Free Jazz? No. Music freed!

People talk about “Free Jazz“. I prefer to think of it as “Music freed”. What we improvisors are doing with this approach is liberating the music from the restraints imposed on it by the conventions of Jazz. You see, Jazz is a wrapper – a system of parameters that contain something. It’s that something that we are liberating when we improvise. “Jazz” is a term we use to describe a style of music made by African-American musicians from the beginning of the twentieth century until about the beginning of the 1970s which was characterized by very strict adherence to harmonic and rhythmic conventions of the popular music of the time. That was/is the wrapper. This was/is what became the vehicle for delivering the something, the substance or message during a period in history when the message was marginalized by the establishment because it was feared. In the modern world, the message doesn’t need to be masked in the cloak of a Pop song – the world is ready to receive the truth.

So now we play the Music rather than play around the Music. You dig?


Why are you playing?

Recently, I had to stop and take a serious look at my motives. It occurred to me that, with the democratization of music production and distribution, the airwaves are filled with an inordinate amount of music made solely for profit. In fact, it seems that most people now engage in music making solely for the purpose of making silly money or “becoming famous”. This is evidenced by the proliferation of the “Idol” type television programs and the consolidation of the principal record labels. I mean: whatever happened to making music for the sake of making Music?

Not to diss anyone – I have as much respect for Red One and anyone else who’s doing an honest day’s work – I grew up believing that making Music was its own reward. I learned that if one “follows the Muse” all of the details would take care of themselves. Naive? It seemed to work ok for me this far and it certainly appears to be working for Cecil Taylor. To make Music, to explore the sculpting of silence, differs greatly from what is represented in major media as music. For the first, there is rarely – if ever – any silence in commercial music. In fact, silence is the worst thing that can happen in a disco. Note the panic when a power failure or some other error causes the music to stop. Contrast that with the importance of silence in “serious music”. What would Feldman be without silence or Mozart? Not to mention Cage


So, why are you playing? What inspires you and motivates you to pick up the instrument? One of the great divas was quoted by Gary Karr as saying that she sang because she loved the sound of her voice.  “Love” should be the only motivation because that which we do out of love we do best. Engaging in Music making for/out of love for Music results in Music which is passionate and meaningful. Meaningful? We know that Music is worship. It always has been and always will be. This is why all of the major religions require that all priests/congregation leaders have a complete education in Music before they can become priests. Music is that important. It has been a part of every significant rite and ritual in human history.  Just consider the number of the sixty-six books of the Bible that are attributed to non-musicians: they aren’t many. “…when he stood before the alter, Solomon sang“. Worship is adoration. Music is worship. Music made from any other point of reference is by nature not Music. That doesn’t mean that other musics are bad. They  just aren’t Music. It’s like these Jazz related oxymorons like “Nordic Jazz” or “Balkan Jazz” and the like. These musics are not “Jazz”. “Jazz” is a term we use to describe a style of music made by African-American musicians from the beginning of the twentieth century until about the beginning of the 1970s which was characterized by very strict harmonic and rhythmic conventions particular to this style of music. These other musics are rather “modern European chamber musics” or “instrumental pop musics” – not Jazz. This doesn’t make them inferior or “bad”. They just aren’t Jazz. We need to find another name for music that isn’t Music.


Are you making Music or are you making music? Are you playing your instrument or are you engaging in a meditative practice that is raising the vibrational frequency of your “good”? What are you doing, really? Albert Ayler said in an interview that he needed to get his Music out of the Jazz clubs because people were drinking and getting high while listening to the Music.  Just as you wouldn’t go to temple high, you shouldn’t be engaging in Music in an altered state of mind either.  Music making is an altered state of mind in itself. It is a very high form of meditation and like all other forms of meditation, in order to get the most from it one must be “present”.


So, why are you really playing? Are you playing or are you doing something else?

“Play or die” – Anthony Braxton

I must do what I do. Not because I can’t do anything else. I do this music because I “hear it” and if I don’t do it no one else will. I believe that we each have been blessed with our own music – our own, uniquely individual conception of what “music” should sound like. Some of us go through the trouble to learn how to realize this vision and present it to its public. There is an audience out there for every music that can be conceived. If you can dream it – hear it in your “inner ear” – then there is someone out there who will (figuratively) dance to it. This I have seen to be true. I have spent my entire adult life committed to the production and promotion of “my music”. Contrary to popular belief, there is a lucrative market out there for even the most “non-commercial” music if it is done with conviction and is made available to its audience.

If I should have chosen to not do my music, I would have been guilty of committing a great crime against myself and the people for whom my music matters. Anthony Braxton said “play or die”. I believe he meant “play your music or die”.


How do we do it?

There is “freedom” and there is “structure”, right? No, not really. Not when we’re talking Improvised Music. I had a very interesting communication with a guy who bought the MussoMusic release by Doom Dogs (my band, not the Finnish metal band who stole our name) “Personal Nuclear Device”. He really liked the music and wanted recommendations for more music like it. Here’s the thing: he had checked out other MussoMusic releases, specifically the Machine Gun titles and found Machine Gun to be too “unstructured” compared to Doom Dogs. Interesting because the Doom Dogs sessions were totally improvised. No instructions, no forms. Just completely free improvisation. Machine Gun, on the other hand, by comparison, was highly structured as we usually based our improvisations on some set – albeit simple – parameters.

So what was happening? Well, Doom Dogs was more “Harmolodic” whereas Machine Gun was more “energy music”. Or, pan-tonal spontaneous composition verses wall of sound, if you will. Both are improvising ensembles. They just organize different musical material. You see, free Improvisation (with a capital ‘i’) does not mean that you “play whatever you want”. It means that you are free to choose how you interact within the ensemble. There are always structures. There are always forms. That’s the nature of music. As soon as two events occur you have a structure/form. The question is how “conventional” those forms and structures are. The further from traditional/conventional modes of organization the fresher and more interesting the improvisation. The trick is to improvise convincingly and not lose your audience. I don’t care what any one says: even the most dedicated free improv audience is looking for a structure. The thrill is in witnessing an ensemble spontaneously create and work their way through a coherent, new musical form.

We achieve these feats of magic through listening. It’s all in the listening. This is why a conduction sounds notably different from a group improvisation. In a conduction, everyone is listening to one person: the conductor. In a group Improvisation, the musicians are listening to each other. You can imagine how the dynamics differ.

I was once (many times, actually) asked how to balance open improvisation with the need to maintain some kind of coherence in an ensemble. First: improvisation is not the lack of coherence Not listening is. As soon as musicians are listening and looking for a musical conclusion you have coherence. When the entire group is focused on finding a musical resolution to the chaos that ensues from the first event of the improvisation you have structure. It’s that simple, isn’t it?

Music heals

The world is a beautiful place and life is a wonderful thing. Still, a big part of living in this world is the phenomenon we know as pain. This does not negate any of the joy that is living. Nor is it the opposite of a good life. Pain is a part of life. Accept this fact and get on with it. Now, suffering, on the other hand, is optional. No one is exempt from pain. There will be plenty of that in everyone’s life. There isn’t anything that you or I or anyone else can do about it. To suffer is a choice. Suffering is one of many possible responses to pain.

So what does this have to do with Improvised Music? Well, it has everything to do with my music. Or I should say: the point of my music.

One day I woke up and realized that there was a lot of suffering in the world. There are a lot of people hopelessly suffering in this world and they don’t know that that they have a choice to feel otherwise. There is so much suffering in the world, I concluded, that I could spend the rest of my life dedicating each gig i do to the healing of someone’s suffering and never run out of unique causes to champion. That was the idea behind my project “Peace Themes” and will be the idea behind every presentation of my music.

Music is the healing force of the Universe. That’s why it has taken center stage in every ritual and rite throughout the history of humankind. To use it for anything else is an abuse of one of the greatest gifts we have.

What do you think?