Spontaneous Combustion

Local record-label owner and experimental-music connoisseur Jon Morgan delves into the explosive territory of improvisational music

Usually it happens in your late teens or early 20s. It can happen earlier, although that's rare. Most of the time, if it's going to happen at all, it happens by the time you've reached the quarter-century mark. What happens? You grow Big Ears: You start appreciating and enjoying music outside the mainstream, way outside the mainstream. The stuff you don't hear on commercial radio, or even most noncommercial radio. The stuff that never gets anywhere near the Billboard charts or the racks at Wal-Mart. The stuff that drives your parents (usually) and your friends (almost always) crazy. And if it doesn't happen, you just might be doomed to grow older hating nearly everything but the music you loved back when you still got laid, or even worse, its mellower equivalent.

Jon Morgan is one of the lucky ones: His ears just keep growing. The Loring Park resident is a concert promoter and contributor to prestigious jazz-oriented publications like Coda and Cadence, as well as that monthly Bible for adventurous listeners worldwide, the Wire. But, more important, Morgan is the man behind Meniscus Records, a local, internationally acclaimed label that has released eight CDs of solo and small-group free improvisation since its inception in 1999.

"I've never understood this concept of 'difficult listening'": Free-jazz proselytizer Jon Morgan
Geoffrey P. Kroll
"I've never understood this concept of 'difficult listening'": Free-jazz proselytizer Jon Morgan

During a recent conversation, Morgan noted that while he started listening to jazz, primarily bebop, in his mid teens, his real aural breakthrough came during his freshman year in college, when a friend gave him two 90-minute cassette tapes with one side each of Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman. It was anything but love at first listen.

"I couldn't stand it. I thought it was just ridiculous. I didn't know what to make of any of this stuff, but I couldn't stop listening to it....After a while, I started to unscramble what seemed like a sort of code at the time. Then I started to pick up on the underlying stories."

Musical improvisation has a long history of influences. Many Bach pieces called for improvised interludes; all jazz has relied on improvisation to one degree or another; and you can bet that when our earliest ancestors first started banging on hollow logs with mastodon bones, they were making it up as they went along. Like so many other things having to do with "freedom," improvisation as we know it today got an enormous boost in the early Sixties with iconoclasts like Taylor, Ayler, and Coleman, who turned their backs on conventional notions of tonality, seeking instead to explore pure sound for sound's sake.

But it was the Europeans, Cornelius Cardew in particular, who freed the improviser completely from preconceived notions of style and influenced Morgan. When the classically trained Cardew first joined the seminal improv combo AMM (Afflicted Man's Music), he chided his bandmates for playing "jazz" and introduced the concept of "non-idiomatic improvisation." That is, improvisation with no ties to any particular style--jazz, rock, classical: music that existed purely on its own terms. It's Cardew's non-idiomatic approach that Morgan showcases on most Meniscus releases.

Trumpet, by Greg Kelley--a conservatory-trained Meniscus artist from Boston whom Morgan brought to Gus Lucky's earlier this summer--provides a perfect example of the form (such as it is). In a fashion that makes most electronic experimentalists seem chicken or downright dull, Kelley, playing solo, coaxes an astonishing variety of textures out of his horn. There are bursts of simulated guitar feedback and creaky doors, the squeals of tiny rodents exploring a haunted basement and space-station emergency sirens--all emitted by a brass instrument.

Demanding listening, to be sure, but Trumpet, along with much of the music that Morgan has championed, also provides an exhilarating aural picture. Morgan highlights what happens when an accomplished musician picks up an instrument and--instead of asking, "How do I interpret 'Melancholy Baby' or 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'?"--asks, "What can I really get this thing to do?" Because the music is created spontaneously, the listener gains a great deal of insight into how the improviser's mind works, and how those mental processes are translated into physical action and sound.

As a result, an air of unpredictability pervades all the Meniscus releases, often in surprising ways. The relentlessly alien soundscapes of percussionist/theremin baron Gino Robair's Buddy Systems: Selected Duos and Trios seem to stand in direct contrast to Matt Turner's The Mouse That Roared, a collection of solo cello improvisations that occasionally veers from abstractville into decidedly tonal classical or klezmer territory. Besides audacious originality, the thread that connects all of the Meniscus releases is the mandate that all must be solos, duos, or trios in form. Morgan definitely has his reasons for these qualifications.

"I'm really tired of the sort of thing you usually hear at the Dakota, what I call the 'Around the Horn Solo.' You know: first the leader, then the other horn player, then the bass player, then the drummer. Although it's good to know when the drum solo is coming so you can go to the bathroom. At this point I'm clearly more drawn to a non-rhythm-section approach. And I'm interested in getting further and further away from jazz."

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