist Ajay Heble is the founder and (until this year) Artistic Director of the Guelph Jazz Festival, and his academic and curatorial work have brought him into close contact with some of the finest free improvisers in contemporary music. Guitarist Daniel Fischlinhas collaborated with Heble on key works in improvisation scholarship (including The Other Side of Nowhere [Wesleyan, 2004] and The Fierce Urgency of Now[Duke, 2013]) and is an eminent Shakespearean. Electric bassist Lewis Melville taught in the Department of Botany (now Molecular and Cell Biology), and the quartet’s original percussionist Rob Wallace was an ICaSP postdoctoral fellow. In the years leading up to the recording of Time of the Sign in June, 2012, Wallace moved on to other academic employment, and was replaced by drummer Ted Warren.

         The band is expanded to a septet for this recording, and includes Jane Bunnett(on flute and soprano saxophone), Scott Merritt  (on guitar) and Ben Grossman(on hurdy-gurdy), with contributions from Larry Cramer (on trumpet) and – not, perhaps, to be underestimated – Dave Clark (improvised conduction). Many of the musicians double on miscellaneous electronic and little instruments, an echo of some of the performance practices of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. The Vertical Squirrels’ electronic press kit suggests that the group was “initially conceived as an informal outlet to get Heble back into playing piano after years of curating the Guelph Jazz Festival (but rarely performing himself),” but the music doesn’t centre on Heble. Lewis Melville also (on this and the other recordings) is credited as the principal producer, and seems to be something of the instigator for the group. (A recording of his composition for foghorns at the Sound Symposium in St. Johns Newfoundland is also used as a sonic underlay for the last track on the album.) But I think it’s important to emphasize the decentred character of this music: not that it’s ever incoherent, but that no single voice ever predominates or directs. There are no solos on this record, which is partly why I wanted to emphasize something like its modesty: not to say that any of the players is ever diffident or deferential; if anything, each contributor’s line or instrumental texture only adds to the gathering energies, the obvious vitality and shared dynamism that every track evinces. But there is also a proactive humility, a thoroughly engaged mutual practice of listening, that informs this music: each player seems instinctively to know when to sound and when to lay out, and what results is a set of warmly shifting, variegated accretions, folds of resonance and dehiscence, an electro-acoustic version of what Byron, of all poets, once called “voluptuous swell.”

         By saying that there are no solos, I don’t mean to indicate as absence of melodic line or improvisational drive, but rather that this music emerges from simultaneous reciprocities, layers of polymorphic call-and-response but also of departures and excursuses that loop in and out of the general, generative flow. (The music was recorded live, open to the public, over the course of two days: the session announcement is still on Facebook.) The press kit, again, compares their music to some of the improvisational jams of Frank Zappa, and I can hear that, certainly, in their communal emphasis on rock ostinato, riff and groove. But I hear a collation of influences, closer at times to, say, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time group around Virgin Beauty (1988) – without the insistently spiky harmolodic angles of the leader’s alto – or, at other moments, echoes of the audio-Americana of Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny. (Ted Warren’s electronically treated vocals on the title track closely recall Mark Ledford’s melodic doublings with the PMG.) The compiled electric pianos of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way sometimes feel present, and the opening track, “Falling from the Ground Up,” recalls as it unfolds McCoy Tyner’s work from the early 1970s, while Lewis Melville basslines fall at several points into a Tinariwen-like pulse. None of these audible influences ever quite settles or takes hold for more than a minute or two, however, and what emerges as each cut builds is a buoyant, unstable and living audio organism, a porosity. Each time I listen, I hear new things, other textures: the shifting mesh, for instance, of Fischlin’s and Merritt’s guitars set against the phasing, metallic stringiness of Grossman’s hurdy-gurdy and Heble’s roiling and gangly piano makes for a rich differential polyphony. This music is essentially collaborative not because it demands agreement but because it honours co-creative multiplicity, a coming together apart, not to produce community in difference, not to overcome a plural and sometimes unruly lived humanity, but a community of differences, a soundscape that embraces and welcomes the open auditory field of the many, of disenclosure, of more. Time of the Sign is one of the great recordings of committed collective improvisation. 

Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song

Following the performance of The Muted Note: Songs Based on Poems by P. K. Page by Scott Thomson and Susanna Hood, the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation is convening a colloquium called “Extraordinary Presences: Women, Poetry, Art Song” from 2:00 to 5:00 on Thursday, 16 October 2014 in the Dodson Room of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at the University of British Columbia. Two panels of poets, composers, performers and scholars will talk about their own work and their collaborations. Presenters will be investigating the cultural politics of contemporary composition and performance by women: are there particular constraints or challenges that contemporary women artists face? Are there specific musical, textual or performative strategies that women employ in their creative work when faced with such challenges? Is it still necessary or even possible to address artistic work, as performers, composers and listeners, with attention to the complex cultural politics of gender and sexuality? In addition to the two discussion panels, there will be a performance by Lisa Cay Miller of her text-based improvisations for piano, “Lessing Stories.” Admission is free, and the colloquium is open to all, students, artists, academics and the general public.

Colloquium Schedule

2:00-3:00 Panel: Extending the Poetics of Song

Scott Thomson, composer and improviser, Montréal and Toronto

Susanna Hood, vocalist, choreographer, Montréal and Toronto

Sandra Djwa, P. K. Page biographer, Vancouver

Phanuel Antwi, Department of English, UBC

3:00-3:30

Lisa Cay Miller, “Lessing Stories”

3:30-4:30 Panel: Collaborations and Challenges, Sounding Out

Rachel Rose, Vancouver Poet Laureate

Jacquie Leggatt, composer, Vancouver

Bronwyn Malloy, Department of English, UBC

A downloadable PDF version of the colloquium schedule can be found here: Extraordinary Presences schedule

Taylor Ho Bynum on Wreck Beach, 28 August 2014

Sunset on Thursday, August 28, was supposed to happen, according to my smartphone app, at about 8:00pm – although sunsets are attenuated diminishments, not sudden closures of the light, so the timing was no doubt loose enough. But I was still running a bit late, and cutting it close. It was about 7:45. Taylor Ho Bynum had announced that he was beginning his west coast bicycle tour this evening with a sunset fanfare on Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s famously clothing-optional strand, at the tip of Point Grey on the University of British Columbia campus. I wanted to be there to hear him play. Getting to the beach involves descending a fairly steep set of 400-odd wood-framed earthen stairs. I had rushed past some former students at the top, saying hello but that I was headed for what I thought was to be a solo concert of improvised cornet music on the beach that was about to start so I was sorry but I had to go. At least, that’s what I think I said. I took the stairs two-at-a-time as I started down, but that soon proved to be too dangerous a tactic, so I dialed the urgency back a little and settled into a one-by-one descent. Tanned and mellow, loosely garbed nudists and dreadlocked dudes passed by me on their way up from a day of sunbathing in the heavy, bronze August light. The staircase itself is shadowed and cool, snaking along a gully in the cliff-side amid stands of west-coast cedar, poplar and the odd birch. Clumps of oversized ferns open in the various cusps of hillocks a few metres off the south side of the path. As I made my way down, at speed, I was pelted by what looked in the dimness like scissor-winged dark moths, small meandering swarms of them newly airborne, a sign of the oncoming night. One or two clung to the folds of my t-shirt. I brushed them off, and, passing the green plastic Johnny-on-the-Spot, emerged from the trees onto the beach sand at the foot of the stairs.
         I couldn’t see anything that looked like a concert. It took a moment to orient myself. Scattered beach-goers were still perched against logs, facing the Georgia Strait, watching the sunset in the west across the water. A naked, deeply tanned old man nodded and passed me. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening. I thought I might have missed Taylor Ho Bynum.
         And then I heard what sounded like a Harmon-muted horn, a little faint, off to the right of the stairs. Perched against one of the many driftwood logs that serve as breaks and that define limited privacies amid this reach of open public space, Taylor – shirt off – was playing to some seagulls who had waddled up to him, curious. I came over and sat on the log next to his. There seemed to be a few other people around the space, at their own chosen logs, who were listening, too. Most of the folks around us were couples, however, out for some kind of romantic postcard moment. The seagulls squawked at Taylor’s playing, and he engaged in a little playful conversation with them, before they wandered off. The couple I took for lovers looked over, once, then went back to themselves. The Harmon mute on the cornet gave his sound an intimacy, a hush that was a little swallowed in the rhythmic wash of ocean on sand, and in the wide-open air. You had to be sitting close by to hear.

         Taylor finished what he was playing, set down his horn, and put on his shirt. I came over to him and said hello. He’s a very affable, open person, and chatted for a few minutes, telling me how on the very first leg of his bicycle tour – what would probably amount to 1800 miles over the course of five or six weeks, from Vancouver to Tijuana, playing concerts and ad hoc gigs along the way – he had fallen and cut his leg and arm; he had just been washing his cuts in ocean water, which he told me he hoped would work as a kind of natural antiseptic. (Taylor’s own account of his accident, and of playing on Wreck Beach, can be found in his on-line journal for his Bicycle Tour.)

         Another listener, whom I recognized from jazz festival gigs this past June and whose name, if I remember right, is Michael, sat down on the log opposite, and joined in the casual talk.
         Taylor noticed that the sun was beginning to set in earnest, and said he ought to play some music, like he’d intended. He was concerned that he might be too loud for the thinning community of beach-goers around us, so he placed a soft hat over the bell of his cornet. He improvised an angled fanfare for a little under ten minutes, eventually removing the hat and letting the horn sing out a bit more fully. Michael and I sat a few feet on either side of him as he played, facing the water. The open ocean seemed more or less to swallow up the sound – I don’t think there was a danger of him being too loud here – while the cedars lining the embankment behind us occasionally bounced a cluster of notes back toward us, gently resonant. He was recording himself on an iPad that he had placed to his right, against the log. He put both performances on Sound Cloud – they’re called “Gulls” and “Wrecked at Sunset” (the latter presumably in honour both of Wreck Beach and his crash) – and you can easily make out the ways in which he shifts from counterpointing his lines with the aural textures of the local biosphere through a form of call and response, leaving space for those ambient sounds to overcome his notes before reasserting his voice in tandem with that soundscape, shifting foreground and background, and finally, to my ear, melding his voice into that variegated chorus. You can hear at the close of “Wrecked at Sunset,” if you listen closely, the trees returning his melodies like ghosts.
         For those few minutes, it felt like Taylor had begun to initiate a musical ecology: situated and embodied, even a little wounded, this wasn’t a “concert” but a shared auditory space, or better: a temporary entry into the layered networks of place, a kind of sonic reciprocity. The inescapably linear monody produced by the cornet gains depth and polymorphous heft by combining expressive assertion with attentive deference, by concocting instances of responsive, correspondent exchange. A conversing. Not playing for so much as playing along, playing with.

Actual sunset with which Taylor Ho Bynum was playing on Wreck Beach– including a couple in the right foreground.

         After Taylor finished, and we chatted a little more, one of the RCMP officers who patrol the shore strolled past, and politely suggested that the beach would be closing at dark, and it was time to go. Taylor picked up his horn, and played the Miles Davis outro tag-line from “The Theme,” a light-hearted nod to the historical spectres of improvisers who inevitably haunt our musical memories and an acknowledgement, by quirkily twisting jazz convention, of the ways in which this was no concert, no outdoor club date.  He packed up his horn, and picked up his bike, which he had carried down to the beach and which he would have to carry back up the stairs with him. And that was that.

Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackey and Discrepancy (Audio)

Here is an audio capture of “Possibility Abstracts: Taylor Ho Bynum, Nathaniel Mackeyand Discrepancy,” a paper I delivered in Prague, in the Czech Republic, on 18 July 2014 as part of the vs. Interpretation symposium, sponsored by the Agosto Foundation. The text riffs on the epistolary form of Nathaniel Mackey’s serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, particularly the fourth volume, Bass Cathedral, on which Taylor Ho Bynum draws for his modular composition Navigation, versions of which he recorded with his sextet for release on Firehouse 12 records late last year. (See firehouse12records.com/album/navigat…12-recordings.) For me, this music is a contemporary masterpiece, negotiating the liminal zone – the discrepancies – between the improvised and the composed, and doing so in such as way as to creatively undo that rather careless binary. There is an excellent review of Navigation by Stuart Broomer in Point of Departure.

Short Take on George Lewis, Pauline Oliveros and Joelle Leandre Live in Prague

Tonight as part of the Agosto Foundation’s vs. Interpretationsymposium and festival at the NOD arts space in Prague, we heard a freely improvised performance by the trio of Pauline Oliveros (Roland V-accordion), Joëlle Léandre (double bass and voice) and George Lewis (laptop, trombone). This morning, George Lewis gave a talk on the prehistory of improvisation studies, making a case for approaching improvisation not as a study of criteria or constraint but of what he called “conditions,” which seemed to me to be a call to attend to the diversity of generative circumstances, and their intersection in historically situated performances. He was arguing, gently, against defining improvisation as such, and instead asking his audience to consider how improvising might open up possibilities for self-aware creative practice. The concert this evening was introduced by, I believe, Cynthia Plachá of the Agosto Foundation, who reiterated something Joëlle Léandre had said at a workshop this afternoon, that when you improvise “you must be prepared for the unprepared.” Both of these assertions – around the conditional or situated sharing that improvisation enacts, and around the paradoxical acuity involved in improvisational practices – informed the trio’s collaborative music-making.
They performed one 45-minute piece, recorded by Czech Radio for broadcast, which apparently Pauline Oliveros had named “Play As You Go” ahead of time, although there wasn’t any pre-planning. Joëlle Léandre’s playing had a firmness of touch and such a strikingly clear sense of line or trajectory, her tone consistently full and resonant. Pauline Oliveros’s electronified accordion shifted between foreground and background, often supplying aural textures that were by turns cohesive and disruptive, simultaneously braiding into and fraying at the trio’s combined sound-palette. George Lewis layered samples from his laptop, many of them having a certain digital brightness that he subsequently often pulled and muddied, electronic sheen mitigated by the more closely corporeal sounds of breath and lip, particularly when he used his blue (!) trombone as both a sampled sound source and as an unmodified instrument: his characteristic fierce blatt, at the few moments when he did seem to dig into his horn, was instantly recognizable. But this wasn’t a music of solos or singular voices so much as of organic reciprocity and co-creation.
There were some passing moments – when Joëlle Léandre started to sing lyrically about the slightly oppressive heat in the performance space (“It’s hot, it’s hot . . . “) or when Pauline Oliveros echoed a cough from the audience by jabbing her right hand at the accordion’s lower keys – of humour and irony, suggesting how all sonic resources, high and low, occasional and musically dense, could be repurposed into interactive soundings. The music didn’t so much progress or develop as trace its way through a loose series of temporarily sustained, situated idioms – sometimes meditative, sometimes contrarian, sometimes melodically assertive, sometimes coevally plural: layers of shifting texture, refigurings. This was a brilliantly sui generis music, and we left the concert feeling energized, enlivened and moved.

Toward an Improvisational Pedagogy 1

Over the last decade, using various undergraduate and graduate classes as provisional testing grounds, I have been trying to develop what I have come to think of as an improvisational pedagogy. By “improvisational pedagogy” I don’t just mean teaching about criticism of improvisation and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance . . .), although such work certainly forms part of what I might do. And I don’t necessarily mean teaching classes on how to improvise, although techniques derived from the hands-on practice of various forms of improvisation constitute significant elements in a nascent methodology. I mean, I think, an educational practice that engages in real time with its own cognitive, creative and critical horizons, the self-attentive work of thinking on your feet, both before and with other people.

In forthcoming posts over the next few months, I’m planning to write in better detail about what I feel are some of the significant learning outcomes of such a pedagogy – including remarks on technique and nascent methodology, on student reactions, on literacy and critical canon, and on what others in the emerging field have called “the ethics of co-creation” – but for now I want to restrict myself to laying a little personal groundwork for this field of study. I have been participating this past week, telematically, in a think-tank at Memorial University, convened by the new International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, aimed at producing a draft curriculum for a potential graduate program for the study of improvisation. Some tangible results of our discussions and our collective commitment to this process will no doubt emerge in the coming year as this program takes shape, but for the moment I want to note how apparent it became during our meetings that we needed not only to define our field but to do so in a manner that distinguishes its salient characteristics, the traits and tactics that set it apart.

This conceptual winnowing, however, is particularly challenging around the study of improvisation because of its ubiquity: a fact that makes it both essential to study and seemingly impossible to frame as an object of study. At its core, improvisation articulates a deliberate elusiveness; whatever else it does, improvisation defines itself across a vast array of social and cultural practices as a refusal of the definitive, as excess. Whatever else – to repurpose an unsettled line from the self-troubling poet Irving Layton – whatever else, improvisation is freedom. It inclines, in all of its multiple and incommensurate forms, toward “whatever else,” toward not being an “it” at all, constantly worrying at and unknitting the hard knot of that “is” in definitions such as this. It’s a modality, for me, of creative undoing.

In a 2007 lecture called “Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction,” George Lewis – who for many of us has become one of the major figures in shaping the field – reflects on how

improvisation is everywhere, but it is very hard to see. That’s because improvisation is not really a philosophical Haltung for a few people living the artist’s life, but a fundamental mode of being in the world that all of us share.

Everybody improvises, all the time. But next to no one appears to attend with much care or acuity to the implications of the forms and practices of improvisation; like Lewis, and despite my privileging of aesthetic in my own teaching and writing, I don’t mean to aggrandize the role of the critic or the artist or the pedagogue in raising such reflexive awareness, but rather – through Lewis – to affirm the political necessity of such study within democratic space, within the culturally and socially managed domains of that sharing. Improvisation, Lewis asserts, “is the ubiquitous practice of everyday life, a primary method of meaning exchange in any interaction,” but that primacy remains largely unaddressed and under-scrutinized. The task, as Lewis understands it, is first of all to illuminate “the condition of improvisation,” and then to interrogate its affective and material impacts on the conduct of human life:

My overall view of improvisation, which can be described (if not defined) as exploration, discovery and response to conditions, part of a ubiquitous human practice of real-time analysis, generation, manipulation, exchange, and transformation of meaning, mediated by (among other factors) the body, history, temporality, space, memory, intention, material culture, and diverse methodologies. My claim is that improvisation is fundamental to the existence and survival of every human formation, from the individual to the community, through the postnational body to the species itself.

This is a big claim for what has been, by his own admission, a neglected and marginalized field of study, but I want to be clear that I hear his interdisciplinary sweep not as apologetics or as rhetoric, but as a genuine imperative. Improvisation names a fundamental human relationship to temporality and to historicity, and offers a distinct and crucial means – however plural and however elusive – to address who and when and where we are.

In an effort to stabilize improvisation into something like a concept, I want to invoke Michel Foucault’s reworking of the Aristotelean ἐπιστήμη or “science.” In The Order of Things, Foucault deploys the term episteme to refer to a way of knowing that pervades specific cultural or historical epochs:

In any given culture and at any given moment, there is always only one episteme that defines the conditions of possibility of all knowledge, whether expressed in a theory or silently invested in a practice.

As a “field of scientificity,” an episteme doesn’t define a particular science (Latin scientia, “knowledge, a knowing; expertness”) so much as the range and limits of the truth-value of science as such: what counts and what doesn’t count as knowledge. This formulation strikes me as too inherently rigid, but in as much as improvisation both shapes and evaluates the immediate production and dissemination of knowledge in our present age, in as much as it might name historicity as such – a ubiquitous set of human relations both to and within ordinary time – it strikes me that it might be useful to think it through as one among several entwined episteme of our given moment, as a name for the enactive articulations and mobilizations of knowledge in the human present. Thinking improvisation along these lines – despite Foucault’s early and I think untenable tendency to want conceptually to reduce and to homogenize – might offer an opportunity to describe, if not to define, a finite set of modalities within an extemporaneous science, modalities of knowing less prehensile, less closed and enclosing, than we might expect,— including listening (or better, aisthesis), practicing, collaboration, intersubjectivity, reciprocity, alterity. Improvising might be better understood neither as a method nor as a discrete modality of knowledge creation, but more as a resonant network of commensurate modalities. This list a merely a starting point, and such modalities would need to be much more rigorously investigated and situated, but at least for the present such terminology may offer a means of settling on something approaching a basis for thinking through improvisation.

Double Short Take on Francois Houle, Alexander Hawkins and Harris Eisenstadt Trio Live at Ironworks

Late Sunday night, June 29th, for the last concert of this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Innovations Series at Ironworks, I caught the first performance by an extraordinary new trio – Francois Houle, clarinets, Alexander Hawkins, piano, and Harris Eisenstadt, drums.  “On fire!” one member of the audience called out at the conclusion of their vociferous and strident opening number, an annunciation of gathering energies. I heard the trio again at a fantastic afternoon gig at Performance Works on Granville Island for Canada Day, and it felt as if, in the intervening hours, the group had transformed from a brilliant summit meeting of next-generation improvisers into a coherent and organically responsive ensemble.

The set list for both performances was the same, as far as I could tell: an array of original compositions from each of its three members, along with two art songs by Steve Lacy: “Esteem” and “Art.” Aside from paying tribute to their avant-jazz lineage, the inclusion of the Lacy material offered their audience some sense of the dynamic historicity of the trio’s present-tense music-making. A previous project by Houle, for instance, engaged with the compositions of John Carter, himself an improviser deeply cognizant of the complex and conflicted history of jazz; Houle’s music seems to me often to negotiate creatively between the expressive and the given, to find its contingent voice at the interface between a virtuosic performer and a motile tissue of echoes, sounding and refiguring its liminally audible past. In fact, a version of this presencing informa the playing of all three. This trio co-creatively takes up each member’s disparate instrumental and aesthetic lineages, and finds points of tension and intersection, prodding their collective sound forward along the shared leading edge of their on-stage, real-time encounter, something Herman Melville – from whose poem “Art” Lacy’s composition took shape – names “pulsed life” that emerges from the creative and attentive collision of unlikenesses:
In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.
Eisenstadt, Houle and Hawkins fuse audacity and reverence in their music, which enacted during those two performances a generative wrestling with its angelic forebears and also with the immediate living context of its realization. (Lacy says in his own notes to the song that the poem seems to him to frame “the exact recipe for this activity,” for improvisational music-making.) This trio’s instrumentation (reeds/ piano/ drums) recalls the grouping that recorded Steve Lacy’s The Flame (from 1982, with Bobby Few on piano and Denis Charles on drums), but I have to say that I didn’t recognize either of the Lacy compositions at first hearing, and that Hawkins’s style is very different from Few’s, and that he draws out a more orchestrally thick and layered sound from the piano. His occasional use of wide, ringing intervals in his left hand recalled another of Lacy’s piano cohorts, Mal Waldron, but despite the inclusion of Lacy’s compositions, the Hawkins/ Houle/ Eisenstadt trio’s approach and textures were markedly different from this particular precursor.

Instead, especially during the second performance, when Hawkins launched into an extended solo passage of fractal stride, it felt to me, at least for a few minutes, as if the spectre of Teddy Wilson were somehow in the house, and that the drive and sustained ebullience of Eisenstadt’s drumming called up the impeccable abandon of Gene Krupa – whose fierce swing feel sometimes surged and ebbed from his brushes – who played alongside Teddy Wilson in Benny Goodman’s famous trio, whose instrumentation this current trio duplicates exactly. Or to go even further back I thought I could hear some of Johnny Dodds’s playing with Jelly Roll Morton, maybe with a hint here and there of Baby Dodds’s rolling tom-toms or Sid Catlett’s demiurgic rumble (to poach a phrase from Nathaniel Mackey). Still, this music isn’t in any sense neo-trad, and remains decidedly experimental in its orientation, extemporaneously free. But its approach also isn’t non-idiomatic – after Derek Bailey concept of “free” improvisation – so much as poly-idiomatic, a version perhaps of what Steve Lacy called, in the early 1970s when he composed “Esteem,” “poly-free”: a music that’s multivalent, iterative, recombinant. At one point during the first gig, for example, Houle’s circular breathing and quick-fingered looping lines recalled Evan Parker’s solo soprano technique, a sonic gesture that, more than mere homage, lent a contingently historical sense of form even to a doggedly contemporary musical avant-grade. It was as if, for each member of the trio, clusters of aural vocabulary and figments of style were simultaneously activated, cross-purposed, undone, imaginatively remade and even transubstantiated in the crucible of any given moment into a kinetic and differential accord: an alchemy of sound that I hope they managed to record, or might record soon, because, well, I’d like to hear it happen again.

Pursuing Ecstasy: Darius Jones and Tarbaby at Ironworks

Listening to improvised music can feel like chasing ecstasy: catching at those rare, first and fleeting moments of transport, of heightened attention and unadulterated joy that the performers are also after, often on our behalf – what John Coltrane might have called, following the title of one of the movements of A Love Supreme, pursuance. Last night in Vancouver in an 80-minute set, the alto saxophonist Darius Jones, buoyed up by the surging mellifluence of the piano trio Tarbaby, unleashed those spirit-heavy resonances, that deep cry, in song after song. I’m grateful to been there in the audience at the Ironworks, grateful to have heard. The compositions they played came mostly from Darius Jones’s recent album on AUM Fidelity, Book of Mae’bul, but despite being assembled as a quartet only for a current brief tour, these musicians are much, much more than featured-soloist-and-rhythm-section; they attain an audible integration, a co-creative and responsive agency that feels as if they have been together for years. The opening number reminded me a little of a David S. Ware quartet, with its roiling, keening groove, while I also heard passing echoes, I thought, of Coltrane’s late quartet, with Nasheet Waits’s multiloquent drumming calling up at times the robust, insistent textures Rashied Ali’s layered conception. Orrin Evans’s piano alternates between attenuated lyricism – his left-hand chords often feel suspended, as if holding their breath – and driving provocation. At one point in an improvisation, he appeared to find the famous melody from “I Got Rhythm,” not as an ironically knowing quote but as a means of casting our ears back over a century of foundational jazz practice, palpably reinvigorating a fragment of thoroughly worn-down standard by pulling and caressing the familiar phrase into an alternate time-frame, cross-purposing, if only for a few seconds, the known and the unknown, unsettling the given. Eric Revis’s bass playing felt charged and profound, pushing the music forward with cascading fierceness. Darius Jones’s lines negotiated between dulcet and ululating, shifting from seductive balladry to jagged yawp, before arriving at what felt to me like heartfelt psalmody. The quartet offered us a tremendous, powerful and moving set, a music that, for almost an hour and a half, bore witness to and delivered genuine, shared beauty.

George E. Lewis: Afro/Eurological Collisions

Here is the text of my colloquium paper presented this morning (Saturday, 21 June 2014) at “Improvising Across Boundaries: An Unconventional Colloquium” co-curated by the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) and Coastal Jazz, as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. (Given the time constraints, some of the transitions are rather abrupt, but I wanted to counterpose Paolo Freire’s “critical” pedagogy with Lewis’s approach to improvisation, for example, so I just went ahead with it as a kind of provocation.)

In the nascent, polymorphous field of what we can now call Critical Studies in Improvisation, the creative work and the scholarship of George E. Lewiscontinues to play a crucial role. A justly celebrated composer and performer, he has also become a key voice, both as public intellectual and as pedagogue, in recent academic and aesthetic debates around the cultural and social roles of improvisation. His accretive, open-minded forays into the improvised emerge from what I am going to characterize as collisionsamong subject positions, methodologies and conceptual arrays associated with a diverse aggregation of thinkers and artists, of improvisers, whose practice-based research – interventions, performances, and reflections – both shapes and interrogates this field. To put it as succinctly and as abstractly as I can, improvisation tends to emerge from and to inhere in its own creative undoing, and George Lewis’s music and writing want to address and to inhabit that liminal space, that contact zone, that edge. For a few minutes today, I want to test out the trope of the collision to try to explain a little of what his work on improvisation and his improvised work undertake. How and what does his practice-based research teach us? What forms of knowledge and of knowing do his improvisations produce and collide?
         I only have space to sketch one such collision today, around what Lewis calls “ethnic and racial identifiers” in contemporary music. Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Nina Simone, among others, preferred to characterize the continuum in which they situated their playing as “Black Classical Music,” yoking their work to popular, soul, church, blues and folk lineages and streams, as well as to what gets marketed, now as it did then, under the label “jazz.” This name-change is more than merely personal preference, and more than loosely salutary. It opens up a deep wound, a problematic around reception and legitimation of racially-marked artistry, but also seeks not to heal, however provisionally, or to suture or even Band-Aid that wound, necessarily, so much as to take issue with and even to subvert such glibly remedial tactics.
In his 2004 essay“Gittin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination,” Lewis refigures this collision of “Black” and “Classical” music-making by offering a provisional history of the performance of Lester Bowie’s 1969 composition “Gittin’ to know y’all” at the “Free Jazz Treffen” in Baden-Baden that December, a performance that orchestrated a form of summit meeting between “two avant-gardes”: members of Chicago’s AACM and a set of European “free jazz” musicians. Lewis demonstrates how a presumptive binary that emerges from critical stereotyping around African-American and European cultural heritage grossly mischaracterizes the conversations and negotiations that actually occur within the music, not to reconcile differences but to sound them, and to approach them creatively. What I’m provisionally calling “collision” may sound like another name for dialectic, for a conflict of artistic interest, but I’m trying to name a set of relations among practicing improvisers that is agonistic, plural and networked rather than merely antithetical.
Lewis refers at the outset of his account of Lester Bowie’s composition to an earlier essay in which he distinguishes between what he calls Eurological and Afrological “musical belief systems and behavior”; rather than reinstitute a sweeping critical binary – which, at first glance, the pair of terms might obviously seem to do – Lewis wants to theorize exemplary and particular aspects of musical logic linked not to genetic or cultural phenotypes but to situated, historically-emergent social narratives. This conceptual move, he argues, can enable both scholars and practitioners to reflect on the “possibilities for artists to move across, transgress and possibly erase borders.” In his 1996 essay, Lewis is more specific about his deliberately contingent, complementary terms:
my construction of “Afrological” and “Eurological” systems of improvisative musicality refers to social and cultural location and is theorized here as historically emergent rather than ethnically essential, thereby accounting for the reality of transcultural and transracial communication among improvisers. For example, African-American music, like any music, can be performed by a person of any “race” without losing its character as historically Afrological [. . .]. My constructions make no attempt to delineate ethnicity or race, although they are designed to ensure that the reality of the ethnic or racial component of a historically emergent sociomusical group must be faced squarely and honestly.
Lewis’s materialist distrust of abstracted binaries informs his assessment of Lester Bowie’s music and of his own. “I wanted to explore,” he says in the liner notes to the recording of “Sequel . . . (For Lester Bowie),” a composition closely linked to his essay,
this hybrid conception that allows the free flow between the two spheres with musicians that are equally at home in the so-called acoustic and so-called electronic world. This faked binary, which has sprung up over the years, has become completely useless today.
Other “faked” binaries – between composition and improvisation, between score and text, between the individual and the collective – are also refused and refigured in what Lewis here repeatedly names “hybridity.” I’m challenging that term a little here – pace Lewis himself – by insisting on “collisions” rather than hybrids because I want to reconsider how the fusion of interests implied by the trope of the hybrid might invite us to gloss over the persistent creative divergences that also emerge from this refusal; it feels a little too synthetic, in other words, a little too compliant.
Within Lewis’s conceptual frame, the Afrological is deliberately privileged, if only because Afrological improvisative practices and traditions have been consistently devalued and underrepresented, and their recovery represents a significantly politicized gesture within the cultural politics of music. Afro-diasporic musical practices connect improvisation and community building (Lewis evokes the genre of the “ring shout,” for instance, to describe collective interchange) neither accede to nor supplant the Eurological aesthetic and social genres, but to supplement, challenge, appropriate, subvert, and remake.
The individual, expressive voice of the cogent, virtuosic performer, for example, is neither accepted nor discarded in this conception, but refigured as a subject position within a dynamic network of voices. In his notes to “Sequel: A Composition for Cybernetic Improvisors (For Lester Bowie),” Lewis gestures at what he values as an :inherent instability” within improvised performances:
My experience of the people here as well as many other people is that if they do have a personal style, it’s going to take you a long time to figure it out, probably as long as it took them to create it. I see people as creating more from a sort of multiple-voiced way. And to me that’s different from personal style. I think, because of that multiple-voiced nature and the inherent instability which goes along with it that’s where interchange and these new ideas really become possible.
We need to ask ourselves if, in the recording or especially in the live performance of a Lewis composition such as “Sequel,” we can hear the situated, historically specific character of this interchange, and what this reconceptualized practice of an active and engaged audition means. (Consider the complex circumstances informing Miya Masaoka’s innovative koto playing, for example.) But I do want to insist that in the audible collisions, transitions and even transgressions among the various, unsettled instrumentalists in this recording don’t manifest conflict but what sounds to me like productive conversation – and by productive, I don’t mean politely deferential, but closely responsive, reciprocal, attentive.
There is what I’d call an improvisational pedagogy in Lewis’s work, but not a pedagogy of lectures and informatics. Instead, the kind of knowledge-production in which Lewis interests himself is the recovery of a dynamic situatedness, of an interchange, of multiplicity.  It seems to me that the radical pedagogy of Paolo Freire might provide a helpful supplement to Lewis’s music and scholarship around his agonistic sublation of cultural binaries through situated, reflexive education. “Responsibility,” Freire asserts in “Education as the Practice of Freedom,” an intervention that coincidentally appeared in 1969 around the time of Lester Bowie’s “Gittin’ to know y’all,” “Responsibility cannot be acquired intellectually, but only through experience” (16). Freire isn’t dismissing intellection – he’s engaged in it as he writes, after all – but arguing that thought needs to be coupled to practice, rather than opposed to it, if it is to have any transformative effect, any meaning:
Critical [that is, actively self-aware] transitivity is characteristic of authentically democratic regimes and corresponds to highly permeable, interrogative, restless, and dialogical forms of life . . . . (18-19)
In Lewis’s “Sequel,” and in his other compositions, performances and even lectures and essays, I hear this active permeability as a restless and audible collision of voices.
Reading
Paolo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness. 1969. New York: Continuum, 1973. Print.

George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.

—, “Gittin’ To Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination.” Critical Studies in Improvisation 1.1 (2004). http://www.criticalimprov.com/article/view/6/14

—, “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.” Black Music Research Journal 16.1 (Spring, 1996): 91-122.