Home Masthead EMANEM and the New British Revolution: Who’s Afraid of Improvised Music?

EMANEM and the New British Revolution: Who’s Afraid of Improvised Music?

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Improvisation Klamm Painting by Wassily Kandinsky; Improvisation Klamm Art Print for sale
Improvisation Klamm Painting by Wassily Kandinsky

The great composers, from the earliest times created spaces in composed music for what they called “cadenzas” where the performing musicians/soloists were encouraged to add flourishes and elaborate improvisations to a suggested theme or sparingly written passage. There are scores of examples of this in works from Baroque, Romantic and Classical composers. Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart have all made room for improvisation in famous pieces. The breathtaking cadenza in the first movement of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto sticks in the mind. Baroque flourishes probably inspired much more from musicians who came after him, but nothing could have prepared the ear for the unfettered raging improvisations of the jazz of the 1960s – the so-called avant-garde of African American musician who decided it was time to turn his and her back on the prevailing culture that was cannibalising the intensity of African American music of that time.

Some, like the Association for Advancement of Creative Music (Chicago and New York chapters) stayed in America and turned jazz upon its head with its raw metaphysical insanity. Men like Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, and Cecil Taylor followed John Coltrane and sent jazz into a new and wonderful realm. Others followed. Yet other jazz evangelists such Steve Lacy and even Eric Dolphy flew across the pond and decided to stay where the climate for their new innovations was more welcome in countries such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany and France. Musical dialogues began to take shape – as did once take place between the painter Wassily Kandinsky and John Cage – between the Americans and the Europeans, who had been moving in a similar direction thanks in large part to Satie, Varese, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern and down to Stockhausen. The Americans not only brought with them the gospel according to Charlie Parker, but also according to Morton Feldman, John Cage and others.

Friedrich Gulda often crossed over from classical to free improvisations and the world of Christoph Spendel, Wolfgang Schlüter and Gunter Hampel and many more. Meanwhile the British were already cutting a wide swathe through the popular music of the day. Lol Coxhill, Veryan Weston John Russell, John Marshall, Evan Parker and several others were not waiting for anyone to show the way, The spark from the American avant-garde had also lit a fire on Britain, but the Brits had an agenda of their own: they had invaded the US once and it was time to create a new realm whether Her Majesty frowned upon what they had invented or not; whether it followed the party line in America or not. Not to put too fine point upon it music in Britain was infinitely more iconoclastic and seemed to take a cue from the sardonic bite of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix than anything else much to the shame of most Americans, who have since slipped back into the comfort of the ballroom, while lone wolves such as Archie Shepp and Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith have been left to bay at the moon.

Martin Davidson, founder of EMANEM stole a march on almost everyone, when he began wandering like a medieval apothecary – more like Merlin the Druid, actually – with magically precise recording equipment for his charms and spells to do an Alan Lomax on the improvising musicians’ scene in Britain and Europe. He even marched triumphantly through the US when some of these glorious musicians did to perform there. As a result the EMANEM catalogue is as rich and varied as those of the Swiss imprint hatHUT and the other pioneering label, America’s ESP Disk. Like the other two pioneering labels, EMANEM is unique in its own way because it has Davidson’s confidence and belief in the veracity of the music that he continues to curate doggedly year after year, from which he probably makes little to no money at all.

From its very inception Mr. Davidson’s label has held fast to the firm beliefs that “RECORDED SOUND: The most realistic way to preserve music. In the past, improvisers had to resort to the vagaries of notation in an attempt to preserve their creations. The advent of recorded sound has largely made the use of notation redundant. A major reason for the rise of improvised music,” and “RECORDED VISION: Although music is essentially an aural experience, it can have some visual interest. However, this is not preserved by the absurd gimmicky fashion of moving around randomly between close-ups of individual musicians, or parts thereof, to the exclusion of others who are also performing. It is also common for the vision to have nothing to do with the music and/or musicians. Imagine if sound recordings used the same techniques! The only way to visually record music, is to always keep all the performing musicians in camera. No doubt, this is too much to expect from a medium that has come to be primarily used for people with zero attention span.”

So here’s to Free Improvisation, not Free jazz, which is A somewhat dangerous name for the area of music that straddles the border zone between Jazz and here’s to Free Improvisation because as Martin Davidson puts it to us: Free Improvisation is this: The most innovative, original, creative and exciting music of the last thirty years. This usually gets treated (if at all) as a bizarre extremity of Jazz, which in turn is usually treated as a bizarre extremity of Popular Music – the non-Classical variety, that is. (One infamous critic even thinks that Free Improvisation, along with everything else, was just a passing phase on the way to Jazz-Rock!) Most Free Improvisation is inherently non-idiomatic or pan-idiomatic, and therefore should not be lumped together with any particular idiom. Of course, Jazz was a major influence on Free Improvisation, and a lot of musicians and listeners came to it from there.

However, other musics have also had a major influence, and musicians and listeners have come to it from the worlds of Popular Music (both Classical and Rock) in spite of it being lumped together with Jazz. Free Improvisation. When this name was used to promote an Ornette Coleman concert, the audience refused to pay admission, so the promoter refused to pay the musicians, so the musicians refused to play. However, much has changed since then. Free improvising musicians are getting the attention they deserve. The mistrust has withered away and there are enough aficionados to fill clubs and concert halls. Still much more needs to be done and as long as there are musicians as brilliant as the ones mentioned here and elsewhere, and as long as there are labels such as hatHUT (which in many cases shares tapes with EMANEM and vice versa), ESP Disk and EMANEM there will always be this remarkable music.

This four-page feature looks at recordings presented by EMANEM…

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