Bagatellen Review, 2005

To my mind, Jack Wright is one of the handful of musicians that most perfectly embody the practice of free improvisation, along with Derek Bailey, Paul Lovens, James Coleman, Hans Tammen, Michel Doneda, and a few others. While improvisation is a basic feature of almost all musical activity in every human era and culture, it is rarely practiced outside the context of some musical style, characterized by the regular appearance of a limited set of structural patterns, typically involving timbral continuity, recurring melody, metrical regularity, and other structural phenomena that lend themselves to robust usage by the human music faculty. It is such robust usage that allows for shared expectations across a community of performers and listeners, the cognitive basis of music's profound social significance. The very tangibility of these patterns has occasionally given rise to various forms of representation in non-musical media, chiefly language and textual media like diagrams and written language. None of this would have readily occurred if weren't possible to perceive a given set of structural patterns by the presence of certain properties, as opposed to the less computationally tractable possibility of perceiving them by the absence of certain properties. It is the latter negative characterization of regular patterns that generally seems the best we can hope for in the case of the freely improvised music made by the above-mentioned musicians. This is the precise sense in which the term "non-idiomatic" is used, and it is the consistent embodiment of such non-idiomaticity that leads me to single out these individuals from among the hundreds of wonderful improvisors whose creations have given me great pleasure.

Another way to view the matter is in terms of the way a performer filters their previous experience through improvisation. Such filters most often have some holes large enough to let through syntactically complex chunks of past experience, whereas a musician like Jack Wright seems to maintain a microscopically fine mesh of immersion in the act of sound-production that forces their past experience to be ruthlessly decomposed into decontextualized fragments of musical possibility that enter the realm of the audible in grippingly fresh configurations. This is nothing other than the classic notion of a master improvisor as a musician who internalizes a broad vocabulary of finely differentiated techniques on an instrument to the point where any element of this vocabulary can appear at any time and in any relationship to other elements. Wright epitomizes this notion.

Of course, we want to know which sounds and which relationships Wright realized on this recording. What is perhaps the most useful answer both pleases and frustrates in its concision: ones which have not yet been named. I'm willing to maintain the claim even under a reading in which "names" extends to unrestrictedly baroque epithets used in the sound-mind itself, and not merely atomistic tools of reference used there and elsewhere. Regardless of the depth of novelty one concedes to this music, this very sort of consideration plants us inches in front of a question that won't readily be pushed to the side of our path: is the joy of discovery enough? Enough to account for the ecstasy that can be empirically attributed to these saxophone solos, that is. (To be completely clear, by "empirical" it is simply meant that there exist human beings who have experienced it this way.) Put another way, is it the thing discovered, or is it unsimply the thing of the discovery? Even just stating the matter so bluntly may be conceptual masochism without profit, and something as bold as a good guess is out of the question. With unabashed uncertainty, and perhaps a hidden desire--masquerading as the faintest of suspicions--that they matter, I'll poke around among things discovered.

A pack of dogs becomes a single ant. Tiny pieces of wire protrude from enormous cubes. A long, straight piece of yarn is pulled from a hopeless tangle. Instead of placing E notes in relief against C notes, Wright's sequential thinking compares apples to airplanes. You take a bite and then you are in the bowels of a huge machine a few miles above ground, not still sitting in your kitchen about to peel an orange. Wright's solos are a cornucopia of improbable events.

"The Figure of a Speech" is a jolting whirlwind trip through the land of ineffable breath-tube interactions ala John Zorn's A Classic Guide to Strategy, yet conducted with an extreme sense of introspection and restraint, as though Wright is meditating on all the spastic, violent, capricious, lurching, asymmetrical, manic, and hyperactive experiences that the act of meditation should presumably stand in strongest opposition to. At other times, though, Wright gives himself over to a violent flow of ideas, spitting out sounds like Zorn at his finest.

Besides Zorn, the saxophonist with the most vivid relationship to Wright would be Bhob Rainey, which most certainly is due to their extremely intimate collaborative relationship (witnessed in its purest form on the final track from Signs of Life.) While the two share a knack for ultra-concise bursts of saxophonic extremes, Wright plays silence less than Rainey, generally dealing with the fragile momentum created by continuously juxtaposed sound events, whereas Rainey generally thrives on the drama of anti-momentum and the opportunity to sculpt each sound cautiously. Places to Go might be thought of as about 50 Rainey solo discs overdubbed on top of each other. While Rainey decorates the void, Wright always keeps it filled, even if it's with tiny sounds whose impact is always massive because of the ever-present possibility that they won't be tiny.

"All Place Shall be Nameless" recalls John Butcher or Anthony Braxton in its focus on a spartan set of macro-structural options, with extended repetition and long tones that allow tiny fluctuations in tone to rise to the foreground. With a somewhat uncharacteristic absence of sudden or jarring elements, there is a gentleness and rhythmic consistency that might locate the piece on the remotest fringes of the "ambient" aesthetic, yet there is tension and unpredictability in the cautious transitions between timbres, all of which deviate from a full-bodied and conventional saxophone sound. Unlike one of Evan Parker or John Butcher's breathtaking circular constructions that seem to unfold like glistening machines churning away in some Platonic space light-years away from the frailty of human affairs, Wright's patiently waxing and waning phrases in this piece are always wavering on the brink of disintegration, as though Wright is contentedly nursing the human fragility in each moment of sound-production.

Often, the sudden changes in timbre and dynamics give the impression of phrases constantly beginning but never ending, just disappearing as sounds seem to enter into intra-phrasal relationships with successive events but then seem hopelessly severed from such relationships a moment later. It feels like something incredibly significant is happening at any given moment, but as soon as this is perceived something else destroys its significance. This constitutes an irrevocable discontinuity with any jazz idiom, where phrases inevitably have a beginning and ending, with negative space in between. Negative space is a rarity in a music where sounds struggle to stake even a modest claim in positive space.

Wright's own words give the most insight: "What amazes me when I listen back to a solo I like is the quick shifts within an overarching flow of ideas. I don't know where they come from, but often musical thoughts will overlap, as if competing for attention from me. Some sound will begin to emerge, even accidentally; I'll prick up my ears as if I am a bystander, and it gradually pushes the dominant theme out of the way, rudely at times. I sense continuity, without a piece having any concept or theme to unify it; it is melody, yet does not repeat or produce self-conscious variations to validate itself." (from a 2001 interview with John Berndt)

The disc is such a dense and engaging onslaught of arcane musical information that I've never been able to handle more than about half of it at most in one sitting; it's sort of an intimidating sacred book of solo saxophone music that calls for years of dedicated study. Having only had the disc for about three years, I feel as though my above remarks are only preliminary.

Wright includes an incredibly insightful creation of his own pen as the liner notes for this disc, and the brief final paragraph offers a helpful guide as we step away from this textual microscope and return to the broader musical context that we live in: "In 1952, listening to Johnny Hodges and beginning to play, I was already on the road of the jazz musician. That is still what I know myself to be, at least my broad tradition, my roots as a player. My original passion became fused with the notion that jazz was its own outer edge, a path without visible limit. The rest was convention, which largely bored me, as it still does. It is amazing to me, that such an apparently conventional young boy would eventually find himself fed mostly by strangeness. And exploring it here for himself, and with you."

It's worth adding that the stunning painting on the cover is a work by Wright himself, representing a visibly fruitful secondary artistic outlet for him. It's about two short steps up the ladder of non-representationalism past Duchamp, with similar density and neutralization of figure-ground distinctions.
Visit Spring Garden Music for more info about Jack Wright's music, philosophy, and label curation.
~Michael Anton Parker,
Posted on March 25, 2005 07:26 AM


Dan Warburton: A splendid review of a splendid album - certainly one of a handful of solo sax discs that would make it to my desert island - and nice to see someone mention Hans Tammen again, albeit en passant. About time we heard from him again. Meanwhile, the piece I wrote on Jack for Signal To Noise in 2002 is still up & available for consultation at
- and I heartily recommend Jack's trio disc "from between" with Michel Doneda and Tatsuya Nakatani.

Tom Djll:.....Free Life Singing, one of the classics of American hinterland homebrew, along with Wally Shoup/Ross Rabin's Scree Run Waltz and the Transmuseq series by Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith. Scree Run in particular is prescient of some of today's junk electronic outings. Posted by: Tom Djll at May 12, 2005 11:45 PM

Jack: I just want to point out that I seem to have a strong penchant for homebrew--music that is. "Seem to" because it is not a principle of mine to go against the grain of technological progress, but to always choose the technology that is appropriate. Free Life, Singing was recorded under my loft bed at the Spring Garden St. house in Phila. in 1982. I didn't have the money for mastering, so I found a DIY studio which had very poor equipment; besides I didn't know what I was doing. Very dead sound, very poor balance with the drummer. My music back then was all about speed (as in velocity) and ecstasy (as in "out there").
Back then it was assumed that a record, and only one, was necessary to make it clear that you were serious enough about music to get gigs outside your home town. We didn't expect sales, just reviews and that minimum entry-level status. Many of us resisted getting sucked into the ambitions of a NY career, including most NY improvisers; after all, this was Reagan times, when most improvisers were on the other side of the fence from the career hustlers (guess who's on top now?). The non-conformists among us were those who put out one record after another, stacking them up in their parents' basements for future sales. We chose cassettes as our medium; improvisation was very much a part of the cassette culture, which celebrated lo-fi in a nose-thumbing way. Anyway, most of us didn't have the money to make more than one--financially you almost had to make 1000--it took a quarter of my annual income to put this out.
Places to Go was also unintentionally lo-fi, recorded in my kitchen this time, but through ignorance I had the mikes turned backwards, giving it a rather distant sound. This was in 2000, and released in 2001, now it appears in a Bagatellen review. So this is the old stuff, not the same music I would be playing today. Now there is Up For Grabs, recorded in Sept. 2004, and I'm still very happy with this. As a writer might say, I still agree with it. This is hi quality recording, this time, done in my basement.

Tom: By "homebrew" I mean not just DIY but rather something more estheticall-targeted for the records I mentioned: homebrew in this case means NOT part of the bi-coastal culture of new/experimental/transgenred musics as represented at that time (early 80's) by New York/Zorn/Parachute and SF/Kaiser/Metalanguage. Sure, Davey and LaDonna were mixed up a little with Zorn, but down home in Birmingham they had something else going entirely. Homebrew means all the exotic scenelets and musical accents inflected in places like Birmingham, Philly, Denver, Seattle, Chattanooga, Albuquerque... It's a distinction that today doesn't mean as much as it did then.

Mike Parker: Often, the sudden changes in timbre and dynamics give the impression of phrases constantly beginning but never ending, just disappearing as sounds seem to enter into intra-phrasal relationships with successive events but then seem hopelessly severed from such relationships a moment later. It feels like something incredibly significant is happening at any given moment, but as soon as this is perceived something else destroys its significance. This constitutes an irrevocable discontinuity with any jazz idiom, where phrases inevitably have a beginning and ending, with negative space in between. Negative space is a rarity in a music where sounds struggle to stake even a modest claim in positive space.

Tom: Mike, you have managed to hit a restlessly moving target square on the (saxophone) button! Bravo.
One question though: Why now? This release has been out for a few years.Posted by: Tom Djll at May 13, 2005 11:47 AM

Mike: actually I wrote that a while ago and it was just sitting around because I had more or less given up writing about music due to competing interests, time conflicts, philosophical reservations, and a dissatisfaction with the whole culture of discourse on music and the options for publishing, so even though I'd write or partially write reviews and stuff, I was just as happy to let them languish on my hard-drive and not bother to publish them. But then I discovered Bagatellen and after being inspired by Joe Milazzo's brilliant work and noting the great interactive format, I felt it was an ideal place to publish reviews. At the moment I'm concentrating on generating new content, but eventually I'll dig back into a few older pieces. The above was the only one that was actually finished and ready to go.
That's only part of the answer though, and a really boring part at that. The big idea for me is simply that it should be normal to write about old releases and not just the current stuff as some kind of journalistic rat race. I'd rather just write about whatever seems important to me and triggers textual content instead of forcing myself to fill space to satisfy the culture of news and marketing. Recordings are forever, so even though Jack or someone else might say they've moved past certain work, for the listener older work can be just as relevant as newer work.
Tom, I'd like to say how extraordinary I find your work with Jack and Bhob on Signs of Life, and that's an example of a record I've wanted to review ever since it was released, but it's so great and special that I've never felt I could do it justice. I'm a big believer in not saying anything if I don't have anything worthwhile to say. Perhaps someday I'll finally tackle that.Posted by: Michael Anton Parker at May 15, 2005 12:00 PM

Jack: The question about homebrew for me has been a mix of issues. I have to recognize a quirk of mine that I don't want to generalize into a principle to be advocated. The orientation towards recording music/listening to it recorded comes no where close to playing it live, and my focus is on the latter, playing for myself first of all. Playing for others is essential, but does not completely displace playing for myself, my own pleasure search, my needs. Recording, which always involves the thought or possibility of reproducing it, is to me normally secondary, too heavily weighted to the side of other-directed playing. The only way I have found to restore balance in my internal system of needs is to make individual copies, the cdr, and distribute them by request, closer to the cassette culture I once inhabited. I might declare that I would put out the money for cd's if there was potential for sales, but that is really begging the question. It sounds far more rational than I am. In fact, I prefer home production, I like having individual contacts with listeners, as they write to me, just as I prefer small, intimate concerts. I don't feel I am communicating when things get to the level of mass audiences or mass production. The contrast of the efficiency of mass orientation with the reality of the work/pleasure of actual playing is too great, alienating. As a result, I might lose out, not be the full participant in the network society that improvisation now has bought into. But I keep myself and my music together. Barely, but it works for me, now that I've plunged back into the "real" world of the east coast/europe.

So homebrew for me reflects the decision to keep part of myself out of the marketplace, this personal, irrational, at times embarrassing need. It is difficult to maintain, since almost all my partners are pushing in the opposite direction--to be noticed, recognized, effective on the marketplace, often willing to sacrifice financially to put out CD's, which is for most the only way to be taken seriously. I share these frustrations myself, I just stop short of the belief system.

The tendency of homebrew is to be temporary, like Hakim Bey's "Temporary Autonomous Zone". Like other "outsider art", it tempts the market, whose urge is to discover the hidden artists, to absorb everything, valuing especially that which originally had no market value. Van Gogh is not the irony, it is the actual pattern. And the urge of artists, which often must be kept secret (especially for the sophisticated avant-garde), is to be discovered. When the time of a particular outsider art has passed, such as the cassette culture, others can discover it, put a frame around it. And that's fine, but it's like playing a recording rather than the moment of listening and playing itself. The strength of the cassette culture of the 80's was that the main impetus was communicating, not an effort to be picked up by the market. It was called a culture because of its relative independence. And today, for me that impetus translates into making cdr's individually, and sharing them, rather than urging sales. It sounds silly, romantic, but I like thinking that I touch and speak with each person to whom I send music. I keep at least some of the musical venture apart from the dream of success--my own vain dreams, of course, first of all.

Posted by: jack wright at May 18, 2005 05:52 AM