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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Free jazz drought coming to Atlanta?

220px-Joe_McPhee_at_the_Empty_Bottle_in_Chicago_in_2004.jpg

The good news for local lovers of improvised jazz? Free form Norwegian trio the Thing is coming to Georgia this week with American Saxophonist Joe McPhee in tow. The bad news? They're playing Athens instead of Atlanta.

Once a standard stop for free jazzers and improvisers on the road for a tour down South, Atlanta has increasingly turned into somewhat of a ghost town for creative, non-traditional jazz (I might as well throw out a variety of terms and adjectives describing the style of music created by the likes of Peter Brotzmann, William Parker, Cecil Taylor et. al, since everyone I talk to differs on what this type of music is actually called). Despite the fact that the population of Athens is minuscule compared to that of Atlanta, Athens seems to have quite the edge, in terms of attendance, for free jazz/improvised/creative music shows these days. Perhaps it's due to the influence of the Olivia Tremor Control/Neutral Milk Hotel/Orange Twin crowd, who are known to dabble in various forms of experimental music. It could be that the tireless efforts of promoters like Leslie Grove, Justin Kau, Heather Macintosh and Killick Hinds, the latter of whom co-organized the phenomenal ACME festival in 2004, are paying off. It could possibly be that creative music just naturally thrives in college towns, but that wouldn't necessarily explain poor attendance in Atlanta because Georgia's capital has at least three major colleges in the downtown area alone.

Yet, whatever the reason, a recent show featuring the duo of Guitarist Mary Halvorson and Violist Jessica Pavone packed out the Cine theater in Athens with approximately 100 eager souls, while the equally talented trio of Jacques Demurrer, Charlotte Hug, and Urs Leimgruber (which was actually a much more engaging show) drew in just 5-10 paying adventurous music seekers earlier this month at Eyedrum in Atlanta.

I'm not trying to criticize Eyedrum's promotion practices here — I've seen the write-ups in CL and Stomp and Stammer; I regularly receive notices from them on Facebook along with thousands of other people; their website is clear, concise, and easy to maneuver — rather than attempting to get some kind of idea of why there has been such a sharp drop off in interest in improvised and free jazz in Atlanta. Obviously, there are other external factors such as price, space, competing shows and night of the week at play in regards to attendance, but even for a Tuesday, such a small amount of people for a show like this in a metropolis such as Atlanta is incredibly weak. This is the capital of the “New South?” More and more, it just seems that audiences in our fair city have little to no interest in creative improvised jazz. It wasn't always like this, of course.

Just 10 years ago, The Peter Brotzmann 10tet (+1) filled the Variety Playhouse in Little 5 Points with hundreds of people at $20 a head. I strongly doubt 50 would even show up at this point. But it's not for a lack of effort on the part of promoters. During the last 6-7 years, promoters, including myself, have gone to great lengths to bring out/adventurous music legends and prodigies to town, with the response from Atlanta audiences being little more than a yawn. Was it really nothing more than a fad during the late 90s/early 2000s? Has society really changed that much? (I don't want to know the answer to that question, by the way). Or did most everyone interested in this music move to NY or age to the point of not wanting to go out anymore? It truly is a mystery. Ugh, but now this is just a pity party isn't it...

Ultimately, the point here is that if you like this music, come out and support it before it disappears from town altogether. We missed out on the Thing + Joe McPhee this time around, but Athens is only an hour away, and is definitely worth the trip for this amazing group. A chance to witness Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love's frenetic energy is worth the price of admission alone. Add powerhouse Joe McPhee on Saxophones and Pocket Trumpet with Ken Vandermark collaborator Ingebrigt H. Flaten on Stand-up Bass and you've got one hell of a show (Sadly, Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson will not be able to make it). Again, if you're interested in creative, non-traditional jazz, free jazz, improvised music, adventurous music - whatever you want to call it — and are wondering what happened to it or why it rarely happens in Atlanta, consider the level of support it receives, which is little to zero. And remember: only you can prevent improv jazz drought.

The Thing + Joe McPhee and A Pocketful of Claptonite perform at ATHICA in Athens on Wednesday, June 23 at 8pm. $10 is the suggested donation.

(Photo by Seth Tissue)

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