Improvisation can take many, many forms. In some instances, it is chaotic and full, with Ornette’s huge group skronk-fest being one of the best known examples. On Free Jazz, it seems as if everyone is running around each other, doing his own thing, and the idea of call and response is sublimated to the importance of intensity, or it is altogether lost. In smaller group settings this can be the case, too, where the interplay between instruments is more implied than actual.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have improvised jazz that seems almost fully composed. Wind instruments play long, stable tones, and other tones come in, supplemented by perfectly timed percussive touches. Normally this is achieved by slowing the pace so it is obvious to the other players where the music is going. In these instances, the composition that arises from a strict set of improvisational parameters (generally limited to the freedom of when to come in or drop out of the mix) is prime.
Now, that is jazz, and although free jazz and free improv are cousins, the versatility of the instruments within jazz (sax, trumpet, drums, etc.), when played conventionally (or somewhat conventionally - the key distinction) seems, to me, to be greater than the versatility of the instruments when played via extended techniques in free improv. There are many ways to play free improv, but typically you’ll never confuse freely improvised music for composed music. Or so I thought.
On Penumbræ, Allum and Prévost don’t sound like they’re playing jazzy compositions by any stretch, but this is an album that has the textures and instrumental approaches of free improvisation while also taking on the character of a pre-formed composition. On this album, that is, it feels spontaneous, yet the direction of the album’s music is so unified, it gives you a sense of well thought out patterns. In other words, there seem to be some rules in place, but I’m not sure what they are. To illustrate, I feel as if the players come and go as they please, but at the same time, when they jump into the music, their choices in sound aren’t a second or two long, but some kind of system. This brings me back to Ornette for a second - jazz that had various melodies not in key interspersed in his solos. That seems in part what happens here, although I’m not so sure it’s not an illusion. That is, each segment of sound, impressively developed (on the spot, presumably), has such character that is seems fully formed before it is played and integrated into the record.
So this record will challenge you - is it possible to have such complex ideas on the spot? Or does this make you think deeper about improvisation? Is improvisation simply an on the spot selection of things you’ve already heard, practiced, etc. and stored? And if this is stored in their minds in some form before it is played, why does it feel so fresh and appropriate to the proceedings? In other words, this might seem random to the players and not have any true structure assembled beforehand, yet at the same time the music seems structurally sound in a way almost no freely improvised record I’ve heard does.
This is still in print, so I’m not going to upload it. Indeed, I think the link above takes you to the label and it is $10. This probably is my album of the year so far, so please search it out and support these artists.
Killed in Cars April 24th 2011