Absolutely free: Composer and multi-instrumentalist Michael Thomas Jackson keeps improvising
There are avant-gardists amongst us: the neighbor walking the dog, the nurse at the hospital, the person answering the phone, serving ice cream, operating the leaf-blower. Experimentalists, non-pop artists, lifetime creative tinkerers — they have to make a living, and most of the time they’re not paying their bills with money made by making art. You could interact with them every day, never knowing they have a secret alternate life making sound, or dance, or writing, or visual art.
Michael Thomas Jackson, a composer and improvisational multi-instrumentalist, lives a few blocks from me in Winston-Salem. By day you might find him behind the counter at the downtown coffee shop/deli Washington Perk. But in the evenings, and on the weekends, you can often find Jackson working with a rotating squad of like-minded improvisers in a duo, trio, quartet, quintet and larger configurations around the Triad and in a radius that extends a few hours outside the immediate area.
Jackson came to my house for an outdoor conversation on Sunday, with the sun out and bright after days of gray and rain. Later in the afternoon, Jackson played clarinet as a part of a five-piece ensemble of improvisers including gongs, electric guitar, Fender Rhodes, cymbals, chimes and other metallic percussion at Ear Shot Records in Winston-Salem. Jackson will perform improvised electronic music on Thursday night with a Fi-Aged #9, a duo with Craig Murray, at Monstercade in Winston-Salem. (“It’s sort of the free-jazz aesthetic done with electrics,” said Jackson of the duo.)
I’ve known Jackson since the early ‘90s. We were in a music theory class together at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. He went on to study composition at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts from 1994 to 1998. When I moved to Winston-Salem in 2015, I was happy to find that Jackson was here and unsurprised that he was still making music, fully committed to free improvisation as something that was almost like both an artistic pursuit and a spiritual practice.
The music is wide open, with no rules of harmony, no metric constraints, nothing off limits, really, but there are some (semi-elusive) things that it helps to have a handle on as a performer and collaborator, “Knowing when to play, and knowing when to stop,” Jackson said.
It makes perfect sense, and it might be a cliche about improvisation, but it’s also something of a conundrum: you have to listen closely in order to be able to make up music on the spot in a group setting. Particularly if you want to avoid clutter and clatter and full-on chaos.
“If the idea is reckless abandon, it’s usually a bad idea,” Jackson said.
So how do you listen attentively and create at the same time? It helps to be open to the full spectrum of textures and timbres as sources of contrast and as pertinent details in themselves. And one starts to suspect that a kind of ingrained call-and-response aesthetic operates, not in the strict rhythmic fashion of the call-and-response practices associated with African-derived music, or with the statement-and-answer logic of classical music, but just a base-level conversational approach, where one waits for an opening in the discussion before chiming in. If everyone is trying to “talk,” or make sound at the same time, it can feel overstuffed. Restraint conveys good sense.
During Sunday’s show at Ear Shot, you could watch Jackson taking in what the other musicians were doing, laying out for a while, adjusting his playing, adopting a clipped staccato tone to propel a rhythmic section along, or feathering in subtle snippets as an atmospheric wash, turning out melodic wiggles and sustained notes, ranging from short barks to a lively warm counterpoint.
Jackson grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, a city with a rich and deep musical history. “A lot of Memphis music I discovered after I left,” he said. “I didn’t really learn to appreciate Big Star until I was an adult. But the blues stuff — it is omnipresent. You can ignore it, but it’s there.”
Memphis is, of course, famous for its place in the history of rock ’n’ roll, the blues, and even in the world of power-pop. Jackson found his way into the fertile underground music scene through a combination of factors.
“I blame punk and my dad, who had an excellent record collection, for showing me how to take what people generally consider not-serious music seriously,” Jackson said.
As a teenager Jackson booked all-ages shows and got plugged into a dynamic DIY punk culture that was built on the urgency of making music and of obliterating the dividing line between performer and audience, scrapping the notion of music as a commodity or a pursuit reserved for experts.
“You can pretty much do anything, as long as you don’t plan on making money,” Jackson said.
Digging into the public library’s holdings of experimental music introduced Jackson to currents of 20th Century modernism and the avant-garde. Many of those strands converged in the ecstatic energy of free jazz, which gave Jackson a reason to continue exploring the clarinet that he’d played in his junior high school band.
“That was the more appealing stuff, the outer stuff,” Jackson said.
He’s been making music now for well over 30 years, and Jackson remains interested in the possibilities of sound, of vibrations and of spontaneously creating music in front of a live audience. Some might find the experience of listening to freely improvised music to be a challenge, since many of the standard signposts for an audience are gone, without familiar chord changes, regular pulsation, or easily recognizable pattern; one can feel unmoored. It’s a little like looking at a Mark Rothko painting if you’re only used to Velasquez.
You can listen to some of the different projects that Jackson has been involved with over the years; it can be hypnotic and meditative or frenetic and spastic.
Live recordings of Fi-Aged #9 (streaming on Bandcamp) attain a fried-circuitry quality, with an analog sizzle, sonic flare-ups, robotic oscillations and tones that sound like they’re being pulled and stretched to their limit. In genre terms, it’s closer to noise than to ambient, but the music could be viewed as being a sinister cousin of new age.
If you go to the show, know that, even if things get a tad shrill or jarring, Jackson and Murray don’t necessarily view the sounds in those terms, and they’re not out to be abrasive. As a thought experiment, don’t focus on what the music sounds like but consider how the vibrating sound waves feel as they pump out of the speakers and through the space around you. That might seem off-puttingly far out, but pretend the sound is something you’re soaking in. To get used to it and decide what it does for you, it takes more than just cautiously dipping your toe in.
“I’m not out to antagonize people,” Jackson said. “I’m not by any means trying to further marginalize myself.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Fi-Aged #9 at Monstercade, 204 W. Acadia Ave., Winston-Salem, on Thursday, Jan. 10