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Sudden Music by David Rothenberg

Spirituality has long been a concern of many improvising musicians, especially those who came of age in the post-Coltrane era. One would think that, with the seemingly endless string of books written about the technical aspects of improvisation, there would be a generous supply of books written about its spiritual rewards. That’s far from the case. Aside from pianist Kenny Werner’s excellent spiritual how-to, Effortless Mastery, I cannot name many volumes explicitly devoted to helping one nurture the musician within. David Rothenberg’s Sudden Music is a welcome addition to a thin bibliography. Where Werner’s book was something of a practical guide for musicians needing a dose of inner peace (and self-confidence), Rothenberg addresses the subject in a more roundabout, anecdotal fashion. He uses examples from literature, philosophy and personal experience to examine how the ways and means that improvisation in music connect with the improvisation one finds in nature and society. The book itself is an improvisation-a near stream-of-consciousness fantasia that takes one from the mountains of Tibet and the coast of Maine to the lofts of Lower Manhattan and many places in between. Rothenberg’s writing is unconventionally structured (or unstructured), yet his prose is clean and direct, his ideas cogent. Sudden Music is best experienced as one would a free jazz performance: with openness and a lack of preconception. Taken on those terms, the book is a small gem.

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