The free jam in the doughnut of the 12 Points jazz festival
From Wednesday until Saturday, 12 new bands from across Europe will be bossing the stage of the Project, and tomorrow I’ll have a preview of the festival, and an article on the challenges of being alternative in music. Later in the week I’ll also have live reviews of each gig.
One of the key elements of the festival, for me, takes place outside of the Project – the free-jam improvisation sessions (and no, we’re not talking complimentary conserves). Once each night’s concerts have finished, usually around the 10.30pm mark, most of the festival’s musicians will decamp to the Sweeney Mongrel on Dame Street for an open-music session. Each night a different local band will get things warmed up before the 12 Points players join in and really get things cooking. (Tickets for these events are available from staff at the main 12 Points gigs in the Project.)
Improvisation is one of the key components in jazz, and it’s what helps makes the music an inherently live experience. No track is every played the same way twice; solos change; interactions shift and move; good players are always reluctant to say the same thing twice. Hip hop and rap have a few parallels in this regard, but no other musical form matches jazz when it comes to full-on band improvisation.
There’s a couple of reasons why improvisation remains something of a jazz speciality. Firstly, all the musicians are speaking the same language. No matter the country of origin or the instrument being played, the code of chords and keys remains the same – even if some cultures, particularly in the Middle East, have been centuries ahead of the Western game in using microtonal intervals. This means that anyone with a decent level of proficiency in music can get up and play with people who have spent decades honing their skills.
Then there is the discipline and craft that goes into jazz: few other musicians work so hard on their instrument that they’ll happy get up on stage and have a free-flowing conversation with other players, using just their instrument as a means of communication. There’s no doubt that this conversation is taking place within some clearly defined rules: the key, the timing, the tune being played assuming the band has settled on a standard, and the presence of the other players and what they have to say. But this is still a wide-open field of live experimentation where pretty much anything can happen – and that’s what makes it so exciting to be in the room with.
Jazz is a live medium: on record, even the best bands only come across at about 80 per cent of the impact of their live presence (I could tell you the incredibly complicated mathematical formula I used to come up with that average, but I made it up to illustrate a point). Add to this the raw energy and the high-wire theatrics of a musician given to fly with an improvisational walk on the musical wild side, and you have an irresistible experience.
12 Points is a terrific festival, but save some energy for the musical small hours. With a bit of luck, you won’t regret it.