Tenacious esprit

Rumor is the scene is gone — but “downtown” improvisers persist: “free” music/art vs. real estate and what-have-you . . .

“I hope nobody came here tonight expecting anything to happen,” announced Barre Phillips, who looks a lot like George (rant) Carlin, onstage at Barbes, Brooklyn’s main jazz stage, last week. “All we do is play basses.” He paused to glance at his grown son David, also wielding a big, four-stringed, long-necked wooden box balanced on a metal peg. “And that’s pretty much a lost cause. As I think most of you know.”
Phillips, b. 1934, was peering out at diehards, though — some 60 rapt listeners (almost all white males, ages 30 – 60) attending one of his three rare gigs in the U.S. this weekend (the others: Nov. 30, Firehouse 12, New Haven CT; Dec. 2, Lily Pad, Cambridge MA). Those of us there — musicians and audience alike — were people for whom an hour of loosely formatted, unpredictable (because little pre-meditated) and rather abstract acoustic interactivity is a cause to be fought for, a pleasure to savor. And indeed, music of the sort Barre Phillips has specialized in since the early ’60s, when he performed at Carnegie Hall with Eric Dolphy among others as part of a Gunther Schuller extravaganza, joined reedist Jimmy Giuffre’s radically quiet trio and recorded with Archie Shepp before expatriating himself to Europe, is far from the flavor of the month (year or decade, for that matter), but survives and even thrives, embattled.
Just in the past seven days I’ve enjoyed a quartet of brilliant alto saxophonists — Marty Ehrlich, Ned Rothenberg, Michael Attias and Andy Laster — in the small back room of the East Village basement restaurant Jimmy’s, and Adam Rudolph‘s extraordinary Go: Organic Orchestra, some two dozen players responding to his written notes and improvised conducting, in a Soho gallery where the presenting organization Roulette now holds its concerts, as well as the Phillips’ Barbes show. All these gigs recalled the heyday of a jazz-beyond-jazz movement that reached something like critical mass in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when John Zorn was signed to Nonesuch and composer-performers such as he and Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Shelley Hirsch, Vernon Reid, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Butch Morris, etc. enlivened the Knitting Factory and a host of other rooms typically below Manhattan’s 14th St. with the sounds of surprise.
The old venues are by and large gone now, replaced by upscale boutiques, trendier restaurants or real estate office, or they’ve changed their booking policies to attract the young crowds seeking nightlife now. Horvitz and Frisell moved to Seattle, Murray to Paris, Reid (post-Living Colour) is producing albums for James “Blood” Ulmer, Sharp remains busy but mostly abroad, Hirsch must be busy but I haven’t heard what she’s up to, Threadgill seems to have lapsed into lower profile, Butch has had a good run recently directing the NuBlu Orchestra (recently back from a European tour). Twenty-five to 35 years after their emergence, they’re all somewhat concerned about staying relevant and a couple steps ahead of their bills, as well as keeping their devoted audiences engaged and just maybe reaching new listeners, too. Where would those new audiences (or familiar ones) be?
Not obviously in redeveloped Manhattan — the Bowery, for instance, which used to be home to a handful of low-rent clubs besides Skid Row drinkers, has recently been revealed to be a privileged address on an island boasting almost all privileged addresses. The other boroughs? Well, yes, but . . . Its name has spread as a significant new music spot, yet Barbes is just the back room of a Park Slope storefront bar. It seats about 30 (more attendees stand), has no ventilation to speak of, and the other night one bartender, no waitstaff. Phillips, wearing a t-shirt, preferred the air conditioner off for sound quality, but cracked wise: “What do you do for air in New York? Is there any place smaller to play?”
The Stone,” I called back. That’s Zorn’s recital space back in the East Village.
“Oh yeah, we saw that on our way in; it’s so small it doesn’t have a door,” he said. True, The Stone is hard to find (it’s behind metal shutters on the northwest corner of 2ndt St. and Ave. C). It’s more Spartan in its comforts than Barbes, where at least one can get a drink. But it serves its devoted music community, with two performances a night by artists a rotating group of monthly curators (mostly musicians themselves) chooses, and given them (the performers) the door charges (usually $10 rigorously enforced, few complimentary admissions allowed).
So does Roulette — which sustains an ambitious calendar of experimental and adventurous, albeit not necessarily fashionable and so lesser-known musicians — exist for and with the ol’ new music coterie, and Jimmy’s, where former punk rocker Dee Pop set up a weekly “Freestyle” series of bookings (also now curated by a monthly-changing series of musicians). For Rudolph’s Go: Organic Orchestra (the night I heard it, featuring electric guitarists Jerome Harris, Leni Stern and Kenny Wessel, another feller playing an acoustic bass guitar, upright bassist Lindsey Horner, trombonists Peter Zummo and Steve Swell, reeds players Rothenberg on bass clarinet and shakuhachi, Sylvan Leroux using a West African Fula flute as well as conventional transverse flute, a Japanese flutist playing a Japanese flute and a fine third flutist, Sara Shoenbeck on bassoon, Harris Eisenstadt on trap drums, also hand-drummer, pianist, oboeist, two trumpets and other instrumentalists I’m forgetting) the audiece of approximately 80 people was absolutely absorbed. For the Ehrlich-organized alto quartet, perhaps 50 people were snug and attentive, sitting at tiny tables. The entry fees to both those gigs were low, and if physical comforts were not plush, their modestly was endured in pursuit of aesthetic satisfactions, which were honorably delivered.

from l– Ehrlich, Attias, Rothenberg, Laster at Barbes. Photo Peter Gannushkin /

The four altos squealed, squalled, guttered, and zoomed off, sometimes together and sometimes like a zillion crosshatches in a Saul Steinberg drawing. The Go: Organic Orchestra produced thrills by balancing superb individual improvisations with some tight ensemble motifs (which Rudolph had pre-composed, though he’d left open how to arrive at them). Barre and Dave Phillips played basses unconventionally — rattling a beat with their bows inside their instruments’ f-holes, plucking ghost tones and harmonics as well as fully-intoned notes, going for glisses and microtonal intervals, only offering scripted music at each 10-plus-minutes improv’s conclusion.
Barre was wrong: Something happened while he and Dave played (and the altos and Go: Organic Orchestra, too). Those listening heard it: music made by artists who’ve been chipping away at the challenge of implacable silence for a long while, without much attention to commercial preferences or financial imperatives. Those who didn’t attend probably didn’t miss it much. In New York and a few other busy, dense cities — Chicago, London, Toronto, Tokyo, that I know of — the new music/free improv world carries on. Its population may be small and is certainly self-identified; its charms may be lost entirely on those who can’t decode its emanations. But this kind of music does mean something, conveying many dimensions of relationship and expression. And though the flash and glitter of more popular and lucrative entertainments are distracting, even overwhelming, those who find meaning in music that crystallizes in the moment, sans scores or conventional structures, do not consider the playing by long-adept and inspired hands of basses or any other instruments a lost cause. Not at all.

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  1. says

    There’s a free-improv/experimental scene in Washington, D.C., too. It’s really only solidified in perhaps the past five years, but it’s got a genuine and dedicated following. We’re in good hands.
    HM: That’s good to hear, Michael. I’ve also learned that Philadelphia has a contingent of like-minded, and they exist farther afield of course: LA, the Bay Area, Minneapolis, New Orleans, throughout Europe, Turkey, Asia, Africa I bet too — all have some players, maybe even the majority of musicians, who “improvise freely.” That’s what music-making is, at base, no? With purpose, one hopes, to make it music not noise. Surely that collective music-making impulse precedes “composition,” the fixing of flow in form.

  2. michael sentkewitz says

    Hi, The free -improv/ experimental
    scene in Seattle is also in good hands with the gallery 1412 and Steve Peters at the chapel, and the monktail organization, and Earshot jazz our new music scene is thriving Now if we could just get some more people out to the shows

  3. says

    London mirrors much of what you say here. The main venues such as Ronnie Scott’s have become more commercial and the interesting music is now no longer in the centre of town. At places like the Vortex, where Evan Parker plays monthly, or Red Rose. And appreciative audiences are growing and showing increasing age diversity.
    Young bands, such as Led Bib and Fraud, are proud to show the influence of Parker (E) or indeed Albert Ayler, even when performing away from jazz venues. The greatest hardships are finding enough venues to show off the music, even in a city as big as London, and adequate media outlets to show that this music is alive, well and relevant.
    HM: Thanks for the detailed note, Oliver. I believe creative music has often been born out of the cultural centers, though just as often it tries to storm the central citadels the better to establish itself and exploit larger audiences/profit potentials and tap new energies/input. What happens when the central citadels make themselves inpregnable? Do such institutions eventually collapse under their own antiquity? Can artists who circle a vast center find each other, to draw out the desirable creative/competitive spirit that fuels a scene? Stay tuned for the next 5 to 10 years as we find out.

  4. PHEEROAN says

    HM: Thanks Pheeroan ak Laff — drummer with Cecil Taylor, among notable others —