|Released by: Territory Band 5 [view band]
Record Label: Okka Disk
Year released: 2006
Release format: 3CD
“’Picasso, in questioning himself about what art is, immediately thought, ‘What is not?’ (1930s). Picasso, as a painter, wanted boundaries. Duchamp, as an anti-painter, did not. From the standpoint of each, the other was involved in a game. Taking one side or the other is the history of art since 1914, since the First World War.”
-Robert Motherwell, “The Collected Writings Of Robert Motherwell, “ edited by Stephanie Terenzio, (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 1999), pg. 210.
Is there is another way to analyze the art form of Jazz? A method that doesn’t focus on the elements in its content, but instead describes its essential construction? For example, there is a general consensus that a painting by Picasso or a painting by Duchamp is still a painting, even when its stylistic components are quite different. Why? Because it has an acknowledged archetype, one loosely defined by a painted set of images applied to, and contained by, a two dimensional plane. By taking this idea of an archetype and directing it towards the medium of Jazz, would it not also be possible to identify a fundamental organizational framework? One that is not bogged down in the particulars and issues related to its musical components, but rather one that looked at the basic parameters of its design? If a genre is not defined by its subject matter, but by its primary structural parameters, then the answer is, “Yes.”
Since its beginnings, the defining aspect of Jazz has not been the elements of swing, blues, chord changes, instrumentation, or time period; it has been a particular dialectic between composition and improvisation. If the Louis Armstrong masterpiece, “West End Blues,” is used as an example, it’s quite clear that the intrinsic architecture of Jazz was already in place by the late 1920s. The composition’s form and development are based on a push and pull between elements that are pre-determined and spontaneously created. Since Armstrong’s Hot Fives And Sevens, and certainly earlier, the music of Jazz has been built around this system of organization, not whether or not it adheres to the various and debatable aspects of a particular style.
Obviously many other genres of music incorporate aspects of composition and improvisation. However, there are three principles connected to Jazz improvisation that separate it from its use in other music, and which are not connected to musical content. The first is that improvisational statements carry equal creative weight as the compositional elements. For example, Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra is usually not considered a Jazz ensemble, whereas Duke Ellington’s band from the same time period is considered one of the great Jazz bands in history, even though it too survived by playing music for dancers. The second is that this improvisation has a narrative thread, bringing the listener and other participating musicians from one point of expression to the next. The lack of this narrative aspect is one of the things that prevent John Cage’s indeterminate music from being considered a part of the Jazz heritage, despite the fact that it has improvisational requirements, and though his compositions and ideas have greatly influenced many contemporary Jazz musicians. The third principle is a focus on the search for something new or unexpected to say during the course of an improvisation. Though there are some examples of Jazz musicians re-creating popular solos to please an audience, these are exceptions that prove the rule. There is ample evidence that night after night the great Jazz soloists kept looking for something different to express while performing on the bandstand.
In many ways, it’s possible to look at the developments in Improvised Music that took place in Europe starting in the 1960s, as musical actions that were taken in opposition to the model of Jazz described above. However, this approach to music, that came to be built without pre-determined materials, remains connected to the Jazz archetype because of the nature of its improvisational principles. The musicians of Improvised Music also work with the idea of narrative and search for new means of expression, even though both are often used to act against the conventions developed by Jazz artists during the course of the 20th century. Interestingly, the quest to be free of the constraints imposed by the ideas of “composition” and “composers,” one of the main precepts of Improvised Music (as I’m defining it), once again puts the dialectic between composition and improvisation into action. In these circumstances, however, it is placed in a broader, more conceptual environment. There is a problem, however. Though at one point free improvisation’s freedom may have felt so in comparison to the pre-composed elements of Jazz, today Derek Bailey’s idea of non-idiomatic music has become its own idiom.
What began as a new method for creating spontaneous music, one derived without the restrictions imposed by the fixed organization found in Jazz, has continued to develop in extension of its own initial aesthetics for the last few decades. Improvised Music has now built its own set of stylistic concerns and it works towards or against these with little interest in pushing against the contemporary Jazz tide. As this new century starts, it seems that the art forms of Jazz and Improvised Music are too frequently stuck in a place where codification, schools of thought, and dogma put emphasis on what is “right” and “wrong” for the music, instead of a concern with the question, “What happens next?” The ideas of the 20th century still inform our time, but they don’t need to define it. One of the principles that tie the paradigms of Jazz and Improvised Music together is the concept of discovery. If this search for invention returns as a primary force, the dialectic between composition and improvisation, and between the streams of Jazz and Improvised Music, will resume. And I believe that in both cases the music will become stronger for it. One of the primary motivations behind the ongoing work of the Territory Band has been to bring artists together who are strong representatives of both sides of this dialog, and who are willing to collaborate and challenge one another in order to find at least one way to bring this oppositional game into play during our own era.
-Ken Vandermark, Chicago, July 12, 2006.
© 2018 Ken Vandermark – musician & composer | Disclaimer