Sugar Maple has proved yet again to be an excellent place to find explorative, creative music. In terms of the jazz genre, Sugar Maple can now claim to be the place in Milwaukee to find avant garde or free jazz. Recently such groups as Trio X, Klang, Wheelhouse, and now the Russ Johnson Quartet have all been hosted by the Bay View area club.
The Russ Johnson Quartet (which played at Sugar Maple most recently) presents the listener with an aspect of free jazz that helps as an entry point for exploring free jazz as a whole: its atonal aspect. Pure atonality, such as one might find in classical composers like Schoenberg and Webern is rare in jazz; but the basic principles are clearly there in such albums as Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. The style of the Russ Johnson Quartet bears a close relationship to the feel of Out to Lunch.
The primary atonal principle one can look for and find quite often in free jazz is a lack of resolution back to a primary (or tonal) key. Classically, that resolution allowed for a harmonically closed structuring of phrases which is the mark of tonal music. But in atonal music, and in atonal jazz in particular, that lack of closed, internally structured harmonic phrasing usually leads to a feeling of open-endedness, and sometimes evokes an air of mystery. In the case of Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, that openness is stretched to the point where the unity of the instruments that contribute a piece begins to feel tenuous, creating a feeling for the listener of not being quite at ease.
Some free jazz groups do not base their playing upon compositions, but the members of the Russ Johnson Quartet relied very heavily upon sheet music during the concert. After talking with Johnson about the compositions it became clear that the compositions were originals that had been refined over time. He also explicitly mentioned Schoenberg as an influence on his compositions, and in conversation mentioned having used Out to Lunch as a basis for compositional exercises with his students. The atonal basis for the music was clearly there as something not only intentional but as something well studied and practiced.
The effect of Johnson’s compositions was an almost instantaneous provocation of interest. A scan of the audience’s reaction to dissonant notes and unfamiliar rhythmic footing in the music revealed that the tunes seemed to arouse what hard boppers had once hoped for by revolting from the swing era of Benny Goodman: an audience engaged in listening rather than dancing.
Indeed, the compositions throughout the first set all lacked an explicitly articulated beat or rhythm. It was difficult to detect the pulse of the rhythm without paying very close attention. One could say that the rhythm was actually behind the rhythm section in the sense that one had to listen for it as something the bassist and drummer only heard in their heads but did not explicitly play out. Instead, they regularly played ahead of or behind or between the beats as if it were implied without being clearly articulated. The effect for even a casual listener was one of a lack of grounding. Returning to the connection between music and dancing, a swinging rhythm helps one to know when to put one’s feet down or when to clap; but when one listened to Johnson’s compositions, one had a feeling of suspension. That feeling was augmented by the lack of a tonal resolution in the pieces-a feeling of open ended development and evolution.
This effect, while perhaps uncomfortable in certain respects, was, I was assured, intentional. It may be recalled that one of the touchstones in the development of jazz, Miles Davis’ Nefertiti, had a definite feeling of tension and lack of resolution. The overall effect in either case is music that can work against the listener’s tendency to look for resolution. One must simply indulge in the openness as an intentional expression on the part of the artist.
Because of the experience of life in the 20th century (when atonal music began to be developed) many listeners have been drawn to such effects, perhaps as a reflection of their own inner life. Atonal music in general, with its dissonance and lack of resolution can be said to reflect, especially, the experience of living in a modern metropolis. Free jazz has an especially close connection with modern urban life, and perhaps its lack of structure allows for a clearer and closer mirroring effect of life in the modern urban metropolis to emerge in a purer form from the subconscious. That mirroring effect can appear quite starkly at times in the frequent percussive effects found in avant garde and free jazz which at times seem to mimic the honking and beating and blaring found experienced in city life. At its best that mirroring can have a cathartic effect.
Such music is very much to be welcomed as an addition to the local jazz scene as a way of broadening a shared cultural experience.