Andy Hamilton picks five articles from The Wire archive that cast some light on the art of improvisation – pieces which, he says, have helped him “develop a view of improvisation that involves an 'aesthetics of imperfection', in dynamic opposition to composition but, as Rohan de Saram comments, ‘making its own laws’.”
Saxophonist Steve Lacy is The Wire's source on the philosophy of improv, from the very first issue – the magazine was named after his composition of the same name, a homage to Albert Ayler. Lacy's interview discusses what he called improvisation's "leap" into the unknown, and the free improvisor's idea of "just playing". When Don Cherry arrived in New York in 1959 with Ornette Coleman, Lacy was bowled over: "He'd say, 'Well – let's play", and I'd say 'OK – what do you want to play?' – and he'd say, 'No, let's just play'. This was revolutionary to me at the time because I was into Monk tunes, and thought you had to have a structure and chord changes, the whole thing”. Lacy eloquently expresses his cultural isolation as an improvisor – on his current UK tour, he comments, “I was walking by the university here, and I heard some ordinary rock they had coming out of a party...I got sick to my stomach...It's just like everything I do is against what this is. And that was current normal stuff with loads of people having a good time to it, no problem – except I was walking down the street and I was suffering...You have to consider that you're a specialist, you're a freak – and you have to live with it”.
In a rich, insightful interview, the Arditti Quartet's cellist describes his work with AMM as “really...a form of composition because to be successful the parts have got to have a meaningful relation...to create an intelligible and meaningful piece we have got to take motivic structures, whether they be melodic, whether they be harmonic, whether they be rhythmic, and be able to build something from them like a composer does...Each improvisation will make its own laws. To create an intelligible improvisation one has got to make one's own laws as one goes along. When one starts an improvisation there are no preconceived laws or rules at all. Each improvisation will build its own as it goes along.”
I crave readers' indulgence for including one of my own pieces, but Konitz's very first words in the interview, in response to the first track – Anthony Braxton's take on Lennie Tristano's “April” – blew me away: “Well, it's the worst solo I've ever heard in my life, I think...I don't know what his real intention is in doing this [covering a Tristano tune]...Anthony doesn't relate to the rhythm section at all, they might as well be out to lunch”. This was – and is – a man with strong opinions he's unafraid to express. I'm eternally indebted to Messrs Herrington and Young for suggesting the interview, which eventually led to a book of conversations with Konitz – some themes of which were anticipated in his remarks here, notably in response to those who describe his music as ”cerebral”: ”I reject that entirely. I'm playing very intuitively, at best”. His deep seriousness comes out when he says, “Listening to one or a few minutes of a recording isn't fair to the people...Listening to music is a very, very fragile situation”.
This interview was made the year before the guitarist's death from Motor Neurone Disease, but he's at his ornery finest: “I think improvisation's great era is over, its time is gone...for any music to be really vibrant it lasts about seven or eight years. That's all of music, every music period". He reiterates his view of free improv as non-idiomatic: "You have no guide, you don't start from an idiom, like jazz or rock, you start from nothing and see what happens...I think of non-idiomatic playing as an aim. I've never thought to play freely you can associate with a style, at least for me.” Here he describes his remarkable late recordings Standards and Ballads: “I used to improvise on the chords before but this time I just played whatever it was I wanted to play from the tune...I don't know what I was improvising on. I wasn't improvising on the melody or the chords”. Writer David Keenan is on good form, describing Bailey's unlikely hook-up with DJ Ninj, “a Junglist from Birmingham who laid down a tape of cracked beats as anchor to some of Bailey's most disobedient electric guitar”.
Here we learn that Evan Parker first travelled abroad as a 14-year-old – his father took him to the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. Xenakis's electronic composition, “Concret PH”, was premiered there, but Parker comments that “What you probably won't know is that Sidney Bechet also played at the same Expo. In that same short visit I heard Bechet and I heard Xenakis. You could say I've spent the rest of my life trying to make sense of those two experiences.” Parker critiques the ideology of his former musical partner, with whom he famously fell out: “Derek [Bailey] defined improvisation as a series of negatives...The idea that practising at home improves your capacity to improvise while playing with a particular combination of people diminishes this ability is having your cake and eating it. He painted himself into a corner with 'non-idiomatic improvisation', and spent a lot of time inventing situations to support the theory.”