Sunday, January 23, 2005


Last night I attended a concert of free improvisation by the trio of Jack Wright, Michel Doneda, and Tatsuya Nakatani. I had been attracted by the name of Wright, two of whose CDs I owned. What I heard was completely different from these CDs, but it was probably the best live music experience I've ever had.

The music played was utterly different from conventional jazz, and also from nearly all of the free improvisation I've heard in the past. It was a single piece about fifty minutes long, with no breaks; all three musicians played more or less continuously (with pauses of about a minute at most), and there was nothing like a solo. It was more an exploration of sound than what one usually thinks of as music; there was little conventional melody. The closest reference point I can think of is AMM, though it's been a long time since I've listened to any of their CDs. Like AMM, it was much more about experiencing the music from moment to moment than about larger structures.

None of the musicians produced primarily sounds generally associated with their instruments. At the center, both physically and sonically, was Tatsuya Nakatani, the percussionist. He had a drum set, but did little drumming per se. Instead he used such techniques as dragging a brush or cymbal across a drumhead, or applying a bow to the edge of a gong or of a ceramic bowl placed on top of a drum. The result was an array of sustained tones and sounds which I would have assumed were electronic if I hadn't seen them being created; but I don't think Nakatani even used amplification. Flanking Nakatani were the two saxophonists, Doneda and Wright, who played mainly breath tones, flutters, squeals, and clicks. The music was at times very quiet, and at times very loud. At one point Doneda, who had gotten up to explore the playing space (an art gallery) acoustically, wandered behind an interior wall where, hidden from the audience, his saxophone produced a tremendous resonance, and the other two musicians raised their volume to match. But such moments were unusual. Most of the time this was music that required intense concentration to follow each nuance.

I don't go to live music much, and I've never been much for the mystique of live music, the insistence that it's superior to the recorded article. In fact, when I have gone, the experience has usually been inferior to listening to recordings; I usually need to listen to a piece of music several times to comprehend it. But this was an exception. I don't know why, but I found myself listening more intently to this music than I ever had to recorded free improvisation, and the experience was correspondingly more intense. I realize I've completely failed to convey this in my description; and of course, not everyone would have the same response. In fact, had I been in a different mood, or more tired, I might well have been unable to respond to it. But as it was, this was the first time I got a glimpse of what theorists of improvisation mean when they talk about the value of improvisation as a practice, as distinct from its result.

The concert was part of a tour of the East and Midwest which will continue through next Saturday. Here are the remaining dates:

Jan. 23 (tonight!) St. Louis
Jan. 25: Lexington, KY
Jan. 26: Pittsburgh
Jan. 27: Easton, PA
Jan. 28: Baltimore
Jan. 29: New York City

For more information, go here. (In late February and early March they will be in France.) If you live in or near one of these cities, and if you're interested at all in free improvisation, or if my inadequate description happens to intrigue you, I strongly urge you to go.

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