In the lead up to the 2016 edition of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Coastal Jazz asked various members of the jazz "family" to share their thoughts about artists who will perform at the festival. Today, Artistic Director Ken Pickering explores an aspect of creative music that this festival particularly known for: interesting combinations of improvising musicians, thoughtfully combined for musical fireworks.
Free Improvisation / Improvisers Collaborate:
photo: Georg Graewe & Evan Parker
There can be times listening to music when it feels like you’ve been there, done that – a feeling that there’s nothing new under the sun and then shazam, you’re hit with an epiphany, a wow moment where suddenly you’re hearing music in a slightly different way. That moment often comes to me when I’m listening to top-drawer free improvisation. Most savvy listeners recognize that elements of improvisation are present in many music forms; Indian music, rock, flamenco, baroque and of course jazz, however in this particular blog post my concern is the area that has been known in recent decades as “free music” or “free improvisation”. Clearly there are many historic precedents for this particular way of making music - in fact the late UK “free music guitarist” Derek Bailey wrote a book about that very subject, a broader cross genre perspective titled “Improvisation”. Originally published in 1980 and updated in 1993 it’s a book worth seeking out.
Photo: Torsten Muller
Never a performance niche to be concerned with large audiences, making money, cultivating power or celebrity through the business of music, the world of improvising musicians is short on compromise and long on risk and typically not bound by rules of rhythm, harmony and melody. At the end of the day, the musical language of free improvisers is focused on varied and very different non-traditional concerns, nonetheless as in jazz or improv the “cats” still have to know how to play at the highest level to be taken seriously. “Free improvisation” as a methodology requires great technical skill and concentration, not to mention deep listening on behalf of both the performers and the listener.
In this era of instability and arts cutbacks, the requisite unwillingness to take risks often follows and free improvisation has taken a bit of a hit as a presenting option in recent times. Over more than three decades of Coastal Jazz music presentation there’s been ongoing dedication to the support and encouragement of collaboration in the risky arena of free improvisation (as well as more traditional jazz) and that notion is an important core programming fundamental that resides at the heart of our story. An enabling philosophy that serves to create exciting opportunities for Canadian and international artists to connect in untested combinations and contexts. In this fertile interactive process artists have the opportunity to develop ideas, language and concepts in an open expansive global framework. Our version of jazz is all encompassing – as that old saying goes, from ragtime to no time.
For myself, an early inspiration to indicate the potential of free improvisation and collaboration in a multiple events performance context was most definitely Derek Bailey’s Company Week (‘76 to ‘94) in London - one of the seminal curated gatherings for improvising musicians and to some degree a performance concept that paved the way for the rest of us involved in such pursuits. In Germany, trombonist / cellist Gunter Christmann’s similar but less well known but nonetheless very important Vario project ran roughly concurrently and sometimes included similar musicians in the festivities and continues to this day.
Another big influence was the monumental October Meeting 1991 presented at the BimHuis in Amsterdam– a landmark event under the stewardship of Huub van Riel that had a profound effect not only on myself but a number of us listeners who attended (critics Kevin Whitehead, John Corbett, Marc Chenard). Over fifty musicians from both sides of the Atlantic met for a nine-day encounter based entirely on original creations – some conceived right on the spot in real time, others developed with advance preparation that included scores and rehearsals. An amazing lineup -Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton, Ab Baars, Paul Bley, Gianluigi Trovesi, Georg Graewe, George Lewis, Han Bennink, Steve Beresford, Sunny Murray, The Ex, Cor Fuhler, Ig Henneman, Trilok Gurtu, Misha Mengeberg and so many more; a program that served to plant many seeds for projects in Vancouver and around the world that is still bearing fruit today.
In Vancouver we made a decision to take the series of concerts that was previously the “Time Flies” mini festival and morphed it into something altogether different – that something was the Vancouver Improvised Music Meeting. The first freely improvised version of “Time Flies” was curated by Derek Bailey on my invitation in 1995 and was in essence a remote version of his “Company Week”. Post ’95 I put the yearly program together until German bassist Torsten Müller (Vario, King Ubu) arrived on the scene in 2001 and joined me as co-artistic director for the next decade. A great run! Since 2014 the Barking Sphinx Performance Society (Dylan van der Schyff) carries the torch for Time Flies during the season with a solid retooled version of the Vancouver Improvised Music Meeting. The music continues.
Time Flies = Company 1995 (Bill Smith): http://www.johnbutcher.org.uk/vancouver_company.html
Photos: Mary Halvorson, Viviane Houle, Sissel Vera Pettersen
My intention with this lengthy preamble is to set the table and give you some historical perspective on what’s happening in the area of free improvisation at the festival this year. At least nine concerts will at incorporate elements of free improvisation within a collaborative framework of musicians that rarely if ever have the opportunity to play together - an international cast of characters connecting to Vancouver musicians in many new and exciting combinations. Rather than writing more stuff (this blog is plenty long) I’m simply going to provide links to the shows and quickly mention that many of my favourite musicians (some mentioned in previous text) are performing.
Thanks to programmers Rainbow Robert and Cole Schmidt for thoughtfully putting so many of these wonderful collaborations together. It was super fun to work on these elements of the festival program with both of you. Now that’s a festival highlight!
June 24 at Performance Works - 2:30pm - FREE
June 24 at the Ironworks - midnight
Evan Parker, Peggy Lee, Meredith Bates, Torsten Müller
June 27 at the Ironworks – 5pm - FREE
June 28 at the Ironworks – 5pm - FREE
June 29 at the Ironworks – 5pm - FREE
June 30 at the Ironworks – 5pm
July 2 at the Roundhouse – 1:30pm
July 2 at the Ironworks – 9:30pm
July 3 at the Ironworks - midnight