FMP/FREE MUSIC PRODUCTION - An Edition of Improvised Music 1989-2004

FMP CD 110

Marcello Lorrai


At first glance one could see the collaboration of two musicians like Bill Dixon and Tony Oxley, who have left their distinctive mark on the history of Afro-American Free Jazz and radical European improvisation, as something quite normal: but in fact, with the New Thing across the water and Free Music in the Old world we are dealing with two different directions which show a high degree of affinity despite a different aesthetic, cultural and sociological experience. However, the meeting of protagonists of Free Jazz and Radical improvisation is a relatively new and rather rare phenomenon. It is only through a series of concerts, organised by FMP in Berlin in 1988, in order to bring Cecil Taylor together with some of the best European Free Jazz players to build a solid bridge between the two worlds, that it finally worked out: at this point, more than two decades had already passed since the beginnings of radical improvisation in Europe. And even in the twelve years which have passed since then, such summit meetings between the two historic tendencies of improvisation have remained rather rare and are not to be taken for granted. Since a cooperation of exponents of ‘historic’ Free Jazz and European radical improvisation is in no way a banality, maybe it is worth asking about the motives. Obviously there is a mutual interest in playing with musicians from different cultural and musical traditions. In the case of the Europeans, one could assume that it is their main desire to get into contact with the creators of a revolution of such fundamental importance for the musical development of the 20th century. But if you are not to be contented with this very general motivation, and look further, by and by you hit upon more concrete reasons. Free Jazz can be seen as a “period” in the history of Jazz, even as a “Genre” of Jazz and as such can be put into an historical context as a phenomenon which came about as result of certain musical preconditions and had a certain socio-political context. Historical analysis of this kind is only legitimate if one does not relegate the most extreme collective imprints of improvisation as a transition phase of a more general development, to just a moment in time which is then taken over by new syntheses which may then only contain individual elements of Free Jazz. It is much more as if Free Jazz represented a certain point at which a certain historic direction of music met with the need to free itself of all rules and regulations within improvisation and to look for individual, interpersonal means of expression away from all norms which go far beyond any given historical moment. The fact that Afro-American and European protagonists of Free Jazz got together means that both sides had faith in improvisation, in the possibility of developing new, unconventional forms. Playing music not as surviving a historically outdated past but as a permanent value and constantly new challenge for the future. “I think”, Bill Dixon said to us in Berlin when he was recording this CD, “that the style of Black music has been influenced largely by the music of the sixties which did not care about consolidated forms but simply changed them in order to create something new. The music of this time changed everything: for the first time in the history of this music everything the musicians did was of their own creation. It drives me mad to see young people ignoring all this and only imitating what others have done before.” In fact, the exchange between of some of the masters of the Afro-American Avantgarde and the leading figures of European improvisation took place at a time when Jazz had to face severe setbacks: performances of musicians of the new generation looking for nothing but a comforting, bourgeois refuge in Jazz’s past are just the obvious aspect of a general step backwards, a far-reaching conformism. In view of this scenario musicians like Dixon and Taylor who have always believed in the New Thing and have never yielded stylistically - on the contrary -, see the European scene of radical improvisation as a kind of network which has held out over a long period of time without getting severely damaged and has even expanded through the accumulation of new energy; a network of personalities to whom compromise is something foreign and who are convinced that music has got to do with creative tension: personalities who are well aware of representing a minority but who are not frustrated because they are convinced of the meaning of their own work. Therefore, it is only logical that Dixon, who had become aware of the importance of certain names on the European improvisers’ scene well before 1988, feels at ease in this world. Dixon has not only been one of the pathfinders of Free Jazz but also a pioneer in the area of self-organisation and independence of the musicians. He organised the historic concerts of the “October Revolution in Jazz” in the Cellar Café in New York in 1964 and founded the Jazz Composers’ Guild in the mid-sixties. His uncompromising attitude towards the music industry manifested itself in the fact that he did not make one single record throughout the seventies. The silence was only broken in 1980 after a trust had built up with two independent Italian labels as a consequence of his “rediscovery” in Italy by the Jazzfestival in Verona; he recorded a further 10 records for Soul Note. The similarities do not only lie within the unyielding adherence to his own personal calling and the practice of improvisation in general but also in a special something on the aesthetic level. Particular forms are still used in Free Jazz which could be metaphorically termed “narrative”: at the same time there are strong tendencies to push forward into a dimension which is definitely “non-narrative”.

The Album “Conquistador” Cecil Taylor recorded in 1966 with a sextet which also included Dixon is a masterpiece of Free Jazz which sparkled, above all, through the fantastic trumpet solos. This album is an example of advanced composition which, at the same time, contains consistent “narrative elements”. But for Taylor as well as for Dixon you can find numerous examples of a strong tendency towards the “non-narrative”. These pieces encourage the listener not to concentrate on a “story” but on interpersonal explication and free association, on the creation of energy, on developing a climate. Right from the beginning and much more than in America, European Free Jazz had a distinctive, well-developed tendency to move away from the concept of music as narrative. This tendency was further intensified and matured in the course of time. Musicians like Dixon and Taylor feel encouraged by this characteristic, they see themselves in harmony with the European development and are stimulated by it to unfold their own innovative potential. For the European musicians, on the other hand, the cooperation with their American colleagues offers the possibility of being confronted with the results of a completely different music tradition and gain impulse for their own work. It may well be that the coexistence of “narrative” and “non-narrative” elements in Free Jazz expresses a fundamental ambivalence. Since the ever-changing history of Jazz culminates in the “New thing”, a kind of internal dialectic movement developed. On the one hand the “New thing” took up a many elements of traditional Jazz, on the other hand it also had the power to further develop the traditional enlisted elements to such a degree that it was able to free itself from the peculiarities of this tradition. Through this movement, which harnesses traditional elements and denies them at the same time, an entirely new level of abstraction is reached. At a later point in time, and coming from an entirely different cultural context, European improvisation reached this abstraction in different ways and made it an integral characteristic of its identity. This is why musicians like Dixon and Taylor – who have managed to achieve this kind of abstraction only because of this tradition and do not just copy it directly but present it in an entirely modified form – meet partners in European improvisation at the peak of their developments.

The line-up on these recordings, two basses and one drummer, is nothing new for Dixon. Already in 1993, during his first encounter with Oxley (with Barry Guy and William Parker on double basses) he played in this line-up. The recordings have now been published on the two CDs “Vade Mecum”; Dixon had been working with two double bass players already in the first half of the sixties, in his own groups or together with Taylor. In this line-up of instruments the deep, reflective unusually lyrical tone of the trumpet player takes its full effect. It fits perfectly with the fragmented, anti-rhetorical drumming of Oxley which is truly “radical” because it steers clear of even the most common clichés of radical drumming. It is therefore no coincidence that Oxley has become the favourite drummer not only of Dixon but also of Taylor (it was Taylor who, at the beginning of the nineties, urged Dixon again and again to play with Oxley). Perhaps, one can refer to the area of painting where he is just as well established as an artist, in order to locate Dixon’s essence and his congenial relationship with improvisation in extremely abstract contexts. With Dixon’s style, as with other important works of contemporary painting at times one feels as if the entire area of culture exhausts itself in one single creative act, in one aesthetic impulse which rediscovers a primeval dimension. In the case of Dixon, individual qualities, types of Jazz which have shaped him and styles which have influenced him, from Rex Stewart to Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, form a fortuitous union and flow into one single informal expression which has much in common with the attitudes of a painter.

Translation: Isabel Seeberg & Paul Lytton

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