Book review

Petter Frost Fadnes – “Jazz on the Line. Improvisation in Practice”

Petter Frost Fadnes – Jazz on the Line: Improvisation in Practice
(Routledge. 254 pp. Book Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

Jazz research is becoming increasingly vibrant in Europe, and from here in Birmingham it is particularly pleasing to witness Birmingham City University’s Jazz Research Group led by Dr. Nicholas Gebhardt at the forefront of it.  A number of musicians are taking advantage of the opportunity to conduct research at doctoral level to investigate their own practice, and find ways to elucidate and demystify the act of improvisation.  Some of the work resulting from it is now being published by Taylor and Francis, part of the Routledge Group, in a book series under the title of Transnational Studies in Jazz, edited by Profs. Tony Whyton and Nicholas Gebhardt.

Jazz on the Line by Petter Frost Fadnes is the latest book in the series; it is based on a PhD thesis that Frost Fadnes successfully submitted and defended at the University of Leeds. At present it is only available in digital form as distribution of the book has been delayed by the Covid-19 crisis.

While studying and then researching in Leeds, Frost Fadnes was a member of the lively improv scene there and a founder member of Leeds Improvised Music Association (LIMA). He is now back in his native Norway, teaching, researching and playing in Stavanger. In Jazz on The Line he draws on his experience as a player with the UK-based trio The Geordie Approach and the Stavanger–based Kitchen Orchestra to reflect on the nature of improvisation in contemporary jazz. Frost Fadnes states in his introduction that academic research tends to be based on the ‘outside of performativity’, that is looking in, whereas he wishes to investigate from a subjective point of view,  looking out. In the chapters concerned with the nature of improvisation he manages to bring together an extensive review of the relevant literature, combining it with reflections on his own experience playing in very different situations on tour. There are also two rather different chapters, one based on a number of detailed interviews with the German pianist and composer Alexander von Schlippenbach, a key musician in the development of European free jazz, the other a very interesting description of aspects of the music scene in Japan, especially in Tokyo, and the jazu kissa listening palaces, specialist coffee bars where customers listen to top class recorded jazz while drinking high quality coffee. In both chapters Frost Fadnes relates his observations to his overall theme of the nature of improvisation.

Frost Fadnes is at pains to dismiss the romantic idea of jazz improvisation whereby the performer reaches some sort of magical inspiration on stage when playing, and emphasises that improvisation in music is based on a clear-cut performance technique. He uses the example of Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who in 1974 crossed between the Twin Towers in New York on a tightrope. Petit is described as an aerialist and Frost Fadnes likens the activity of the improviser in music to that of the aerialist and describes improvisation as a ‘perpetual aerialist balancing act’ designed to test the laws of physics, potentially leading to ‘a crashing to the ground’. He also quotes Cambor, Lisowitz and Miller (1962*) who describe the jazz improviser as seeming ‘to be trying to penetrate far into the complexity and chaos of his (sic.) inner self to emerge with something organised and meaningful and to communicate this to the listener as a pleasurable reassurance that inner chaos can be conquered’.

Frost Fadnes is concerned with the ‘improvisational architecture’, by which he means the context for improvisation and the effect that this has on the improvisation. This will include the room in the performance takes place which has a role in shaping the performance and the audience without which the performance is not complete. He gives the very interesting example of Keith Jarrett’s justification for the different instrumentation of his European group compared with his American group which is that the sound of European venues, i.e. concert halls, is different from that of American venues, i.e. clubs. Jarrett argues that a walking bass works in an American club, but not in a European concert hall. I can certainly confirm that from my experience in a large concert hall such as Symphony Hall Birmingham where it is difficult to hear a walking bass.

Frost Fadnes raises the issue of whether recordings of improvised music retain their validity as examples of improvisation. In a wide-ranging chapter, he discusses many aspects of recordings in jazz, such as pianist Bill Evans’ greater spontaneity in live performance as compared with recordings, and audiences’ possible reluctance to attend concerts by ECM artists because of the variance in sound quality between the live and recorded sound. He suggests that recordings cannot be regarded as true improvisations in that they are subject to editing, selection of material and possible sound manipulation which are aspects of composition. Nonetheless he acknowledges the importance of recordings.

The chapters on Alexander von Schlippenbach and the Japanese scene both discuss the ways in which a local contemporary jazz scene has developed, both seeking their own identity without rejecting the American model. Schlippenbach is a key figure in the development of the European free scene in the 1960s and 70s, but has always acknowledged the influence of the American avant-garde, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. That and the influence of the German contemporary classical composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann come out very clearly in this chapter. The chapter on the scene in Japan, especially Tokyo is fascinating, both in its discussion of the jazu kissa cafes and the ways that the Japanese alternative scene has developed and had an influence back on American jazz, particularly through the work of John Zorn.

In the final chapter Frost Fadnes extends the discussion by drawing on his experience of touring underground venues in Europe. He shows how the process of setting up a gig through contact with the promoter, the actual day of performance with travel, sound checks, the actual performance and the post-gig hang are all part of the improvisational architecture.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it stimulating in the way it draws on the experience of an active improvising musician. The description of the Japanese scene is vivid, perceptive and detailed. However, I have to admit  that the book as a whole is a challenging read. It is based on Frost Fadnes’ PhD and, while its extensive surveys of the literature and detailed argumentation are appropriate for a doctoral thesis, I would suggest that a book of this type could and should reach out to a broader audience –  by summarising its argument in simpler prose and by relegating the detail of its surveys of the literature to footnotes.

(*)Reference: Cambor, Glenn C., Gerald M. Lisowitz, and Miles D. Miller. 1962. “Creative Jazz Musicians: A Clinical Study.” Psychiatry 25 (1):1–15. Quoted in Jazz on The Line

Jazz on the Line at Taylor & Francis
The Geordie Approach website

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