Sunday, August 14, 2011

Free Improvisation Series: The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble

The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble
The social changes which occurred in America during the 60's can be seen wherever you look, including music. Some of these changes are visible on the surface: take a look at experimentation with different instrumental techniques (Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler), unique or modern instruments (Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk), and melodic relation to given harmonies (George Russell, Herbie Nichols, and earlier, Lennie Tristano). Many of the most important changes, however, require a closer examination of a broad cross section of music from the period. By looking at “this music" [1] which emerged in New York City in the late 50's and 60's, we see a couple general highly inter-related trends: 1) a questioning of established social relationships, especially the roles of lead instruments vs. rhythm section, and interaction within the rhythm section itself; and 2) a heightened emphasis on individual freedom in improvisation. Both of these are pretty much ubiquitous in the social movements of the 60's, so it is no surprise to find them present in jazz as well.
Ornette Coleman presented a simple and very attractive model for the freeing up of improvisation in a jazz setting, one which kept to the head-solos-head format. This format was also used by Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock, and other proponents of “this music”. Sometimes improvisation was incorporated into a larger compositional framework, as with Miles Davis (late 60's), Cecil Taylor, and Bill Dixon. However, recorded evidence of completely free improvisation during this period is rather scarce. One notable exception is the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, which grew out of a series of collaborations between bassist Alan Silva and drummer Clarence Walker in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Pianist Burton Greene started playing with them in late 1962, and by early 1963, the group also included Gary Friedman and Jon Winter, who both played woodwind instruments.
Burton Greene and Alan Silva. Photo by AC Wieringa
Silva distinguished the FFIE from the “jazz bands [who] were still using the rhythm sections the same way – continuous flow, with people improvising; in and out … We really thought that we were five people thinking collectively.”[2] Silva refers to the rhythm section and its role in the improvising ensemble, and this is a very important point. In conventional jazz, the role of the “rhythm section” was as a support structure for the front line. They played throughout the piece, while soloists took turns improvising. If this order is abandoned, the “rhythm section” as a functional unit ceases to be; more broadly, the “soloist” and “accompanist” both also cease to be: players are (in principle at least) all equally relevant to the musical task. When the musical task is, as Greene described the FFIE's aesthetic, one of “spontaneous composition”, the level of individual musical freedom is indeed quite unprecedented.
The FFIE played only a handful of concerts during its existence. In 1964 the group became members of Bill Dixon’s Jazz Composer’s Guild, an organization of musicians who were committed to building an alternative infrastructure for the performance, recording, and distribution of their music. The Guild’s most prolific activity was the organization of two concert series in late 1964, which garnered quite a bit of attention from the mainstream jazz press. Most members of the Guild concentrated their efforts on some combination of composition and improvisation; indeed, the FFIE played “scores” occasionally as well. But among members of the Guild, and that community in New York as a whole, they appear to have been the most committed, on principle, to completely improvised music. Their only commercial available recording (released in 1998) features a recording of the band’s final performance at a Guild concert series in December 1964. Shortly thereafter, the Guild itself ceased its activities.
Today, Greene and Silva are well-respected, but peripheral figures in the jazz scene. Their activities in the FFIE did not appear to have a particularly strong impact on the free improvisation scene which erupted in the 1970's. But the general activities of this radical group of musicians (the Guild, and various artists who recorded for ESP-Disk') were highly influential on some of the most major figures in the history of jazz. By 1961, John Coltrane can already be heard moving into the territory he would later dedicate himself to; he was a known admirer of John Gilmore (of the Sun Ra Arkestra), Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler (with whom he took lessons.) Miles Davis' 2nd Quintet experimented with the free soloing pioneered by Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, as can clearly be heard on Miles Smiles, Nefertiti, The Sorcerer, and others. Live recordings from this period through 1970 provide even more dramatic evidence of this. Jimmy Giuffre, who wrote the jazz standard “Four Brothers”, led a highly experimental trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, which explored 12-tone writing, tone clusters, and free improvisation. Charles Mingus allowed the members in his ensemble to explore the kinds of territory they wished, which was often quite “outside” of traditional jazz. Jackie McLean, an accomplished and influential bebop saxophonist, released a series of curious and exploratory recordings in the mid-1960's. So while free improvisation was overshadowed (some may say suppressed) by the commercialization of jazz which began occuring in the early- to mid-70's, its influence is still felt whenever we listen to A Love Supreme or Miles Smiles.
[1] This is Bill Dixon's term for the music of the 60's.
[2] "The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble" liner notes; Cadence Records, 1998.

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