A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation expertly navigates music that can seem thoroughly foreign and intimidating.
John Corbett the writer, musician and jazz record producer is not to be confused with John Corbett the actor known for “Northern Exposure” and “Sex in the City.” But that the same name should be shared by two such different creative personalities fits nicely with one of the theses of the literary Corbett’s endearing tutorial. A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation expertly navigates music that can seem thoroughly foreign and intimidating. Yet Corbett handles the material with grace and humor, intelligence and curiosity, in prose that unlike some writing on the subject, is easy to read and accessible to everyone.
Corbett candidly notes that free improvisation may seem like a rarified club, but early on het is adamant that this music is, “open to everyone…it is not a mystery cult, esoteric language or secret handshake.” In dryly funny prose, Corbett acknowledges the existence of fans that might make you think this is all hogwash with, “opinions spoken in geeky shorthand with the haughty ingrown patois of the comic store salesman or the fist-pumping, high-fiving statistic-spouting semaphore of the sports aficionado.” He makes no argument that this music is superior to other kinds of music. Near the end of this modest tome he admits that, “I find sanctimonious free-music followers unbearable.” This type of honesty makes his book all the more welcome.
The guide takes a gently understanding approach, aware that free improvisation may seem daunting to anyone who grew up thinking that music means only traditionally structured songs. There may be rare exceptions: ears raised on classical music or steeped in free improvisation, or perhaps born on rural Jupiter. In other words, few people are hard-wired for this stuff. Yet in a sense, there is nothing more natural and he finds a beautiful metaphor for his subject. Corbett suggests that contrary to perception, listening to music without conventional (note the distinction) rhythm, melody or structure is not the exercise in chaos that it might seem. Rather it’s like watching a flock of birds fly off in formation, “wondering how they know to turn without crashing into another.”
He cautions that those not used to evaluating music like this can fall into two camps: those who think anything unfamiliar is equally great; and those who dismiss everything unfamiliar as awful. Corbett wants us to open our ears in a way that helps us become discriminating listeners. Challenging music can be a gift, and this book encourages us to carefully unwrap presents that we approach with uncertainty and even a certain wariness.
As suits the metaphor of the birds, one of the most noteworthy aspects of Corbett’s guide is that, with the exception of artists performing solo, this forbidding music reveals much about human interaction and the variety of personalities that can work with or against each other. Do the musicians seem to be responding in kind to their bandmates, engaging in a harmonious musical conversation? Or are they antagonists working against each other, or perhaps even performing as if nobody else is there?
While Corbett stresses the importance of seeing free improvising musicians performing live, he also includes lists of records to explore. And even readers who may have some familiarity with this music may find some surprises. A section on “poly-free” champions musicians whose work combines free improvisation with composed music. This is where you’ll find artists who may be more familiar to the general reader, like Sun Ra and John Zorn. A Listener’s Guide is a strangely soothing read, finding beauty and order amidst seeming chaos like a Zen master who describes a blade of grass bending but not breaking in the wind.