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Free jazz

Even [Fred Moten’s] earliest journal publications are intensely idiosyncratic. It’s as if he were convinced he had to invent his own tools in order to take up the subjects that interested him—design his own philosophy, his own theory. “I’m not a philosopher,” he says. “I feel like I’m a critic, in the sense that Marx intends in Private Property and Communism when he gives these sketchy outlines of what communism might look like: ‘We wake up in the morning, and we go out in the garden, till the ground, and in the afternoon we engage in criticism.’”

In his criticism, Moten is especially attuned to a zone that Brent Edwards (a close friend and interlocuter) has called the “fringe of contact between music and language.” He’ll draw the reader’s attention to the “surplus lyricism of the muted, mutating horns of Tricky Sam Nanton or Cootie Williams” in Duke Ellington’s band, for example. Or, commenting on Invisible Man’s observation that few really listen to Louis Armstrong’s jazz, he’ll cut to an abrupt and unsettling assertion: “Ellison knows that you can’t really listen to this music. He knows…that really listening, when it goes bone-deep into the sudden ark of bones, is something other than itself. It doesn’t alternate with but is seeing; it’s the sense that it excludes; it’s the ensemble of the senses. Few really read this novel.”

One difficulty for outside readers encountering Moten’s work is that he tends to engage more with the avant-garde than with pop. It’s easy to see why the art world has embraced him: his taste gravitates toward the free-jazz end of the spectrum so strongly it’s as if he were on a mission, striving to experience all of creation at once—to play (as the title of a favorite Cecil Taylor album puts it) All the Notes. This spring, Moten is teaching a graduate course based on the works of choreographer Ralph Lemon and artist Glenn Ligon. In recent years he has collaborated with the artist Wu Tsang on installation and video art pieces, where they do things like practice the (slightly nostalgic) art of leaving voicemail messages for each other every day for two weeks without ever connecting, just riffing off snippets from each other’s notes. In another video short directed by Tsang, Moten—wearing a caftan and looking Sun Ra-ish—is filmed in “drag-frame” slow motion dancing to an a cappella rendition of the jazz standard “Girl Talk.”

By way of explanation, Moten recalls his old neighborhood. “I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token,” he adds, “nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.”