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Improv Notes: January 2014


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IMprov Notes:
News of the Moment       January 2014

Improvised Music a Universal Language
PhD candidate and ICASP GRA David Lee looks at how improvisation brings musicians together

Photo of David Lee by Paul Watkins.

Books, more books, and a double bass: That’s what confronts a visitor to David Lee’s office in Massey Hall in early September. A PhD student in the School of English and Theatre Studies (SETS), Lee is working on freeing some space by winnowing through a prof’s accumulated volumes lining shelves and stacked on tables.
One thing he’s not looking to purge is that David Lee-sized instrument case leaning against the wall.

“It’s no Stradivarius,” says Lee as his fingers pull notes from the strings. Scuff marks and all, it’s durable and produces a big sound. “It’s made to look like an electric guitar.”
These days, what with writing and reading, he plays less often. One recent outing was during the annual Guelph Jazz Festival in September, when he took part in a workshop at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. “We just played and moved around the space.”
In a way, he might be describing the essence of improvised jazz – the topic of Lee’s doctoral thesis begun in 2011.

To read the full article by Andrew Vowles on the University of Guelph's website, click here.


Oral Histories is a showcase of interviews, performances, and articles by and about improvising musicians, artists, writers and scholars. This monthly feature offers an intimate look inside the minds and practices of some of the many dynamic, innovative people whose energy and ideas make improvisation studies such a vibrant field of inquiry. The Oral Histories project provides a space for improvising artists to be heard in their own words, often in dialogue with other improvisers, scholars, and practitioners.


“Improvisation is a human right”: Chicago Slow Dance: The AACM in Conversation


The Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is a non-profit creative organization that supports and welcomes creative jazz performers, composers, and educators. The AACM was founded in Chicago, Illinois, by pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall, and composer/trumpeter Phil Cohran (also known for his work with the Sun Ra Arkestra). Some of the most illustrious free jazz players have been part of AACM’s nexus, including Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago: Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Don Moye, and Malachi Favors. As the AACM’s charter mandates, the AACM is dedicated “to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music.” Particularly through the 1960s and 70s, AACM members were among the most innovative in jazz/music, and recorded widely, often boldly mixing jazz, the avant-garde, improvisation, classical, and world music. Their contributions to the free jazz world are colossal.

George E. Lewis, featured in the interview, who joined the collective as a teenager in 1971, and who is an ICASP co-investigator, wrote the most extensively documented work on the AACM: A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music. In his seminal work Lewis applies a cross-generation chorus of voices to explore the important communal history of the AACM. In the prologue Lewis describes how the “AACM is part of a long tradition of organizational efforts in which African American musicians took leadership roles” (x), going on to detail the more than forty years of work and composite output of the AACM in a range of methodologies, processes, and media. Lewis writes: “AACM musicians developed new and influential ideas about timbre, sound, collectivity, extended technique and instrumentation, performance practice, intermedia, the relationship of improvisation to composition, form, scores, computer music technologies, invented acoustic instruments, installations, and kinetic sculptures” (ix). These new forms and medias of playing were opportunities, afforded by the AACM, as Muhal Richard Abrams and John Shenoy Jackson assert, “to show how the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised can come together and determine their own strategies for political and economic freedom, thereby determining their own destinies” (qtd. in Lewis ix). As Muhal Richard Abrams succinctly put it at the “Improvising Bodies” Colloquium in Guelph in 2010: “Improvisation is a human right.”

This month’s Oral History is taken from the 2010 Guelph Jazz Festival/ ICASP colloquium, which presented this engaging panel conversation between AACM members, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis. Judiciously moderated by Lincoln Beauchamp Jr., the AACM members discuss how the AACM came to be, as well as their respective involvement in the group. The panel converses about the impact of the AACM both musically and non-musically, as well as taking questions from the audience. The dynamic conversation affirms how important the AACM remains in providing new perspectives, new methodologies, and new artistic and cultural practices to the world of creative improvised practices.

A full transcript of the interview is available here.

Art of Immersive Soundscapes: New book by ICASP Team Members Ellen Waterman, Pauline Minevich, and James Harley

The Art of Immersive Soundscapes is a new publication edited by ICASP/IICSI team members Ellen Waterman (Memorial University of Newfoundland), Pauline Minevich (University of Regina), and James Harley (University of Guelph).

For more information, please visit the University of Regina press' page here.

Quote of the Month:

“I’ve often thought that I’m really making documentaries in a weird way […] What you’re shooting is really a documentary of that moment, no matter how much control has gone into it. There’s a level of determinism, predeterminism that I don’t want on a film set.”
-David Cronenberg, David Cronenberg: Evolution 40

A progenitor of a genre typically referred to as body horror, Toronto-born and world-renowned auteur David Cronenberg remains one of the most audacious narrative directors working in cinema. Citing literary influences as diverse and incendiary as Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs (Cronenberg adapted Burroughs’s Naked Lunch), Cronenberg’s films continually blur the line between corporeality and psychological disorder, reality and hallucinatory nightmare. 

 TIFF features a major exhibit to celebrate the director’s work, David Cronenberg: Evolution, and has been playing Cronenberg’s entire cinematic oeuvre, with special introductions to screenings and talks with those who have worked most closely with him.
David Cronenberg: Evolution runs until January 19th, 2014.

Photo by Alan Langford from Wikipedia commons.


Amiri Baraka, a poet and playwright of incendiary rage and collective insight, who went from Beat poet to Black Nationalist and finally Marxist-Leninist, passed away on January 9th in Newark. He was 79. Among his most known works are the poetry collections The Dead Lecturer and Transbluesency: The Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones (1961-1965), his plays Dutchmen and A Black Mass, and his various works on Black music, such as Blues People and Black Music. Along with Ezra Pound, Amiri Baraka remains one of the most controversial and least understood American poets. As M.L. Rosenthal wrote, “No American poet since Pound has come closer to making poetry and politics reciprocal forms of action” (qtd. in Baraka Reader xxi). For Baraka, art was a weapon of revolution. Further, Baraka wrote some of the most insightful works on African American music, appropriately referring to the music as American classical music. His poetry was always musical, for as he states in Blues People, the poem must “swing—from verb to noun.” The “changing same” was his designation of the interplay between tradition and the individual talent in Afro-American music.

His creative writing shows how poetry can move through blues and jazz to black chant and graphic sound. Baraka lived a very tumultuous life and his poetry and social activism reflect that. He showed many young poets—across cultures and generations—that poetry could be a call to arms, as well as a tool to adequately express lived experience. His uncompromising, engaging, and, at times, problematic voice will be missed.

Check out Baraka reading from “Why’s/Wise,” here.

Photo of Amiri Baraka from Wikipedia Commons.

ICASP GRA Paul Watkins releases DJ project/album, Dedications

Dedications is an experimental jazzy hip-hop remix project born out of a love of listening to records. The album mixes, mashes, samples, spins, cuts, signifies, rhapsodizes, poetizes, layers, collages, remixes, breaks, distresses, archives, remakes, reshapes, and re-edits pieces of recorded history to create a sonic audio homage to a host of musicians and styles with a nod to the avant-garde.

The full album is available as a free download here


The international Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice research project explores musical improvisation as a model for social change. The project plays a leading role in defining a new field of interdisciplinary research to shape political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

As a form of musical practice, improvisation embodies real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration. Improvisation must be considered not simply as a musical form, but as a complex social phenomenon that mediates transcultural inter-artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, community, history, and the body. This project focuses primarily on jazz and creative improvised music. The dominant theoretical issues emerging from this music have vital social implications.

Check out our diverse research collection.

Improv Notes was initially distributed in 2008 as a quarterly newsletter. Since June 2011 the revamped Improv Notes has been assembled, written, and distributed on a monthly basis by ICASP's Media and Public Relations Coordinator, Paul Watkins. If you have anything improvisation related that you would like to have included in the newsletter, please send an email to Paul at:

Featured Artist:

Image from Georgia Straight.
Sex Mob (USA)

Sex Mob is a New York City jazz group, which initially began as a way to feature the slide trumpet of leader Steven Bernstein. Since then the band, as Bernstein’s website states, has developed an overarching mandate: “to put the fun back in jazz music.” The band is comprised of Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss on alto sax, Tony Scherr on bass, and Kenny Wollesen on drums. The group first formed in the 1990s as part of a residency at the Knitting Factory, and their early material consisted primarily of Bernstein originals. That changed when Sex Mob played Bond Themes as part of an evening of film music, such as “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice,” which eventually culminated in a 2001 album, Sex Mob Does Bond. To Bernstein’s surprise the crowd went wild, and Bernstein realized that the audience was more in tune with their adventurous music if they could recognize the tune. And so their songbook expanded to feature everything from Prince, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, to The Grateful Dead, and even the “Macarena,” although you’ve never heard the “Macarena” like this before.

The guiding principle to their song selection is that the tune would have to be recognizable enough that it could withstand some serious compositional and improvisational destruction. The group still plays many Bernstein originals, although their sets now feature a great deal of covers given a humorous, yet sophisticated avant-garde reworking. As Bernstein unapologetically states in Jazz Asylum, “I realize that’s what jazz musicians have always done. That’s how Lester Young got popular; it’s how Charlie Parker got popular; it’s how Miles Davis got popular; that’s how John Coltrane got popular. They played the songs that everyone knew and because they could recognize the song, then that invited them into their style.” In many ways Bernstein is right, as the jazz tradition has always included space to take familiar songs and reassemble them with your own unique spin.

Since their 1998 debut, Den of Inequity, Sex Mob has released a diverse oeuvre of radical, yet accessible material. Their 2000 release, Solid Sender, continues their bold prewar jazz spirit through another mix of covers, everything from Nirvana to ABBA, with a dose of Bernstein originals. The same year saw the release of Theatre & Dance, part Duke Ellington compositions and part Bernstein originals written for a renewal of the 1926 Mae West play “Sex.” Sex Mob continues to defy expectations, and their 2006 release, Sexotica (Thirsty Ear) is a homage to the soundscape of Martin Denny (the “father of erotica”), receiving a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

Their latest release, the 2013 Cinema, Circus & Spaghetti (Sex Mob Plays Fellini: The Music of Nino Rota), contains Sex Mob’s idiosyncratic arrangements over Nino Rota’s memorable scores. The title comes from a quote from Italian director Federico Fellini, who said, “My films, like my life, are summed up in circus, spaghetti, sex, and cinema.” The same could be said of Sex Mob’s exuberant music. Sex Mob Plays Fellini, like their earlier albums, will certainly offend jazz purists. I assume that’s part of the point. Love or hate their brashness, Bernstein summarizes the Sex Mob ethos as about having fun: “Jazz used to be popular music. People would go out to clubs, listen to the music, go home, and get laid. Simple as that. We’re bringing that spirit back” (All Music Guide). Sometimes it's nice to simply get lost in the music, dance, and go out and enjoy la dolce vita.


Sex Mob, live, 2007:

Call for Papers: Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation

Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation invites submissions for a special issue with the theme “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation,” guest-edited by Rebecca Caines and Paul Watkins. This special issue of CSI will draw together artists and academics to investigate the crucial role improvisation plays in the international field of Hip Hop, and in the related field of critical Hip Hop studies. We seek contributions from artist/practitioners and from scholars working across the disciplines.
Derek Bailey’s notion of improvisation as being the most practiced, yet the least understood, of all musical activities, is particularly pertinent to the immense and constantly burgeoning field of Hip Hop praxis from around the world. Although most scholars are aware of the integral nature of improvisatory practices in Hip Hop, few critically explore how improvisation is a viable form of analysis in Hip Hop, as well as a model for social change. Improvisation plays a central role in African-American, Hispanic, and Caribbean based Hip Hop practices in the US, and continues to be a core element in Hip Hop music, dance and visual art across the globalized forms of this interdisciplinary art practice. We encourage contributors to pursue new conversations, interventions even, about how we think of improvisation vis-à-vis the larger milieu of Hip Hop. Critical academic essays are encouraged, and the editors also welcome for consideration artist statements, commentaries, reviews, interviews and experimental textual forms. We intend to showcase a variety of live artist performances and invited papers at a launch event for this Special Issue. CSI/ÉCI encourages the submission of audio and visual content to accompany texts. It is the responsibility of the author to ascertain copyright and gain permissions.
Some potential topics include:
  • How do Hip Hop artists combine idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation in their work?
  • What artistic, social, and economic pressures face Hip Hop artists who foreground the improvisatory in their work?
  • How does improvisation in Hip Hop reflect, develop, or contrast the social practices and pressing political issues of the communities in which it appears?
  • What role does improvisation play in the creation of academic disciplinarities and “Hip Hop pedagogies” both inside and outside educational institutions? 
  • What role does improvisation in Hip Hop play in the recontextualization of cultural and intercultural identity?           
  • How do Indigenous communities across the world improvise, translate, transform, and indigenize the US form of Hip Hop arts practice?           
  • Since Hip Hop has often traditionally been described as “noise” by many conservatives and academics who uncritically profile Hip Hop artists and fans of all genders, races, and classes, might dissonance compel us to think about how disruption can function as a model for critical practice?
  • What are the relationships between technology, accessibility, and Hip Hop culture?
Submissions should be 4000-6000 words (shorter essays may also be considered at the discretion of the editors). Please submit completed essays to the journal website by April 16, 2014. Information on the submission process and examples of previously published work can be found at Inquires can also be directly made to Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation is an open-access, peer-reviewed, electronic, academic journal on improvisation, community, and social practice housed at the University of Guelph. 

To read more of the CFP and to learn about Critical Studies in Improvisation, click here.
SOMEWHERE THERE Creative Music Festival
February 21, 22, & 23, 2014

As a demonstration of the vitality and diversity of Toronto’s creative music scene, the Somewhere There Festival will include performances by over 60 performers and composers doing important, boundary-pushing work in the city of Toronto, along with a speakers' series featuring a number of prominent thinkers, educators, and music presenters.
Call For Papers: Improvising Across Borders

The Center for Improvised Arts, Performance and Research, which is sponsored by the Agosto Foundation, invites proposals for papers and presentations at Improvising Across Borders (IAB 2014), an inter-disciplinary festival and symposium on improvisation, which will be held July 17-19, 2014 at The New Town Hall, Prague, Czech Republic.

The symposium will include paper and panel sessions, workshops, sound and text installations, dance, film, and concerts. The keynote address is by distinguished composer and scholar, George E. Lewis (Edwin H. Case Professor of American Music, Columbia University). Workshops and performances by International artists will include: Pauline Oliveros, George E. Lewis, Iva Bittová, Markus Popp, Joëlle Léandre, and others.

Deadline for proposals: February 6, 2014. Notification: week of February 28th, 2014.

For the full CFP, click here.


June 5-8, 2014 

Cross-cultural Improvisation III

Hosted jointly by the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and Mannes College The New School for Music.

The International Society for Improvised Music is happy to announce its seventh festival conference and welcome proposals for performances and presentations. Continuing its theme of Cross-cultural Improvisation that guided recent events at the University of Michigan and York College/Roulette, the upcoming event will bring together musicians from disparate cultures to perform together and share ideas about the challenges and exciting opportunities inherent in improvising across traditions. Hosted jointly by the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and Mannes College The New School for Music, the event will enable ISIM to direct its global vision not only toward the professional improvised music world but also to the field of musical training in which recognition of the need for improvisatory experience for classical and other musicians is steadily on the rise. In addition to featuring leading creative artists from diverse cultures, the event will welcome visionaries in musical study who are making headway in this endeavor to share their insights about the road ahead for the field. 

Deadline Feb 1st, 2014. To read more about this CFP, click 

SILENCE is still Guelph’s portal for adventurous new sound events

Silence began back in October 2012 and remains an exciting portal in Guelph for adventurous and innovative sound events. Silence includes an ongoing concert series, occasional improvisation sessions, and handmade music nights and workshops.

If you’re in Guelph make sure you catch Craig Pedersen Quartet and Mark Molnar on January 24th at 8:00pm ($10 or pwyc).

Want to read past newsetters, or refer a friend to the monthly newsletter, then please do!Check us out on Twitter 

Musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.

– Ajay Heble