The thing I like about FREE JAZZ is the level of abstraction. There's no melodic material, no proscribed rhythms, no tonal centre (well, in this sort of Ornette Coleman/Cecil Taylor stuff), so you end up having to listen hard to things that are usually secondary. Most notably, I think, timbre--the unique sounds of the instruments involved.
Something I was saying to various of our compatriots on Saturday is how you have to meet the performers half way (maybe it's just me--I'm sure plenty of people enjoy it as a completely visceral experience). You need to work a little to tune in to the consciousness of the music, if you'll excuse the New Age-ism. Because of this, it's a music of long durations: the players need time to identify the space of the improvisation and their respective positions within it; likewise the listeners.
Treatise, a 1960s piece by the English composer Cornelius Cardew, helps to illustrate this notion. The written music consists of a 193-page graphic score, containing hundreds of undefined symbols (very few of them taken from traditional musical notation); some of the pages feature nothing but a few lines. His idea was that a group of improvisers, working from the book, would gradually figure out a taxonomy--a way of translating the visual material into a consistent, "architectural" performance--ideally without ever discussing it. The length of the piece was Cardew's way of turning this into an intuitive process: just keep playing from one end to another and it should happen by default. (I don't think it ever did.)
My one caveat, regarding Saturday's concert, was that the players seemed too eager to slip into a particular idiom that FREE JAZZ has mined from the off: pontilistic, wall-of-noise skronking. The second "set" ended on an eerie, atmospheric note; I was hoping that they'd continue playing in that vein for a while. Instead, they stopped, soaked up the applause, and leapt straight back into:
piano piano PIANO pianO! piAno? PIANOPIANOPIANO pianopiano
drums drums DRUMS DRUMS drumsdrums! DruMSDRums drums
SAXophoNE SaxophonesaxopHone! SaxophoneSaXoPhone