Improvised Music at Homewood Studios — The Musicians

 JOHN O’BRIEN – trumpet, flugelhorn

It’s easy to talk about how I got started in creative music but not so easy to answer this question [How did you find your way to making this kind of music?] with any degree of certainty. I met Bill Dixon when I was in Madison in the 1970s. We enjoyed an easy friendship right off and I became a willing student of his learning everything I could and taking large steps to change my technical way of playing the horn and so on. I remember, though, having experiences with creative music sometime before I had even known about it in any context. I used to "interpret" people and their vibe with my horn bending notes and making the "non-musical" sounds people still have so much trouble listening to.  In any case, when I met Bill I was prepared to get busy with the music right away. 

As I began to grow and change musically I found that I was interested in shapes that were authentically my own — they differed from those of Dixon and Miles (my other great influence). More recently I've gotten involved in the world of video production and have edited and produced a number of films concerning the Hmong peoples’ experience immigrating to America. In the most recent of these I've worked with Hmong indigenous  musics and found to my great surprise the shapes used by traditional Hmong flute, multi-reed players and vocalists most resemble the shapes I referred to above. 

"So go figure!" as my mother used to say. 

I play the horn to find, as Bill used to put it, "absolute freedom for the improvisor." But I am not particularly involved in the tradition of any music per se. I don't know who's who any more and I'm not interested in being well known for any reason, including for my musical accomplishments. But I am interested in playing and seeking that freedom Bill mentions.

Ellington, when asked to name his favorite piece from the thousands he made up responded, "the next one." In the same vein: I was watching an interview with Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Shallow Grave and he said the best film a director makes is usually his first one because, "he doesn't know what he's doing." Important: that is not to say he is incapable of doing it. It’s just that he's never done it before. The director improvises.

We tend to think of competence as a re-do effort. Something proven and measurable and therefore something fitting nicely into the streams of commerce and industry where people who risk hate risk.

In improvisation we always try to do the next thing. We may start someplace familiar but its not where we want to be. As musicians dedicated to such a process, we are very, very different from the norm and hence without much opportunity or recognition especially, I suppose,  in such an "outpost" as Minneapolis.

The freedom I seek as a player is close to the tradition of Jazz, of Black American Music but it shares mostly this objective, I think, and not many of its traditional means. Sidney Bechet said Jazz (which, I read, comes from a Yoruban word/concept meaning to discover something and explore it) was invented by the first generation of Black men born after the emancipation of the slaves. He believed being "told you are 'free'" led to the investigation of what freedom was actually about - what it meant and for him and a lot of other New Orleans players it meant "Jass."

All this is what the music has basically meant to me especially in my work with Milo Fine at Homewood Studios. Playing there makes a piece of art of one's self encased - as we always are - in a glass box in the middle of the city. In a way, as the improvisor is physically transformed from one of his/her forms into another, it is entirely appropriate a place to play and thus to be "showcased."