I'm finding myself in the ironic position of wanting to advocate for, defend and safeguard a previous period of free jazz. See, I realize that this whole avant-garde thing is supposed to be about relentlessly pushing forward against conventions and beyond whatever was safe or that which becomes safe. But, I've heard a lot of what is being played today, vs. what was being played in the late 60s and the 70s, and well— I'm at a point where I've just got to sound my own Wynton-like alarm against "progress."
Philosophically, I wish I wasn't saying this, because it's not very idealistic and I want to have faith in generation and all….but what it comes down to for me is that the fire and the soul just isn't there. There's plenty of intellectual exploration going on, and plenty of clever concepts, but I'm really missing the meat and potatoes. FIRE MUSIC. My touchstones for free jazz are Archie Shepp, late period Coltrane, Pharoah, Sonny Simmons—I guess you could say I'm an "Impulse" free jazz guy. For me this music was the perfect brew— it had abstractions for the mind, but blues feeling for the soul.
Now, I know I'm sounding even more like Wynton to suggest that "it's got to have blues feeling" but to be clear—I love the duality, it's what made the early free jazz so happening in my view. The duality....of really out there / dissonant / angular / erratic musical qualities, sharing the same space with something as pure and elemental and clarion-clear as the blues. I realize it's totally cliche to say something is "Yin and Yang" but I feel this is an apt metaphor for the early free jazz.
So what occurs to me though is that we're living in the last days of the first wave of American free jazz musicians. Rashied just passed not so long ago, though Archie, Fred Anderson, Marshall Allen, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah, Sonny Simmons, they're still alive but definitely getting up there in age. Now, it's true as well that not all of these guys still play the fire music. Some like George Lewis and Bill Dixon have gotten more and more into the whole minimalist thing. Cecil and Braxton's ensembles seem a lot more chamber-oriented these days too. I guess it's cool on one level that they're still curious and wanting to explore different things and move on to new territory, but I miss the FIRE. Give me something for my mind, but make sure you hit me in the gut too.
So all of which…is why I appreciate a Sonny Simmons even more. Or a Michael Carey or Hasan Razzaq. These are saxophonists in the Midwest who I've had the chance to play with and are from scenes in Detroit and Cleveland that never caught up to New York or Europe.....which is good in a way because they never got SOOO hip that they lost sight of their grounding. They've always had blues as the main fulcrum of what they do. Players like this can be looked at now as mere throwbacks or even as passé by the "true believers of innovation." For me, that only tells me that they're jaded and cut off from their own emotional response to music.
Which raises my main question….what is the cost of progress if you lose balance in the process? I know there's no going back to 1968, and that these are different times with different sensibilities, but I am concerned that this balance is not going to be perpetuated after the greats are gone. I sincerely hope that younger musicians will look back on the first wave of free jazz as a touchstone for how improvised music can reach the mind and the soul, and that you don't have to sacrifice emotive/expressionistic content to be more hip. This unfortunately has often been a Western instinct-- strip the emotional content if you wish to be perceived as truly modern. Or is that just what happens when Victorian attitudes towards emotionality and sexuality are still washing around and coming out in weird ways? I will get flamed for this I'm sure, but I think a lot of modern art and music is not a contrast to Victorian repression, but simply its abstracted franken-child.
But, this isn't meant to be an anti-white/anti-Western screed….because for better or worse, non-black people are the future of jazz. One of the few things I'll agree with Branford Marsalis about is that the most creative black kids go into hip-hop anymore, they don't go into jazz.
Since I opened the can of racial/cultural worms, I'll close by saying I don't believe black men have any monopoly on heartfelt blues expression. I do think that the community context these artists came out of makes this a more natural outcome than say, for an Asian kid from the suburbs. But to play this way is still a choice you can make…and that if it moves you enough to want to make it part of your essence and your being, it doesn't matter where you came from. I hope that the younger musicians today will hear the same thing I've heard in that first wave of free jazz....to be forward-thinking, but also be true to the fact you're an emotional human being.