The World Question Center and Jazz
An intriguing reply to the World Question Center question of the year, which is "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?
Editor, The Feuilleton (Arts and Essays), of the German Daily Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
It's always worth to take a few cues from mid-20th-century avant-garde. So when it comes to improving your cognitive toolkit Free Jazz is perfect. It is a highly evolved new take on an art that has (at least in the West) been framed by a strict set of twelve notes played in accurate factions of bars. It is also the pinnacle of a genre that had begun with the Blues just a half century before Ornette Coleman assembled his infamous double quartet in the A&R Studio in New York City one December day in 1960. In science terms that would mean an evolutionary leap from elementary school math to game theory and fuzzy logic in a mere fifty years.
If you really want to appreciate the mental prowess of Free Jazz players and composers you should start just one step behind. A half a year before Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz session let loose the improvisational genius of eight of the best musicians of their times, John Coltrane recorded what is still considered the most sophisticated Jazz solo ever — his tour de force through the rapid chord progressions of his composition "Giant Steps".
The film student Daniel Cohen has recently animated the notation for Coltrane's solo in a YouTube video. You don't have to be able to read music to grasp the intellectual firepower of Coltrane. After the deceivingly simple main theme the notes start to race up and down the five lines of the stave in dizzying speeds and patterns. If you also take into consideration that Coltrane used to record unrehearsed music to keep it fresh, you know that he was endowed with a cognitive toolkit way beyond normal.
Now take these almost 4:43 minutes, multiply Coltrane's firepower by eight, stretch it into 37 minutes and deduct all traditional musical structures like chord progressions or time. The session that gave the genre it's name in the first place foreshadowed not just the radical freedom the album's title implied. It was a precursor to a form of communication that has left linear conventions and entered the realm of multiple parallel interactions.
It is admittedly still hard to listen to the album "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet". It is equally taxing to listen to recordings of Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton or Gunter Hampel. It has always been easier to understand the communication processes of this music in a live setting. One thing is a given — it is never anarchy, never was meant to be.
If you're able to play music and you manage to get yourself invited to a Free Jazz session, there is an incredible moment, when all musicians find what is considered "The Pulse". It is a collective climax of creativity and communication that can leap to the audience and create an electrifying experience. It's hard to describe, but might be comparable to the moment when a surfer finds the point when the catalyst of a surfboard bring together the motor skills of his body and the forces of the swell of an ocean start in these few seconds of synergy on top of a wave. It is a fusion of musical elements though that defies common musical theory.
Of course there is a lot of Free Jazz that merely confirms prejudice. Or as the vibraphonist and composer Gunter Hampel phrased it: "At one point it was just about being the loudest on stage." But all the musicians mentioned above have found new forms and structures, Ornette Coleman's music theory called Harmolodics being just one of them. In the perceived cacophony of their music there is a multilayered clarity to discover that can serve as a model for a cognitive toolkit for the 21st century. The ability to find cognitive, intellectual and communication skills that work in parallel contexts rather than linear forms will be crucial. Just as Free Jazz abandoned harmonic structures to find new forms in polyrhythmic settings, one might just have to enable himself to work beyond proven cognitive patterns.