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Inside Outsider Jazz 

What It Means to Be "Free"

Bone Structure -- Bone Structure
(Gregg Bendian, Jeff Gauthier, Steuart Liebig and G.E. Stinson)


The Blue Series Sampler: The Shape of Jazz to Come -- Various Artists
(Thirsty Ear)

Folks that say they like jazz can usually be divided into a few simple categories.There's the "smooth jazz" fan, who wants the aural equivalent of those miniature faux-Oriental serenity fountains available at any New Age store worth its bath salts. Like said fountains, these people prefer their jazz library stocked with pebbles -- well-worn musical nuggets with absolutely no discernable edge to speak of.

You also have the Canonistas, those with a solid knowledge of the music, as well as all its distinctive subgenres: Bebop, Swing, Fusion, et al. These people know their Coltrane from their Cole Porter, delight in talking about the latest Blue Note and Verve reissues, and can name everyone in the Marsalis family.

Lastly, you have the Futurists. These people are less concerned with melody and rhythm and other such familiar hat-racks as they are the message and language the music uses to tell its story. These people like jazz in the same way some readers prefer the avant-fiction of Donald Barthelme or William H. Gass. Function is indistinguishable from form, in that Bodhisattva way that has inspired so many postmodern artists over the years to look to Eastern mysticism for answers. The final destination (i.e., song) is not as important as the roads -- the musical choices -- one takes to get there.

To be fair, some of the more experimental stuff is not an easy listen. It is not conservative music. Some of it is even purposefully chaotic. As such, it is perfect for our times.

It isn't concerned with selling records, either.

There was an interesting thread on recently, the general premise being that free jazz aficionados are less likely to buy into capitalism than the average Joe. Such a generalization works on a couple of levels.

First, free/improv music fans are, by and large, techno-literate, fond of downloading tracks (usually -- you guessed it -- for free) and following their favorite artists via the Internet. Use of the Net is almost a necessity: save for a few magazines like Signal To Noise and Coda, coverage of free jazz music is infinitesimal. Still, such hardcore usage of the Internet seems to indicate a fondness for toppling popular paradigms, or at least a hunger for new ways of going about old business.

Second, free jazz fans tend to be almost philosophically opposed to worshipping at the altar of the Almighty Dollar. Free jazz, in theory, is taking from the imagination, from what has yet to come, rather than what has come before. It is music that comes down from the ether, into the body, and then out of the instrument almost simultaneously. It is not premeditated. It has No Form, to use a Zen Buddhist idea. Free jazz is full of leaps and challenges, as is life. Free music is of the moment, and its Eastern underpinnings ensure that the artists -- and, by extension, the listener -- stay in the here and now. You can't take it with you, after all, so why worry about it?

None of which ought to come as a surprise. Avant-garde jazz has always had a political element to it. Indeed, people like Amiri Baraka and other black activists roundly acknowledged artists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as spiritual leaders. The unpredictable, emotional, and unrelenting aspects of the music -- which often couched hard ideas in even harder musical forms -- struck an (atonal) chord with their fellow revolutionaries, who used it as a soundtrack to all sorts of activist causes.

Jazz critic Ben Watson wrote in the spring 2001 issue of Signal to Noise that: "Free Improvisation is almost by definition outsider music, opposed to capitalist business as usual; Free Improvisation doesn't guarantee any particular sound or mood, it produces a question mark rather than a commodity. This unpredictability may deter big-shot promoters and corporate sponsors, but it allows Free Improvisation to create pockets of resistance to commercialism: crucial opportunities for people to meet, interact, conspire.

"Improv isn't just another style of music, it's a social activity, a node for networking."

Free jazz and its various offshoots are not elitist, as is often claimed by the popular media. On the contrary -- free jazz and other improv-based music might well be the only people's music we have left, unconcerned as it is with the Almighty Dollar or offending the ears of the impressionable. It is not dead music, though it lives only tenuously on compact disc. It is live music, for better or worse.

Thankfully, it's also alive music.

These days, the music purveyed by labels like Cryptogramophone and Thirsty Ear remains robust, thanks in large part to the philosophy of the music itself. Both labels encourage experimentation even with the "free" form, which may include the addition of everything from funk bass to a DJ scratching records. It is music committed to freedom, and as such, anything goes.

Cryptogramophone's Bone Structure draws from such disparate elements as 70s fusion, Indian ragas and Phillip Glass. Nels Cline has done work with Mike Watt and the Geraldine Fibbers, but he's also covered Coltrane's Interstellar Space -- on guitar. Erik Friedlander mixes Eastern elements with an icy New York City clarity that is breathtaking even after repeated listens.

Thirsty Ear's infamous Blue Series Continuum, an ongoing and open-ended project focusing on a revolving cast of musicians rather than leader-driven projects, includes names like pianist-of-the-moment Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, as well as non-traditional jazzbos like DJ Spooky. The label has even begun to reach out to avant-rappers like Definitive Jux honcho El-P, all in an effort to continually create a new musical landscape.

Of course, not all of it's going to work, or even sound so good. There will be pitfalls and pratfalls and all sorts of other obstacles on the path to righteousness. No matter. One man's potential downfall is another man's excuse to solo.

Catch Tim Davis' weekly experimental radio show, free:form, coming soon at, part of Rock Hill Pirate Radio.

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