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Hanging on every note

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There's really no better way to describe a good improv jazz concert than with the words of Walt Davis.

"On stage, you have one, two, three, 25 musicians playing music with little or no pre-conceived structure, listening intently to each other, often traveling from the most delicate, intricate music you can imagine to a full-force gale. Out in the audience, you have people, quiet, quiet, quiet, hanging on every note, following the music along all its paths, then exploding in gratitude at the end of the set.

"Who gives a shit if there are 15, 25, 50 or 300 people in that audience?"

Certainly not musicians and music lovers for whom improv's spontaneity and spirit of cooperation stirs the soul like no other genre. For the handful of people in this area who live and breathe improv, the idea that it will become popular is of less than no importance.

That's true even of people like Walt, who sponsors improv concerts through his nonprofit organization, the Alliance for Improvised Music (AIM), and of musicians like Ian Davis (no relation to Walt) who creates improv through various projects, most notably the 26-member Micro-East Collective. As Ian puts it, "Improvisational music has a small following here in comparison to virtually anything else. Popularity, of course, being a poor barometer to judge any art form."

"Obviously I would like more people to experience this music," says Walt, "but popularity is not the goal here. I don't think you'll ever hear someone say, 'Hey man, let's go catch some improv tonight!' It's not really music you hang out to, if you know what I mean."

But even though Walt and Ian couldn't care less about the music's general popularity, they still share a fervent, almost religious desire to win true converts to their strange, beautiful cult.

If all this talk of improv has you confused, you're not alone. Musically the Triangle is still best known for indie rock and alternative country. Cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco have better-known improv communities. But thanks to the efforts of a small but dedicated group of musicians and fans, the Triangle is fast becoming an improv hot spot. Local musicians are finding a fertile community of like-minded souls. Internationally known artists have discovered welcoming audiences and even a homegrown record label, Wobbly Rail, dedicated to their art.

If you don't believe it, check out the autumn improv calendar that accompanies this article. AIM has spawned two new series: Double Eye, devoted to international artists like German sax player Frank Gratkowski, who will perform in early December; and MHz, devoted to the type of new, electronic music that has made the annual Transmissions Festival so eagerly anticipated. In Raleigh, the Triangle Improvisational Performance Series (TIPS), with a focus that organizer Xopher Thurston calls "acoustic and jazzic in nature," will take place on selected weeknights at Humble Pie. Musician Craig Hilton of The Feraliminal Lycanthropizers is organizing a separate series at Kings. Wobbly Rail is still working on a schedule of releases for early 2001, including at least one by Raleigh native and former Angels of Epistemology member Jeb Bishop. In the meantime, Wobbly Rail's Mac McCaughan has been contributing synthesizer to the upcoming Micro-East Collective CD. Fabric is the group's third CD and it is being released on Chris Stamey's new label, Umbrella.

There's no doubt that improv has taken root in the Triangle. The real question is why. The answer, according to Ian Davis, isn't so different from why people move here to work at IBM. Davis says the Triangle is different from larger cities like Chicago and San Francisco because, "in addition to [the area] having many universities and collecting people from all over, it is a desirable place to stay. On a statistical basis alone, this increases the probability that more of the extreme interests are represented by someone in the population.

"I certainly don't think there's a huge population that hangs on every note the local improvisers play," he writes in an e-mail. "But the area is nice and there are plenty of jobs, even for the terminally slack, and there is some audience, so it has a place in the 'scene.' The big cities have huge populations and therefore the extremes are even better represented, but the reasons for living in those places, in general, are not as compelling as living here."

Add to that an educated, artistically aware population that seems willing to at least take a chance on some rather difficult art forms which, admittedly, improv can be. To untrained ears, improv's seeming lack of musical structure and willingness to experiment with non-Western and "prepared" or altered instruments can end up creating nothing but irritating noise. For such folks, Ian offers the following advice:

"I think that successful improv exists more in the esoteric aspects of what makes up music," he writes. "For instance, does a player take the listener through a constantly--or increasingly--compelling series of timbres or rhythms or modes? Does a player play with the other members of a band? How do the players complement each other--by playing similar rhythms or timbres or harmonies or melodies (however briefly)?

"So what I am describing takes paying attention, pushing your ears into a mix of instruments and figuring out the conversation." This, he explains, is related to our hearing of other languages than our own. "We hear someone speaking Spanish, we tend to tune them out as 'noise,' but it clearly is not noise to those who pay attention. Even those who don't know the language can pay attention and hear beauty in the way it sounds." EndBlock

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