Rare Birds

Let your ears be your guide: Bassist Damon Smith explains the beauty of free improvisation

Let your ears be your guide: Bassist Damon Smith explains the beauty of free improvisation

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Abel Cisneros and Damon Smith Photo by Thomas Helton
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Damon Smith Photo by Ayn Morgan
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Damon Smith Photo by Paul Mitchell
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News_Chris Becker_Rare Birds_Damon Smith
News_Chris Becker_Rare Birds_Damon Smith

"Chris, explain free improvisation......"

A type of improvising commonly referred to as free improvisation is similar to but not exactly the same as the genre of jazz called free jazz. Free improvisation can be played in time and with a rhythmic conception, but without adhering to chord changes or a form (as in A/B/A, intro, verse, bridge, chorus, repeat, etc).

Key centers may be stated or implied, but often tonality is ignored in favor of a kind of relentless forward motion of the sounds. On the other hand, free improvisation might explore a range of relatively quiet dynamics and silences within phrases creating a feeling of stasis, similar perhaps to how separate sounds might be represented visually by a mobile.

At the risk of over simplifying, check out some of John Coltrane’s classic recording Ascension to hear what I am trying to describe. The instrumentation and timbres as well as the control each player has on their respective instruments hark back to some of the earliest examples of jazz.

In contrast to improvisation in John Coltrane's or King Oliver's bands, free improvisation allows for widely varying degrees of musical technique, as well as the use of non-traditional instruments. Turntables, laptop computer, and even mixers receiving no input signal are just a few of the instruments one might hear in free improvisation performance.

 When discussing free improvisation, Smith will sometimes offer the famous quote by composer John Cage: “You don’t have to call it music if the term offends you.” But musicality is exactly what drew me to Smith’s playing in the first place. And I don’t mean to offend him with that statement!

 Some of the practitioners of a quieter, much starker style of free improvising, including Otomo Yoshihide, Christian Fennesz and Toshimaru Nakamura, appear on singer David Sylvian’s intriguing recording “Manafon” where Sylvian grafts his own lyrics and quasi-improvised vocal performances over prerecorded group improvisations. The track “Small Metal Gods” is one of the more successful results of this collaboration.

When considering free improvisation, I wonder if indeed any sound is valid, why certain fundamentals rarely present in the music? Is free improvisation a style – with its own rules and mores? And if it is, is the resulting music and its practitioners truly “free”?

With these questions in mind, I sat down with former Bay Area, now Houston-based double bassist Damon Smith to discuss free improvisation and his own "charmed" yet uniquely personal musical journey.

Smith is relatively new to Houston, having relocated to here in August 2010, and has quickly become a vital member of the city’s creative community. He has played and recorded with some of the finest free jazz and free improvising musicians in the world, including Peter Brötzmann, Cecil Taylor, Peter Kowald, Eugene Chadbourne, Mike Watt, Chris Cutler, William Hooker, Alan Silva, John Butcher and Jim O'Rourke.

In Houston he can be heard playing in the ongoing Binarium Sound Series, now taking place at 14 Pews, and in various ad-hoc presentations by the now 10-year old presenting organization Nameless Sound. He names his current duo with prepared guitarist Sandy Ewen, a collaboration that explores extended techniques on the double bass in combination with concrète like noise from the guitar, as a favorite project.

Smith and Ewen can be heard next month at a special Signal to Noise house party.

I first heard Smith as part of a quartet on a Binarium Sound Series concert. I immediately heard – no, felt his commitment to the music and his instrument. He was never at a loss as to what to do on the bandstand. When discussing free improvisation and a project like his collaboration with Ewen, Smith will sometimes offer the famous quote by composer John Cage: “You don’t have to call it music if the term offends you.” But musicality is exactly what drew me to Smith’s playing in the first place. And I don’t mean to offend him with that statement!

From punk rock to free jazz

As a teenager growing up in the '70s in the San Francisco Bay Area, basic radio rock and roll just wasn’t doing it for Smith. As a creative freestyle BMX cyclist, Smith and his friends gravitated toward more challenging music, especially artists on the seminal punk rock label SST, to blast out of a boom box while they practiced and performed complicated tricks on the bikes.

“If we had some fairly complex music happening out of boom box — Saccharine Trust, Black Flag, Meat Puppets...somehow it made that stuff go along a little better," Smith recalled.

His mother, a classically trained pianist and composer who also plays guitar, was an early source of musical inspiration. But the electric bass, and especially how it was played by Minutemen and Firehose bassist Mike Watt, was the instrument that would grab the budding musician in these early years. He was digging music that was complex but had all the visceral qualities of punk expression.

 “I find jazz to be a very international music,” Smith explains. “It’s not played on Koras and djembes. It’s using harmonies developed by Bach…even though it started as African Americans doing it they were using a lot of information from European classical music. When you hear Duke Ellington play piano, that music has nothing to do with a Ghanaian drum circle.”

 Compared to the recordings Smith and his fellow cyclists were hearing, he says, "(Just) how punk rock Firehose was live was a real eye opener…” Even so, he continued to seek out even more challenging and extreme types of music.

“Punk rock ended up being a really conservative thing…especially when you hear (saxophonist Peter) Brotzman’s recording “Machine Gun” which was released nine years before punk happened. No punk rock – not even my favorite -has even gotten to that point.”

However, Smith is quick to acknowledge the open mindedness of some of musicians on SST’s roster, and that through that label he discovered great experimental and free players including multi-instrumentalist Elliot Sharp and guitarist Henry Kaiser. Smith would go on to play with Sharp and Kaiser became both a mentor and close friend.

While playing electric bass, Smith continued to explore recordings, both old and new, of free jazz and free improvisation. The lines between genres of music and forms of improvised expression were not relevant to him.

“I find jazz to be a very international music,” Smith explains. “It’s not played on Koras and djembes. It’s using harmonies developed by Bach…even though it started as African Americans doing it they were using a lot of information from European classical music. When you hear Duke Ellington play piano, that music has nothing to do with a Ghanaian drum circle.”

Smith also points out that the majority of well-known jazz bassists, “Paul Chambers, Milt Hinton, Ray Brown, Jimmy Garrison, (Charles) Mingus…” were in fact “…all classically trained (and) could play in a symphony.” Perhaps instead of viewing free improvisation as something separate from free jazz, we might consider that the differences aren’t always that cut and dried.

Damon, why no chords?

So there’s this question I had about chords. Why does so much free improvisation consciously avoid the fundamentals of harmony? Is there some rule put down long ago that I’m unaware of? Can’t a chord progression be introduced in a free improvisation? 

“I try to shut that stuff down in improvised music when people try to bring it up,” says Smith when I ask about using short chord cycles or longer progressions in free improvisation. “Because it’s a really inefficient use of the format.”

He goes on to explain:

If you want to play a specific chord progression, it’s better if we all know what those chords are so that we all can do things like voice leading...if you’re really trying to grab onto a specific progression in the moment – if everyone has good ears and everything it can be done. But it’s not going to be done well. If you don’t know what chord is coming, you can’t make the kind of decisions that make playing a (jazz) standard great.”

Smith adds that working with a set of chord changes is interesting in that the musicians can make “longer term decisions.”

But can’t a chord cycle blossom out of the blue as the result of free improvisation?

“Yeah, it can be beautiful. You don’t want to restrict anything.” And of course, Smith points out: “If you’re not playing a unison, you’re playing a harmony.”

Raw eggs and a sack of flour

Improvisation with two or more musicians is often described as being similar to a conversation. Group interplay is another term used to measure the quality of an ensemble’s performance. But Smith unpacked those terms for me as a way of further explaining what he does specifically when playing free improvisation. 

When people put forth material, and the only purpose of that material is to prove that they’re listening, that material doesn’t often really have any musical interest. I like to in a lot of ways not have any kind of conversational aspect to the music. To try to purge all that and just try to have the material make an excuse for itself…have the material sit in a structural way. And I almost try to avoid development. I like to put forward an idea that doesn’t need to be developed – it’s there! Sometimes development is nice. But often it’s not. Often it’s a sort of a ‘let’s kind of putz around for a minute and see what happens…’

(Bassist) Reggie Workman always talks about showing up to the beach with something besides sand. It’s like a potluck. Like people showing up to a potluck with raw eggs and a sack of flour…and it’s like - the food’s already cooked and we’re already eating over here!”

But what exactly is the difference between laying down an interesting idea against somebody else’s and having a conversation or generating interplay within music? 

“It’s really important to hear what the other people are doing.” Smith says. “It’s not important to play material that let’s everyone know that you’ve heard. If somebody starts to play a sound and you’re playing a sound, rather than making a wholesale jump to what they’re doing, (you can) make a minor pitch adjustment or dynamic adjustment to accommodate them, (and not) necessarily getting off track with what you’re doing. It’s a little more interesting.”

“It’s not like you show up and you just don’t react. I kind of jump around a lot myself so I’m not even someone who will necessarily hold my ground for five minutes on one thing. I don’t have the attention for it! (But) I try to make the changes be the changes that need to happen in the music…It’s more of a way to let their sound coexist with the sound that I’m making. Or to bring a sound that’s coexisting with their sound. That’s where it gets a little more sophisticated.” 

If you haven't heard free improvisation, you are in luck in that you live in Houston. There is a surprising number of shows nearly every week that you can attend, for very little money (or even for free), and hear players from diverse backgrounds explore this type of music making. Check out venues like the aforementioned 14 Pews and Avant-Garden as well as Nameless Sound's website for upcoming shows.

And don't forget traditional jazz. A great set of standards can be as "out" as and engaging as anything free improvisation has to offer. And there are intriguing similarities between all of these modes of expression. Let your ears be your guide.

Special thanks to Michael Cox, Stan Smith, Seth Paynter, and Roger Hines for their thoughts on free improvisation.