The semi-underground world of free improvisation has its own heroes, its own publications, and its own network of dedicated supporters and performance venues. But even in this small world there are hierarchies and conformities — and there are mavericks who rock the boat. Jack Wright is one of these difficult people, who has carved out his own reputation as a peripatetic iconoclast, traveling the world, playing wherever he can, spreading his love for improvised music. Sometimes he works with well-known performers from Chicago or Boston, but he also loves to search out unknown local musicians for new artistic experiments.
The saxophonist was born in Pittsburgh and started the instrument at an early age. After college he got his master's degree from Johns Hopkins and settled in Philadelphia, teaching at Temple University. After leaving academia in 1972 he became fully involved in improvisation and began traveling all over the United States and Europe to play, collaborate with other artists, and transmit to others his enthusiasm for the new music. Eventually he settled in Boulder — not exactly a hotbed of free improvisation — where he dedicated himself to practice and performance, as well as to painting and writing. A few years ago he returned to Pennsylvania to be closer to the action. In addition to playing various saxophones, he performs on piano and on the contra-alto clarinet.
Wright's way with music and the saxophone has changed over the years, moving toward a highly abstract concept grounded in sound, rhythm, and texture rather than in melody and harmony. He admits that in the past he had been worried about leaning in such a direction, as he distrusted cold technical performances and passionless instrumental weirdness. But he need not have worried; Wright has adopted the extended techniques used by many contemporary saxophonists — pops, clicks, multiple sounds, unusual timbres, and so on — but his performances could never be called academic. On the contrary, he has simply extended the expressive range of his instrumental mastery in a manner that seems quite natural to him, and he continues to play with passion and conviction.
His early music was often angry, as he tried to preserve the energy and political message of the 1960s, but while he remains a cultural radical, he has found that he can express his passions in less obvious ways. Throughout this evolution certain elements have remained constant: a total commitment to living an artistic life, a love of exploration, a commitment to the future, and an aversion to imitation, even of himself. Wright is committed not to repeat anything he has done before and does not travel with a bag of rehearsed and well-worn licks, which are often the crutches of improvisers. His Ann Arbor concert on Thursday, September 9, will consist of duets with vocalist Carol Genetti, who explores the unlimited sonic possibilities of the human voice, utilizing extended techniques drawn from disparate musics of the world.