Sunday, March 1, 2009

Improvisation, que me veux-tu?

Listening to the violin improvisations that Takehisa Kosugi recorded in September of 1989, which were then released on CD by David Behrman's Lovely Music, Ltd, I found myself thinking about the question of listening as applied to recorded improvisation in general. This seems appropriate in the context of yesterday's anniversary of an occasion in which much of what had emerged from Thelonious Monk's improvisatory work in a combo setting was meticulously reconstructed for a ten-piece band. It seems to me that improvisation involves a delicate balancing act between the exploration of new material, often by letting go of constraints that might normally be imposed by "reason," and a sort of composition manqué. Such "lacking" composition clearly has its place in rehearsal studios (this one included); and there are clearly times when non-performers may be invited into such a studio solely in their capacity as listeners. In jazz we may then proceed to the more intimate clubs, where people come explicitly to listen but where there is always an exploratory side to what the performers are doing. However, what happens when the venue shifts from, say, The Five Spot over to Town Hall (both major locations in the Fifties in New York City)? I raise this question not only with respect to the large-scale arrangements that Monk worked up with Hall Overton but also in terms of the quartet that opened the Town Hall gig before the rest of the large ensemble came onstage.

These days in San Francisco I do not go to any the club settings available to me, primarily because the acts do not interest me very much. The jazz I want comes to me in "concert hall" settings, among which Herbst Theatre, which is probably the City's best venue for chamber music, tends to be my favorite. I thus find myself listening to jazz in the same setting in which I would listen to a violin sonata by Johannes Brahms; and my "physical attitude" probably then has an effect on my "mental attitude" of rapt silence and intense focus. This may be out of place with respect to the background muttering that is so evident on many Monk recordings (not to mention those of Bud Powell); but, to draw upon the living for an example, if I am going to take the time to attend a performance by Ahmad Jamal (as I shall be doing in about a month), my primary interest is going to be in what he has to "say."

Naturally, I take it for granted that there will be an exploratory element to what he "says," which is again the primary reason why I continue to believe that recordings can only prepare us for the "real" listening experience of a "live" performance. However, I can only understand what Jamal "says" if I have some sense of "where he is coming from," the extent to which his own "utterances" are informed by his past experience; and recordings are my primary "window" into those experiences. It is through those recordings that I form my own "mental model" of Jamal's personal approach to that trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; and, without that model, there would be no resources to "make sense" out of his performance.

How does this apply, if at all, to those, like Kosugi, who practice the more "serious" (for want of a better adjective) side of experimental music? Kosugi is certainly as much a performer as Monk and Powell were; and I can remember a time several decades ago when I could seek out improvisatory performances like his in cities like New York and Los Angeles. These days the Other Minds Festival of New Music tends to offer at least of few of these in the programs it prepares. Nevertheless, the "spirit of exploratory adventure" seems to be in the same short supply that plagues today's jazz scene.

The problem may be that too few recordings are content to serve as nothing more than documents of performances and too many aspire to be performances, themselves. Unfortunately, this just sucks the life out of performance, literally as well as metaphorically; and, as a consequence, the practice also impedes (if not debilitates) our capacity for being (or learning to be) good listeners. Those of us (like myself) who live in a city with a good conservatory will always have the time and resources to keep our listening skills up to snuff; but what does this say about a large portion of the world for whom music is little more than sharing files through iTunes and performance is what is available for viewing on YouTube?

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