Music and the Creative Spirit: Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation, and the Avant Gardeby Lloyd Peterson
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Like most ground-breaking art forms, contemporary creative music is rarely understood or accepted in its own time, and for those reasons, can largely go unheard. Music and the Creative Spirit: Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation, and the Avant Garde aims to give today's brightest music innovators due recognition and respect, celebrating their work and creativity. Through personal interviews, artists such as Pat Metheny, Regina Carter, Joshua Redman, Fred Anderson, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell, David Murray, and John Zorn—to name just a few—offer clear, frank discussions about music, creativity, work, society, culture, current events, and more.
Author Lloyd Peterson has hand picked these artists specifically for their ability to express themselves through their own creative voices and transcend their art form through the strength of their own ingenious spirit. Their music eschews categorization, genre, or style, and the book necessarily takes a broader view of jazz, tapping into the inventive aspect that is difficult to describe or teach, and is rarely discussed. By allowing the innovators an opportunity to speak for themselves, readers are afforded a clearer sense of their attitudes and approaches, their ways of working, and their views of contemporary music and society.
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Music and the Creative Spirit
Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation, and the Avant Garde
By Lloyd Peterson
THE SCARECROW PRESS, INC.Copyright © 2006 Lloyd Peterson
All rights reserved.
There comes a time for every musician who chooses music as their lifelong pursuit, a dream of reaching that creative place beyond the notes of a score, beyond the world of academics, and beyond the reach of the instrument they play. It's a mysterious place that can elude even the world's greatest musicians, is rarely discussed, and is even more difficult to explain. It provides more questions than answers, and those that create from it are few. Chicago composer and saxophonist Fred Anderson is one of those few.
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What is music?
Music is life and is bigger than all of us. We need to nurture it, keep the spirit going and, like anything artistic in life, it needs to be preserved. And it's difficult to put into words because each person interprets what it means according to how they feel at that particular time in their life. Some people experience it over and over and some people experience it for the first time. It's our existence but you have to listen to hear the story. It's your understanding of yourself and a language that you can learn to speak. When you are faced with difficulty, it can provide you with peace but trying to explain it is another thing completely. It provides a forecast for what's going on at that time. And it's like this life. You don't know when you are going to leave or how long you are going to stay and then all of a sudden it's over. It is a mystery that is unexplainable and is its greatness. Music will always be.CHAPTER 2
Guitarist Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day, 2005. Sadly, his passing has barely been acknowledged and continues to bum at my frustration and need for publishing this work. In a world where individual voices are usually scorned, Derek Bailey stood alone, secure in his accomplishments without concern for what lesser minds may have thought. Creating a musical language through his own unique and eccentric intellect, Bailey influenced several generations of improvisational musicians of every instrument.
Born in Sheffield, England, in 1930, Bailey, along with Evan Parker and Tony Oxley, established Incus Records in 1970. In 1976, he formed the group Company, which drew from the talents of various cultures of Africa, North and South America, Japan, and Europe, and in 1980 he published the very important and influential book Improvisation.
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You have said that the two most stimulating things in playing are indifference and unfamiliarity.
Yeah, that's right. When putting them together. And it's strange how stimulating indifference is. I have always noticed that the best groups are the ones with people who are not the same, who don't have too much in common. They have some things in common but perhaps the main characteristics were how they worked with each other personally. And quite often, their musical outlook is quite different and that can really produce all kinds of things and I have seen that over and over again. The first two people I played with in this kind of music were Tony Oxley and Gavin Bryars. Both are composers but nobody would put on a concert of their two compositions unless they were being provocative. They write two different types of music though they play together beautifully and they are different kinds of people but that was about the most satisfying group I have ever played with. We were all completely different. I was older than them and I had a different background but we were all different. And I think that is fruitful. I think compatibility in this area of music is completely overvalued.
Do women and men create differently?
I think there is a difference but I wouldn't want to try and describe it because I don't know what it is. I know that it is much better to have both women and men included together within a large ensemble. And because it is better socially, it creates a much better atmosphere for making music. But then again, it's not as simple as more aggressive approaches or anything like that. For instance, there is not a more forthright bass player than Joelle Leandre. She's a terrifically strong player so it's not as simple as breaking it down into obvious masculine and feminine clichés.
The impression I get from reading previous interviews is that you like diversity within ensembles in what it can create and how you can interact within that.
One of the people that I work intimately with is Min Xiao-Fen, who is a Chinese lady that plays the pipa, which is a Chinese flute. She is a remarkable player and until two or three years ago, I don't think she was very involved with full-scale improvisation. And one of the attractions of playing music for me is to play with different people and within their own context if I can.
I have found that the idea of regularly playing with the same people is not for me. I have done it for up to about eighteen months and that's about the maximum for me. And I think these thirty-five-year-long associations would drive me nuts. I tend to like ad-hoc situations where you get three or four people that have never played before. The best situation is what I have tried to describe as semi-ad hoc, which is somewhere between the immediate introduction to fresh playing and the later stage or just before it turns into a band. So there is a period, which can be as short as four or five days or as long as three months. There is a period of mutual exploration, and I don't mean that that's the total thing with the music but that's a strong element in it. When that's over, I think the music loses something. But you also gain the advantage of being a regular group and maybe a more presentable music, but that's not exactly what I'm into.
What about situations where you play with musicians for a period of time, move on to different directions with other players, and then get back together again?
Nowadays, it seems that everybody plays with anybody, or anybody plays with everybody. I find that the musical relationship I have with Susie Ibarra works out quite nicely. We play about twice a year and we both play with other people and it works.
Are you noticing a younger group of people attending your concerts?
Oh yeah! The listeners from when I first started are totally different from those of today. At one time, you could only get what was a kind of fringe jazz audience and they never dug it anyway. They never really liked it and always thought we should be doing something else. Today, there is a kind of musical goulash out there and people seemed to be prepared to sit and listen. There are exceptions, but the audience is much bigger and certainly more tolerant.
Are we in a cycle or is the audience becoming more educated?
I would expect things to change at some point; they always do. Without change, I think music would die. One of the healthiest places today seems to be Scandinavia. There are a lot of young players there and a lot of work. This might be because there is still a lot of benevolent funding arrangements, but the audiences seem to be large enough to carry us along anyway.
How do you explain your music to those that are not familiar?
Well, I have always called it jazz and my background is jazz and jazz-related music. I have spent twenty years playing music that is pretty much all jazz related. But that was when most popular music was jazz related. There are certain things I could say for sure, but I don't know if I have a hard and fast definition. I think of myself as a playing musician. Writing composition and conducting doesn't appeal to me much and it never has. So it's a practical thing that has to do with playing and, now, playing is a difficult thing to describe. There is an activity called playing which is independent of the music. It can be applied to a lot of music and playing is what I'm interested in. And I find that free improvisation, or freely improvised music, gives me more scope for playing than any other type of music that I play. But I wouldn't describe what I do as jazz because I know how jealous jazz people are about their music. And anyway, there are a lot of things that I do that have no place in jazz in my view.
Would this be because of the interpretations that other people place on it?
I don't mind if someone else calls it jazz. I don't know what I feel about that but I just don't mind. If I was to claim it was jazz, I think that most people who follow jazz would feel they were being misled.
Is there a fear that the music may not be American anymore?
Yeah, maybe. I think one of the ironic things is that a lot of the really great jazz players like Ellington and Charlie Parker insisted that their music not be called jazz. That has happened with a lot of the older, undeniably great jazz players. They have never been committed to being called a jazz player but have been happy to be called great players of something.
How would you describe the music of the last thirty years to students fifty years from now?
A lot of things have happened in the last thirty years. Things loosened up after the '60s or the late '50s. The music became less restricted. It's a difficult question because I have always been attracted to the ephemeral side of this kind of playing. I mean, I don't care if it blows away in the wind and nobody remembers it at all in fifty years. But there is something about the connection of it being freely improvised music and being ephemeral which is almost unique to this kind of playing. But it doesn't necessarily apply to jazz, particularly now where jazz can be studied almost anywhere. But I would think that the main thing that has happened in the last thirty to forty years or so, is that the music has become less restricted.
Perhaps the difficulty for jazz academics and historians is that there is so much diversity in jazz today because of the lack of restrictions you spoke of, so it becomes difficult to place your arms around and much easier to just say something isn't jazz.
Well, usually the way around that is to say it's not something, isn't it? Anybody who is in the business of defining musical styles is in trouble anyway.
The following is a quote from Cecil Taylor: "MUSIC HAS TO DO WITH A LOT of areas which are magical rather than logical; the great artists, rather than just getting involved with discipline, get to understand love and allow the love to take shape." How much of your music is from logic and how much from this other place that Cecil Taylor describes?
Well, I would have to say that I shrink from that description. Not that I don't think it's valid for Cecil and most things that Cecil says make a lot of sense to me. But the logic in music is very attractive to me. I like to look for logic in music in places where it's not usually found. Some interconnecting things in chaotic situations always intrigue me. But I'm not sure that if love and passion is not there; if absent, the music is worse for it.
Music may be magical for three or four people who improvise together freely. For the thing to work beautifully is in itself magical. And when it works very, very well, then that's extraordinary. It's an extraordinary experience. And I think it's inescapable to almost any kind of audience. Mind you, the occasions when it works very, very well are not all that numerous.
Is there a frustration with trying to get to that level for every performance?
If you consciously go hunting for it, you're in trouble. It's like thinking while playing—it doesn't help at all.
What was your experience like in playing with Pat Metheny?
Pat is an explorative musician in a way that not all free players are. He really will go for something. I admire Pat. He doesn't have to take the chances that he takes in playing with different people. When he played with me, it was his idea and I couldn't see any advantage in him doing that. But he wanted to do it and he wants to do all kinds of things. And I think more musicians could be like that. Strangely enough, I think he is quite a bit like John Zorn. He will have a go at anything if not anything, anything that he thinks of.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of the best material from the work we did together on Sign of Four was left in the studio and never used. I was disappointed that they did not use any of the duo material that Pat and I did. I quite enjoyed playing duo with Pat.
Is there a responsibility that comes with having the freedom to express?
Freedom of expression is not a phrase that I would particularly use, at least with what I do. I suppose expression comes into it automatically but I don't examine that side of it. The responsibility I feel is when I try to freely improvise, and when I don't do that, I feel as though I'm not doing what I should be doing. Now, there are a number of elements within that and I think the main responsibility is to keep it fresh.
Do you have your own set of disciplines that you bring to the table when you improvise?
Oh yeah, I have all kinds of hang-ups and I'm actually a very conventional musician. This is a large subject but the difference between playing conventional music and playing free music for me is total, and yet there are so many connections, which often feel the same. And yet when I started playing free, it was essential for me to play totally different from the way I played conventionally. I couldn't see any sense in coming into the free area, playing in the same way that I played technically in the conventional area. I bring all kinds of things to it and I don't know if it's an advantage or a disadvantage. It's not an open field for me like shutting your eyes, jumping in, and wailing away. I have always wanted more from it.
What inspires you?
I'm not sure I get much inspiration from anywhere. I get the urge to play with the absence of alternatives. It's a preferred activity and is what I like to do. I play everyday and quite a bit on some days. And people come over to my house and play with me once or twice a week. And that's in addition to working. This is just what I want to do and I feel pretty happy doing it. I don't look for something to inspire me and I don't get hit by lightning to the back of my head to inspire me. It doesn't work like that for me. It's a continuous thing and it rewards by pursuing it. I find that the more you do it, the more you get out of it.
Do you think it's more difficult for students to re creative in today's society?
No I don't, and it might be easier. You can get away with murder today. Most of the young players that I know are not inhibited at all; whereas at one time, people did seem to be inhibited about free playing.
Can you talk about your compositional approach?
Well, I don't write anything down. I occasionally make notes about the technical things if I come across a technique that seems like something I might want to pursue. As I mentioned before, I think that thinking while playing is hopeless. It doesn't help at all. I'm not sure what does help. Well, I do know what works for me. The best preparation for me before playing is sleeping. If I could sleep right up until the moment before I start playing, I would do it. But it's very difficult to find situations where you can do that. But I do try and find a short period where I can do that before I start playing. A blank slate is useful because you can then play anything.
The sax had a difficult time acquiring respect in the classical community because it was so closely related to jazz. The guitar is closely related to blues and rock music. Does it receive the respect it deserves within jazz?
I don't think there has been a great guitar player in jazz after Charlie Christian. You'll find guitar in almost all music and sometimes it's the predominant instrument though it's not usually the predominant instrument in jazz. Maybe it just hasn't had the right guys or maybe it has something to do with the instrument or the voice as it were. The guitar has had an interesting career, but it doesn't seem to produce players who have influenced other players on different instruments ... except Christian, who did.
It seems to be a relatively new instrument from the sense of new possibilities.
Oh now, yes. But a lot of those things are things that I don't follow because I use more of a conventional approach. I don't use unusual tunings. Years ago, I kind of worked with altered guitars with additional strings and other things, but generally speaking, it's got to be the basic guitar for me. I wouldn't know what to do with a guitar that wasn't tuned the standard way.
Is there a chance that younger musicians could get too hung up on electronics and lose sight of finding their own voice?
I don't know. I try to avoid criticizing other musicians. If they put up with what I do, I'll put up with what they do.
Are you still learning from the musicians you play with?
I have learned from everybody I have played with to some degree. That's one of the reasons I play with them. In just the last seven or eight years, I have gotten more out of playing with musicians that play removed from the area that I'm in. It's very strange but I seem to get more out of it. But yeah, I look to the musicians for whatever music we are going to make. I think of it as their music.
Excerpted from Music and the Creative Spirit by Lloyd Peterson. Copyright © 2006 Lloyd Peterson. Excerpted by permission of THE SCARECROW PRESS, INC..
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Lloyd Peterson is a contributor to Downbeat and Earshot magazines.
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