Fixed/unfixed: true or false problem in the jazz field

Spotlights 29.11.2022

Improvisation remains a fascinating factor in the music of the jazz field. However, the value of jazz cannot be reduced to this practice. Especially since its musicians often try to blur the contours between the fixed and the unfixed. It seems that the jazz actors of the XXIst century have accused this ambiguity, playing with the listeners' perception. A brief review.

...before the 21st century?

Fixed (rather than written), unfixed (rather than improvised).
Since the beginning of the history of jazz, this relationship to music has never ceased to bother listeners, musicians and jazz analysts. There are countless books on improvisation. However, there has long been a tradition of the prepared solo, a piece of music fixed in the mind of the musician to which he gives life not so much as an interpreter (an interpreter often places himself as an intermediary between a composer and the listener) as a creator.
One of the solos that changed the course of jazz history is of this nature: the "West End Blues" that Louis Armstrong recorded with his Hot Five in 1928. Years later, a few musicians aside, and after some research, it became clear that this was a moment set in advance of the performance, at least refined performance after performance, and set in stone on June 27.
Similarly, it was only with the release of the alternate takes of "Night in Tunisia" recorded by Charlie Parker on March 28, 1946, that it was discovered that his famous break at the opening of the solo was far from being improvised in the moment. It was the same, but at a different level, with the famous version of May 5, 1959 of "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane, whose publication of the unretained takes published in 1995 revealed what Philippe Michel, after a detailed study of the eleven solos performed by the saxophonist, including the master take, summarized as follows: "Giant Steps" represents a project that encompasses both a relatively fixed pre-text (the theme of "Giant Steps") and a network of pre-texts feeding the improvisation phase. The soloist's freedom is gained here not through the adaptation of a pre-existing form vocabulary to the harmonic framework, but through the coincidence of thought that generates both the framework and the form vocabulary intended to exploit that framework within the solo [2] [...]."

From the 1960s onwards, and already among some musicians from the two previous decades, many from the jazz field continued to blur the boundaries between fixed and non-fixed. Open works, aleatorics, graphic scores, electronic programs and many other strategies and methods were developed, with musicians from the jazz field not hesitating to follow in the footsteps of so-called "contemporary" composers. On the surface, the movements ofAnthony Braxton, George Lewis, Jean-Louis Chautemps and Michael Mantler seemed to be opposed to those of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Cage: while the composers tried to return to gesture through the written word [3], the jazzmen seemed to start from the written word to motivate their improvisation. In reality, the magnetic field between the two worlds moved a lot to the point of often becoming magnetic[4]. the 21st century?

The paths opened by the protagonists of the jazz field over the last sixty years continue to nourish the practices of our contemporaries. However, they have modified, refined, developed and increased them, by concentrating even more on their perceptive aspect. Since the advent of the Internet and its corollary abundance, which it seems impossible to apprehend in its entirety, it is very difficult to draw up a complete map of the tendencies, possible schools and various groupings at work in the field of jazz today (all the more so in the restricted framework of such a writing). So, in order to give some ideas of the thousand and one current ways of considering the relationship between fixed and unfixed, let us examine here the way Stéphane Payen, John Zorn and Matt Mitchell play with the listener's perception, three representative examples of the contemporary kaleidoscope.

a) Stéphane Payen[5] and the oscillation
In 2020, saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Stéphane Payen released All Set[6], a quartet album whose music was conceived from Milton Babbitt's eponymous serial composition for piano and small jazz ensemble, premiered in 1957 by Bill Evans on piano. The two main protagonists had imposed upon themselves the constraint of composing four pieces each from the four dodecaphonic series that formed the basis of the American composer's piece. In conceiving his music, Payen explains: " I chose to create almost no form for the improvisation; I wanted something very free. I wanted to manipulate the colors of the series, including during the improvisation. So my written parts were thought of as bridges to the improvisation. "

Those of "Harmonization" are extremely structured: the series is accompanied by notes whose intervals increase, as do the rhythms (5 sixteenth notes, then 5+1, then 5+2, etc.), and the harmonies are conceived by alternating the order of the constituent notes of three-tone chords. "Harmonization" consists of four parts (the order of which can be changed each evening) for as many variations composed from one of Babbitt's four series. Each variation is followed by an improvisation of a nature that is difficult to determine. Neither absolutely "free" although the spirit of it is, nor really controlled or directed, it has an active agent in the person of Payen, who specifies: " As a composer, I position myself as a parameter of variability, according to what Ingrid plays, for example. Whether she stays close to the series or moves away from it, I have two choices: either I too abandon the series completely, or on the contrary, I will stick strictly to the initial sequence of notes to keep a link between what has been previously heard, the written part, and the improvisation, thus providing a cover for what my partner proposes. Consequence: the flexible constraint that the improviser seizes upon leads to an incessant back and forth between the fixed and the unfixed that leads the non-expert listener (i.e. the majority) to not really grasp that the music often oscillates between these two states.

b) John Zorn and the Dual State
Between 2010 and 2014, John Zorn set out to conceive " music for piano trio that could be played in clubs as well as on European jazz festival stages," as he wrote for the booklet of the album In Hall of Mirrors[7]. For this project, he conceived very virtuosic parts totally fixed for the piano and totally improvised by double bass player Greg Cohen and drummer Tyshawn Sorey . The six pieces thus present some of the possible balances, always different, between fixed and unfixed. For example, "In Lovely Blueness" begins as a jazz ballad, rather open because of the atonal lines. The more the music progresses, the more the alternation between these two dimensions intensifies, which requires a great flexibility from the accompanists. However, they do not discover the sound events as they arrive. Beforehand, they have had access to the score and therefore know in advance the framework of the piece. The rhythmic tandem is therefore at the junction of two states, or rather in a double state: as much performer as improviser. This leads to a disturbance in hearing that Zorn, to quote him again, underlines well: " Sometimes it sounds as if in reality it is the piano that is following them.

c) Matt Mitchell: the oscillation and the dual state
The record Fiction[8] (2013), which pianist Matt Mitchell recorded as a duo with drummer Ches Smith, is like a collection of studies of the comings and goings and co-presence of the fixed and the unfixed. All fifteen tracks on the album are based on the same principle: a score with only the piano part written. Unlike Zorn, the listener is not informed. However, when one listens to it, one realizes that all the pieces begin with moments set before the performance, especially because they are repeated in a loop for a certain time. The whole issue, and thus the whole ambiguity, consists in the pianist's ability to move away more or less progressively from the score . And the solutions are multiple. In the third round of "Brain Color", Mitchell keeps his left hand identical, while on the right he modifies the pitches while keeping the initial rhythmic figures; in the following round, it moves away little by little from the imposed rhythms; during the fifth round, his left hand draws new melodic lines, both keeping the homorhythm of the beginning; and so on until the dissolution of the fixed elements, before their return. All this while the drummer keeps on improvising. For "Diction", Mitchell proceeds differently. The score was written in two real voices, with Smith playing the upper part on vibraphone and his right hand. On the third reiteration, the right hand improvises pitches more or less in full homorhythm with the left hand, leaving the top voice to the vibraphone alone. For the next cycle, the vibraphone maintains the fixed part while the piano seems to erase elements of its part, moving in and out of the score that it more or less respects. Smith then settles behind his drums while the pianist is inspired by his score without playing it strictly. The further into the track, the more the ensemble frees itself from the score, which nevertheless remains in the background of the duo's inventions. But all this, the listener does not know. The listener is constantly wondering what is improvised and what is fixed, and is all the more doubtful because the notated musical elements, by their difficulty and their language far from any reference to the accompanied melody, contribute to the creation of a feeling of ambiguity. 

At the end of our rapid overview, the assertion that Denis Levaillant - author of a reference work on improvisation[9] - put forward at the end of the 20th century still seems to be relevant: those who oppose the notated to the impromptu are mistaken, because " improvisation has not created a 'language' [...] this idea is misleading, as if we had in front of 'written music' an 'improvised music' that would be a separate aesthetic category. In the 21st century, the most important thing for practitioners of the jazz field remains less the questioning of the differences in nature between the fixed and the unfixed than the deepening and refining of the possible games with the perception of the sound phenomenon. This is how Greg Cohen, commenting on Zorn's pieces, considers that they announce the "future of jazz"[11]. The music recorded by Stéphane Payen, John Zorn and Matt Mitchell seems to prove him right, beginning a list to which we should add the names of Craig Taborn, Kris Davis, Anna Webber, Marc Ducret, Julien Pontvianne, Tyshawn Sorey, Bo van der Werf, Luiza von Wyl, Sylvaine Hélary, Tim Berne, Adrien Sanchez... (please complete the list!).

Ludovic Florin

[1] This is the case for Charlie Parker, as Thomas Owens showed in his famous thesis: Charlie Parker, technique of improvisation, University of California (Los Angeles), 1974.
[2] Philippe Michel, "Giant Steps", la liberté gagnée sur / par la contrainte", in Vincent Cotro (ed.), John Coltrane. L'œuvre et son empreinte, Paris, Éditions Outre Mesure, coll. " Contrepoints ", 2011, p. 105.
[3] On this subject, refer to Vincenzo Caporaletti's theory of audiotactile music.[3
[4] On this subject, see Ludovic Florin, ""Jazz(s)" and "contemporary music(s)": the neglected continent. Une brève histoire de relations ", in Philippe Carles, Alexandre Pierrepont (dir.), Polyfree. La jazzosphère, et ailleurs (1970-2015), Paris, Éditions Outre Mesure, 2016, p. 47-58.
[5] Information about Stéphane Payen's piece comes from a personal interview with the musician on September 10, 2021.
[6] Stéphane Payen, Ingrid Laubrock, Chris Tordini, Tom Rainey, All Set, recorded May 12-13, 2019, Studio La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines, RogueArt, ROG-0105.
[7] John Zorn, In the Hall of Mirrors - featuring the Stephen Gasling Trio, recorded February 26, 2014 in Oktaven, Mount Vermon, Tzadik, TZ 8317.
[8] Matt Mitchell, Fiction, recorded December 17-18, 2021 at The Loove, Brooklyn, Pi Recordings, PI50.
[9] Denis Levaillant, L'improvisation musicale, Arles, Acte Sud, 1996.
[10] Denis Levaillant, " En lisant, en jouer, en écrivant ", in Filigrane, n° 8, " Jazz, musiques improvisées et écritures contemporaines " (Pierre Michel, dir.), Sampzon, Éditions Delatour France, 2008, p. 23.
[11] See liner notes for John Zorn's album In the Hall of Mirrors (op. cit.).


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