Hipper than jazz: Two local cats take improvisation to another plane

Major players Stephen Nachmanovitch and Robert Jospé will collaborate in the live improv concert Free Play at UVA’s Brooks Hall on Saturday. Photo: Greg Nachmanovitch. Major players Stephen Nachmanovitch and Robert Jospé will collaborate in the live improv concert Free Play at UVA’s Brooks Hall on Saturday. Photo: Greg Nachmanovitch.

Jazz player and UVA music professor Robert Jospé has some pretty far-out ideas about music. But Stephen Nachmanovitch, the man who’ll join Jospé onstage for a completely improvised concert on January 24 at UVA’s Brooks Hall, makes him seem like an accountant in a conservative suit.

“My early musical experiences were in the classical music world, but a number of things happened in my 20s that shifted me to being an improvisational musician,” Nachmanovitch said in a recent interview. “I got very interested in Indian music and spontaneous expression in many forms. I was never a jazz musician, but we find a lot of meeting places that I think are interesting.”

The duo’s 8pm concert will feature Nachmanovitch on violin and various derivatives and Jospé on percussion, which makes sense —Jospé will provide a certain rhythmic grounding for his counterpart’s high-flying string play.

Note, however, that both musicians would likely disagree with that oversimplification. It’s not that there won’t be any structure at all to the concert; indeed Jospé and Nachmanovitch say some of the improvisation could rely on forms that audience members might liken to fully composed songs. But the concert is to be so off the cuff, so interpreted in the moment, that to predict any sort of “grounding” would be to limit its potential.

Jospé’s drumming, honed in the ’60s and ’70s playing jazz and rock ‘n’ roll alongside some of the greats in New York City, has become well known in the 30 years he’s called Charlottesville home. He’s a member of the Free Bridge Quintet, the UVA faculty jazz band that features trumpet guru John D’earth, saxophonist Jeff Decker, bassist Peter Spaar and pianist/Dave Matthews Band alum Butch Taylor, and he can be found gigging around town several nights a week, playing with his band the Robert Jospé Express at Fellini’s or sitting in with Art Wheeler at Escafé.

“The thing that is exciting to me about this concert is it allows me the opportunity to play in a style of free expression,” Jospé said. “I wouldn’t really characterize it as jazz as much as free play, which I experimented with for a number of years in the ’70s.”

Nachmanovitch is trained as a classical musician, making his experiments in free play all the more intriguing. Before getting into music, he studied at Harvard and the University of California and earned a Ph.D. in the “history of consciousness.” He became a pioneer of free improvisation on violin, viola and electric violin in the ’70s and published Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art in 1990. A less recognizable fixture on the local music circuit, Nachmanovitch came to the Charlottesville area 15 years ago when his wife took a job at the UVA Medical Center. He’s made a home for himself in Ivy, where he’s something of a professional Renaissance man, working not only as a musician but as a writer, teacher, computer programmer and artist-at-large.

Nachmanovitch and Jospé have long known of each other through mutual acquaintances on the local music scene, but it wasn’t until a year ago that they got together to play. Since then, they’ve sat down for improvised “conversations” between Jospé’s drums and Nachmanovitch’s violin five or six times. It was Jospé who eventually decided they should showcase the free play in a concert.

“I just love Stephen’s playing, his way of flowing through the music,” Jospé said. “When we started jamming together, I just decided we should present this as a performance to the public because I think it is some beautiful music. Stephen’s playing—everyone will love it.”

Saturday’s “spontaneous musical conversation,” sponsored by the Charlottesville Jazz Society, will take place in an unlikely setting, a hall that houses UVA’s anthropology department. It’s a fitting incongruence for an evening of events that are difficult to forecast. Jospé and Nachmanovitch have recorded all of their spontaneous jam sessions, they said, but they are unwilling to share the recordings. They simply wouldn’t do justice to the experience of being at an improvised concert, they believe. Indeed, Nachmanovitch said his favorite performances are those during which the audience has no idea what it’s seeing is improvised and finds it hard to believe it’s so when it’s told after the fact.

What the musicians are willing to disclose at this point is that Jospé will be playing the drum set, hand drums and log drums, and Nachmanovitch will be bringing some combination of violin, viola, tenor violin, electric violin and/or viola d’amore. Beyond that, they’d like their audience to check their expectations at the door.

“It isn’t really free in the sense that we all have tastes and predilections,” Nachmanovitch said. “People like structures, people gravitate toward structures. But in another sense you can’t really preview the concert because we have absolutely no idea what it will be.”

Share your favorite live improv session in the comments.