The squeak of a saxophone. The drone of a reverberating guitar. An impromptu trumpet solo that whirls out of control and pays no mind to meter. Some call it avant-garde, some call it free jazz, and others call it noise. New Orleans' Rob Cambre calls it "anxious sound," and he's helping it thrive in New Orleans, as a driving force behind such events as the Zeitgeist Creative Music Festival, and local appearances from national heavyweights like Chicago's avant-garde kingpin Ken Vandermark, who appears with his band the Vandermark 5 this Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC).
The 33-year-old Cambre, an avant-garde guitarist himself, started promoting concerts in 1995, after he received a call from the wife of pre-eminent New York free jazz bassist William Parker. The dancer and her husband were touring the South as a duo, and they wanted to do a show in New Orleans. "Parker is as close to a guru as we have for this music right now," says Cambre, "so getting to work with someone at the outset that I respect so much was a really good indicator that this could turn into something more regular."
Cambre named his one-man music production company Anxious Sound after a 1984 song by the Minutemen. While it might seem odd to name an organization known for promoting world-class modern free jazz in honor of a long-defunct progressive punk band, the two genres have their similarities. "The free jazz stuff has a lot of the same intensity and energy that you find in hardcore, post-punk, and heavy metal. I think that even if somebody doesn't understand all of the history and the language of the music, they can definitely grasp the intensity of the performance."
Both genres fall under the term of "creative music," used by Cambre and other local supporters. "It's a blanket term that a lot of people are using these days for free jazz, non-jazz-related improvisation, new jazz compositions, or even composition for electronic music that doesn't have anything to do with jazz," Cambre explains. "The term 'creative music' has more openness and ambiguity."
A high level of intensity is the common thread at Anxious Sound shows, which involve an unlimited variety of sound and format. Anxious Sound promotes acts as disparate as avant-garde jazz saxophonist Peter Brötzman's Die Like a Dog Trio, New York percussionist Susie Ibarra, and Amsterdam-based improv-punk band the Ex (which was forced to cancel its Sept. 12 New Orleans appearance due to travel difficulties). The one defining characteristic in these artists is a desire to buck established norms and push music into further developmental levels.
Many forward-thinking musicians take their craft to the next level through extended improvisation. Others are using non-traditional tactics. At a recent Anxious Sound performance by the Georg Gräwe Quartet at the CAC, reedist Frank Gratkowski tapped his clarinet's mouthpiece with his teeth in a chewing motion while fingering the valves, to change the pitches of the resulting sounds. Bassist Kent Kessler played extensive solos, scratching the strings with his fingernails and furiously scraping the bow up and down instead of side to side. Gräwe, a German pianist, mixed classical, curved-finger technique with percussive, flat-handed jazz technique for quick fluidity and accented surges.
There are plenty of local musicians who use alternative approaches, experimenting with instrumentation and format. Local jazz combo 3 Now 4 uses pedal steel guitar for countrified tone color, while drummer Kevin O'Day's nine-piece band Live Animals includes a percussion/string instrument made out of Ford Bronco auto parts. Avant-rock band Muvovum plays rigidly composed, amorphous music with a traditional rock band format. Jonathan Freilich's Naked Orchestra, encompassing up to 20 musicians at any one time, is the most recognizable local hub for creative music.
"When you say free jazz, or creative music, or anti-jazz or anything like that, we're talking about people trying to strip away all the outer elements and show you really what's on their mind," says Freilich. "Any time they're offering that, then you're really hearing music of the moment. That's really the essence of this music." Freilich scoffs at the belief that certain techniques employed in creative music are "elementary" or "noisy." "There's this mythology that certain sounds are somehow childish," he says, "as if anyone has even worked out half of what Jimi Hendrix was playing."
Creative music, by its nature, often sounds too strange to mainstream listeners. Cambre realizes that he is often promoting to a very specific set of music enthusiasts, but he hopes that core audience will grow, inciting even more local musicians to experiment. "It's raising the bar for the expectations of the audience and the musicians," he says. "More musicians are starting to put together more interesting projects because they're seeing that there is something of an appetite for that."
- Tracie Morris
- 'The free jazz stuff has a lot of the same intensity and energy that you find in hardcore, post-punk, and heavy metal,' says Rob Cambre.