The phrase “free jazz” carries a certain stigma for the knowledgeable as well as those uninitiated. Random, abrasive, unmusical – free jazz is no stranger to these descriptors. But for the University’s Creative Arts Orchestra, an improvisation group performing at Rackham Auditorium tonight at 8 p.m., free jazz is a misleading phrase.

Morgan Morel
The Creative Arts Orchestra Performance will perform tonight at 8 p.m. at Rackham. (Courtesy of the Creative Arts Orchestra Performance)

Co-director Mark Kirschenmann said he doesn’t think of CAO as “free jazz” because the group is not limited to jazz musicians.

“Our improvisations often venture away from what one might think of as jazz, though still filtered through a jazz lens,” Kirschenmann said. “I think a more relevant term to describe what we do is creative improvisation.”

The group’s makeup is a clear indicator of the creativity he described. There are cellists, pianists, percussionists, a guitarist and violinists (to name a few), and each member brings an individual and relevant background to the group. This dynamic allows for a wide range of sonic possibilities.

“For instance, a particular passage may sound like contemporary classical music, rock, funk or ambient sound, or we might start singing, narrating or yelling, et cetera,” Kirschenmann said.

The group’s flexibility extends beyond its own compositions to include innovative collaborations. This year alone, the CAO has performed with esteemed avant-garde alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe, the Hot 8 Brass Band from New Orleans and The Golden Age, an improvisation-based hip-hop group.

While the term “creative improvisation” can evoke a less-than-favorable impression (something along the lines of randomly generated music), it’s clear that both Kirschenmann and the group are extremely knowledgeable and conscious of their music.

Through “creative improvisation,” the CAO attempts to break down the constraints of composed music. According to Kirschenmann, “a successful performance goes beyond music into the realms of the democratic, social and spiritual.”

Those aspects can be hard to absorb through a casual listening. “We’re also very deep listeners, which we advise our audience to be as well,” he said.

“Normal” jazz might be described as having one, maybe two musicians improvising over a given structure. In the CAO, there is no structure. Every musician is an individual entity balancing himself with and submitting to the whole of the group.

“On a certain level, it’s utterly simple and intuitive, but it’s also deeply complex to get a large ensemble to do this together as a unit or team,” Kirschenmann said.

Don’t expect to hear something along the lines of Wynton Marsalis’s interpretation of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Don’t expect an abrasive cacophony of notes. The CAO, an organization with virtually no parallel at the University, provides a unique reexamination of musical improvisation.

“We hope the audience understands that a given performance may include passages of musical transcendence or disaster at any given moment,”

Kirschenmann said. “It’s the nature of what we do.”

Creative Arts Orchestra Performance
Tonight at 8 p.m.
At Rackham Auditorium

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