In re CEF (Words Words Words)

Doing interviews can be a strange and surreal experience. You never know how the things you say are going to come out. You surrender the context of your remarks to the will of the writer–his or her point of view becomes the subtext of what you are saying. I admire good interviewees because there is a skill to making yourself clear no matter what; I also admire an interviewer who can bring out real issues and give the subject a voice.

Not that I’m complaining about media representation (or misrepresentation). It’s just a fact of life. No one is immune–you can’t assume that what you say will be understood. And anyway I have been relatively lucky. My feeling is that it’s just an article – you read it and move on. No sense dwelling on it. Get back to work.

I’ve already posted some comments of my own about the Mike Zwerin/Bloomberg News article. (Having a blog means being able to respond). Another bit of this interview provoked some pointed comments around the web.

“What we do now on the frontier of composed and improvised music,” he says, “has to do with learning a lesson from all that crazy experimental freedom in the 60s and 70s. We’re learning to harness that and most ‘free’ music has some sense of structure now.”

He is about to expound on that, when his dog Finley arrives on the porch barking loudly. He stops to hook a leash on her collar. But then he does not attach it to anything. Although Finley is free to drag her chain around, she doesn’t. It strikes me as a kind of metaphor for harnessed improvisational freedom. Whatever, the dog stops barking.


I went back and read the whole article, something I usually don’t do, and it’s hard to figure out where Zwerin was going with this piece. For example:

“Progressive music” means improvised music that investigates elements of, for instance, classical music, world music, electronics, and rock — music that conservatives don’t want to encourage.

Golly. And Ouch. That’s his formulation entirely. And that’s him purporting to explicate me…

OK, so now I’ve had my cojones copiously and appropriately busted by a gentleman known as Stanley Zappa (aka sjz) at his blog entitled It’s Not Mean If It’s True (Attack Attack Attack). Mr. Zappa (don’t know if any relation) writes about improvisation via a (mis)reading of Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. Love it. He is (quite rightly IMHO) perplexed and disturbed by that first quote.

It’s an absurd quote, and pretty much meaningless. Shorn of context it means what I presume Zwerin wanted it to mean (not even gonna parse that), but it also comes off as incredibly arrogant and presumptuous.

So let’s drop CEF and the harnesses as musical terms, shall we?

A little of what I was after:

When I observe the musicians on the scene that I know about, and include reflections on my own practice, I do feel that there has been something perceptible gained in the last forty years. And in my own analysis it is a practice that is fairly widespread.

The way music was made in the sixties and seventies is in a general sense very different than the way it is made now. The instruments were different, the technology was different, the history was different. But it is impossible to imagine that the music from that time doesn’t influence those of us who choose to make music now. The circumstances of the world we live in now are also very different, which has an enormous effect on the way musicians work. My feeling is that we can only apply the lessons learned in previous eras to the realities of today.

For many musicians working now the experiments and advances of the 60s and 70s have become a part of the material of composition and improvisation. I feel there is more of a tendency to look at a spectrum of those practices and create a new way forward based on many options. That’s a natural outgrowth of respect and admiration. I’d like to name names here, but I’m trying not to because the list would go on and on, and inevitably I’d leave out some essential voices. There’s a good partial list at Stanley’s blog profile.

I guess what I’m saying is that I see all kinds of ways forward in improvised/composed music that stem from observations of the music of that period. Maybe because this is something that has so influenced my work I tend to see it in the work of others. It’s taking the freedom principle to mean the freedom to work in many different ways, the freedom to explore a variety of means. That’s an opportunity and a challenge.

This also includes the freedom to approach the unknown and the undefined from many angles. Or not.

I don’t see this as an improvement any more than Dizzy Gillespie was an improvement on Roy Eldridge, or Cecil Taylor on Monk. And the result? The proof is simply in the music. That will never change.

The thing is: The music coming out of these traditions is so broad now that what can you call it? To call it ‘free jazz’ seems to me limiting. Even ‘avant-garde’ no longer contains multitudes. It’s the very freedom of choice that defines a lot of today’s players and composers.

Sound like I lawyered up? Maybe. But when you’re asked to comment by a friendly 75-year-old jazz writer on your back porch while your dog is chasing deer in the woods, things can get a little hazy.

Not that this clarifies, but it’s a start. And as always I welcome, nay cherish, comment.