AMN Reviews: Joe Morris – Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music

Joe Morris: Perpetual Frontier: The Properties of Free Music [Riti Publishing]

Perpetual Frontier is guitarist/bassist/educator Joe Morris’s comprehensive description of and reflection on the practice and principles of free music. As such, it is a lucid exposition of free music rooted in the jazz tradition, and a welcome addition to the literature on improvised music.

The book represents something of a summa of what Morris has experienced and learned during several decades of participation in improvised music as both a performer and a teacher. His purpose in writing the book is to provide the means for practicing improvisers to keep pushing the music forward in order to ensure that its frontier is in fact perpetuated and not hardened into an impassable boundary. But he also wishes to provide a way in for those beginning to engage the music whether as creators or listeners. By explaining the mechanics and structures of free music in plain language, Morris performs the useful service of demystifying a kind of music that often can seem baffling to those not directly involved in it.

The book is clearly organized into four sections and is plainly written, reflecting Morris’s experience as an instructor at Tufts, the New England Conservatory and the Longy School of Music of Bard College.

The first section contains a historical and conceptual overview of free music. While historically inspired by or otherwise associated with jazz, free music is, Morris argues, a kind of music that encompasses a variety of methods grounded in sources including, but not limited to, jazz. For Morris, the essence of free music inheres in the goal and practice of making music beyond the recognized conventions of established genres; still, the origin of this type of free music in jazz is of continuing relevance to the subsequent discussion.

The real heart of the book is the second section, an exhaustive analysis of the elements that make up free music. The section is logically structured into a set of major categories, each of which is then divided into a set of subcategories. These major categories encompass approach—that is, the overall attitude of invention that the free musician takes toward the material–melodic structure, pulse or rhythm, interaction among players, and musical form. The section is intended as descriptive rather than prescriptive–a catalogue of what can be done rather than a set of rules determining what should be done.

An interesting point to emerge from Morris’s analysis is the importance of patterned pitch sets—melodies—for the structure and development of freely improvised music. Melody here is the template, or malleable pattern, around which an improvisation can be organized and given coherence. Given this function, melodic patterns replace harmonic movement as the main structuring principle. Harmonies may arise, but as emergent properties of the underlying melodies. This is a defining insight, and one might say that here Morris identifies the point where free music branches off from jazz, while still retaining the ability to maintain a family resemblance to jazz.

Of course, freely improvised music is as much a matter of relationships among the players as it is of relationships among musical elements. Accordingly, the subsection on form contains a good discussion of the skills needed to play well in open forms—foremost among them listening, concentration, cooperation, and decisiveness. Decisiveness is particularly important; without it, free improvisation threatens to implode into playing that can’t sustain itself.

Morris follows the section on the elements of free music with one offering his analysis of four different approaches to organizing those elements. These four are Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics, the Unit Structures of Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Axiom Theory, and the type of free improvisation developed in Europe by musicians in the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. Morris’s analyses, particularly of the first three methodologies, provide useful insights especially for listeners hoping to gain a deeper understanding of how the music works.

The final section collects the replies to a questionnaire Morris sent to fifteen musicians associated with free improvisation. The questions, which are informed by the analyses and categories outlined in the preceding sections of the book, elicit an illuminating range of responses reflecting the diversity of forms and intentions that these musicians bring to their playing.