I know that this review of this (yet another) great book by Trevor Barre is very late in the game of review-dom as it was published about a year ago. This is because I only got round to diving into it just. Understand that the book, together with its predecessor - Beyond Jazz are now out of print! Well done for two invaluable resources on one of the least commercialised and under-documented music genres, free improvisation aka free improve or simply Improv.
A few things about the book:
1. Sprawling (in a good way) – instead of a more linear narrative like its prequel, Barre opted for a more critical and sidewinding approach. Myriad interconnections to the larger political-socio-economic contexts, a-thousand-plateau like networked threads joining the especially creatively/musically promiscuous (in the best sense of the word) 2nd generation practitioners like Beresford, Toop, Coxhill and Day with the worlds of punk, post-punk, world and what-have-you parallel musical micro-verses from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. Open-mindedness stood out as a most commendable trait of these chaps especially back before the whole idea of human decency in the forms of racial and sexual equality were still in their nascent stage as Rock Against Racism and Spare Ribs were still struggling upstream to be seen, heard and absorbed into the minds of people. Perhaps musical openness is a requisite prerequisite for open-mindedness in general?
2. Sectarianism – well on the other hand, the uglier side of human nature reared itself quite apparently as well. Barre’s tracing of the various squabbles amongst the first gen, second gen and inter-gen via the making/breaking of collaboration (Incus Records), joint venture (Musics magazine) and even gigging came out strong and pungent too. No criticism on the chaps then, as it is human, all too human. But with historical hindsight, it is good to be aware and beware of such trappings as the devotees and practitioners were struggling with contextual challenges, creative and aesthetic flag-staking in the quicksand of the moment as well as the shaping of such a revolutionary then new genre when it was still trying to decide if it should remove the shackles of its history or to maintain some sort of a begrudging nodal link to the past. Tough.
3. Affirmation – The book is after all, an affirmation of the genre/musical movement/creative conception as it is still around with us today. Its reach global, its fans manifold (relatively) more, its practitioners diverse and cross-generational. The fact that the book is now out of print physically speak volume of the above situation. Just like one of its closer neighbouring genres, Noise or noise, depending on one’s standpoint, the definition of what free improvisation is is illusive and constrictive simultaneously. But Barre pins it by attributing the UK as one of the key source springs of the genre/movement and kudos to him and all the practitioners and more.
My ending notes come in a singular question:
Will there be a book three a la a trilogy tracking the development of free improvisation in the 1980s and even the 1990s? I hope so…