The Year in Improvised Music: ‘Everything’s Changing. So the Music Should.’


As concerts and face-to-face gatherings closed this spring, livestream shows quickly felt like a glorified last resort. I avoided them. But one day in June I saw a Facebook video of trombonist Craig Harris performing at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Accompanied by keyboardist Pete Drungle, framed by a blooming grove and grate, he played “Breathe,” a suite of succinct and calming music that sounds like the sum total of Mr. Harris’ experience on the New York scene since the 1970s.

He wrote “Breathe” after Eric Garner was killed by New York police in 2014. it was his reflection on the concept of breath as a great balance and a source of Mr. Harris’s own powers as a trombonist. At the beginning of this video, however, he turns to those affected by Covid-19. He offers the suite as “a sonic reflection for those who have died and those who are born,” says Mr. Harris. “We need to think about the lives of the people who will be born at this time. It’s a whole thing, the beginning and the end. “

The performance began in May before George killed Floyd in Minneapolis and its nightmarish resonance with Garner’s death. When Mr. Harris’ video was released in June, the protesters were constantly on the streets and the suite’s original message had become painfully relevant again. But even in this new light, the demeanor and sensitivity that Mr. Harris had purposely brought to this performance didn’t feel inappropriate.

For any lover of live performances – especially jazz and improvised music – 2020 will be joylessly remembered as the year of the stream. Musicians did their best with what they had, usually by leaning into intimacy; We saw a lot of artist rooms this year. But precisely in those moments when musicians zoomed out – when they broadened our perspective and combined this difficult moment with a greater sense of time – improvised music did its most necessary work.

Since concerts were not possible, singer and interdisciplinary artist Gelsey Bell assembled “Cairns,” a remarkable audio tour of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. It is partly a philosophical conversation, partly an experimental musical composition, built up from Ms. Bell’s vocal improvisations and the sounds of the cemetery while walking.

Green-Wood is a majestic place, and there is something robust and alive about it, despite generations of history in its soil. “When I started doing it, I really thought about our relationship with the country and the history it holds and where we are now,” Ms. Bell said in an interview on Cairns. “To be connected to the land on which you live means to be connected to its history as well as to the other people with whom you share space.”

On the one-hour recording, Ms. Bell talks about various little-known but important personalities who use their stories to shed light on what she describes as the “apocalyptic foundations of this place”. And she gives us the story of the trees and instructs us to listen to them sing together, and will continue to do so when we are gone.

Ms. Bell wanders up a hill and transforms the sounds of her breathing and walking into a kind of mulchy, rhythmic music. “Because of the breath, we will never forget how long we are stuck in time, how mortal we are,” she says, making the word “mortal” sound like a good thing.

It wasn’t impossible to make music over a stream that really brought people together – rarely – and on that front, couples had an advantage. During the week when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all concerts be suspended, singer Cécile McLorin Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner propped up a camera next to the piano in their living room and broadcast a series of music on Facebook to thousands of viewers. The comment area turned into a chatty town square full of nervous and grateful people who weren’t sure what the coming months would bring.

Bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger started playing duets from home every week and eventually collected them in a disarming album, “Force Majeure,” which was released that month. Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey got used to recording their various living room improvisations and releasing them on Bandcamp, in a series that will be continued under the name “Stir Crazy”.

Clarinetist Ben Goldberg worked alone and published daily solo recordings in March on a Bandcamp site called “Plague Diary”. It now has nearly 200 entries. Listen long enough and the tracks of dubbed instrumentals and deep, repetitive rhythms begin to run together, like the hazy, endless feeling of being at home in the middle of lockdown.

Saxophonist Steve Lehman swung in a different direction, releasing an album of less than 10 minutes, “Xenakis and the Valedictorian”, with excerpts from exercises and experiments that he recorded on his iPhone and which he practiced in his car every evening The wife and daughter could have peace in the house.

Continuing to perform during the pandemic – almost impossible as it often is – was both a creative and financial necessity for improvisers, many of whom saw all of their upcoming performances being canceled in March. But newly released from the obligation, inspired by the movement that swept the country, many began to organize too.

This year, the music press paid great attention to how our listening habits had to adapt to the lockdown and how the performances have changed. But what about the institutions that have also fallen silent – especially the schools and large nonprofits that have maintained massive racial and economic disparities in access to music? Will they all look the same when things go back online?

Musicians around the world came together through Zoom to create the We Insist! Collectively to answer these questions and finally to compile a list of demands to promote racial justice in major educational institutions and philanthropic groups in the jazz world. A group of artists with historically underrepresented gender identities gathered in the Mutual Mentorship for Musicians collective and struck a creative blow against patriarchy in jazz. And when national protests overtook the streets, jazz musicians were often there.

Bassist Endea Owens appeared on the second day of protest in New York in May, she said in an interview. She felt the need to contribute music almost immediately, and she helped put together bands that would play daily demonstrations for the next three weeks. “We were out there for two to three weeks, walking from Washington Square Park to the Barclays Center just to play,” she said. “It created a ripple effect of something creative, something positive. You felt like you had to fight for your life. “

In Harlem, where she lives, Ms. Owens started a monthly series of masked, socially distant cookout concerts. With donations and money from her own pocket, she has distributed 100 free meals and paid underemployed jazz musicians for their performances. As a member of Jon Batiste’s Stay Human, the house band for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Ms. Owens was the rare jazz musician to count on a steady paycheck this year.

But without performing all night, she still had an excess of downtime. After establishing contacts with other organizers and aid groups in the region, she is thinking about how to continue these efforts in the future, even if the usual work opportunities for musicians return.

“There’s a great opportunity to make jazz more familiar and accessible where anyone can go to these shows,” Ms. Owens said. “I don’t even think it’s possible to go back to the way we work. Everything changes. So the music should. How we perform, how we approach where we have this music. “