“[Free improv is] the ability to play anything and everything all at once or not at all,” according to Lee Shook, filmmaker and improv enthusiast. “You can quote jazz licks, you can reference blues music, you can throw in found sound—it’s the freedom to express yourself any way you want to.”
This means that musicians and their audiences must share a chance that the most radical sonic experiments may yield shimmering, revelatory moments. It’s a high wire act for both sides. “It survives off the crowd or the vibe in my heart,” according to Birmingham improv musician Hunter Bell. “I guess its all relative. Some people find it completely awesome. Some people find it noise in a bad way. And it’s all in the moment. It can never be done again.”
This is the appeal of improv performance, according to Shook. “You may fall flat on your face and have people running for the exits, or you may blow somebody’s mind who says, ‘I didn’t know you could do that with music, I never knew that was possible,’” he says. “When you see someone do something amazing, it’s one of the most uplifting things. Somebody just threw themselves into the cauldron to see if they sink or swim.”
There is another advantage for the performers, according to improv dancer Celeste Laborde. “It gives everybody the chance to be completely, totally honest, when you can take these rules and traditions you’ve learned and break down these boundaries that have been set up,” she says.
If such edgy performances sound appealing, you’ll have ample opportunity to indulge yourself the next few weeks in Birmingham, as Shook, Bell and acclaimed Birmingham improv musician LaDonna Smith present the latest edition of “The Improvisor Festival.” The festival will celebrate the unpredictable energy and rebellious freedom of improv in music, dance, spoken word and performance art with more than 30 concerts, workshops and other events. The series begins Friday, July 30, at 7 p.m., with a festival preview at Bare Hands Gallery, and continues through August 29. Other venues will include WorkPlay, Pepper Place and Terrific New Theatre. There will be satellite events in Atlanta and Athens, Ga., Chattanooga, Tenn., Seattle and New York.
I discussed the festival with Bell and Shook on a front porch in Forest Park on a recent hot, sunny Friday afternoon. We were joined by two other festival participants— Laborde and performance poet Sharrif Simmons.
Simmons uses his perspective as a spoken word artist to put the festival in context and express his admiration for the depth of experience many of the other performers have. “I see improvisation as a language in a lot of ways,” he says. “This whole improv concept is about being fluent in that language of creativity. You’ve got folks who are just legendary and who can speak the language, and you can’t kind of make things up in the language until you know the roots of the actual experience.”
The festival is a way for Smith to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the improvisor, the Birmingham-based international journal of free improvisation she edits. The event is also a chance for local audiences to see such improv talents as Henry Kaiser, Grammy-winning guitarist; Col. Bruce Hampton, peer of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart; Andrea Centazzo, Italian avant-garde percussionist; and Gino Robair, San Francisco percussionist who has performed with Tom Waits and Anthony Braxton.
Perhaps the larger purpose of the festival is to highlight the largely uncelebrated contribution of Alabama artists to experimental music. Smith—a violist, violinist and pianist—will perform, as well as her long-time friend and collaborator, guitarist Davey Williams. Pell City native and microtonal composer Monroe Golden will present a new composition. Scores of other musicians and performers with Birmingham ties will take part.
The festival organizers believe that Birmingham should be more appreciative of the accomplished artists in its midst. “We’re not respected the way we should be,” Bell says. “If you Google LaDonna or Davey, you’ll find stuff all over the place. People respect them all over the world, and hardly anyone respects that scene here.”
During the festival, Bell will produce and perform in a large-group tribute to the late Sun Ra, a free jazz legend born in Birmingham. “[Sun Ra] is so popular around the world, except in Alabama,” Bell says. “He is another person who is part of this movement to a certain point.”
Shooks offers a shout-out to Alabama artist Tim Reed, better known as the Rev. Fred Lane. Reed recorded experimental music in conservative Tuscaloosa in the 1970s and 1980s, including Raudelunas ‘Pataphysical Revue, which was praised by Wired magazine. “It’s the greatest mind-fuck record ever,” Shook says.”
The festival will present the Magic City Meltdown at Workplay on August 6, an event that will feature several collaborations. Kaiser and Williams will play together at the Meltdown for the first time in more than 25 years in an acoustic set. “These guys were the first to really tear a guitar loose from it moorings completely, going beyond Hendrix, beyond Sonny Sharrock, all those fuckers,” Shook says. “They were taking it and saying, ‘We are going to see what this thing will really do,’ playing with egg beaters and toy sharks and using pickups as sound generators.”
Williams and Smith will play with Centazzo for the first time in more than 30 years at the Meltdown. Centazzo brought Williams and Smith to international attention by hosting them on their first European tour in 1978. The Meltdown finale will feature an improv supergroup in a wide open jam—Williams, New York guitarist Chris Cochrane, Allman Brothers bassist and former Birmingham resident Oteil Burbridge and longtime Birmingham drummer Matt Kimbrell.
Hampton will play an improv session with the Shaking Ray Levis, a synth-drums duo from Chattanooga, Tenn., at Dixie Fried, a tribute to outsider Southern artists to be held at Bottletree Café on August 13. Also appearing at Dixie Fried will be former Birmingham resident, contributor to the improvisor and free improv sax player Wally Shoup, who has performed with Williams and Smith, as well as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.
This anniversary celebration for the improvisor comes at a time when Smith is planning big changes in the publication, which began in 1980 and has been published exclusively online the last 15 years. “It will be going into semi-retirement,” she told me in an email, citing the ever-increasing number of reviews and other information regarding improv and alternative music now available through the Internet and other sources.
According to Smith, she will keep the publication online as a reference source and will continue to publish creative writing about improv, but will no longer publish music reviews. “After 30 years of promoting other peoples music, I am ready to devote some attention to reinventing my own musical expressions and artistic practice,” she says.
Chances are good that Smith and her collaborators will continue to stay true to the improv ethos.
“Davey and LaDonna, they can play anything— they can play any kind of symphony, blues, rock n’ roll—but their heart, from everything I know, is in their experiments in the moment,” Bell says.
This restless improv spirit will be on display at the festival, according to Shook. “It’s the creative mind at work,” he says. “You’re laying your mind and heart naked on stage. It’s amazing to watch [performers] in the heat of the moment. It’s kind of animalistic and also hyper-intellectual, an amazing tug of war. You want to nail it, to find inspiration, but there’s the fear you won’t. It’s dancing on a razor blade. It will be live. It will be in the moment. It will be on fire. And it will be amazing.”
For a complete performance schedule and other festival information, go to www.theimprovisorfestival.org. For more about the improvisor journal, go to www.the-improvisor.com. “The Magic City Meltdown” will be held at WorkPlay Fri., Aug. 6, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at www.workplay.com or at the WorkPlay box office. “Dixie Fried” will be held at Bottletree on Fri., Aug. 13, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at www.thebottletree.com.
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.