Music critic, Art Institute of Chicago faculty member, and Corbett vs. Dempsey label head John Corbett’s new book, A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation (get it from Amazon), is perhaps the perfect example of what any field guide to music (or any other art form) should be. Small enough to fit in a pocket at barely over 4″ x 6″, the book is a practical guide for those new to free improvisation, though there is plenty of information for an experienced listener to pick up something new.
Divided into two main parts, interspersed with several lists of recommendations, the book is a concise 172 pages. Given the small page size, that means barely two paragraphs per page. Beginning with basic techniques like to how to deal with music that doesn’t have a regular beat, learning to recognize what is going on and who is doing what, the book moves on to more advanced concepts, including what basically boils down to deep listening, the audience’s role in the performance, and how to deal with the (possible) ambiguity of this kind of music.
The lists are concise with excellent and sometimes unexpected suggestions. The lists cover performers to check out, recordings to listen to, and recommended reading. The final list of players to check out is well blended between the old masters and the younger generations as well as including suggestions for performers of many kinds of instruments including turntables, electronics, and non-Western instruments in addition to the standard instruments one would expect.
Perhaps my favorite chapter, which comes at the end, is the chapter on why this music, though special, isn’t automatically superior to any other form of music. An important point to be made about most forms of music.
This book will undoubtedly be useful to anyone who is interested in improvised music or even music in general. These listening techniques could easily be applied to most forms of music. It would be nice to see this book be adopted as a text for music appreciation and history classes. I wish this book had been around when I started listening to and performing free improvisation. This is an essential text for the next generations of listeners.