Free Jazz

Ken Vandermark doesn't even like the term jazz so he probably resists the free jazz label, too. His sound is actually more wide-ranging anyway, but there are moments on his new CD when things definitely feel unmoored...the furious scribbles from an amped up cello, for example.

I once asked Tom Kohn of the Bop Shop what he liked about free jazz. He said the spirituality and the sense of humor. I think I stumbled onto why I like it this afternoon. I was taping this week's edition of What's New, which will feature the Vandermark 5 CD "Beat Reader," and it struck me that this music gets closer than most to the true nature of experience. It feels like cinema vérité in a world of Hollywood musicals.

Life isn't really full of happy endings. It's not logical or organized. It doesn't necessarily follow a predictable pattern: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus. Most of us like to think otherwise. We plot things out: school, work, marriage, children, retirement. We expect to always make more money and buy more things. When something doesn't fit the pattern, we're blindsided.

Free jazz strips away that facade. It reminds us that life has its own ideas about where to take us. It can race along or it can crawl. It can stop on a dime and plunge us into confusion or euphoria. Maybe it kicks us in the gut. Maybe it pats us on the back. But it doesn't tell us everything will be OK. Lots of other music does, not that there's anything wrong with that. Eric Idle touched on this while discussing his new oratorio on All Things Considered yesterday. One part of it is a sort of parody of WWII songs, "and so it has that cheery, brighty, blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover cheery-uppy kind of quality to it," he says. Sometime you need a promise of joy and laughter, even if you know it won't necessarily come true.


You can hear the Vandermark 5 on WRUR 88.5 FM Sunday at 8pm, and also on AM 1370 Saturday at 9pm and Sunday night at 10.