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Freedom Fighter

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Marilyn Crispell

HotHouse, April 8

The war that rages in jazz these days is no news to anyone following the continuing controversy between Wynton Marsalis and his critics. The war doesn't just concern the musical avenues Marsalis has chosen to explore: at its fundamental level it engages such issues as how and where jazz will evolve and who will get to decide such questions for the majority of listeners.

For me, the crisis gained a quiet focus with Marilyn Crispell's visit to Chicago last weekend. Crispell, a pianist of spectacular energy and an almost unnerving precision--unnerving because it serves such tumultuous and gloriously imprecise forms of expression--represents much of what the Marsalis-led neoconservatives demean.

For the obvious starter, she does not play bebop; she doesn't even refer to that watershed idiom in her music, which falls into the area generally referred to as "free jazz" or "the avant-garde." She does not "swing" in any traditional sense. Her music does not fit the externally imposed theme-and-variations format used by the young neoboppers; the structure instead arises from the free flow of her galvanizing improvisations. Although she uses such elements as tone clusters, dissonant voicings, and blurringly fast percussive melodies, she doesn't play like Cecil Taylor, who pioneered such techniques; Crispell thus disproves the assertion that "all that free stuff sounds alike." And she presents an obvious contrast--enhanced by the fact that her appearance in town was part of the Women of the New Jazz festival--to "young men in suits," the flip but telling epithet that describes the Marsalis-spawned wave of talented young players aping the sounds and styles of decades past.

Crispell performed at HotHouse last Friday night, in a dream trio of her own devising, with the great Chicago pioneer Fred Anderson on tenor sax and the world-seasoned Hamid Drake on drums. The night before, she appeared on the radio show I host, and in the course of that interview I touched on the "difficult" nature of freely improvised music such as hers.

I have always marveled at the power of some jazz, and music such as Crispell's in particular, to make people angry--angry enough to call and complain when they hear it on the radio, or to storm out of a concert with a wrath they would never display toward a bad film or a stupidly written book. I think this has everything to do with the fact that this music operates on such a primal level. It asks the listener to unlearn familiar presumptions about jazz specifically, music in general; using elements that predate sophisticated harmonic schemes and exacting rhythms, it reaches deep, like a great poem, to a very old place. It seeks out a spot beyond that cerebral net we try to throw over everything we hear. And that makes some people quite uncomfortable: mystified by what they hear, frustrated that others seem to be "getting it," and explosively defensive in the perceived insult to their intelligence.

But such reactions only prove the music's real power, its ability to forge and shape emotions at a substratum rarely reached by art. And when everything clicks, as it did at Crispell's performance, those emotions include joy and the most unvarnished delight. Crispell has already proved herself a spectacular accompanist in her work with Anthony Braxton's quartet, and that ability came to the fore as she underlined and enhanced Anderson's haunted tenor lyricism. But each of them also worked to prod the music, with Drake's help, into places neither of them might have separately considered. Their first three pieces rose and fell into place with an excited logic that reminded me why I listen to this stuff in the first place, and that happens not nearly often enough.

(By the way, on the radio Crispell didn't agree that there's anything difficult about her music. Instead, she described the way in which many people listen to and appreciate her music: they let it wash over them, not so much thinking about it--unconcerned with whether or not they're being duped--as simply reacting to the sounds.)

In a recent New York Times article recapping the jazz war, Peter Watrous painted the conflict as one between critics jadedly calling for more experimentation and cerebralism and the musicians who, led by Mr. Marsalis, have made clear their preference for more familiar idioms in easily assimilated contexts. And, said Watrous, it is clear that in establishing a new conservativism that will dominate jazz into the next century, "the musicians have won."

Actually, though, the success of the neoconservatives proves only that one faction of musicians has prevailed. It ignores the many others who realize the dire implications of feeding on, rather than growing out from, your roots; older and deeper into their art and its uncharted paths, these musicians in fact outnumber the putative pack of pencil-necked critics "out to get" Wynton and his progeny. And they score their own unequivocal victories whenever their creations shine as luminously as Crispell's.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Lauren Deutsch.

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