Free Your Ears: A Sunday Night in Shanghai

From Wikipedia: “There is no universally accepted definition of free jazz, and any proposed definition is complicated by many musicians in other styles drawing on free jazz, or free jazz sometimes blending with other genres. Many musicians also tend to reject efforts at classification, regarding them as useless or unduly limiting”.

There are times when you feel more free; there are times when you have to feel free in order to understand what is happening; there are times when the atmosphere requires you be free in order to find your place in the whole–contradictory perhaps, but contradictions are an essential ingredient in the alchemy of art.

Sunday in Shanghai has a special mood, especially if the previous days have been intense, full of important gigs around town. When Sunday comes after all the revolution, the music feels a bit tired, a bit lazy–and then something unexpected happens. I guess that’s why Sundays are good for Jam Sessions: lazy musicians, hang-overs, and strangely creative sounds.

I went to Yuyintang last Sunday night to hear The Blue Koi Collective, Shanghai’s premiere (only?) free jazz band. Gabriele guides from the keyboards while Feng (drums and percussion), Toby (trumpet), and Vladimir (guitar) respond. Vladimir and Toby were special guests, as the band is usually a trio of Feng, Gabriele, and the currently out of town Alec Haavik. They play the early set at JZ every other Sunday, and have the occasional gig elsewhere, such as this night at YYT.

The audience was small, nice, and peaceful; the club was warm, the beer was cool, the friends were rocking, and the music was comfortable. Before the show began I went to chat with the band because I wanted to get a better idea about what we talk when we talk about free jazz. What I got for an answer was a white canvas in my head on which I could take it as I wanted or needed, an instruction of freedom that can be a little difficult. Later, as I was talking with Adam Gaensler, guitarist of The Dovetail Joints, a question came out: is this music arrogant? Or real? I guess it is all in the mix: the canvas, the writing, the reading between lines, the people, the drinks you had last night, the album you’ve listened to all week, the book you will read when you get back home, the people you’ve been with, and the music of course. In short: your mood. That the thing about freedom: it’s attached to our own moods, and in this case my mood was not very free. If I feel good then the music will sound better? Or worse, if I feel bad the music will be bad? What a question! The instruction to be free made it difficult to be so. Freedom is such a complication, even for something as nice as music. How did this happen? Sundays seem to water the seeds of gray intellectualism. Careful! If you ignore the direction to handle with care then Sundays could turn into nightmares. Happily that wasn’t the case on this particular Sunday.

During the break the free musicians stretched their muscles, had a smoke, and a free jazz + rock chat broke out. If you are free, why not to use your freedom to play what you love, obey a request from inside? We talked about the old rock, about the love of Pink Floyd and freedom. The second set began and we all stepped freely into jazz as the last breath of Sunday laziness came out, and everything became a perfect chaos.

Vladimir carried Pink Floyd to the stage, Feng kept the spirit, Gabrielle kept the canvas and the union, and Toby was the sweetness of a Sunday evening with jazz. How complicated it is to be free of oneself before one can be free of anything else! Jazz can be arrogant and even annoying for some people, but can these people not also be arrogant in this very judgment? How to judge when there’s no language to clarify the meaning beneath what has been said? The words “free jazz” have such a thick underline of meaning, far too much to be solved or explained by one gig, but you have to start somewhere. There are not many situations in life with the conditions of a free jazz gig, situations where more than one person is talking at the same time and the idea is to get both expressions melt in one without becoming something that has already been done. There’s no similar game in painting or writing, the exquisite cadaver game being probably the closest thing in those practices. There is improvisational theater and there are go-go dancers in clubs, but I can’t think of anything else that really follows these rules: “just do what you want to do, I’ll do the same, and lets work together without talking and see what magic comes out.” On a large scale, perhaps it is like life itself

“Who wants to hear this?” a friend asked me while the band was playing. “You can’t really hear it at home. If you are then you are either living with a free jazz band or you are listening to a recording of a free jazz performance, and then it’s not free anymore. It was, but it is no longer free once you can play it over and over again.” So, who wants to hear this? People needing a massage to their minds? Music nerds? People with a Sunday hangover letting all go?

The end came and everybody was in this ‘experimental mood’. Musicians and listeners feeling the result of the coupling of waves, all pleased with their own mood. Jazz isn’t at YYT every day, but when it does come it seems to be in a good mood. It must be all the rock waves still playing and rippling across the stage, bouncing sluggishly off the walls, having their own lazy Sunday. In September Joe Rosenberg’s quartet were there, and Blue Koi is now the second jazz band to grace that stage.

Music is a funny business, so sensitive and moody–so spoiled sometimes. To let it go free like that with no boundaries, no attachments, no previous idea of a thing, no maps, no plans–I know some people who would be stressed by that. Maybe the way is to instinctively understand the relevance of different ideas, to somehow know where to focus when there’s no previous plan. That’s the way for the musicians, but for the listeners…well, when you are listening you really never know what you will hear next–in music and in some other affairs too. So to get into the music, the only way is to pay attention, hoping the flow will carry you in such a way that you will comfortably float in it, trying to keep your own obstacles out of the way in order to be able to hear as much as possible; and it’s even better if you are still living a life with surprises. That gives you a better chance of a good time.

If it were possible to hear all the music produced by a city together, at a certain time, I’d love to hear a Shanghai Sunday night.

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Mache is a hippie witch that was born under Beltane's full moon. She enjoys talking to ghosts and interdimensional beings, and cooking for her friends and beasts. She has Chilean wine in her veins instead of blood,and at the moment she belongs to China.


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