Last fall I wrote about Microgroove, the first book from gallerist and occasional Reader contributor John Corbett in 21 years. Now, just six months later, he’s back with another new book, though it’s much smaller, both in page count and in it physical dimensions. A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation (University of Chicago Press) is designed and organized like a beginner’s field guide, and at a mere four inches across, the 172-page volume can easily fit into the back pocket of your jeans. On the back cover there’s a blurb from Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche that says, “I wish I had this book twenty-five years ago!” I could say the same thing—I would’ve loved to have had such guidance back in 1987, when I had my first real encounter with free improvisation at a concert by guitarist Derek Bailey at Links Hall. The Brit was one of the most important progenitors of the discipline, but his performance left me confused and lost. I didn’t get it.
It took me years and lots of listening to understand free improvisation, and in the beginning Corbett was a big help for me. This handy book breaks down the basics of free improvisation, a theoretically non-idiomatic practice where musicians get together with nothing planned and simply make music spontaneously, focusing on interaction and largely dispensing with the qualities we expect in music—fixed structure, melody, regular rhythms, standard harmony. Free improvisation is about sound and interplay, though that doesn’t quite sum it up. Corbett mostly does without name dropping and jargon—he designed his book for the novice, and he takes pains to keep things clear and approachable, even if what he’s writing about is anything but accessible to most listeners.
Admittedly, it’s a bit difficult for me to evaluate the advice he gives for delving into the music, since I’ve been listening it to for nearly three decades already, but in general his recommendations are lucid and makes plenty of sense. He tells the reader what to listen for, how the size of groups can impact interplay dynamics, and how every musician has his or her own vocabulary and tendencies. He also provides a few lists of good recordings to start with. Plenty of passages quickened my pulse a bit and got me excited to check out a concert, if only to reassess my relationship with the music. Corbett is clearly a devotee, and while he writes here and there about what can make for bad free improvisation, his default position is very positive. He allows that first-time meetings among improvisers can be exciting, but his general feeling is that the results are richer when the players have some experience working together. (Bailey often took the opposite position, because unfamiliarity helped him avoid coziness and predictability.)
Corbett also raises existential questions about why so many folks dislike free improvisation. Every free improvisation ends, but the conclusion rarely brings with it a clear resolution. The music starts, and then it ends—and what matters is only what happens between those two points. To make an admittedly ridiculous analogy, it’s almost as if free improvisation is atheism to pop music’s religion; with the former nothing is certain, while with the latter almost everything is preordained or given meaning by something outside the song.
One of my favorite passages explains the role of the listener at a free improvisation concert. That role is usually pretty minor, but I enjoyed his description of a particular fan who frequently attended the weekly series of jazz and improvised music that Corbett programmed at the Empty Bottle in the 90s and early 00s. He refers to the listener as “the Clicker,” after his habit of chiming in with a penetrating sound produced by “clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth,” which he’d unleash when he felt a given piece had concluded—whether it had or not. Corbett writes, “I found it dictatorial. The Clicker alone would decide when the music was done.”
On Saturday, Corbett will read from A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation at the Seminary Co-Op in Hyde Park at 3 PM. He’ll be joined by three of Chicago’s best improvisers—bass clarinetist Jason Stein, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and percussionist Tim Daisy—to help illustrate his points.
Maria Bethânia, Pássaro da Manhã (Philips, Brazil)
J.D. Allen, Pharoah’s Children (Criss Cross)
Ming Tsao, Pathology of Syntax (Mode)
Various artists, The Northern Side of Philly Soul (Jamie)
Charles Mingus, Changes Two (Atlantic)