So What Do You Call It?

I've never come up with a name for the kind of music I do, although I can tell you how it came into being.

My vocabulary reflects the fact that I started life as a drummer, was trained in jazz theory, blues and gospel music as a pre-teenager, became absorbed in African and Latin music as a teenager, listened to a lot of contemporary classical music, worked in R&B, reggae, blues, Latin, African, jazz, funk, Middle Eastern and Indian bands and, for as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by how sounds can be fitted together. I usually compose from the piano, but occasionally I do it from the drums. I avoid playing the saxophone, however, unless it's absolutely necessary, since it drowns out all the other music in my head. I like to think of what we do as homemade music - music made from scratch. Cecil Taylor taught me the value of coming up with one's own chords, chord sequences and rhythms.

In the aftermath of the explosion of musical structures in the mid-1960s, there were plenty of chords, rhythms and other musical fragments lying around, just waiting to be used. For those of us who had undertaken a lifelong commitment to music-making, by the early 1970s, this was a very fruitful time. New structures needed to be built, so jazz saw a re-assertion of the role of the composer, thanks to people like Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Muhal Richard Abrams, Carla Bley, Karl Berger and others. These are people who showed me the way, and I think Braxton's use of the term restructuralist is a good one for describing their contributions.

Yusef Lateef, Don Cherry, and others introduced non-Western instruments to jazz, so when I started the Hieroglyphics Ensemble in 1977, it seemed perfectly natural to have a big band that included harmonium, ney, zurna, and Afro-Cuban percussion, along with violin, bassoon, brass, reeds, guitar and bass. For two years or so prior to the birth of the Hieroglyphics, I had been rehearsing and performing pretty regular - Iy with three other classmates in a quartet called the Berkeley Arts Company. We were following in the footsteps of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, and our performances were largely improvised. We discovered some amazing sounds and instrumental combinations along the way. For a while, I even thought that composed music was becoming obsolete. But since improvised performances have a tendency to be hit-or- miss, I eventually decided to try making compositions that would convey the kind of organic flow of a successful improvisation. So, my task had begun. But I was not alone; I think it's been a common goal for the restrncturalists of the last twenty years to create expanded compositions that can incorporate group improvisation. After all, improvising is what jazz musicians are good at, so why limit them to the printed page? Additionally, something I think I share with others in my generation - like Sex Mob, Josh Roseman, Graham Haynes, Michael Blake, Will Bernard, Charlie Hunter, Medeski Martin & Wood, Jai Uttal, and Bill Laswell - is that we see the dance music of our time as having potential for creative development.

David Bias

New Yorker. Crazy for old cameras and analog film. But I love sci-fi. Go figure.