I am afraid of Free Jazz.

All intensely abstract art leaves me somewhat nervous. I mean, I really like it… it’s just something that I know I don’t fully understand, and you’re always scared of what you don’t understand, right?

So what is it about Free music that’s both frightening and attractive? Well, I’ve thought it through a little lately, and here’s what I’ve come up with:

1) Free Jazz is VERY DIFFICULT to do well. It’s not a coincidence that all the “real” Free artists were/are drawn to the music at later points in their careers. The music demands skill, depth, and maturity that only comes with years (and I don’t mean age, I mean experience).

2) Free Jazz is very easy to imitate. There are posers all over the place, playing “free jazz” at local coffee shops and clubs, and most of it is awful (in my opinion at least). This makes sense, being that the very nature of the music is such that you’re not supposed to ever tell someone what to play (or tell them that what they played was “wrong”)… instead they need to be “free” to play whatever the moment moves them to play. In addition, 99% of Free Jazz contains dissonance that is technically easy to simulate. We’re all familiar with the “my 6-year-old could do that” perspective on abstract art, and that sentiment exists because there’s a shred of truth to it.

3) It is VERY DIFFICULT to tell the difference between the real and the imitation. This is a logical outcome of point #2, and this is why I get a little scared. Free music is only easy to imitate because very few listeners can recognize the imitation when they see it. Therefore it’s also safe to say that the brilliance of players like Eric Dolphy and Cecil Taylor is probably often overlooked.

These coexisting factors leave me always feeling paranoid when I listen to Free music. I’ve gained some valuable insight from accomplished Free players in the Twin Cities area and from studying many of the great Free Jazz recordings, but I just don’t want to be the guy who misses something cool because I’m too busy focusing on an imitation. In the end, when I listen to Free music, I always return to a place where I just take in the sounds and skip the analysis altogether. Ironically, that’s one of the main points of Free Jazz.

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