This post is from Fizzle promoter Lee Griffiths and was originally written as a contribution to a symposium on free jazz, organised by Dr Mike Fletcher at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in December 2022. It is a recollection of a free jazz gig that poses the question of how improvising ensembles make collective decisions in the moment.
by Lee Griffiths
The gig took place in April 2016, in a communist club, on the outskirts of the Italian city of Ferrara. The band was called Event Horizon, named after a theoretical boundary that’s said to exist around black holes. I was on sax, Dave on trombone, Alex on bass, and Filippo - who’d organised the trip - was on drums. We turned up to the club in the afternoon, briefly sound-checked, and made ourselves comfortable, anticipating the long wait before the gig. The club was small, with a stage barely big enough for the quartet, and the walls were pasted with pages of left-wing polemic, critiquing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The effect of this pragmatic decor was, in an odd way, quite homely.
While we waited for an audience of some sort to arrive, we were furnished with generous amounts of food and beer, courtesy of the Italian Communist Party. Eventually the club filled up with an eager crowd and as the evening settled into a lazy half light, the garden erupted with the smell of cigarettes. There was a welcoming air of comradeship which dissolved the Anglo-Italian language barrier and robbed us of our pre-gig anxieties. So much so that the start of the first set took us completely by surprise. We’d been outside learning how to swear in Italian, enjoying the timelessness of good company when, without warning, we were ushered onto the tiny stage. No talking through the set list, no green room rituals, just a sudden lurch into performance mode. This group was the most permissive I’d played with at that point, in terms of deliberately subverting the expectations of the other musicians. So when we were thrown into the start of the first set, free of all anticipation, the permission to experiment became a necessity.
The high point of the set happened during Filippo’s suitably Italian-sounding composition Spaghettification, named after the process by which an object falling into a black hole would be comically stretched out by the gravitational gradient. The tune has three sections, an eight-bar form in a slow 3/4 time, a six-bar form also in 3/4, and an eight-bar form at double the tempo and in 4/4. Towards the end of Dave’s solo the slow 3/4 swing had shifted from a cool swagger, to a bristling march. The first solo on this tune would usually finish with a reprise of the melody which would neatly cue up the switch to the double-time in 4/4. But this time, as Dave’s improvising intensified, Alex hammered out a bass pedal, pushing the tempo faster and faster. Filippo, his gaze totally locked with Alex’s, followed the shifting tempo and, channelling Mingus and Dannie Richmond, they morphed seamlessly into the double-time 4/4 feel. Locking onto this, Dave and I began playing the melody from the third section of the tune. The melody was an ascending line that built the intensity even further and as the melody reached at its highest point, Alex and Filippo, still completely locked in with one another, improvised a stop-time riff that launched me springboard-like into my solo.
The whole procedure had an inevitability about it despite the fact that none of us, as we discussed after the set, knew it was coming. It’s easy to understand why so many improvising musicians talk in spiritual terms about the music “speaking through them”, or of the feeling that the ensemble must be telepathic. Certain academics like to talk about this kind of thing in terms of flow states of effortless hyper concentration. I, for one, think there’s a lot more to be said about this kind of music making than ghosts or flow.