Excursions to the Edge

When do the sounds emanating from a musical instrument cross the boundary of what we call “music” and venture into an unknown territory of mere clatters, dins, and squeaks? Indeed, does such a boundary exist at all? If it does, it is certainly elusive and constantly shifting.

Some of the most interesting music around these days plays in this penumbral region, making excursions into strange and foreign lands, then returning again to the known, the familiar. Some music, on the other hand, blasts off into the superlunary realms and keeps going, never looking back toward home. It is then we might begin to wonder if it still counts as “music” at all, or what it even means to make this judgment.

Questions of this sort were on my mind Thursday night after seeing the ROVA Saxophone Quartet play at El Valenciano. ROVA (an acronym formed from the last initials of founding members, Jon Raskin, Larry Ochs, Andrew Voigt* and Bruce Ackley) has been pushing the definition of music since the late 70’s. Leaders in the world of free jazz/new music, ROVA eschews conventions of rhythm and melody to create a rich landscape of timbres and sounds. The music is complex and interesting and the four saxophones, ranging from soprano to baritone, seem to speak to each other, albeit in a language whose meaning, if it has any, is beyond my ken.

This was my first time seeing ROVA live.

After their set, Sergei Varshavsky, co-founder with his son Peter of the local record label Porto Franco Records, leaned over and asked what I thought. “I really appreciate the incredible skill required to play such difficult and complex music,” I told him, “but I think it pushes against my edge with avant-garde music.” He laughed in agreement. ROVA was probably not anything we would listen to while relaxing at home, though it is certainly fascinating to see them perform live, to witness artists invent new territories, even when these territories lie outside those that we are naturally inclined to frequent.

Following ROVA, the Darren Johnston Quintet, which on Thursday night was Johnston on trumpet, quintet regulars Ben Goldberg on clarinet and Sheldon Brown on saxophone and bass clarinet, and new additions, Hamir Atwal on drums (wow!), and David Ewell on upright bass, played a mixture of brand new compositions and tracks from Johnson’s first quintet album, Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed Records).

While Johnston’s music certainly ventures out there into avant-garde territory, its sojourns never feel too long and the melodies that frame the improvisations echo throughout the unfamiliar terrain enough for me not to feel lost on the journey. The tracks have a kind of structure that, though playful and unpredictable, guide the music in a way that feels “organic and logical,” to use Johnston’s own words. Older tracks, such “Broken” and “Edge of the Forest,” sounded fresh and new, quite different from their previously recorded incarnations.

In conversation afterwards, Johnston admitted the tension he feels between the desire to create avant-garde/experimental music and the desire to create music that is more accessible, music that inspires people to dance or sing along. Playing trumpet with Brass Menazeri, a band whose infectious Balkan rhythms defy anyone in the crowd to stand still, clearly satisfies the latter desire. I can imagine how gratifying it must be for musicians to see fans dancing wildly to their music. But what about the experience of playing this kind of jazz to a small group of people sitting in chairs?

“Concert music,” Johnston said, a category in which he includes both contemporary jazz, chamber and orchestral music, “has been in trouble in this country for a while.” Whereas it is still popular for large foundations and rich patrons to sponsor symphonies, thus ensuring their survival in times of economic downturn, jazz is not so fortunate. In Europe—where, Johnston says, consumers of culture don’t require everything to be “pre-processed and pre-chewed” as they seem to do in the US—the survival of jazz seems more assured.

The number of people in attendance at Thursday night’s Mish-Mash appears to confirm Johnston’s suspicion. While there is so much going on musically in San Francisco (in terms of eclecticism, virtuosity, innovation, and sheer artistry, at least!) there is not always a significant audience to appreciate experimental jazz and new music. This may say more about the marketing and promoting of this kind of music than it does about its accessibility to a broader audience.

Certainly, the Thursday night Mish-Mash at El Valenciano is not on a lot of people’s radar. But I suspect that there’s more to the story than this. While ROVA might be about as far out as I’m willing to go when it comes to avant-garde music, for a lot of people, even straight ahead jazz is too far gone. At the end of the day, all that’s left to offer is some worn-out platitude about how there’s no accounting for taste.

Maybe that’s true, but here’s another platitude: there’s no harm in trying.

The Darren Johnston Chicago Quintet will be releasing a new album, The Big Lift, on Porto Franco Records later this year. You can hear the title track on Porto Franco’s 2011 Sampler, along with some other great local jazz artists including Marcus Shelby and his orchestra, Aaron Novik, Seth Ford-Young (with a gorgeous, shiver-inducing interpretation of Satie’s first Gnossienne), and The Nice Guy Trio, with compositions by Johnston and accordionist Rob Reich.