It will be interesting to see whether productions such as DJustable's The Zanzibar Excursions DVD catch on in the world of free improvisation. A controversy has always existed concerning the importance of seeing the players in action in this type of style. There are fans who insist they would have never warmed up to the music without attending a live show, and just as many who insist the visual component is a horrible, at times even disgusting, distraction. Pianist Paul Bley, often capable of great insight, was, on the other hand, predicting a total takeover of the recording market by video in the '80s. He felt that once fans were able to watch the musicians in action there would be no turning back.
Time proved him wrong, with video performances of jazz and other forms of improvised music representing a much more marginal form of commerce than even the music itself. What about the world of DVDs and/or enhanced CD-ROMs? This production, The Zanzibar Excursions DVD, fronted by busy beaver Mats Gustafsson, does not present an appealing argument for either the format -- or even the notion -- of being able to watch improvisers with even more of a micro-focus than the member of a concert audience would have.
Therein lies the rub, of course. Someone sitting in an audience is free to look at what they want, including their feet and the ceiling. They can close their eyes if they want. Bley himself said turning off the picture would be the natural reaction if a listener didn't feel like watching the image; which begs the question of what the point of the whole procedure is. In the case of The Zanzibar Excursions DVD, a combination of the musical style and cinematography may leave one feeling as if a lead balloon had landed on the top of one's head.
DJustable combines the old and new with sax and trombone matched up with electric guitar
and a turntable. No "normal" instrumental roles are adhered to, as not even the drummer occupies the usual sonic spot. With the titles firmly establishing a mode of deep experimentation, the players launch into each piece by exchanging and overlaying brief motifs or sound gestures. The process of building and stripping down collective statements will be familiar to fans of this genre; so in fact are the sounds themselves and the instrumental textures. Horn players have been battling with turntables and electric guitars for years now and this group, although good and at times exciting, adds nothing new to this picture, or to the already massive Gustafsson discography.
What is new is being able to watch it all in a kind of sharp, detailed photography. Film cinematography can manipulate the senses much faster than even a triple-tonguing reedman. A shot of someone picking their nose could be funny, frightening, or boring, depending on details such as editing, lighting, and camera angles. The cinematography here dwells endlessly on the relentless movements of the musicians, doting on all of the secondary physical motions, which in some cases are an actual aspect of the music but have invited comparisons between Gustafsson and the hamming of Keith Jarrett. As far as the "to watch or not to watch" argument concerning free improvisation, this production comes down squarely in the "not" column.