Hearing free jazz and improvisation

I had the pleasure of hearing a wonderful performance by Kidd Jordan, William Parker, and Alvin Fielder last night in New Orleans at a club called King Bolden’s. The club is pretty small. It was fairly crowded and the acoustics were good. I could really hear what each musician was playing. I heard things in their music last night, that I had not heard before. I think that is due mainly to my growth as a listener.

In most contexts, I tend to listen in broad terms, hearing shapes and motion and ideas, more than specific notes or harmonies.While listening to free improvisations, my broad listening style does a good job of capturing the vibe and energy of a performance, but it can also let a perception of chaos take over. Last night I heard the interactions within the broader perceived chaos. I could hear melodic lines being passed back and forth between Kidd’s tenor and William’s bass. These lines were not the only notes Kidd or William were playing, but they were contained within all of the other notes that were happening. I could hear some part of Alvin’s set having a rhythmic conversation with some range of Kidd’s tenor. Again, each musiccian was also playing other material, but these parts were closely tied musically.

I equated it to seeing a large crowd, like at an outdoor concert or sporting event. When you look at the broad overview of the people, it could seem like chaos. Then imagine that someone starts a beachball bouncing through the crowd. You can follow the beachball as it passes around the people, eventhough there are many other things happening as well. Then, if you look closely at any given spot in the crowd, you realize that it is not chaos at all, but a seemingly endless number of small spontaneous personal interactions happening simultaneously. Now you can perceive the crowd in whatever fashion you’d like: as chaos, as single individual interactions, or as a collection of those interactions. It all depends of how you focus your sight.

Likewise with the performance last night, it all depened on how I focused my listening. I could hear chaos, singular specific musical interactions, and the collection of those interactions. Plus you can hear all of that at once if you let yourself.

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