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Kenny Barron & Regina Carter

Freefall

(Verve)

Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette

Inside Out

(ECM)

Dave Ballou

On This Day

(SteepleChase)

For some jazz fogies, improvising without any predetermined material is still, to borrow Robert Frost's put-down of free verse, like playing tennis without a net: a fringe activity with a suspicious lack of discipline, a lazy rejection of skill and order. This quaintly reactionary position helps some free-jazz players and fans pretend they're cutting edge, outlaws under siege. The subtitle of the documentary Continuum, showing at the Siskel Film Center as part of its music-movie series this month, is "Why the Jazz Establishment Can't Hold Down Matthew Shipp"--as if the establishment weren't busy marketing his many CDs and pitching magazine articles using his outsider pose as a hook.

In truth, 60s-style free jazz, with its anthemic tunes, open blowing, and blustery saxes, has become jazz's new Dixieland: a classic style beloved by true believers, whose elders (like Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd) are revered for playing with the old spirit whether they do or not, and whose successors (like Shipp) are praised for inching the tradition along. But while free jazz the style has been institutionalized without losing its marginal status--Shipp may put out as many records as Wynton Marsalis, but he doesn't sell as many--free improvisation as a musical practice has actually insinuated itself into the mainstream. The process was under way by the mid-60s, when Miles Davis's quintet began loosening up its improvisational procedures. In the 80s, even retro-jazz icon Branford Marsalis and his buddies would burn on one chord for long stretches--more a stab at free jazz than free improvisation. But gradually even mainstream musicians--checking out newer concepts, or catching some strange band at a festival, or just picking up ideas in the air--began to emulate the tacks free improvisers use with some success, and to employ them as part of a well-rounded conceptual arsenal in a polystylistic age.

Three recent CDs show how easily free play fits into the jazz mainstream, and the variety of approaches in common usage. On their duo album Freefall, pianist Kenny Barron and violinist Regina Carter play mostly standards and originals, but slipped in between "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" and "Footprints" is the free-improvised eight-minute title track. Neither party is known for this sort of thing, although Barron came up in the freewheeling 60s and Carter--best known for her heavily produced mainstream and commercial discs--apprenticed in the String Trio of New York and Mark Helias's quartet, where open improvising is part of the mix.

"Freefall" is a remarkably assured performance, especially in the agreeably loose context of this sketchbook-informal date. Piano and violin take only seconds to find each other, and then they're off, riffling through a lexicon of free players' pet tactics. They mirror or rapidly imitate each other's phrases; they leapfrog, trading phrases; they thin their lines to scattered staccato notes--pointillism, that's called. Without warning they whirl into a fast crescendo that ends on a dime; Barron barks or rolls out chords for Carter to solo over. But they never linger long over any episode, no matter how rewarding--everything I just described arises in the first two minutes.

They pull together more than apart, but play cat-and-mouse games too. The pianist dangles little fragments of melody before the violinist while she drones like a steam kettle in the background, unmoved. But just when you think she's missed the invitation, she starts unspooling melodies built on his offerings. That leads into a long lyrical chapter, with some deliberate quarter-tone violin, initiating an entropic glide to calm resolution. Cecil Taylor's crash piano and the wide world of classical violin and piano sonatas inform everything as well, but those count for less than the intensity and integrity of interplay. On some other tracks, Carter's solos trail off inconclusively, but here she stays engaged.

Keith Jarrett's long-running trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette (performing Friday, November 9, at Orchestra Hall) mostly plays standards but gets an itch to play free once in a while too; having developed a group style through playing standards, the three can maintain the style even when they throw out the material. Jarrett and DeJohnette also played on Miles's loosey-goosey free-leaning 1970 electric records At Fillmore and Live-Evil. And Jarrett's improvising and composing styles have always been influenced by Ornette Coleman and by Paul Bley, the first pianist who figured out how to follow Coleman when he drifted off the script, twisting a form out of shape or temporarily jumping to another key. In the 70s Jarrett had a quartet with Ornette's bassist Charlie Haden and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman; Peacock was in Bley's great 1970s trio, and before that was the string-thwacking mainspring of Albert Ayler's peerless threesome.

The Jarrett trio's first improvised record for ECM was Changes, recorded in the studio in 1983; the second was Changeless, taped live in '87. The LP-era Changes was compact and varied; there was a modal jam of almost flamenco passion, a rubato ballad rather like the band's normal fare, a medium-tempo ramble blow full of vintage Bley's breezy lyricism. Jarrett's occasional half chords and Peacock's walking bass hinted at shifting harmonies they didn't need to define to benefit from their apparent motion. Changeless, by contrast, was four droney one-chord jams that went nowhere, even when the trio rode a groove into the sunset. The new and live Inside Out--these records have good titles--draws on both approaches, but the results are more polished.

The opener, "From the Body," inspires confidence: spiky bass and drums underpin a lilting piano tune built on one springy figure. Jarrett, typically, combines folksy Ornette-ish phrases with hints of gospel harmony. An expansive medium tempo like this one rarely fails to draw Jarrett out; his lines flow at a comfortable clip, each phrase a small study in contrasting dynamics and melodic contours. There is a catch: at such moments he'll start singing along with the piano in the voice of Jerry Lewis's nutty professor. But this medium bounce is the rhythm section's meat too. Behind Jarrett's first solo, DeJohnette is a one-man percussion section: each of his limbs implies a separate meter, and each independent line has it own quirks of timing, its own personality. Most good piano-trio bassists can articulate quick runs that comment on piano action, but they often leap up an octave or two to call attention to themselves. Peacock loves the bass's deep, resonant home register too much for that. Together the three of them hit some great grooves, but they do go on and on; they'll spend ten minutes or more harping on one idea where many self-respecting European or American improvisers would've felt obliged to move on long before.

One beauty of free improvisation is that it can sound like almost anything--free jazz, a romantic sonata, a jam session, Xenakis. Some hard-core free players repudiate anything that aspires to the condition of composition, but that doesn't stop other musicians. The model for so much droney improvising since the Coltrane quartet, and in particular for ECM's stereotypically spacious, slow-starting, and slow-building stuff, is the classical music of India. At one point Jarrett rings one note with his left hand for seven minutes, persistent as a tamboura. But this time Jarrett and friends get deeper into the nuances of ebbing and flowing time and texture than on Changeless. Even when DeJohnette locks into a funky pattern, Peacock keeps roaming. He breaks up his line without losing track of the time, changing things up for change's sake, and steps up to take on Jarrett in rapid dialogue.

These Jarrett albums all raise questions about what "free" really means; some of his tunelets sound so fully formed you may suspect he worked them out at home and sprang them on the band as the tape rolled. (The pieces are always credited to him, not the trio.) But then most improvisers discover neat things while practicing, which they then try out on a gig. Playing on one chord may seem a cop-out, like staying in your cell after the door swings open, if not like netless tennis--but free play grants license to do that or anything else. Still, half the fun of improvised music is getting from one thing to another, and Jarrett squeezes fewer transitions into 78 minutes than Barron and Carter do in 8:21. And though for some free players the other half of the fun is confounding expectations and shaking things up, Peacock and DeJohnette habitually defer to the boss.

In the last 20 years, more sophisticated models of group interplay have sprung up; Europe's Globe Unity and ICP Orchestra, among other bands, have figured out how to marshal larger forces, via spontaneous entrances and exits, shifting allegiances, seizing and abdicating control. On most busy scenes, in fact, musicians who frequently encounter each other in one-shot gigs and insufficiently rehearsed recording sessions develop ways of operating that their peers can recognize and react to, ways to keep things varied without clumsy collisions.

Trumpeter Dave Ballou's CD On This Day, recorded with a cast of New York regulars, is a compendium of such devices: free-improvised quintet music that sounds largely preplotted. Ballou and saxophonists Billy Drewes and Tony Malaby, bassist Mike Formanek, and drummer Tom Rainey get to do the same sort of stuff they would on a normal jazz date: play melodies, harmonize, take sequential solos, change up the rhythmic feel, trade phrases, and end together, all with a fine sense of balance and proportion.

Take the nine-minute "Robin and Treebeard." It opens as a fast duo for bass and trumpet; Formanek's slippery line implies a downward spiraling chord progression, while Ballou's fluttery energy, pretty if prim sound, and precise half-valved bends resemble Dave Douglas's (maybe because the Daves share two trumpet heroes, the lyrical Booker Little and the flutter-nutter Herb Robertson). The moment Formanek eases off the tempo, the drums and Malaby's tenor dive in, and a new rhythm instantly emerges, a drunken variant on jazz 4/4. The two horns then weave around each other in improvised counterpoint, but only for a brief interlude; they both drop out to make way for Drewes's alto, unheard till now. As bass and drums loosen up the time, Drewes blows with a beefy, tenor-sized sound; he's fond of a hoarse, precise falsetto likely cribbed from his old friend and bandmate in drummer Paul Motian's quintet, Joe Lovano. He caps his solo by repeating a catchy salutary figure, as if referring back to an Ornette-ish theme the listener had somehow missed. He exits, Malaby enters, and the Ornette references continue: Formanek strums like Haden, Malaby cries bluesy like Redman. The rhythm section slows, as if ready to finish, but the other horns pour in for a beautiful, eerie episode of close harmony playing, a shrieky but reverent choir. The horns slowly separate, and Drewes's alto rises above to sing a final impromptu melody, rather like one of Motian's slow lava flows.

Throughout the album, players tiptoe into the mix, or sneak in behind someone else's louder note, making you scan back in search of where they entered and giving the music a sense of space. The spontaneously harmonized passages carry the weight of written material, breaking up solo-oriented episodes with banks of ensemble playing. Some longer pieces are divided into separate tracks, to make On This Day look all the more like a conventional jazz record, but those after-the-fact divisions also pinpoint small gestures that send the music off in new directions. Everyone's as sensitive to nuance as a Henry James party guest. The quintet posits a far more sophisticated model of free play than Jarrett does--tennis with a moving net--but then his music is part of what they build on.

For almost 20 years Wynton Marsalis and his allies have sold a narrow definition of jazz, in which the charlatanism of free play has no place. Ken Burns was still pushing this line earlier this year. But greater resources make for richer music, and useful ideas have a way of winning out over dogma. Jazz is very good at assimilating outside influences, and in reconciling opposing schools: the term mainstream was coined to describe such a tendency. If free improvising is now more at home in jazz, it's partly because more musicians recognize that it offers the same sorts of challenges that attracted them to jazz in the first place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patrick Hinely.

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