Improvisation is at the heart of jazz. In fact, improvisation is the heart of jazz, period. Without the ability to find something new in between the lines of the written score, jazz would simply have been another form of pop. And no matter the strictures put on the form by the big band era (and truly audacious composers like Ellington and the Gershwins), jazz is still all about improvisation.
Ornette Coleman popularized (and, in fact, gave a name to) the "free jazz" movement of the late 50s and early 60s--a movement that splintered almost immediately but is still important today. Between Coleman and Charles Mingus and many others, the idea that jazz could include sound as well as played notes took hold and never left.
The radical improvisational movement today is centered in California between San Francisco and L.A. It recognizes no limits. In many cases, it doesn't even recognize established instruments (see Tom Nunn, etc.). Very few people manage to mingle in both the radical improvisational and mainstream jazz circles. Ken Vandermark's MacArthur Genius Grant was probably more of a hindrance than a help for him as he has tried to do just that. But he soldiers on. As does Bruce Friedman.
Base 4, which features Friedman on trumpet, Alan Cook on drums and Derek Bomback on guitar, manages this trick in superlative fashion. Axes of Symmetry interpolates deconstructions of seven standards (some more "standard" than others) with five straight improvisations.
And while these are no wild-eyed, tear-your-brains-out renditions, Base 4 illustrates precisely why improvisation is still the key element of jazz. The two songs that are probably most familiar are "Straight No Chaser" and "My Funny Valentine." Like the other five restatements on this album, the main lines of those songs are declared at the start of each track, followed by a mildly anarchic game of variations on a theme. By the end, an entirely new song has been constructed. The original is honored, but not deified.
The improvisations (shorter than the reworkings) provide the context for this album. Without them, this is merely impressive noodling. These improvisational "stitches" tie the whole work together with their irrepressible energy and intellectual ferment. More importantly, they honor Friedman's stature and work with the more "out there" improvisational community.
A bit of an aside here: The notes on this album at CD Baby and other places describe this as "smooth" jazz along the lines of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. I can't help but read that as a sophisticated joke. While Davis and Coleman have plenty of introspective work, the intensity of their recordings is hardly "smooth." And while Bomback doesn't shred his guitar, the complexity of his playing is well beyond that of the average player. This is, by and large, a quiet album. But it is simmering with movement and ideas. The overall result is energizing, not enervating.
Like the mainstream people, I generally classify the more radical improvisers as something other than jazz. Music, yes. Jazz, no. At least, not jazz as I think of it. On the other hand, I have a feeling that jazz encompasses a bigger tent than I realize.
In any case, this is improvisational jazz at its finest. I think just about everyone can agree on that.
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