Let me try that again: I've been getting the feeling lately that "spontaneity" is one of the more unexamined concepts in the jazz lexicon.
Consider, for instance, this less-than-enthusiastic review of the band Mostly Other People Do the Killing, by Peter Hum.
Hum is an observant, articulate writer. I can't begrudge him his taste (though I may have more to say about this piece at some point, because some of the problems he has with MOPDtK are criticisms that people have leveled at the IJG as well). But I seem to have a deeper resistance to comments like these:
To my ears, many post-Coltrane and European improvisers, consumed by finding new and even unconventional sounds as improvisors, rejoice in tossing structure, tonality and rhythm out the window. They might contend that they have enlarged our definition of "beautiful," burying outdated sounds and social significances in the process. And yet, some of the tropes of their music, say piano pummeling or saxophonic overblowing, I would contend, have since become codified, making free jazz that is nonetheless dependent on a set of fall-back musical moves. Meanwhile, musicians such as Keith Jarrett have played utterly spontaneous music -- free, right? -- even as they adhered to song forms and all the conventional beauties of melody, harmony and rhythm.
It's hard for me to imagine that anything played by a professional musician, particularly one as experienced as Keith Jarrett or Ornette Coleman, could ever be "utterly spontaneous." I mean, think about that phrase for a second. It suggests that years of performance and listening history, years of artistic backstory, years of being engaged and in the world, can somehow be abandoned, at even a subconscious level. As if environmental factors can be made completely irrelevant when it comes to expression.
Which is not to say that it is not worth pursuing "utter spontaneity," or employing it as a metaphor, or even that sometimes things might sound utterly spontaneous -- but that's exactly the problem. The old platitude is based in truth: what sounds "spontaneous" to me might not sound "spontaneous" to you. And if we assume that something that sounds "utterly spontaneous" is utterly spontaneous -- just because the artist (or his / her marketing materials) tell us it is so -- we are probably being duped. Cuz y'know: every utterance is inevitably informed to some extent by external factors.
(I don't have a solution to this problem, of couse; I'm just content with pointing it out.)
Speaking of Jarrett, by the way, no one is more flabbergasted than me that "Incident at Umbria" is the IJG's most-viewed video (by far) on YouTube. Like, we've passed 8,000 views. For us, that's pretty freaking amazing -- and kind of exasperating, too, cuz, you know, I have written plenty better things than that. Anyway, check out the comments if you have the time. There has been a bit of an "exchange."