So the story goes: a young Hasil Adkins, secluded away in poverty in the wilds of West Virginia, listened to radio broadcasts of the popular bands of his day, & noticed the announcers typically crediting each song to a single musician. Adkins, isolated & unable to see live music performances, naturally assumed that songs attributed to ‘Hank Williams’ or ‘Louis Armstrong’ meant that these single musicians played all of the instruments he heard on their records. Thus from inspired literalism was born Adkins’s characteristically frenzied one-man band.
For those of us raised on John Cage’s indeterminacy, Ornette Coleman’s free jazz, & Conlon Nancarrow’s polytemporality, the concept of a battle of the bands taken entirely literally — that is, playing at the same time on stage, against each other — seems like quite an enticing & logical step to take. Why, among all the innovations of improvised performance over the years, from Derek Bailey’s Company Weeks through John Zorn’s game pieces & the conduction techniques of Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris & Frank Zappa, hasn’t there been a real-time face-off between two different bands playing simultaneous different musics? While a wide variety of cacophonous groupings has been attempted among all genres along the infinite spectrum between composition & improvisation, the concept of a live competitive battle between two different improv groups playing simultaneously has to my knowledge not yet been attempted outside the piles of detuned transistor radios living in my mother’s basement. So when I saw Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut’s ‘Face-Off’ advert — ‘Group vs. Group, On The Same Stage, At The Same Time’ — I was, indeed, excited. Here was a chance to see creative literalism at its best — the type of gig you could bring a kleptomaniac to, because of course they take things literally.
Well, guess what? It turns out there’s a pretty good reason why a literal battle of the bands has yet to come from free improvisers: because free improvisers listen to what everyone else is playing & adjust what they’re playing accordingly. There’s no audible difference between two groups, a trio + a quartet (Kevin Shea was a no-show on the night), & just one big septet.
There were, it should be said, several factors working against the two-group concept. For one thing, Spectrum is a small venue — in fact, it’s somebody’s apartment. There is no ‘stage’, there’s just a part of the floor where musicians are able to set up & sound off — so physical separation of the musicians was impossible, & even generally placing one bunch on the left side & the other on the right couldn’t be achieved given the immobility of instruments requiring amplification. For another thing, not all of these musicians were in working groups together — several of the musicians were introduced to each other for the first time at the performance. So most of the group cohesion that exists between working musicians, built up over many rehearsals & performances, was left to whatever could be invented on the spot. ‘Group’ perhaps wasn’t an accurate description for these musicians playing together & against each other — ‘grouping’ might be more appropriate.
What happened, then, when these seven free improvising musicians got together was ultimately a great deal like what happens when you stick any large grouping of capable free improvising musicians together — they tended to invent interesting though discontinuous moments, reverting at the least cohesive moments to the stereotypical behaviours associated with their respective instruments. The reeds stood out most, relying largely upon skilful jazz runs (Sean Sonderegger on tenor sax & clarinet) & clever repetitive figures (Marcus Cummins on soprano sax), with the occasional inevitable volcanic rush-up-the-scales climax. Brian Osborne, the percussionist/electronics guy, made bloops & thuds that coloured the atmosphere rather than expressing definitive linear statements — the type of playing Chilean saxophonist Diego Manuschevich has aptly termed ‘blowing mud’ — though when actually drumming he added a welcome propulsion. The violinist Sana Nagano bowed through the night with beautiful linearity, moving effortlessly between classical gestures & a folksy jazz, but tended to be drowned out by the saxes & guitars despite brilliant interplay with them. Shurdut on guitar plucked & scraped with a permanently pained look of concentration; on piano he sounded like Paul Bley, with minimalist jazziness & coloration & the deep-thoughts, lips-pouting face that musicians & dancers tend to make when they’re serious. Guitarist Harvey Valdes & bassist Jair-Rôhm Parker Wells grew progressively tighter in response to each other through the course of the set; Wells alone expressed actual pleasure in the proceedings, finding innovative ways of moving the sometimes gelatinous music forward & picking up on interesting rhythmic hints in coordination with Valdes.
While the music didn’t always coalesce, it would be unfair to say that it was badly played — all of the musicians clearly were listening closely to each other & responding sensitively to the prevailing tonal environments. They were slow to warm up to each other — about as slow as they were to set up (practically everything starts half an hour late in New York) — & though most moments ultimately developed into interesting thickets of sounds, a generalised murkiness & sense of stasis did settle in for long stretches. The points of greatest musical cohesion & interest, particularly in the first & last piece, seemed identifiably jazz-based, while on improvisations with less sense of movement or direction, as in the beginning & end of the second piece, most of the musicians, apart from the saxophonists, seemed to be intentionally trying to avoid jazz. So the night’s most Coltrane ‘Spiritual’-like two sax climax, midway through the second piece, was spirited but short-lived, with little justification for its sudden climb up the heights; when Parker’s bass & Valdes’s guitar began a blues rhythm towards the end of the third piece, Sonderegger’s tenor sax flirted with some Charlie Parker runs but receded pretty quickly away from them, evidently in obeisance to the rest of the musicians; & when Shurdut’s piano & Cummins’s soprano sax began the third piece in a style reminiscent of The Jimmy Giuffre 3, Osborne’s electronic gargles came up to gradually strangle it down, though at the time the three musicians were playing in the same ‘group’. At no time was this the music of two different groups attempting to battle each other — they sounded instead like a large grouping of talented musicians proceeding in fits & starts, ably sculpting various nonidiomatic textures, though at times holding back their natural inclinations to cohere in the genre they seemed most comfortable playing.
Ornette Coleman, as it turns out, had the right idea with ‘Free Jazz’: if you want to hear two bands at the same time, divide them into two separate audio channels, left & right. If it’s done in studio, you could place the two groupings in two separate rooms & not let them hear each other. If you want to do it live on stage, perhaps give the electrified instrumentalists headphones that only allow them to hear their own group, or perhaps only allow one musician in each group to hear the totality. Otherwise you’re no closer to mutual group independence than with my mother’s basement pile of detuned radios.
At an interval, Jair-Rôhm Parker Wells mentioned that in his previous marriage he experienced ‘more of a conceptual togetherness than a physical togetherness’, & noted that his cousins, whom he’d just run into, remained Facebook friends with his ex; Sonderegger quipped of such ‘friendships’ that they’re ‘the ultimate conceptual togetherness’. While I don’t think that achieving a real time literal battle of the bands is as hopelessly unrealisable as Facebook society, I do believe it remains a worthwhile concept unfortunately no closer to physical togetherness despite last night’s nonetheless proficient large group improvisations.
Post updated, 5 February 2015: Following on from my review of the first Face-Off performance, Jeffrey Hayden Shurdut requested a chance to speak for himself, to respond and dispute some of my exagmination round his factification…
MICHAEL TENCER: What are you asking musicians to do in this project?
JEFFREY HAYDEN SHURDUT: Play.
MT: Ok, but ‘Group vs. Group, On The Same Stage, At The Same Time’ (as the poster for your last Face-Off gig advertised) presumably implies more than an average ‘jam session’, no?
JHS: I have never used the term ‘jam session’. I actually find it pretty offensive. It implies that we’re just a bunch of guys getting together to have fun and play. It’s never been about that to me. It is social, but I don’t do it for ‘fun’. I might have a great time doing it, but to call it fun makes it sound trivial. These guys are focused and determined and bring the highest level of professionalism to it. I go into every performance like it’s going to be my last. When I play the instrument, I play it like it’s going to be its last.
This music’s a lot of work. It’s years of playing all in one hour. In Face-Off (or as I like to call it ‘Battle of the Bands’) you have two sides, maybe more, maybe different styles of music against others, maybe different players of different styles playing together. But when it’s called Battle of the Bands or Face-Off that’s what it is. It’s not a group playing along to a song, going against the other band playing their song, doing that same thing, at different times. There’s not much of a battle without interacting. This isn’t American Idol.
MT: Why did you decide to organise Face-Offs?
JHS: Thought it would be interesting. Hasn’t been done. And since it’s such a social music, I guess it can be just as much a sociological experiment as it is about music. It’s always been interesting to me how people can interpret things so differently. Sometimes art isn’t the only thing open for interpretation, but also the thing that brings us to the art.
MT: Why improvising musicians?
JHS: I need independent thinkers, playing interdependently. That means players who can act on their own free will, within a group, to make it all work.
MT: How do the musicians prepare for these performances?
JHS: The improviser is always ready.
MT: But how do you achieve unity within each group & separation between different groups?
JHS: It’s not a music of wishing and dreaming, it’s the music of now, and all you have to do is watch the news to see what’s happening. When I hear people talking about ‘unity’, it’s usually used to describe bliss, peace, something perfect that we all will someday have in a never never land. The unity in being human is what brings us to our differences, and that difference keeps us apart on catastrophic levels. Yes there is great love, but that hasn’t been able to overcome even the smallest hate. These ideas of love, war, religion, are what people find strength in. It’s what keeps us moving forward to a lot of the same. There’s a unity that brings enemies together through a common interest, a unity that brings like-minded people together that can often bring with it complacency, and that same unity of like-mindedness that can lead to rebellion. But not in a negative sense. It’s the strength and focus of being conflicted sometimes, that might bring us also to play together. But we don’t know. Maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t — it’s all up to the performance.
MT: What do you imagine an ideal performance might sound like?
JHS: An ideal performance is when everybody listens, doesn’t matter what the performance.
MT: What if it doesn’t work?
JHS: It always works because you’re there. That’s the point. Anything can happen, at anytime. The only time it wouldn’t work is if you just gave up.
MT: How does this work relate to other music you’ve done?
JHS: It all relates, but I’m not really sure what you mean.
MT: Does it develop out of any earlier game-based ideas? Have you been involved before now in other structured or semi-structured improvisations?
JHS: That’s a perverse thought. I never listened to it, and never had any interest. Again, I think games make a mockery of a music that suffers enough from its public image. In so far as structured improvisation… Structured improvisation, like jazz? Some of my most cherished recordings are my Blue Notes.
But I did know Butch [Morris], he was very nice to me. He came over one day, showed me what he did, and it was great. But if I was conducted, or conductioned, I might as well be selling insurance.
MT: What would you like to see this work lead to?
JHS: More Face-Offs.