The following is a short text that I wrote in 2009 about JOUST (John Oswald, alto saxophone, and me). I don’t know why I wrote it but I’m confident that it hadn’t been published until, upon rediscovering it in 2015, I put it up here. It is a pretty good text:
Music is ‘professional’ more due to its contours than its content. Making music with John lends focus to this notion, and fuels my skepticism about ‘professional’ music in general. Let me be clear: I salute musicians who work, think, play hard –– they are kin –– but those traits ought not be conflated with professionalism. JOUST makes improfessional music. Improvised processional. We proceed.
Playing with John usefully challenges my improviser’s vice where beginnings and endings are granted undue importance. These contours, in their suspiciously clean, often melodramatic articulation, cue audients’ automatic hand-percussion parts, the hallmark of the profession. Of course we have to start, and probably stop, somewhere and, with John, these limits are played with constantly. Starts and stops don’t demarcate ‘pieces’ though, except in exactly the particular (the literal) sense; they’re just bits of the whole. Often, I’ll hear five or ten discrete little slices –– six, twelve, two-and-a-half second ideas, for example –– laced together by breaths and non-silences, before John and I dig into a good long thing. Nobody claps.
The full stop is another thing. For years, John and I would played at his home, usually at midday. There, it’s straightforward why we stop: food, a drink in the garden, the plea of a ringing phone, the feeling that it’s simply been enough. In public –– too rare, really –– it’s slightly more complicated for me, but John is never troubled enough by audience expectations to worry about tidy closure. The music stays open, social, simply a thing we do.
Now, music is musical due to both its contours and its content, and the content that John creates is inimitable. Some would dismiss JOUST music as idiomatic, an example of that oddly entrenched idiom of non-idiomatic improvisation. As I hear it, however, this trenchancy is primarily a product of the logic of professionalism that so easily obscures what the music is and does.
Classic non-idiomatic improvised music, in its heyday, was characterised by a (historically responsive) process of negation in which musicians thwarted themselves from what they knew –– styles, techniques, aesthetics –– toward what could be discovered through the playing. Some things were off-limits, almost amoral. But John and I are both idiosyncratic, self-taught players and, while there’s much music we simply can’t play convincingly for lack of ‘technique’ (another professional hobgoblin), we gladly put all that we know into JOUST music. Positive music. No need to negate.
In the end, social analogies are still the most evocative way to describe playing with John. It’s a spar and a union and a spat and one good joke after another. The theories may be set but it’s just playing after all, and the next time will be just as much fun as the last, or more.