Speaking Freely

It's late February. It's a Friday night, so you take your wife by the hand, kiss your kids, wave goodbye to the babysitter, and hop in the car. If you don't have kids, you can bring the babysitter along. Your destination? Coral Gables Congregational Church, where Tigertail Productions presents the Japan/ U.S. and Friends Creative Music Festival February 28 and March 1.

You may not know anything about "creative music," but you've read Tigertail's promotional materials, so you know that the two-night festival features an impressive array of talent. There's jazz pianist Paul Bley, famous not only for his now-defunct marriage to composer/arranger Carla Bley but for his own storied career as a sideman and bandleader, which has found him sharing stages with Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Ornette Coleman, and others. There's the Sam Rivers Trio, led by the septuagenarian saxophone and flute player whose 1973 album Streams -- Live at Montreux remains a landmark of improvisational music. There's Keshavan Maslak, a.k.a. Kenny Millions, whose reed heroics will be ably supported by the electric bass and piano of his fourteen-year-old daughter Melissa. And then there's Otomo Yoshihide, a Japanese musician and DJ who builds fiendishly rhythmic sound collages with the help of turntables and vocal samples.

So you're in your seat, or rather on the edge of it, expectant and excited. But just as the lights dim, you feel a strange dizziness. It moves across you like the shadow of a hawk across a meadow, like Cortes across Mexico, like Dom DeLuise across a buffet table. Gasping sharply, you lose consciousness. When you come to, you're in the back seat of the car headed home. Your wife and the babysitter are in the front, discussing the concert animatedly. "What did I miss?" you say. They don't seem to hear you. Your voice rises in pitch and volume. "What happened? What went on? And what the hell is 'creative music,' anyway?"

Well, according to Maslak, who also serves as Tigertail's artistic director, "creative music" is a rough synonym for free jazz. While all jazz music has extemporaneous elements, free jazz is the branch of music most dependent on spontaneity, discarding fixed harmonic and rhythmic structures in favor of unfettered improvisation. The artists appearing at the festival not only represent the past, present, and future of free jazz -- they range in age from the 39-year-old Yoshihide to the 73-year-old Rivers -- but rank among the genre's most articulate spokesmen. Bley, for example, has been associated with free jazz since the late Fifties. In the Seventies, he put his money where his music was by founding Improvising Artists, a label devoted entirely to capturing free jazz performances. "The name of the game is to push the abilities of individuals so as to do things in real time," says Bley. "You know the clever remark you thought of at a party that you didn't make then? Well, improvisation is about learning to make it at the time. It's about thinking of your artwork as being produced as you go, and not imagining that you need weeks or months to compose."

Improvisational music can be difficult at first -- it's not always easy for audiences to attune themselves to the sonic idiosyncrasies of others -- but both Bley and Maslak stress that free jazz isn't the intimidating intellectual art form some make it out to be. "The genre boundaries people imagine just aren't there," says Maslak, who has recorded two CD duets with Bley, "I listen to rock. I listen to pop. I think that much of the resistance to jazz, and particularly free jazz, comes from this cliche about jazz players being the best technicians. I think that's garbage. For me the trick is to express something personal, to make art from sound. That's an emotional experience as much as it is a technical one."

The Japan/U.S. and Friends Creative Music Festival comes at a time when the jazz world is increasingly polarized, split between new traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, and Marcus Roberts, and old-guard avant-gardists like Roscoe Mitchell and Ornette Coleman -- not to mention Bley, Maslak, Rivers, and others. The young lions hark back to the music of the Fifties and Sixties, recreating bop and post-bop sounds in modern settings and reaping the commercial benefits. The avant-garde players fight to keep the art form vital by inventing new sonic strategies, all the while finding that their audiences are dwindling. Bley says that this collision of nostalgia and novelty is only natural. "The last ten years of a century is the fin-de-siecle," he explains, "and this century it's a particularly important one, since we're moving to a new millennium. During these kinds of periods, there have always been returns to conservatism -- one last look at the good old days, so to speak. So this traditionalism is natural."

Maslak is less charitable. "Jazz to me when I was growing up was about individuality and rebellion. It was about the danger of finding your own voice. It was like punk. Now all these young guys are looking backward. Keith Jarrett has said that this kind of playing is embarrassing. I agree with him entirely. I don't have any jazz records in my collection. There's nothing going on there. These people are getting by without having to think their own thoughts."

In fact, his antipathy for this petrified jazz has forced him to repudiate the entire genre: "For me it's not interesting to be involved with jazz music, or what people have come to think of as jazz music. I hate the word now. It's background music, restaurant music. People ask me what kind of music I play. I say I don't play jazz." And neither, he insists, does Yoshihide. "Otomo's work incorporates turntables and samplers, which are elements that so-called 'traditional' jazz musicians hate. But music isn't about particular instruments. A sax isn't any more genuine than a turntable. I used to go to John Cage concerts, and he would amplify a cactus, strike the spines and make a whole performance out of that. Any instrument works if the performer insists upon his or her own individuality. And as technology creates new instruments, we must learn to use them."

Technology, of course, takes many forms. Bley's label has released a number of enhanced CDs that set improvised music to improvised visuals, in this case computer-generated abstract paintings. In addition, Bley has spent the last few years exploring the implications of network technologies like the Internet. "In less than five years, you'll be finding that everything will be changing in the distribution of art," he says. "All music will be digitized and available for you to download right to your home computer. And live appearances will evolve, too, with Internet simulcasts and those kinds of things. Going to play a concert, whether in Coral Gables or in Europe, will seem as antiquated as asking a president to do a whistle-stop tour from the back of train cars."

After the festival, Bley goes back to upstate New York. Yoshihide returns to Japan. Rivers makes his way upstate to his Orlando home. Only Maslak remains in Miami, hopeful that he can create enough local interest to turn the festival into an annual event. "A lot depends on the turnout we get and the response we get. To present this type of music down here especially is like pulling teeth. Generally speaking, audiences have no knowledge of it and no experience of it. Florida is a very commercialized venue, at least as far as music is concerned. So I'd love to see something like this happen next year. It all depends on the response."

The Japan/U.S. and Friends Creative Music Festival is being held Friday and Saturday, February 28 and March 1, at Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd, across from the Biltmore Hotel. Showtime for both nights is 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 per day or $25 for a two-day pass. Call 324-4337 for more information.

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Ben Greenman