“This Covid thing is such a weird time,” says trumpeter and composer Marcus Wyatt, “and we all just want to be doing something.”
Wyatt is reflecting on the devastated work landscape currently surrounding musicians worldwide. That’s one reason – but not, he thinks, the only one – why 28 musicians based in South Africa and Europe so enthusiastically signed up for his latest music project, Alone Together – Socially Distanced Improvisations.
The project is essentially an experiment. What would happen, Wyatt wondered, if musicians, each working alone, with no contact with or information about the others involved, were asked to work on an improvisation and then submit the results? And was there any chance those parts could be fitted together later into coherent group performances?
“It took a few weeks of thinking through,” he confesses. “You couldn’t just ask people to play randomly, because that makes the odds so much greater that nobody would mesh together. But what kinds of instructions wouldn’t be so binding that it stopped being improvisation?”
In the end, Wyatt created three different sets of instructions for three minutes of music. He compares them to a film director’s acting notes about emotion and intensity. For music, they relate to aspects such as mood, tonality, dynamics and time. One sample instruction includes, “… then just go totally free and abandon all time, etc – just ‘scream’ on your instrument for 60 seconds.”
A network of willing collaborators
Meanwhile, word of the project was spreading through the networks of musicians the trumpeter had previously worked with. These included vocalist Tutu Puoane and pianist Ewout Pierreux, along with their colleagues in Belgium and France; saxophonist Domenic Landolf and some of his peers in Switzerland; reedman Jason Yarde in the United Kingdom; and a constellation of South Africans, including pianists Bokani Dyer and Yonela Mnana; reedmen Linda Sikhakhane and Sisonke Xonti; bassists Shane Cooper, Romy Brauteseth, Benjamin Jephta and Viwe Mkizwana; and many more.
“I asked four or five people initially,” says Wyatt. “They suggested, ‘What about so-and-so?’ and before I knew it, I counted and I had 28 people. There was huge goodwill. Nobody ummed and ahhed, or asked if there was sponsorship money [there wasn’t], or even who else had been invited.”
That willingness to jump into intriguing creative work, Wyatt believes, “is the absolute blessing and curse of being a musician. We’re compelled by something inside. But it’s also responsible for what I saw previously with record labels, who couldn’t believe their luck at how ‘gullible’ we are just for the chance to make music. For us it’s a passion – the money men don’t feel it, so they can’t fathom it.”
The way Alone Together starts, with one musician sketching out a feel, or a set of chords, isn’t so different from what might happen in a rehearsal room when a new number is being developed. But what happens subsequently is very different. There’s no bouncing around of that initial idea between the players; no response or contestation; no subsequent adjustments as each band member takes the others’ ideas on board to shape something new – none of what drummer Asher Gamedze describes as “the dialectic” of the jazz process.
And yet something miraculous happened as the individual contributions started coming back. While in a very few cases “what was sent was practically a composition, with no gaps for other musicians”, that wasn’t the main response. Despite the highly distinctive individual directions and voices they heard, as Wyatt and co-producer (and one of the participating drummers) Peter Auret worked to craft trio, quartet and quintet pieces, they found common lines of musical thinking and thoughtful spaces that dovetailed beautifully together. In some cases, says Wyatt, “it was so uncanny that if I didn’t know better I’d swear they cheated and phoned one another to talk about what to do!”
That, he thinks, illuminates something important about the jazz improvisation process. While he’s dubious about claims that jazz is the “most spiritual” music – “For me, all music by its nature is spiritual” – he does concede that the spirit of working together may infuse jazz musicians even when they’re working alone. “For a start, there’s that shared language we all speak.”
But as well as that, ensemble musicians miss their community and working together: “I had people telling me ‘Wow, that felt really uncomfortable!’ because nobody else was there.” So the potential presence of co-players was felt, and enacted in leaving space for them, even when each player was isolated in her or his own silent recording space. “Sometimes, that actually doesn’t happen on stage together, if a player isn’t listening and just intent on showing off their own skills.”
Projects like Alone Together are, for Wyatt, “almost more interesting” than live streaming a group concert for an unknown online audience. “There’s no energy from an audience to feed off when you’re just playing for cameras. A lot of the time, you know you’re just putting it into somebody’s private space as background music.”
The material submitted by musicians was eventually jigsawed into 22, three-minute, split-screen performances, each accompanied by its instruction template, which have been released from Mondays to Fridays since July 27th, with a consolidated playlist every weekend. Wyatt describes the assembly process as “such fun” and the music as “for the most part astounding, [ranging] from being harmonically and melodically beautiful, to the ethereal and the downright dissonant!”
Alone Together, he feels, is both “a poster child for what you can do in isolation” and something that could continue even after lockdown, and extend into other genres. He’s musing about inviting classical musicians or doing “a crazy pop version” in the vein of his eclectic outfit Bombshelter Beast.
“At the end of the day,” he reflects, “all any of us wants to do is just make music, in whatever genre.” But it has also reinforced his respect and affection for all the musicians who have contributed: “Can you imagine what it takes, playing alone, swinging to a cold metronome?”