I had the greatest time Tuesday morning, driving in to work listening to Lol Coxhill & Fred Frith - The French Gigs. It's moments like these that make me think, "improvised music is the only true music," which of course isn't the case, but it does have a nice ring to it. When I've been assailed by every riff, hook, chord progression and melody line that structured pop/rock music has to offer, it's good to know that Cecil Taylor is there waiting for me.
I always hope to be taken on a journey by every artistic presentation, and the great thing about good improvised music is that the journey is only partially scripted; your mind, and your perception of the sounds serves as the "additional instrument" in the proceedings; you have some control, at least, of the emotional reaction you have to what you're hearing, and where you go with that reaction. Pop, by contrast, is a much more guided tour, where no doubt one artist's, or one band's vision can be extremely beautiful, but you're still being taken by the hand, sometimes dragged along into a "here's my trip" situation.
While improvised music lends itself to subjective interpretation by the listener, it also opens the door to the purest form of individual musical self-expression possible. The absence of structure, and the presence of inspiration, in the best circumstances, creates a direct line between the soul of the performer and the sounds emanating from their instrument. When I saw Michael Evans play solo drum kit for the first time, I realized how direct that line could be. I was so impressed, and Michael was gracious enough to meet with me a few times during the winter of 1996, for some sessions (recorded on cassette) that I still cherish. I learned a lot about improvisation just from interacting with Michael.
I also learned by listening, both on record and in live performance, to AMM, MEV, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Tony Oxley, Haino Keiji, Fred Frith, La Monte Young and The Theater of Eternal Music, Donald Miller, Bruce Russell and so many others.
When the band I was in, Uncle Wiggly, called it quits in the spring of 1998, I had it in my head that I was only going to play improvised music from that day forward. Uncle Wiggly's music had, for the most part, been meticulously structured (albeit with improvisational passages), but my decision was brought on as much by a hunger for exploration as by a personal backlash.
In the spring of 1999, I was working at Amoeba Music on Haight Street in San Francisco when the right formula for potential transcendence presented itself. I was approached by a group of my co-workers, sweet guys really, but with more than a hint of bile (no one holds a job in the Upper Haight without having their personality altered in some way.) Though I'd had other offers to play music since moving to SF, I was nursing a broken heart over Uncle Wiggly, and also felt that I was more interested in the players' individual personalities, and their level of inspiration, than any "background" or "expertise" they might possess.
R.W. Hessler - Sincere, earnest, reverberant guitar
Wm. Berger - Post-everything guitar and bass
The Ganesh Brothers were born. It was glorious—never once was there the verbal suggestion of applying structure, no "here's this song I wrote," not even a 4-count.
For a while we played bi-weekly, sometimes only monthly, facing one another under the loft bed in James' tiny Haight Street bedroom. The vibes were tremendous, and I'm happy to say (in a way) that our finest moments were lost to the aether. Though many a session was recorded live to mini-disc, the idea of "capturing" such music seemed a bit wrong to me; of course, I wish now that I had all those hours of music to sit back and listen to.
The one gig we played together, at the famous Edinburgh Castle in SF, was a mini-disaster–it hadn't occurred to us that facing the crowd, rather than each other, would create an unexpected, and unworkable dynamic.
Since moving back east in 2000, I make an annual visit to SF, and usually try to make a Ganesh Brothers session part of my schedule. These sessions have been quite rewarding, and always seem to fulfill the promise of the original project. Diego Gonzales, a wonderful viola player, was added to the project after my departure, and his contributions quickly became essential to the mix. My first sit-in with the Diego lineup was a revelation, perhaps our finest hour. It was recorded live to 8-track hard drive, and I'm still bitter that the recording engineer absconded to the desert, never leaving us with a copy.
Somehow though, these near misses seem in line with the story of the Ganesh Brothers, our best moments existing only in our hearts and our memories, the ultimate in-joke of improvised post-rock. If you were there (i.e., in the band), then you knew it was great while it was happening.
Please don't misunderstand me—I don't mean to place us in a context with any of the other great improvisers mentioned in this article—certainly not; the mp3s offered below are miles away from the Ganesh Brothers' best work; it just happens to be what I have available. Nonetheless, our spirits were (and still are, occasionally) very willing, and I'm grateful to have been a part of such an experience—a great way to communicate with quality people.