In this letter published in 1973 (h/t Tyshawn Sorey), Charles Mingus questions the musical abilities of the musicians associated with what was known at the time as the “New Thing.” At the beginning of the letter, he wonders “what would happen if some musicians who could really play the chord changes, who could really play a tune and not get lost, were to improvise and play free.”
To solve this mystery, he could have started simply by listening to Lennie Tristano’s quintet recordings of “Intuition” and “Digression,” which were almost a quarter of a century old when his letter was published.
Anyway, is Mingus right to make a distinction here between musicians who can really play and those who can’t? When it comes to free-improvised music, is there an objective way to differentiate between well-crafted and poorly-crafted? Would we admit that Charles Mingus is qualified to make such an evaluation? Is anyone?
I would answer in the affirmative and assert that we have at our disposal the tools of musical analysis to help us make these evaluations. In this paper, I analyze four free improvisations by trombonist Ben Gerstein and attempt to point toward the sense and beauty that can emerge in this type of music through set class manipulations, motivic development, and hierarchical voice-leading.