The Ex 30 Years
“... such clarifications come under the heading of freedom, in other words, just like being a bird takes some skill.”
Günter Bruno Fuchs, Law and Disorder
What does it mean to improvise? A group of people, say four Dutch folks, gets in a room together, plays a little, shares a riff and a rhythm, works it and reworks it, memorizes it, plays it again at a gig, maybe a little differently. Is that improvised? Is that composed? Is that group-composing? Does it matter?
When they started in 1979, you can bet that The Ex didn't think they were going to be known as one of the greatest improvising bands in rock music. But then again they were dedicated to independence, to not being told what to do. And they were possessed of a remarkably positive spirit, not the kind of negative, potentially nihilistic energy that can turn the independent-minded into the narcissistically unfriendly. Theirs was a revolutionary moment, in which the potentiality of playing together and working together and living together and meanwhile retaining their ability to try new things was paramount. That potentiality still is paramount to The Ex, going into their fourth decade, as far as I can tell. Doing what you want to do, not being told what to do by anyone else - in this modest proposal is the DNA of improvised music.
I remember listening to The Ex before they had started explicitly working with improvisers. Early 80's tracks, from Tumult and Too Many Cowboys, a couple of lucky scores in the singles bin, and a track on a Ron Johnson Records compilation, already seemed to suggest a very expanded musical sense, not according to a narrow punk or indie rock aesthetic, but looking for terrain that was more open. The hunch was confirmed on a textural freak-out from the great LP Hands Up! You're Free. Then came their collaboration at the beginning of the 90's with New York cellist Tom Cora. A few years earlier, Cora had told a class of mine at the Art Institute of Chicago that he wasn't interested in improvised music that "sounded like" improvised music. He wanted something open and embracing towards things like melody and pulse, rather than negative and rejecting of those more conventional musical components. Perfect improviser to partner with The Ex. First time I saw them play was at Lounge Ax in Chicago, with Cora. A treasured night of music in my memory banks, the shared love of Eastern European melodies still rings clear and true.
But the irony is, of course, that The Ex come from Holland, where one of the greatest, most omnivorous and open improvised music scenes has flourished since the mid-60's. Sometimes you have to look to distant shores to see what's closest to home. By the middle of the 90's, The Ex had forged deep connections with the Amsterdam improvised music world (some of whom they had already been working with since 1989's Joggers + Smoggers), and where their connection with Cora was, by and large, one of an invited guest playing tunes, now the members of The Ex were improvising in partnership with Han Bennink, Ab Baars, Wolter Wierbos, Michael Vatcher, Tristan Honsinger, and other big-wigs in the free music community. And they started getting asked onto gigs as improvisers, which was quite a fantastic compliment. In 2000, they assembled a huge improvising big band, The Ex Orkest, perhaps the pinnacle of the improv-Ex thus far.
Now if you ask me, the most important aspect, the fulcrum in The Ex, is that from here they have continued to reach out for new experiences, rather than slipping into complacency. This has led them to a range of collaborative adventures, from work with mimes and comics to an extensive run of joint projects with Ethiopian musicians. All of these have required them to improvise, to play together with a spirit of openness, to discover for instance what was possible with saxophonist Getachew Mekuria and develop it into something unexpected. Humility and good ears - two key tools of the improviser.
Let's blow a little air back into that flattened tube of a word, "freedom". Fuchs reminds us that being a bird takes some skill. Staying a bird, staying independent, "free" if you will, for three decades, that takes skill and something else, something more like heart.
John Corbett, Chicago, February 2009