There’s something that happens to the human brain when exposed to two hours of continuous free-jazz. Actually, there’s a whole series of things.
Of course, no two performers within the once-experimental, now-canonical improvisational form are the same, as no two performances almost by definition are identical. And yet, there’s a formula behind the non-formula of what someone like pianist Matthew Shipp does. It’s what folks like Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley and Sun Ra have been practicing since the ’50s. Not coincidentally, the latter had performed on the new Baldwin concert grand piano recently donated to the Sanctuary before Shipp’s inaugural voyage Saturday night.
Abstract art is often misunderstood as a heady enterprise. For someone who is new to the style of work, it’s common to feel as if the music, painting, film, etc., is thinking over one’s head, communicating in a language of symbols and idioms as comprehensable as Martian. However, it’s usually the listener who’s thinking too hard. Our brains are hardwired to search for pattern, so, at the outset of a performance like the one Saturday night, we listen hard, actively tracking the interplay of piano, bass (Michael Bisio) and drums (Whit Dickey). We catch fleeting motifs, momentary counterpoint, a flash of rhythmic unison. But then the players are off on another tangent, leaving our ears and brains to play catch up.
At a certain point (it varies from listener to listener), our focus starts to dull; attention starts to stray. We survey the room, take in the context of the performance, wonder if what they’re playing is a proper “song” or some kind of elliptical sketch, try to quantify how much time has passed. We worry that we’re not “getting it” on the level that the other, seemingly more attentive listeners are. After all, even the camera man is bobbing his head to some perception of the pulse. Still, others have quit wholesale, vacating chairs for the more attentive to fill.
This is all a part of it. It’s how you pass through the looking glass.
On the other side, your eyes glaze over a bit. Maybe you slouch an inch or stare at your shoes. The analytical side of your brain goes on vacation, leaving that intuitive right lobe naked to the music. Everything becomes more immediate. The notes are no longer a sequence of symbols. The statements are no longer linear and syntactical. Shipp is plucking the inner strings of his piano with his fingers, but it’s not the spectacle that’s important; it’s the sensation. Bisio is whining the bow over the bridge of his bass, but it’s not the technique that’s important; it’s the timbre. Things are easier on this side. Self consciousness wanes. Time feels less urgent. Comprehension is implicit.
And you can see it in the others who have similarly passed through. To one side of the stage, a small girl stood on her father’s feet, arms outstretched and secured in his hands. As the band roiled and swayed, dad moved her body accordingly, synching motion to sound in a playful interpretive dance. She and he beamed in the gentle abandon the music engendered. If a child can follow and appreciate this stuff, it isn’t privileged fare for connoisseurs and asethetes. It’s democratic stuff, it’s radically inclusive, it’s human.