Free improv at Naropa

| Nov 11, 2009

Last night I attended a performance at Naropa given by Stephen Nachmanovitch, along with Janet Feder, Mark Miller and Art Lande. Nachmanovitch seems like an interesting character. A student of Gregory Bateson, he teaches improvisation to musicians and actors and his “Free Play: Improvisation and the Art of Life” is in wide use at Naropa.

Stephen Nachmanovitch

Stephen Nachmanovitch

I went primarily because of Art Lande, a formidable pianist and musical thinker. Alas, at least for me, the performance never caught fire. 100 percent improvised, it consisted of affable scrapings, noodlings and euphonic digressions: new age sonic wallpaper.

I went and looked as some of Nachmanovitch’s writings on his web site and started thinking about free play. I was reminded of Kant’s bird of reason, that, he says, flies so well in the air of experience that it imagines it would fly even better in a vacuum.

So what is the air that resists the free play of the improviser? What, for the player is the spirit of gravity? What, in other words, is the matter? The most common body of freely improvised music is from the so-called “free jazz” school: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler: a movement that started in the ’60s when the notion of freedom had as great a political significance as an a artistic one. Perhaps in those days, the political and artistic were not that different.

Now if you ask me, these people were using their artistic freedom to dig rather than to soar. The most successful were the most obsessive and the most long-winded and the most demanding. Ornette is a great musician, but he’s been playing the same solo for 40 years.

Of course, all musicians are obsessive — it’s required to master an instrument. But improvisation can be a journey into the known — or the unknown known — a return to roots and memory and darkness as much as an Icarus flight to the Sun.

Keith Jarrett is probably the most celebrated and commercially successful free improviser. Yet when he sits down with nothing planned, he carries in his head, hands and heart the entire history of keyboard music going back at least to Bach. So he picks up the entire problematic of Western music and is vexed by those things that have vexed his predecessors.

Here’s the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Their obsession is the blues, the memory of Miles and the urgency of listening.