Concept and Context : Nerdy Meditations on Freedom and Language in Jazz

This last summer I was given the opportunity to design and implement a music theory curriculum for a new, forward-thinking summer music institute in Los Angeles that some friends of mine had started the previous year. I was going to be teaching upper-level, music-school bound high schoolers, and the idea was to combine the open-minded, experimental approach of this institute with something that prepared them for the conservatory music theory education that awaited them.

After some deliberation I decided that in addition to the usual variety of topics I repeatedly threw at my students (eartraining, improvisation, listening exercises, rhythmic fluency stuff, and the like) I wanted to give them some sort of context for what they were about to hear at music schools. I dedicated the first week of the session to placing music theory curricula in context, to acknowledging the subjective nature of analytical systems and terminology — not in an abstract, ‘what does it all mean anyway’ sense, but in a real practical, political sense. I wanted them to consider, who thought up this way of analyzing music, and why? What did they stand to gain? How did the ideas spread, and why did the institutions that endorsed them do so?

I emphasized this thought process not just because I thought it would suit them well as students, but also as artists. The subjectivity of terminology might seem academic, but it blends seamlessly with the subjectivity of concept, and in different ways, we are all motivated by concept when we create music. Even if that concept is lack of concept, a rebellion against a concept or rebellion against concept in general, we are all motivated by a vision or idea of what music we wish to create, and by a sense that this vision is suited to us above and beyond other possibilities. Discussing the subjectivity of concept leads to some interesting questions, questions I ask my students to ask themselves, because I believe it results in a fuller and broader self-understanding as artists. When someone asks a student to play with more spontaneity, or with more expression, with more confidence, with less arrogance, more freely, more sensitively, or to swing harder, what should the student actually do in response?

Which brings me, in a round-about fashion, to the concept of freedom in jazz, and my discussions on the topic with Dave. Certainly, everyone that likes jazz likes hearing the personality of the musicians, and the interaction between these personalities. But what constitutes freedom for a musician? Lately I’m obsessively listening to Bud Powell, a musician who improvises within incredibly thorough, complex structural constraints. One can analyze the rules that govern the construction of bebop melodies with the same rigor and depth as the analysis of a Bach prelude, or a Beethoven sonata. Yet, Powell’s improvisations are spontaneous, inventive, and expressive and bear no traces of rigidity or restriction. For another example, take the music of Bill Frisell. Much of his earlier recorded work focused on a loose and impressionistic approach to improvisation, with many jagged lines and surprising turns of phrase that recall, perhaps, avant-garde sax playing or noise-rock guitar. In contrast, much of his recent work is more deeply informed by American folk and country music, and the composed and improvised material is simpler, more traditionally tonal, and more symmetrically structured. In Frisell as in Powell, though, we hear an undeniable freedom of expression in all periods of his playing.

My point here is that freedom in jazz is a useful term only within the context of language. Someone not well-versed in the language of bebop melodies would find the style quite restrictive. And, in the context of the language of Frisell’s more recent music, he is able to express just as much as in his ‘freer’ forms, because of his fluency in the language – rather than a complex melodic gesture or sweeping sound effect, he achieves the same sense of power and expansiveness through stark, full-toned, very specifically intonated notes placed very specifically on or around the beat. The fact that subtle beat placement can have the same expressive power as melodic content or tone shows that only within the context of language can we discuss freedom. Additionally, consider that the development of the ‘freest’ forms of jazz in the 50’s and 60’s – free jazz, the avant-garde, etc. – was not a path to greater, freer expression for many musicians. In fact, the language of this music was so different than the language of more traditional jazz, that many musicians of previous generations not only found it to be a restrictive and unexpressive form for them to play, but foreign enough that they did not connect with the versatile expressions of those who developed, and intimately understood, the language. Anyone who is fluent in the languages of both traditional jazz and free jazz will tell you that, despite the apparent lack of rules and restraints, free jazz is no more or less intrinsically expressive, nor is it easier to play. In fact, the concept of structure is just as context-dependent as the concept of freedom – take the music of the 60’s Ornette Coleman quartet, which is thought by many to have no particular harmonic element or structure, while in fact it has chord changes as specific as any jazz that came before it. The fact that those changes were now improvised, as melodic solos had been improvised in traditional jazz, obscured to many that element of the structure of the music, making it seem ‘free’ in a way in which it was not.

Now, I should admit the dirty little secret of the argument between Dave and I that inspired these blog entries. It’s what they call in market analysis a “lack of opinion differential”: on the most salient points, we basically agree. As Dave mentions in his blog entry, “There are many ways to be free, and varying degrees of freedom…. a successful balance creates great music.” By looking at the variety of projects that Dave leads, and the variety of ways that improvisation interacts with written material in his music, it’s clear that he is keenly aware of the role of context in expression.

For example, when I joined Keystone last year, Dave made it clear to me that he wanted my sound and personality to come through in the band. However, there were additional aspects of the situation to consider. The orchestration of the group necessitated a wide-ranging keyboard approach, to blend the traditional jazz instruments with the samples and turntables of the DJ. The pieces, in their openness, required a certain focus and organization, to effectively convey their individual moods. And the films suggested a range of colors and moods themselves. In the interaction of all these considerations, expressed through my way of hearing harmony, phrasing and structure, a personality developed. It’s a somewhat different personality than the one I have when playing with Kneebody, or playing a solo piano concert, because the context and language differ.

It’s a quintessentially baroque idea that through limitations and restraint we can achieve truer and nobler expression. In a way, jazz is a product of this idea, with its complex forms and structures; and in a way, jazz is a rejection of this — ultimately, the individual musicians choose which limitations and constraints to follow and which to reject, and they do so spontaneously. I don’t intend to debunk the concept of a musical personality that supercedes language (for example, Frisell’s music carries an undeniable thread between the contexts I contrasted above). Rather, I wish to suggest that this concept is over-rated, and often leads to superficial freedom rather than true freedom, the freedom to clearly express one’s personal ideas and feelings through a language. This is what I try to convey to my students who are uninterested in, say, ‘playing inside the changes’, because they feel their true musical personality is being suppressed. I would never want to control what someone chooses to play on stage or on record, but in cases like this the concept of their true personality is often sabotaging their ability to develop a fuller and broader expressive potential. I would say the same thing to a jazz musician that doesn’t want to play funk or rock or pop because the parts are too repetitive or boring. Expression in music is, ultimately, a natural and inexplicable thing, but I think even the strictest jazz-head would understand that when I am playing a simple, repeating groove, with the tone and sound that I want to hear, and placing it on the beat just where I want it, I feel that I am conveying just as much about who I am and how I see the world as when I take the wordiest, most florid solos. Music is not the universal language, any more than Esperanto is. Thankfully, it is a complex, interconnected web of a huge variety of languages, each with its own infinite expressive potential.