Music And The Creative Spirit: Innovators In Jazz, Improvisation, and The Avant-Garde

By Lloyd Peterson
Scarecrow Press

By Ken Waxman

Similar to the proverbial thin person who reportedly exists within a fat individual, there’s a slimmer, well-focused volume lurking somewhere within this 323-page book. Author Lloyd Peterson deserves kudos for interviewing an international cross section of contemporary, mostly jazz-based improvisers. But, unfortunately, his editorial judgment appears to have been suspended once he asked his questions and recorded his answers.

As a fervent fan – an amateur in the best sense of the word – rather than a professional journalist or a trained academic, the information he gathers about the ideas and concepts that go into creating so-called “avant-garde” music depends on the good will and eloquence of his 40-odd interviewees. However, since in the main he’s cast his queries within a simple question and answer format, he ends up losing control of the material. Subjects relate individual histories, triumphs and disappointments. But since analysis isn’t his forte, a universal understanding of how these individual pieces fit together is lacking.

Peterson’s decision to publish the interviews in alphabetical order by subject name highlights another abdication of responsibility. Themes, insights and relationships appear as the pages turn, yet any linkage is left to the reader.

Overall, Peterson is too reverential. To take one example, two of the four subjects pictured on the cover – tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and composer John Zorn – aren’t even interviewed. Instead brief statements about music – in Zorn’s case from a CD booklet notes – serve as their chapters. Violinist Eyvind Kang contributes a poetic fable about the violin which is in complete variance with the other chapters; while saxophonist Steve Lacy is represented by a copy of a hand-written note he sent the author, making a few points about Jazz and explaining his misgivings about a book of this nature.

Furthermore none of the material is given a time frame or exact date, so that when a musician speaks about the ill effects of the Iraq War, for instance, or the treatment of more experimental, contemporary musicians in Ken Burns’ Jazz television series you don’t know whether the reactions are of the moment or offered some time after the fact. Some readers may also quibble about Peterson’s choice of interviewees, and their relationship to innovation.

For instance violinist Regina Carter – another book cover subject – seems to hear Peterson’s questions as another media interview. Her rambling dissertation, encompassing her number 1 position on the Billboard Jazz Chart, her record company’s support despite her refusal to sing [!], and the incursion of Smooth Jazz into the Jazz mainstream are as distant from the other chapters as a Dixieland band would be at a recital of Morton Feldman’s compositions.

Some chapters, such as the Chicago roundtable with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson – all of whom except the first are also interviewed separately – feature obvious in-person give-and-take. Other Q and A sessions are stilted enough to suggest e-mail exchanges. Additionally, nearly every subject is asked to comment on a quote by Cecil Taylor – who isn’t interviewed by the way – that describes some areas of music as being “magical rather than logical”. Not surprisingly nearly everyone wants it both ways, though the breakdown of which person lines up on which side of the equation could make an interesting study if pursued.

That’s where the volume’s strength lies. Using the interviews as raw data and skipping among them randomly as if the book was a CD player on shuffle mode, the adroit reader can glean some insights.

As a rule of thumb, the majority of American subjects, such as trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Jason Moran, even as they reject the neo-conservative codification of Jazz represented by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, see themselves as representatives of a long-standing Jazz tradition. Almost all centre the music in the United States; most mention its African-American roots.

In contrast, the non-Americans, Europeans and Japanese such as guitarists Derek Bailey and Fred Frith, saxophonist Evan Parker and turntablist Otomo Yoshide among many others, reject this thesis. They describe their work as having evolved past whatever Jazz is to become unclassifiable – and that’s how they like it. “If I had an absolutely clear idea of how I wanted the music to sound I wouldn’t improvise,” notes Parker.

Since the most valuable information comes from those who are most cerebral, Peterson’s undifferentiating approach often masks many additional potential highlights. Because of the format for instance, saxophonist Greg Osby’s description of how organization of resources, finances and rehearsal space led to the creation of the M-Base collective, or saxophonist Ken Vandermark’s musing on the relationship of rhythm and the composing process, is given the same weight as bassist Christian McBride’s non-confrontational views on pop singers and pop gigs.

Since Peterson did have the gumption to organize this volume about out-of-the-mainstream creators, Music And The Creative Spirit’s value is that with judicious searching the interviews refute one general weakness Yoshide provocatively states about the 21st Century.

“I think we’ve entered an era where the question isn’t where to get information, but how to eliminate the information you don’t need and select only the information you want,” he says. “I don’t think this is a good thing since it’s created the kind of society which to a remarkable extent extinguishes people’s tolerance for values other than their own.”

Those captivated by individual tales that lack wider context can still use the material here as a raw resource for further investigation of individuals plus advanced music itself.

In MusicWorks Issue #98