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Remembering Free Jazz Improvisation

Marc Rosenfeld Antunes
Contributing Writer
mc10mra [at] leeds.ac.uk

Improvisation in free jazz has never really been the same since Derek Bailey, who believed that any pre-performance preparation was cheating. On the 17th of June, 2006, John Zorn performed a particularly popular tribute to Derek Bailey at the Barbican in London. Exactly five years later, I am still amazed by the developments in improvisation theory that free jazz artists have developed. One such development was pioneered by two improvisers from the past few decades and should be remembered as classics in free jazz.

Butch Morris’s work as a conductor did not receive much attention in the jazz world although his legally registered “conductions” demonstrate a refreshing view on improvisation. His conductions blend indeterminate improvisation on the side of the performer with the organization dictated by the conductor, Morris.

According to Morris himself in an interview with Alessandro Cassin, “I'm not conducting in the traditional sense, I'm provoking or asking for certain things to happen, but even of those things I have no idea until I hear them.”

In a sense, improvisation in jazz has always been about personal expression. We can distinctly differentiate John Coltrane from Eric Dolphy because they are two different people, with different ideas to express in improvisation. Butch Morris’s conductions reverse this notion; the lead artist’s improvisation emanates from an exterior source allowing for a continuous flow, in the position of the conductor, of digestion of sounds and directions to performers. Of course, any improviser will say that improvisation consists of an infinite cycle of listening and of expressing; Butch Morris made this idea more concrete by putting himself in a position from which he objectively judges what he wants to listen to and what he wants to express.

We can look also to John Zorn, who has had considerably more success with jazz audiences and regularly performs in several jazz festivals, usually presenting new projects each time. One such project presented a similar idea to Morris’s. John Zorn would direct an ensemble of five to ten, indicating performers when to improvise, how to improvise, with whom to improvise. In Derek Bailey and BBC’s On the Edge documentary, Zorn expresses his ideas about this system as would a spectator, much like Morris, saying he likes to see “who the biggest asshole is” according to how the performers improvise in relation to each other.

And one of the more important parts about this system really is the societal approach. How do we express ourselves in relation to others? How do we allow others to express themselves? When we first listen to Zorn or to Morris, we quickly label it as free jazz or free music and conclude that it is not organization we are to listen for. But in reality, when one piece lasts ten plus minutes, it is exactly the societal organization that the performers allow the conductor to impose on them that becomes interesting. Since we are talking about free improvisation, the performer is allowed considerable freedom with the sole limitation of the conductor.

The theorist Theodor Adorno was infamous for claiming that jazz improvisation was precalculated and therefore worthless. Just as John Zorn remembered Derek Bailey, it is people like Butch Morris and John Zorn, figures that have only been marginal in mainstream jazz, that should be remembered as pioneers into improvisation, not only proving Adorno wrong, but also making a societal format of music reminiscent of utopia, with maximum freedom of expression kept under control: a beautiful flow of sounds and interactions directed by a single mastermind.

Marc Antunes is a student at New York University. He writes about jazz, musicology, and sociology. Follow him on his twitter.