The Wonder Years: 1987 – 1996

This post started out with the intention of being called “The Art of Free Improvisation” but it seems to have morphed into a bit of autobiography. I  suppose this is an example of free improvisation in and of itself – you never know where you’re going to end up! However, I think that this sets the stage for a more detailed discussion about how the music of the pioneers and followers of the avant-garde jazz aesthetic can play a central role in one’s own musical development…

I got into jazz completely backwards.  When I was 16 I had a friend that played tenor sax, and owned a bunch of jazz records from a variety of artists.  A couple of the albums we ended up listening to the most, when we weren’t playing along with the Sonny Rollins or “Nothin’ but Blues” Aebersold Play-Alongs, were the mid-60’s Impulse releases of John Coltrane such as “The Jupiter Variations” (which had reissued tracks from “Interstellar Space” and “Expressions”), “Ascension,” and also a late Coltrane retrospective “The Impulse Years,” which had the titular track from “Om,” and “Kulu Se Mama.”  I can remember one night we freaked ourselves out by turning off all the lights in my house when my parents were out, and putting some late Coltrane.  I was such a neophyte to this music, there is no way I could have even had a clue about what was going on with it musically, spiritually, emotionally, but there was some connection there – a haunting, stirring music that was way different than anything I had heard up to that point.  It was possibility, and even back then on some level  I recognized the depth that Coltrane’s music was offering.

That’s what began my interest in Free Jazz, playing free, avant-garde jazz or whatever else you want to call it.  Over the next couple of years, I was checking out the music of  Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler,  Pharaoh Sanders, Anthony Braxton, Archie Schepp, to name a few. I listened a little bit to the bebop/hard bop giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and was only remotely aware of the contributions and innovations of artists like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young (hey, give me a break, this was NH we’re talking about!). For whatever reason, the real deal music for me was the “Fire Music” of the mid-to-late 60’s.

As you might expect, listening to this music was shaping a lot of my attitude and approach towards playing music.  At  the University of NH (as a biochemistry major, not music) I was playing in the UNH big band, taking private lessons on piano and saxophone, and hanging out with the music majors.  I didn’t necessarily have the level of technique or musical knowledge of many of my fellow students  I was still just learning how to play over changes too, so I was getting by on my ear and my high school teacher’s advice, who got me improvising by saying “play what you feel.”  You can imagine a student saxophonist playing in a straight ahead big band situation (educational, no less) with Ornette Coleman as his main reference point would elicit a bit of derision and estrangement from his fellow students and educators.  It did, and I have to say feeling like an outcast was something I embraced at the time.  Being a “jazz outsider” became a part of my identity, even though I was beginning to study jazz in a more traditional sense so that I could fit in with the more experienced, “straight ahead” players.  I can even remember being called more than once “Little Ornette” by some local musicians – I didn’t realize at the time that they were trying to put me down more than lift me up, so it encouraged more than anything else.

The Fringe plays some serious-ass free jazz. The level of communication is so deep that first several times I heard them play I thought they were playing written compositions by memory.

Regardless, I managed to find some like-minded musicians at UNH.  We formed a quartet called “Out of Nowhere” that played at a few of the school concerts, as well as some local gigs.  We played a few originals (which I think was the first time my tunes were ever played), a couple of Wayne Shorter tunes, and some more conventional standards as well.  Around this time I was making regular pilgrimages to see The Fringe play their regular Wednesday night gig at  the now-defunct Willow Jazz Club in Somerville, MA, and checking out some big names at the Regattabar and Scullers in Boston.  I got to see the Dave Holland “Extensions” quartet with Steve Coleman at Ryles Jazz Club, and that really blew my mind.  All of this was firmly re-affirming my understanding of jazz as being a music that pushes boundaries and something where innovation is key.  Not to mention, it was incredible fun to play and listen to, and to try and create something fresh and new!

During the 3 years between my graduation at UNH and moving to NYC to go to Manhattan School of Music to get my masters degree, I continued to play in NH and be part of the UNH community, which was the central source of the jazz community at the time in NH.  I started studying privately with George Garzone and although I continued to have a healthy supply of ignorance about jazz before 1958, studying with George gave me some serious inspiration and technique for improvisation and individual expression.

The year before I moved to NYC, my friends and I from “Out of Nowhere” band  reunited and reformed as the free jazz group “Marsupial Hat.” We played about 12 gigs from 1995-1996 and that was one of the best musical experiences that I have ever had.  With the exception of the occasional original tune, everything else that we did was completely, collectively improvised, and the results were generally pretty awesome.   At the time (and maybe ever since?) no one was doing that up in NH, at least in a non-jam band context, and I can remember a lot of people walking out of our shows.  But I thought, based on my musically rebellious nature, that meant we were doing something right! And listening back, I think we were.  We recorded almost every gig that we played, and bassist Tim Webb has compiled two albums’ worth of material on Bandcamp: The Two-Sided Dream and Anthology 1995-1996.  Are you ready to wear The Hat?

I’ve learned a lot since then (20 years ago. wow!) and I’ve expanded my understanding of the jazz tradition considerably as both a player and educator.  But exposure to the avant-garde in my teenage and college years is something that continues to inspire me and inform what I do. I strive for the feeling of freedom, taking chances, and connecting with the unknown whenever I’m playing music in any context.  To me, that’s what music’s all about!






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