There is an English term that is becoming increasingly common when we talk about non-conformist and transgressive music: “leftfield”. The significance is plural, but the meanings converge to the same idea – literally, it means “coming from nothing”, in an abbreviation of the expression “out of left field”, but it is also taken as a play of words between “field” (territory) and “left” (in allusion to the politic left), becoming something like “coming from the left”. The first uses of the word referred to electronic dance music that had an experimental nature, as the one played by the extinct duo Leftfield, but soon the references were amplified to the more abstract and exploratory tendencies of non-erudite electronic music, and then, for all the proposals, even the acoustic and electro-acoustic ones, that don’t stick to gender nor style or that put it into question. More recently, we can find it in cinema, video, theatre and dance styles that are not in keeping with the dominant aesthetics.
The fact is that the word “leftfield” achieves special pertinence when it refers to improvised music. To all purposes, it is created – at least apparently, because we have to reckon on the personal references of each musician (Cage use to say that «improvising is to play what you know») – from the scratch, in other words, in the very moment of its public performance, in addition to the fact that it has left and extreme-left connotations since its origins in the context of the social and cultural movements of the 1960s (with special relevance for the ones with a libertarian stamp). The percussionist Lê Quan Ninh is peremptory regarding this element: «Between the present artistic practices, there is one in which the anarchist principles are evident, the free improvisation.»
If the musical language in which people use to improvise until the middle of last century – jazz music – lived the revolution of creative spontaneity and liberty during the free jazz years of Black Power (without ever disconnecting from the composition structures of the tradition from where it came from), in the old continent they wanted to go further and formulate a new approach labelled as free music. This one was represented by the egalitarian programmes of Scratch Orchestra, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, AMM and Musica Electronica Viva (MEV). About this last ones, Alvin Curran, one of its founders, remembers the following: «At that time, we believed music was not property of an individual or author, but it belonged to the collective, and that music is an universal human right, in the sense that everybody play if they just want to. Curiously, these believes are again in the middle of an ethic and legal debate regarding the definition of what is music, it’s authorship and the use of it by the people over the internet. We use to be characterized by “shocking” (even for us) absence of authority and leadership and we use to apply the principle that everybody could produce sounds in some way, in an act of spontaneous musical creation. This attitude of involving the audience in the concerts – a radical assault to the sacred cows of bourgeois’ culture – mean the suicide of the group as a closed entity, but gave us the possibility to achieve the most dangerous and unstable experimental limits. One of the main objectives was the creation of a tribal energy, with all and every means, challenging death, asserting life, searching ecstasy, in an idiosyncratic mixture, naked and without the mediation of anarchism, communalism and transcendentalism.»
MEV attitude went until where it was possible or impossible and not everything they did with non-musicians seems to us, nowadays, interesting, especially because we listen/observe as outsiders – with a necessarily different perspective. Maybe Elvin Jones was right when he stated that «there is no liberty without any kind of self-control and self-discipline». Remembering his collaborations with John Coltrane: «Even if he gave the impression of liberty, what he played was based on lots reflection and discipline.» Maybe Ron Carter had this liberty, when he pronounced: «we are able to be free as much as we want to, but we need to have a “background” with which we can relate to, putting in practice that same liberty – other way, we are relegated to a corner».
Maybe, it will repeat. The fact is that Potlatch octet in this live record is placed between free jazz and free music. When we guess the legacy of Ornette Coleman in the sonority and in the non-hierarchization of instrumental roles, it comes out, without warning, situations of total and abstract deconstructionism, with electrical (Guilherme Leal’s guitar) and electronic (Nuno Lima’s devices) interferences; a great high density percussion base, now and then turned to beat or to texture’s developments (Luís Desirat’s drums and Monsieur Trinité’s objects); and a solid, even when discreet and on duty to the group, harmonic elaboration, granted permanently by the piano (Filipe de Sousa) and very often by the double-bass (Pedro Roxo) which is not limited exclusively to rhythmic accompaniment. Two different approaches to improvisation are, then, constantly intertwined, one associated to the afro-American legacy, and the other to a less codified European stamp. On the “scene’s mouth” we can find the saxophones (Jorge Lampreia on sax soprano, here and there also playing the flute, and José Lencastre on sax alto), major responsible for the connotations with what most listeners perceives as “jazz”. The constant in and out of different formats and the scratch in the cracks between two contiguous worlds is what delights on this project, which plays with alignments and ruptures, reviving through it self-questioning attitude the “leftfield” premises.
In his essay “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives”, professor and trombonist George Lewis refers how jazz is to free improvisation what he designates as the “epistemological other”, adopting the terminology of social scientists Margaret Somer’s and Gloria Gibson’s. Using the understanding of this essential AACM figure, Potlatch’s jazz will emerge as a reference pillar of a contraposition work. To be more specific, Lewis points out that jazz «served to animate many projects in the formation and exploration of a particularly Eurological improvisative sensibility», even when the music distances itself from that idiom. It is precisely the case of this group placed on the left of the musical left that was the “new thing”, which in these days does not mean to take up arms and blow up bombs.
Rui Eduardo Paes (Music critic, essayist, editor of the magazine Jazz.pt)
English translation by Sandra Pires
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