On September 30th, 1965, John Coltrane’s group played a concert at the Penthouse Jazz Club in Seattle. The music was recorded for Impulse! Records, though not released until 1971, four years after Coltrane’s death. Recorded the next day were ‘Om’, still perhaps Coltrane’s most controversial record, and, a fortnight later, ‘Kulu Se Mama’ and ‘Selflesness’, all of which featured little-known additional musicians alongside the so-called ‘Classic Quartet’ of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. ‘Meditations’, recorded in November of that year, marked Jones’ and Tyner’s final appearance with Coltrane, as they became increasingly dissatisfied with the music’s moves towards what became known as ‘free jazz’. As such activity indicates, 1965 – the year which had also seen the recording of the land-mark ‘big band’ album ‘Ascension’ – was a crucial period in Coltrane’s work – or so it has always struck me. It was a turning point, a crossroads (to adopt the old blues/ voodoo figure), a time of ‘transition’ (the title of yet another record from this time), and ‘Live in Seattle’ is one of the most powerful examples of the peculiar kind of pressure operative in such a situation. Often, it feels as though two opposing forces are simultaneously in operation, each desperately trying to pull the music in different directions. That such struggle is never fully resolved is, of course, part of its dialectical importance even now, and, given this, and given the potentially transformative political situation we’re now living through, I thought it would be relevant – necessary, even – to examine the music in depth.
Coincidentally, just as I was thinking all this, the poet Sean Bonney, who I’ve been badgering to write something for this magazine for the last couple of years, wrote and posted the second in a series of ‘Letters on Harmony’ over at his blog ‘Abandoned Buildings.’ (This piece has subsequently been re-published in physical form, with accompanying commentaries and responses, as part of ‘Four Letters / Four Comments’, by Richard Owens’ Punch Press (see http://damnthecaesars.org/punchpress.html)). The letter in question is not directly an article or an essay ‘about’ Live in Seattle: indeed, what’s so intriguing about this series (which follows on from those other letters Bonney has been writing since August 2011, on ‘Silence’, ‘Spectres’, and ‘Riots and Doubt’) is the generic blend of, say, manifesto, speculative enquiry, and prose poem; the combinations of free jazz, dialectical theory, the notebooks of Lenin, and shifts in thought prompted by recent political events. Nonetheless, it seems to me that such writing says something more valuable about the music, and that music’s continued relevance, than a simple review or perhaps even a musicological analysis would, or could: it suggests to us how we might use this music. By ‘use’, I don’t mean that the music could be an active tool in political change. I mean, what would really happen if, as Bonney suggests, you played ‘Live in Seattle’ through the speaker system at Walthamstow shopping mall? Very little, probably – minor annoyance or puzzlement, security men coming to turn off the hideous racket and replace it with dulcet chart sparkles, an odd incident in a crushingly regular day. Certainly not a riot; certainly not those sounds of riot we hear, or want to hear, in the wailing and screaming horns of Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Donald Garrett; those sounds we did, in fact, hear, during the riots which took place in England during August 2011; those sounds of protest and dissent which have, increasingly, been heard and felt all over the world over the past few years. Nonetheless, ‘Live in Seattle’, and like artworks, could in some way function as a spark or a prod or a paradigm-shifter which could cause us to make connections and to think and plan and dream up possibilities for de-stabilisation and re-contextualisation which we could then apply in our thoughts and lives as a force which is political, which does force or suggest or in some way prepare for actual change. This is a fantasy, perhaps: some kind of quasi-Messianic narrative in which ‘John Coltrane died for you.’ Well, no: we reject that mysticism. And we’re not pretending this is in any way a final answer, that the solution to all our woes lies in some jazz record made in the 1960s which wasn’t even released at the time and which even ostensible ‘John Coltrane fans’ still call things like ‘ugly’ and ‘violent’ and ‘boring.’ So what are we claiming, then? Why don’t you just read on… (DG)
Quotations for the Time Being
“People told me for years that my rhythm playing and that of Dennis Charles held Cecil back. ‘Why didn’t the rhythm, section break free’ is the standard question. But didn’t Cecil use this rigidity as a springboard or a warp for freedom….? When he goes free against it, isn’t it all the more amazing and effective?”
Buell Niedlinger, Liner notes to Cecil Taylor, The Candid Sessions (Mosaic, 1989)
“How was it that the esoteric religious knowledge of the Egyptian and Babylonian priests was transformed into an anti-democratic force which achieved a hegemonic role in western thought? For this was the true legacy of Pythagoras, inventor of philosophy, ‘the first to use the word ‘harmony’ in its musical and philosophical sense.’
“In the best of jazz, the freedman-citizen conflict is most nearly resolved, because it makes use of that middle ground, the space that exists as the result of any cleavage, where both emotional penchants can exists as ideas of perhaps undetermined vitality, and not necessarily as ‘ways of life.’ ”
Amiri Baraka, Blues People
“Then he began to play, yet again, at the limit of the possible and the perceptible.”
Daniel Berger, ‘John Coltrane’ (Jazz Hot, August-September 1967)
“To show the listener almost immediately how he has changed the form of the piece, he plays with the very beginning line of the melody for almost two and a half minutes before he executes the bridge…Trane closes out the standard on the tenor saxophone, bellowing the hardest he can on its lowest notes – Ab and Bb – completely revolutionizing the form of the standard but keeping the content right there.”
Bill Cole, John Coltrane [on ‘Out of this World’, Seattle]
“[Of Coltrane and Sanders’ collective soloing]: They both grab rhythmic lines and hold into them with great tenacity, constantly interchanging roles of accompanist and soloist; and near the end their glissando lines sound like sirens…This music is unquestionably at the ritual level in terms of its function.”
Bill Cole, John Coltrane
Second Letter on Harmony
Sean Bonney // 11th November 2011
OK lets try again. Though bear in mind, this is gonna be naive as all hell. I mean, I haven’t done the requisite study, of what harmony is and what it has been etc. What I can gather, from a careful reading of some of Lenin’s Notes on Hegel – he’s got something in there about the Pythagorean harmony of the spheres proposing a perfect cosmology, a hierarchy built on scalar realities that justifies social conditions on earth, where everybody is in their place, and nobody is able to question the beauty and perfection of these relationships. Straightforward. And for it to work, for all these justifications to hold true, a fictional body is essential: the antichthon, or counter-earth. Thus, at the limit, the gravitational pull that holds the entire system of hierarchical harmony together is an untruth, but an untruth with the power to kill. But if this untruth is the site of justification and corporate (ie ritual) slaughter it’s also the site, magnetic as all hell, of contention and repulsion, which can transgress its own limits until something quite different, namely, crime, or impossibility, appears. For Ernst Bloch, the revolution was the crossroads where the dead come to meet. For Lorca, music was the scream of dead generations – the language of the dead. But our system of harmony knows so well it contains its own negation that it has mummified it, and while we know we live within a criminal harmony, we also know we are held helplessly within it as fixed subjects, or rather as objects, even cadavers, of an alien music. But never mind, just as protest is useless only because it stays within the limits of the already known, so the hidden harmony is better than the obvious. Heraclitus. Music as a slicing through of harmonic hierarchies etc, poetic realities as counter-earths where we can propose a new stance in which we can see and act on what had previously been kept invisible etc. Ourselves, for one thing. That sounds just great, absolutely tip fucking top, until you remember that, equally, the harmony of the money fetish is that of the commodity fetish now become visible and dazzling to our eyes, ie we don’t have any kind of monopoly on harmonic invisibility, and all of those occultist systems that some of us still love so much have always been bourgeois through and through. That is, its not a question of gentrification, but that the whole process has always started from the invisible spot where your feet are, tapping whatever fetishised rhythms right into the star encrusted ground. That famous green door with its sign “no admittance except on business”. That is, however much we may claim that it is not protest, but a fast alteration in the structural scansion at the city’s core, the hidden contours of our songs are still a nasty little rich kid fluttering his hecatombic chromosomes all over our collective history. Shit. Its why I still hate Mojo magazine. OK. Now lets get really obvious. Once, revolutions took their poetry from the past, now they have to get it from the future. We all know that. Famous and so on. In its contemporary form, the slogan Greek anarchists were using a couple of winters ago: we are smashing up the present because we come from the future. I love that, but really, it’s all just so much mysticism: but if we can turn it inside out, on its head etc we’ll find this, for example: “the repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed its insistence past music. It was hatred and frustration, secrecy and despair . . . . That stance spread like fire thru the cabarets and the joints of the black cities, so that the sound itself became a basis for thought, and the innovators searched for uglier modes”. That’s Amiri Baraka, a short story called “The Screamers” from 1965 or something like that. That is, metallic, musical screeches as systems of thought pushing away from, and through, the imposed limits of the conventional harmonic or social systems, thus clearing some ground from where we can offer counter-proposals. Slogans. The battle-cries of the dead. Tho, obviously, Pizza Express and the Poetry Cafe have done as much as is in their power to neutralise any truth content that might be lurking within that possibility. On September 30th 1965, Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Donald Rafael Garrett, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and John Coltrane recorded the album Live in Seattle: it is, according to someone quoted on Wikipedia, “not for those who prefer jazz as melodic background music”. Its one of those examples of recorded music that still sounds absolutely present years after the fact, because it was one of the sonic receptacles of a revolutionary moment that was never realised: that is, it has become a Benjaminian monad, a cluster of still unused energies that still retain the chance of exploding into the present. Play it loud in the Walthamstow shopping mall and you’ll see what I mean. Yeh yeh yeh. I’m thinking about a specific moment on the album, around thirteen minutes into “Evolution”, when someone – I don’t think its actually Coltrane – blows something through a horn that forces a dimensional time-loop through the already seismic constellations set up within the music’s harmonic system, becoming a force that moves beyond any musical utterance, while still containing direct, clear communication at its centre: ie fire and death on your uptight ass. Among many other things, obviously. I guess Seattle, like anywhere else, is sealed up in its gentrification by now. But anyway, that horn sounds like a metal bone, a place where the dead and future generations meet up and are all on blue, electric fire. CLR James once said that “the violent conflicts of our age enable our practised vision to see into the very bones of previous revolutions more easily than before”. Go figure. Due to its position in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Seattle is in a major earthquake zone. On November 30th 1999 Seattle WTO protests included direct and rational attacks on, among other things, the Bank of America, Banana Republic, the Gap, Washington Mutual Bank, Starbucks, Planet Hollywood etc etc etc. “Cosmos”. “Out of this World”. “Body and Soul”, you get what I mean. Two years later, in Genoa, the anarchist Carlo Giuliani got a police bullet in the centre of his face. Remember that name. Capital’s untruth, its site of corporate slaughter – ie ritual slaughter – the silent frequency at the centre of its oh so gentle melodies. Ah, I can’t see to finish this, I’ve had a lot of valium today. But anyway, to put it simply, the purpose of song is not only to raise the living standards of the working class, but to prevent the ruling class from living in the way that they have been. The violent conflicts of our age make it impossible to recollect musical emotions in tranquility, unless it is the kind of tranquility that makes clear the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence. A high metallic wire etc. The counter-earth rigged to such sonic stroboscopics that we, however temporarily, become the irruption into present time of the screams of the bones of history, tearing into the mind of the listener, unambiguously determining a new stance toward reality, a new ground outside of official harmony, from which to act. Or put it another way, next time some jazz fan tells you that late Coltrane is unlistenable, or something, punch em in the face. Seven times. More later.
John Coltrane – Selflessness / Live in Seattle
David Grundy // 20th December 2011
Coltrane in 1965 is what I keep coming back to. Now that all this stuff is on the you tube, I’ve been listening to it again, taking advantage of the potential to skip back and forward in a track, to listen and re-listen to particular second-long clips without having to juggle the fast-forward function on cassette or cd player – just with mouse clicks, to listen to a ten-minute or a ten-second section three times in a row…and all that jazz. McCoy Tyner’s playing was so thick at this time, his chordal voicings approaching clusters in their density, and his rhythmic monotony a crucial part of the dialectic between stasis and continuance/momentum that gives his playing its peculiar quality. (This is similar, I suppose, to the trance states induced by particular kinds of tribal drumming, but you’re not going to go into a trance here: the rhythm is too insistent and also too broken-up (thanks to elvin jones, “gretsch freak”2) – it doesn’t have that swirling endlessness that makes alice coltrane’s playing on, say, ‘live in japan’, ultimately boring (much as I love her harp-like-swirl and the use of the entire range of the keyboard, from lowest thud to highest tinkle – and tho’ of course the boring and monotony as such are in some sense a crucial part of both pianist’s playing styles, in a way i’m not sure i’ve yet quite grasped or come to terms with. (Tho’ this might provide a clue:
The venerable Curt Sachs may have put his finger on what is at issue here in Rhythm and Tempo (1953), when he discovered that “rhythm” itself, to misquote Freud, is a primeval word with antithetical senses. On the one hand, rhuthmos (Greek) denoted river or flow. On the other rhythmus (Latin) denoted blockage or dam. Sachs’s point is not that Greeks and Romans had different cultural coordinates (to a large extent they did) but that coiled within rhythm itself was a certain undecidability – perhaps the very same undecidability that Derrida traced in the connotative oscillations of “tympan.”
John Mowitt, ‘Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking’ (Duke University Press, 2002), p.24))))
So there’s this thing called ‘selflessness’ that coltrane recorded in ’65 – it’s from those studio sessions that were included on ‘the major works of john coltrane’, a 2cd box set impulse released in the 90s sometime, and which i remember listening to after borrowing it from my local library (who for some reason owned this (now probably out-of-print) thing alongside art blakey and stan getz and MJQ and courtney pine (they subsequently sold off all this stuff, no idea where it went: perhaps some old-people’s home now possesses ‘ascension’, ‘om’, ‘selflessness’ and ‘kulu se mama’ on two shining discs and plays it as dinner music)). that was the first time i heard ‘ascension’, and ‘selflessness’ is a side-note compared to that…but ‘side-note’ is the wrong turn of phrase entirely, this is vital shit. i hate it when, say, allmusicguide does one of their fucking capsule reviews where they go, ‘o, this is fine, but not the best place to start if this is your first time with player x’, relegating most everything to some deferred future where you’re an ‘expert’ and can therefore ‘take it.’ to that I’d say, launch yourself in, yeah? – of course you won’t fucking understand it, I still don’t, coltrane himself didn’t, this is at the limits, it’s hard to understand when you’re up in that air… – but, ok, I heard ‘expression’ and ‘ascension’ early on, and i loved the passionate melodics of the opening heads (‘ogunde’ is based on a folk song, after all), and i didn’t really understand pharoah sanders at all, and in fact i actively disliked him, but these things take time, go on with it, get on.
(‘selflessness’ and ‘live in seattle’, which are the things i’m going to write about here, both feature donald rafael garrett on bass and clarinet, which is ostensibly the reason i’m considering them both together. garrett’s not someone who was much heard from, or about, but val wilmer’s ‘as serious as your life’ posits him as one of those crucial mentor figures during the mid-60s (giuseppi logan as another), whose contributions to the music and to the scene were certainly not proportional to their scant and inadequate documentation on record. (http://www.bardoworks.it/rafael.html has some further info.)
// now let’s get on, ‘selflessness’ opening with one of those melodies coltrane was writing around this time, ostensibly as serene or joyous up-cry, but which turn into a kind of desperate keening -as if one wished too much for that transcendent, solving/dissolving joy, for that synthesis, for the one final note that would provide the answer to the thousand fractured, cycling notes played through before: coltrane himself blowing the melody strong, sanders dipping and diving around him, with some wonderful watery, rattley flutter-tonguing.
& rafael garrett’s arco bass insists on being taken as a third lead melody voice, blending with the horns, rather than partaking in the strummed and thrummed deep-end accompaniment that jimmy garrison, the coltrane quartet regular, would have provided. – to illustrate this, let’s take the first ten minutes or so of ‘evolution’, from the ‘live in seattle’ recording, where Coltrane, Sanders, and Garrett (this time on bass clarinet) soar in imitative, roaring and meshing blasts and honks, while Garrison provides a solid rhythmic underpinning which seems to be going on its own separate box or booth, tethering down the ‘out of this world’ massed vocalised ecstasies of breath and air and metal, and essentially playing the flamenco-inflected bass solo which he then proceeds to deliver once the horns have stopped playing (this solo being a regular occurrence on Coltrane’s live recordings). the absence of a drummer highlights just how ‘free’ the horns were capable of be(com)ing, of moving outside established licks in a flowing and melting and melding way: formally, one could describe this as ‘rhapsodic’ (in the sense that the term ‘rhapsody’ comes from the Greek ‘rhapsōidos’, which itself comes from the combination of ‘rhaptein’, to sew, stitch together, and ‘aidein,’ to sing). & jazz itself is, perhaps, ultimately a rhapsodic form, based on fragments, breaks, discontinuities, allusions and quotations – at the same time that, as in hip-hop, ‘flow’ is central: propulsion, momentum, ‘looking ahead’. nonetheless, garrison’s desire to provide an established ‘jazz’ element does contrast with what the horns are doing (tho’ to start off with his picked harmonics sound suitably ‘exotic’); their flow reaches an extent to which it becomes overwhelming, dispensing with clock-checking time, with finishing a tune in ten minutes so that people can go and buy drinks, so that time itself becomes a felt, controllable thing, slowed down and speeded up at the musicians’ will – for the ultimate example of that, you’d have to look at those mammoth extended pieces by the Cecil Taylor Unit, where time itself stretches so much it almost seems to break, to fracture, to become meaningless.
well, now we’re here, hell, let’s just listen to the whole of ‘evolution’ – garrett’s thin-reed wail on clarinet, notes bent, metallic melted to malleable shape-shift, transitioning into sanders’ shronking and then that unbearably beautiful way he ends his solos with a kind of desperate lyricism, keening up-slide to notes. again, that thin-ness, not the full-bodied-ness we think of when we think of free jazz – say, Brötzmann or Coltrane himself – not that filling out of the sound-space: yeah, Sanders can do that, does do that, but what I’m talking about here is his use of fragility, a sense of self un-stable and breaking under the pressure and force of riots and revolutions and that late 60s belief in cosmic transformation; yeah, fucking eschatology, if you like, material transformation – sound is material, isn’t it, it could speak another reality into being and not simply be contained within the glass-cash-register chinking register of the night-club / the record-label / the hit-parade / the culture industry. Uh, yeah, if Sanders’ multiphonic explosions of simultaneous multiple notes, overtones, difference tones intend to vibrate the space into the fullest potential possible, the most filled wholeness – “every kinda chord you can hear under the fucking sun” – his solos at this time end with, say, two successive notes, the stalled beginnings of a melody, as his saxophone moves into being a voice, trying to sing a song to itself but now having to flutter-tongue burble and cry in woundedness – and it’s the transition here that gets me, in this say, thirty seconds of music which expands out beyond itself as a non-melodic ear-worm which encapsulates for me what Coltrane could have and was constantly trying and failing to do – that failure as built into the condition of the music, the condition of music itself, the condition of the world itself that would not change as was wished – a desire that cannot express itself in logic, barely even in illogic, gesturing towards the “possible world,” yeah, a “community of risk,” someone in some other context said that.3
that transition i mean is when sanders’ solo is ending and suddenly, without warning on the audio version at least, coltrane, i think it is, comes out to the microphone and starts shouting, comes in roaring, ‘OOOMMM’ ‘OORRRRHM’ / ‘OOOOOM’ – ‘OM’, the primal word, the primal vocalised sound that sets the universe into being (“and god said, let there be light” – light and sound as one simultaneous flash, an explosion into being as the origin of the universe, some collective pre-evolutionary memory of the big bang) (see simon weil’s fine article ‘circling om’ (http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=14286)) – that roaring is almost a parody of some horror-movie ‘black-magic’ voodoo roar, but it transcends that, it’s not transcendent, it’s a bellow of roaring animal pain outside language, outside the formal language of music, outside song – is not speech, is not song – is both – those moments when coltrane would take the horn out of his mouth; as miles davis had advised, but not to stop playing, instead to give vent to that roar of exhilaration mixed anguish…
more transitions (‘transition’ the title of a record from this year, coltrane’s music itself in transition, in creative mentor-exchange with the new thing saxophonists – sanders, shepp, carlos ward, ayler, john gilmore – for whom he was a talismanic figure, the leader and legitimiser of the movement – tho’ he was equally influenced by their own side-slant attack; the ‘classic quartet’ splintering apart, that tension, between tyner’s static rhythmix and the way his playing cannot help but ratchet up in intensity and depth and drive when placed in the same physical space as coltrane’s boiling over; jones perhaps the prime force driving coltrane out into polyrhythmic ambiguity (that means, simultaneity), (energy music), himself frustrated (exhilarated?) by the wall of sound above and beyond him (reportedly throwing his drum-sticks at the wall at the end of ‘ascension’); garrison the one hold-over, once the transition to that final quintet was accomplished – and yet, it’s precisely that tension, that push-pull, that gives this music its power, and its objective social content – this the year of the watts riots– rip it up, split it up, all felt as personal upheaval, split and shatter into collectivity, that transition into new forms is of course painful, as any transition is, who knows where and what horror or beauty it could turn into, treading on thin ice, on air, tight rope tightened or loosening.)
so, transition, when coltrane stops shouting and the horns go triple over garrison’s jazz moves, when they’re wailing da-naaaaaaahhhhh-nuh, da-naaaaaaaaaaah-nuh (I can’t fucking ‘transcribe this’, as onomatopoeia or notation or whatever – it is un-fixable in that sense, less we develop the technology to contain it – and if we did that, then we’d be in some society where our understanding of what went beyond our current grain made life liveable, where wounded cry was not just some impoliteness to be ignored, ill-advised feeling-show)); when Tyner comes in under and it’s like some floor locks into place beneath the horns, and then he solos, the relief of that, there’s only so much reality or surreality or irreality you can endure… 7:08 into Tyner’s solo, Garrison pluck-repeating single note, the music freezing into repeated locked-record-groove stasis, like stammer-stuckness, like Coltrane repeating the head to ‘confirmation’ twenty times in a row,4 seeing it from its different angles, its different permutations, trying to reach every possible harmonic implication, to see the whole thing from all fucking angles – but different to that, I suppose, in that repetition is used in Tyner as a particular dramatic effect, whether gravity pillar-thick chord or as harp-like arpeggiated swirl with thick deep-end muscle – a space he moved into at this time, 1965, which never before or since was quite the same, had a lightness to it that this gravity-insistence – well, it’s that, but at the same time it suggests that moment when everything’s gonna split open – it never quite does – well, the horns come back in and thick cluster bash, is pentecost tongues to “set fire and death on whitey’s ass” (if you believe amiri baraka…ok, this is not hate music – or maybe it is – “what we need is hatred. from it our ideas are born” (genet) – maybe it is, and maybe the critics were right (the london evening standard’s jack massarik, & his infamous off-mic “torrents of hate” jibe when some coltrane was played on one of bbc radio 3’s afternoon jazz snoozefests) – but if they were right, they were right in a strictly narrow sense that made them see that hatred as mere perversity, misanthropy, nihilism;
any hatred that there is in the music would have to be inextricably linked to love, love and hate mingled, hate motivated by love – by which i mean that there has to be a sense of what has to be done (perhaps hateful things) if change is going to be more than just a willed-for moment of religious transcendence, reliant on the intervention of an on-high god we ceaselessly invoke with or without the hope that he will finally choose now to intervene – it is still an in invocation then, but an invocation to action, however direct or indirect, to change systems of oppression and exploitation, bigotry and misery. of course, coltrane has an odd relation to direct action, we see this in that awkward interview where frank kofsky tries desperately to make him into a post-malcolm marxist but only succeeds in getting him to talk about the need for universal peace…archie shepp, the disciple, no doubt encouraged him to raise the political ante, there were young black men in the clubs at which he played shouting ‘black power! black power!’, and maybe coltrane would have become more politicised if he’d lived until the 60s – but this is the same as the ‘what would malcolm have done if he’d lived’ argument that those on the left still engage in from time to time. (counter-facts, counter-histories are all very well, but they never happened, did they?)
oh, ok, back to ‘selflessness’ again, and finally: things move on out. i’m so used to thinking of sanders’ playing as undergoing a trajectory, from wild yawping, coruscating, disturbing beauties with coltrane (and those couple of blue note dates, ‘symphony for improvisers’ and ‘where is brooklyn’ w/don cherry), and then, once coltrane dies and he becomes a leader in his own right, a more controlled use of the free playing as occasional effect, climax, or ‘interlude’, between burbling, mellow, melodic rambles over ethnicky grooves and repeating chords…but here sanders’ playing is not just the squall or blast of sound i’d remembered it as; rather, he develops rather jauntily carnivalesque rhythms (in a very distant pre-echo of Sonny Rollins, circa ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’), tho’ this is done, it shd be noted, thru unusual and forceful tonguings or fingerings (or however it is he gets those effects).
dig too, on these recordings (on this and ‘live in seattle’), how the two main horns, sanders and coltrane, sometimes seem to swap over, coltrane adopting sanders-esque howls, sanders sliding his own melodicisms alongside coltrane’s prophet-like, authoritative pronouncements. i’m not using ‘prophet’ here as some un-thought-through metaphor: prophets (i’m thinking in the biblical sense here) use poeticised, metaphorical, fanciful language (i mean, ‘revelations’ is sci-fi before the category of sci-fi, right?) to call down the abuses and corruptions and degradations of current society; to predict the calamities that will befall the society if it does not change it ways (or have those ways changed for it); and to posit an alternative future in which that society is healed and mended and transformed. is coltrane not doing all three of those here, as far as the limits of his instrument and his epoch and his imagination will let him?
of this kind of total engagement there is still need.
Listening through Live in Seattle: A Conversation
Sean Bonney + David Grundy // London, 8th January 2012
[Pharoah Sanders begins his solo on ‘Out of this World’]
DG: It’s not like that solo he did with the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra (‘Preview’), where it’s just Bang-Bang-Bang. It’s something to do with the way he articulates the notes, sliding up to them and then sliding down, away, again.
SB: Well, the claim in the liner notes is that he is just interested in the material sound. It’s horrible, it’s thin and…unwell.
DG: You associate him with having a very big sound, a wide sound, like Ayler. Coltrane too – though with Coltrane, here, you have those moments where he’s fading away, where he steps away from the microphone and just repeats the same phrase five times – that kind of ghostly thing, voices fading out and in. The same on the Sanders solo – you have this weird sliding thing which just keeps repeating, the articulation slips in and out – it’s getting quite sharp and then it fades away. It’s traumatic, it’s not celebratory….
SB: Not at all – this is what Nate Mackey discusses when he writes about Coltrane’s solo on ‘All Blues’ in Stockholm: that it sounds like it’s a scraping round the edge of the wound, or scraping round the edge of its sound.5
DG: I guess it’s that vagueness, which is a weird thing – because you think of free jazz as being hard and sharp…
SB: Which very little of it actually is…Mackey quotes a poem of his which mentions ‘Out of This World’ (‘Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun’):
the riff hits
me like rain and like a leak in my
throat it won’t quit. No reins whoa
this ghost I’m ridden by and again
The whole essay is really about possession, which is always a minefield to walk into…He talks about it as a forking of the voice: “The solo Coltrane plays on Miles’ composition ‘All Blues’ has the quality of reaching for another voice, stretching the voice…It has that quality of duende that Lorca talks about as a tearing of the voice, a crippling of the voice that paradoxically is also enabling” – and he relates it to Legba, the voodoo “god of doorways, gateways, entrances, thresholds, crossroads, intersections. Legba is crippled, the limping god who nonetheless dances.”
DG: I guess it’s that point when things are just breaking apart, which is what happens in those weird transitions and shiftings…
SB: It’s taking that reaching for another voice that Mackey talks about – the two voices of Coltrane and Sanders, and the split voice in their individual playing as well. Elvin Jones in an interview puts Pharoah Sanders down, says that he thought he was just ripping off Coltrane, which I think misses the point, because Pharoah Sanders is really doing what Mackey claims of Coltrane in the Stockholm recording.
DG: McCoy Tyner is weirdly solid on this, but it’s kind of stuck.
SB: Well, we were talking about this before: one of the thing’s that interesting about this particular record is that tension between the original quartet and everything else that’s starting to happen.
DG: Which I guess fits in with all that stuff about breaking out of old forms and that being traumatic…And stuff like this where Tyner’s just repeating figures – it’s not repeated to get into a trance, it’s not repeated to get into a trance state, it’s more like a destabilisation.
SB: And even though it’s a ‘ballad’ it’s absolutely claustrophobic.
DG: You’re maybe nodding your head slightly, but it’s not the usual jazz foot-tapping. I mean, it’s got a very clear, defined rhythm, especially when Tyner’s playing, because he always punctuates on the beat, with his left hand. What do you think of the bits where he’s not playing, where it’s just the three horns floating around, where they don’t have that grounding? Do you think it has to have that tension to work, formally?
DG: Well, it’s difficult to say. Those sections – like the first ten minute of ‘Evolution’ – probably only work in the context of the other things happening – without them, they would just become tedious. It’s a characteristic of all of the 60s Coltrane music – like when McCoy Tyner will break away and it will just be Coltrane and Elvin doing a duo for god knows how long, and then Jimmy Garrison will come back in, and then McCoy Tyner will come back in, and that’s a standard thing – so you’ve got a similar thing going on with all these horns playing, and maybe attempting to reach back into a more conventional jazz form.
DG: I guess the massed horns goes back to earlier New Orleans things…I mean, it’s more explicit in Ayler…
SB: Well that’s what [Amiri] Baraka always claims for collective improvisation, but we don’t really know, because we don’t have any records.
DG: But I guess that myth is necessary, in some way…And there is some pretty wild stuff that was recorded: Wilton Crawley, this clarinet player, does all these trick effects, sounds a bit like Dolphy or Braxton. Fess Williams, Mingus’ uncle, too. Those older players did use much dirtier sounds, smears.
SB: And they probably did also play for hours, just improvising.
DG: Well, that’s what happened at Minton’s, with bebop.
SB: And the only reason those recordings are so short is because of the material possibilities of recording. It’s like I find, say, ‘Conquistador’ or ‘Unit Structures’ easier to listen to that some of the more recent Cecil recordings, just because the necessity of keeping it down to twenty minutes maximum.
DG: Well, those one-hour-plus pieces do break out of the format, don’t they. And I don’t think that long-form Cecil Taylor is boring in the way that, say, ‘Live in Japan’ is boring.
SB: It’s not boring, but it’s hard…say, ‘Erzulie Maketh Scent’ – it’s quite hard to sustain the concentration for an hour and a quarter.
DG: You get into a kind of trance state, though at certain points, where it all just washes over you, where you’re registering certain details almost subconsciously… Whereas here it’s more linear.
SB: With the horns back, and with Elvin’s drums coming in, it’s unease and paranoia still, but with this circular thing – it is out of this world, but in a vacuum or a limbo.
DG: It’s like trying to break through to something, constantly reaching up and then being forced down, and then at the end, when it comes back to the melody, it’s like that Rimbaud poem, ‘Qu’est-ce pour nous, mon couer…’– you’ve had all these metaphors of natural disaster and upheaval and continents shifting as a metaphor for revolutionary change and collective transformation, and then it ends, “It’s nothing. I’m here. I’m still here.”
When I was first getting into late Coltrane, I always liked it when he comes back to the melody, after the freer improvisations – when he came to the melody at the end it felt he’d won through to it, that he’d struggled through. But maybe it’s not that, maybe it’s something more like defeat.
I wonder, actually, talking about melodies, about the way he played ‘My Favorite Things’ at every concert he did, all the way through, so that it constantly evolves and changes – I wonder why he felt need to use this show tune as the basis.
SB: Yeah, he’s taking off from a conventional popular music form. Coltrane’s not really a composer is he, he’s taking off from these show tunes – he’s insisting that this music is available from a very mainstream tradition.
DG: Well, if we look at the track-listing here, ‘Cosmos’ is by Coltrane, ‘Out of This World’ is by Harold Arlen, and there’s ‘Body and Soul’, there’s a bass solo by Jimmy Garrison, ‘Evolution’ is by Coltrane, and ‘Afro-Blue’ is by Mongo Santamaria. And I guess he never played ‘Giant Steps’ apart from on that record, which is the peak of that kind of technical playing. I mean, loads of other people play it, but he never did – it’s almost as if he didn’t want something that was that purely technical, he wanted something with more sentiment.
Do you think there’s any intention to make it sound like police sirens?
SB: Well, they probably didn’t sit down beforehand and go, ‘oh, let’s play like police sirens’; but it can’t not sound like that, can it, given where they’re playing and who they are.
DG: That said, I think they were all a bit…out there, in some ways. Archie Shepp’s the spokesman, the political one, but he’s a bit atypical, out of all of them.
SB: Well, yeah, Ornette Coleman’s not a materialist, is he, he’s…esoteric – which Coltrane is too. In his book, Frank Kofsky keeps trying to get him to make political statements, which he just won’t really do.
It’s hard, because I’ve always listened to this and thought it sounded really nightmarish, but then wondered how much I’m being led by that passage in the sleeve notes, without having a musical vocabulary, without really being able to understand technically what they’re doing with scales and harmonies.
DG: But I think the bits which are the most nightmarish are the bits which aren’t to do with scales and harmony – it’s the way a note is bent, or the way someone articulates a note in a way you can’t notate, or makes a sound which there’s no technical term for – it’s just a cry…It’s like that Baraka phrase, ‘sliding away from the proposed.’
SB: This is more trying to slide away from the proposed – like when Pharaoh is making these sounds while that circular piano thing is still going on behind. It’s almost as if it reaches some kind of lid and wants to get outside of it but can’t, and just keeps getting pushed back, over and over again, slowly.
DG: It’s almost a parody of that repeated thing, Tyner and Jones underneath. There’s one bit in particular where they’re repeating together on the beat, in unison, while Sanders is sliding away over the top.
SB: But it’s also the same thing towards the end of that section, when Elvin’s drums are getting more and more insistent but still just being knocked back.
DG: Maybe a problem with the late stuff is that Rashied Ali does open that space up, so there isn’t that ground for them to…
SB: It doesn’t have that tension – they have got to that ecstatic place that they want to – like a plateau – Alice’s piano is doing the same rolling around as Ali’s drums.
DG: And on ‘Interstellar Space’, where it’s just Coltrane and Ali – there’s not much to hold on to, is there. In ‘Ascension’, they’re always refreshing themselves – it’s Ensemble // Solo // Ensemble // Solo // Ensemble // Solo, and there is some kind of harmonic pattern – they’re freely improvising over a basic chordal, or modal pattern in the ensemble passages.
SB: There’s still a head, of sorts, even if the head is this huge wall of sound, and it ends with the bass and drum solo, and back to the head, so it’s still within a recognisable jazz structure, however far that is stretched.
DG: Does Baraka have anything to say about this tension between tension and structure, and trying to move out of it?
SB: I don’t think he does, not really – his problem with the later Coltrane is that he’s lost contact with the street, whatever that is: Baraka’s concept of what the street is. Baraka listens to Coltrane and Archie Shepp, and he thinks they’re getting to that, getting to something which Baraka imagined had been lost in jazz – but then, had it ever had that? The black music which connected with the street, which Baraka knew very well, was R&B – it’s what he writes about in ‘The Screamers’, about the repeated riff – it’s ‘out of this world’, as in that Mackey poem we mentioned earlier: the riff like rain, like a leak in my throat which won’t quit.
DG: It’s that same kind of repetition, that same kind of stuckness as with Coltrane, but the sense is that if you kept repeating it enough, something would happen, you’d break through into some other space.
SB: Yeah, and it has something to say about these notes, these ugly notes, like the ones that Pharoah plays, as forming a new ground for thought. But in ‘Out of this World’, it seems as though we’re not having this new ground for thought; or we are having it, but these new thoughts are still impossible.
DG: And there’s always the danger that you get through and you don’t actually want them, don’t want their consequences – which I guess is the contingency of any situation like that.
SB: Well that’s where Baraka always uses the metaphor of killing – for him, Coltrane is murdering the popular song. For Baraka, these new modes of thoughts are achieved through violence – the feeling that you have to kill; or do this kind of violence to the symbolic, and to yourself. The constraints of the music become the constraints of the social situation, but also, with that circling and repeating, they become that social situation being pushed to its limits, to its contradictions, making apparent the basic claustrophobia and paranoia of 1960s America – and not just in terms of the racial situation.
DG: That contradiction’s important because, if it was true that this was actually reaching people, it wouldn’t have that contradiction, it would have actually broken through – and it’s impossible to think of what it would be like to break through because it hasn’t happened.
SB: Because historically, and still now, the only place that breakthrough can end, given the constraints, is in riot or a terrorist atrocity, and that just always closes everything down again: the constraints become sharper, more unavoidable and more cruel.
DG: You’re trapped in that cycle – like in the Coltrane thing – the moment is never protracted, it will always come back down.
SB: And in ‘The Screamers’, the action in the story is that they go out in the street and they do riot.
DG: Yeah, they move out in a sort of procession – they move out of the confines of the club into the world…
SB: And then the cops beat them up. “They were strutting, and all their horns held very high, and they were only playing that one scary note.” It’s the riot that completes it: “ecstatic, completed, involved in a secret communal expression,” and that’s the secrecy that’s aimed for, earlier on in the story. “Ecstatic, completed, involved in a secret communal expression. It would be the form of the sweetest revolution, to huckle-buck into the fallen capital, and let the oppressors lindy-hop out.” But then the cops come in their paddy-wagons, so it gets closed down again, and they’re forced to retreat, “onto the sidewalk, into the lobby, half-way up the stairs, then we all broke our different ways, to save whatever it was each of us thought he loved.”
DG: In fact, when they go out, they’re not even intending to riot, they’re just marching out behind the musicians.
SB: They’re just marching around and having a laugh, out in the street, but then the cops come and water-canon them, so they go and get their knives.
DG: It’s all about control of the geographical space: the fact that they’ve moved out into the street from the club, from this enclosed space, this space which is supposed to be reserved for ‘entertainment’, kept out of sight. When the music comes out and up into the ‘normal’ world, the everyday world, it has to be clamped down on, because of the revolutionary potential which Baraka senses in it. Just as ‘Dancing in the Streets’ was taken as a coded song about rioting. The energies that inform the music and the act of violent revolt are potentially the same, and the one could release the other.
SB: “This stance spread like fire through the joints and the cabarets of the black cities, so that the sound itself became a basis for thought, and the innovators searched for uglier modes…The repeated rhythmic figure, a screamed riff, pushed in its insistence past music. It was hatred and frustration, secrecy and despair. It spurted out of the dipthong culture, and reinforced the black cults of emotion.” What it’s screaming for is some kind of unity, I suppose. “There was no compromise, no dreary sophistication, only the elegance of something that is too ugly to be described and is diluted only at the agent’s peril.” It’s like Burroughs!
DG: ‘Dipthong’ is a gliding between two adjacent vowels – which would seem to be similar to what Pharoah Sanders was doing…It’s interesting where Baraka talks about ugliness and obscenity, because jazz has always been obscene, in that sense. Like that Buddy Bolden song called ‘Funky Butt’, which is about being stinky and smelly – bumping and grinding…
SB: The tension in the whole history of popular music, and probably other forms of music as well, is that you have these periods of obscenity and ugliness which then become all slicked-up, and then something else comes along and breaks that again – in the history of rock ’n roll you’ve got rock becoming this slick thing like The Eagles, until punk comes along, and then punk also becomes this slick style.
DG: I wonder what the whole spiritual, hippy stuff did to that. We’re talking about Coltrane being obscene, but there’s also all that spiritual stuff, which then goes into Pharoah Sanders making peace and love music.
SB: Well this is also Baraka’s interpretation of the music, and this is Baraka’s problem with the late Coltrane, because he’s not…there’s lots of ugliness on this record, but those screams on ‘Out of This World’ aren’t sexual at all, unlike the R & B screams Baraka’s talking about. Whereas people like Archie Shepp, their playing definitely is sexual.
DG: Well, he’s using the honk in a very different way. Ekkerhard Jost talks about his way of articulating notes as ‘staccatoed legato’ – it’s sharp & smooth at the same time; it’s very low-down.
SB: Pharoah Sanders did start in these kinds of bands, honking, bar-walking, and Coltrane played in them too. It always struck me that the whole jazz-rock fusion thing, this notion of fusing jazz and rock, had already been done in 60s music, in the sound of R & B and honking – that whole sensibility was pulled into jazz. Ornette is also coming out of that: they’re all knowledgeable jazz players, but they’ve also got a woodshedding in R & B and rock ‘n roll, which the earlier players obviously didn’t.
DG: There’s that Cecil Taylor record, ‘New York City R & B.’ I guess jazz-rock was moving more towards the floaty, ethereal side of things, rather than getting-down type music.
SB: Yeah, it’s hippy music – the rock it was fusing with was Pink Floyd, people like that. But, getting back to ‘Live in Seattle’, this is doing the same thing here that Baraka’s talking about in ‘The Screamers’– the piano just keeps on repeating.
DG: But it’s not exhilarating in the same way, it’s not repeating till it reaches orgasm – here, it’s just again and…again and…again. You know it’s coming, you anticipate it, but you don’t want it to happen again. And over that, you’ve got Pharoah Sanders finding about four different ways to articulate the same two notes. If it was a graph, you’d have the piano, bass, drums repeating, on the beat, with the same phrase lengths, and Sanders would be varying the lengths of the notes, the phrases – say, extending the first note, then, the next time, extending the second note.
I guess Baraka doesn’t really try to write a jazz poem till the 70s.
SB: Well, you have things like ‘The Bridge’, which comes out in ‘Preface to a 21-Volume Suicide Note.’ It’s only a jazz poem if you know what the bridge is – the bridge section in a song. “I have forgotten the head/ of where I am. Here at the bridge. 2/ bars, down the street, seeming/ to wrap themselves around my fingers.”
DG: The simultaneity of it is interesting – in poetry, one word can mean three things at once. So, “Here at the bridge, two bars” –the most obvious meaning, in context, is a bar where you’d go to get drunk and to hear the music, but it could also be, say, a two-bar break, bar-lines, even prison bars. And the bridge itself is both a physical bridge and the bridge of the tune; the ‘head’ the head of the tune and also, in some vaguer sense, ‘going out of one’s head’, losing one’s mind, one’s cool, one’s mental grip on the situation. Which is also what happens to the musician, on the bridge of the tune, forgetting the head, being forced to improvise.
SB: And again, it’s all about breaking out: “I can’t see the bridge now, I’ve passed / it, its shadow, we drove through, headed out.” “The changes are difficult, when / you hear them, & know they are all in you, the chords // of your disorder meddle with your would be disguises.”
This is probably a better jazz poem than his later ones, which are less about the music itself than about the iconic being: ‘AM/TRAK’ is not a poem about Coltrane’s music, it’s a poem about his life.
DG: Which is why ‘Comes through in the Call Hold’ by Clark Coolidge is interesting, because he’s not trying to approach the music through subject matter, but trying to improvise with the music.
SB: Here, as in ‘The Bridge’, the sound is resonating with the sound that’s already inside you, and is something that can enable you to get out and move past. It’s all really obvious shit, you know!
DG: It’s also that thing of losing your self; whether, or how far, the music is ‘self-expression’. People always criticize Coltrane for going on and on, like a boring drunk person at a bar talking about themselves – but it’s not really showing off technique.
SB: Though he is working rationally through chords and things – he’s not just sitting there like some kind of shaman, spreading all these kinds of cosmic truths in a moment of inspiration – that’s not what’s going on at all.
DG: No, you have to get at that stuff through technique.
SB: He’s choosing the notes, and he’s choosing the notes for a purpose, relating them to one another. Maybe that’s as far as that approach can be pushed, which is why Pharoah Sanders has to go into pure sound. That’s what Don Ayler claims as well, that it’s no longer about notes, but about sounds and the connection between sounds. But those moments when the Ayler brothers are playing this kind of wall of sound are sandwiched between several minutes of notated, or at least composed music, as with Coltrane. ‘Change has Come’ has got that same kind of repeating thing as ‘Out of this World’, except it’s getting faster and faster and faster until it does break out.
DG: Whereas Coltrane doesn’t vary the tempo in that way – or, there are quite clearly delineated breaks and transitions where the change happens.
[‘Evolution’ begins: three horns soloing over bass, no drums and piano. Towards the end of this section, several of the musicians put down their horns and start screaming ‘Om’.]
SB: Again, this is all about reaching after an impossible ecstatic release, rather than achieving one…I always thought it was interesting to compare the way Coltrane voices the syllable ‘Om’ to, say, the way Allen Ginsberg does. At the riot in the Chicago, he starts chanting ‘Om’ as a way of calming every one down – like a true counter-revolutionary – but for Coltrane it’s exactly the opposite, it’s screaming – it’s almost like the musical instruments have been scraping at the edges of something and then the musicians put the instruments down and just start screaming, and then what can they do after that? Here, it comes back down, it goes into a piano solo.
DG: I guess the reason Coltrane was working with all these younger or less well-known musicians – like Sanders, like Garrett – was that he didn’t want to be the star of the band, taking all the solos – he wanted it to be more collective.
SB: And also getting away from the single voice – this is one solo, but it’s not just one person soloing, there are three horns there, so it’s gone beyond Mackey’s split single voice.
DG: It’s more like three separate voices as a single voice; or, one crowd made up of many voices, a swarm of diverse voices. It’s moving beyond the idea of the solo as one person – you’d have to find a new name for what this is: collective improvisation, everyone soloing at once.
SB: But they’re all playing on this similar line – they’re overlapping, coming out of each other. It’s a broken voice, but not a shattered voice – it’s as if the voice is suddenly able to say several things at the same time.
DG: There are points where, say, two of them are overlapping and then there’s one point here where they’re all three of them overlapping. I guess, in terms of comparing it to a crowd situation or a riot or a march, there’s a certain unifying purpose, like robbing a store, or marching towards Millbank…6
SB: Or that moment when you’re no longer marching and you have made that break out of the systems that you’ve imposed on yourself, and you’re suddenly standing around in the courtyard of Millbank singing ‘build a bonfire’ while the anarchists wave flags from the top of the building. But that’s a moment of an illusion of breaking out, because of course suddenly you’re just standing around, and it’s great and everything, but you are just standing around, and nothing more can happen, even if you decide to go along and break all the windows and smash the place up – you’re still stuck there, there’s no further breaking out possible at that moment. Though I think everybody who was there felt that having been there gave them a sense of further possibility.
DG: And the improvised logic of it – when you’re marching along and you spontaneously decide to go off the planned route – well, maybe a few anarchists secretly planned it, but the illusion is still that you move along, find a way of evading the police, dodge down side streets…Like in that David Henderson poem, ‘Keep on Pushing’, about the Harlem Riots in 1964: the song that he’s referring to isn’t jazz, it’s by the Impressions, but it keeps threading its way through, like those notes which fade in and out which we were talking about earlier – you’re moving around, you’re mobile, you’ve got sets and forms you can pick up, it’s not totally formless, but it’s not pre-ordained.
SB: You’re still in the structure, you’re still in the city, the street system.
DG: You have those Frank O’ Hara poems where he’s walking around, like some kind of version of psychogeography; the David Henderson poems are a more politicised version of that, a more politicised flaneur.
SB: Whereas Baraka is usually still – in the early poems, he’s inside somewhere, he’s looking out of a window at something, and his streets are always deserted: like the street in ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’, where there are men who may or may not be loitering just outside the glow of the street lights, waiting for the chance to hack you to death, or the beginning of ‘The System of Dante’s Hell,’ where he’s sitting at his desk lacerating himself and just looking out of the window, again at this deserted city.
DG: It’s not about collectivity, really, it’s not in a big crowd – and even when he moves on from that and tries to say, ‘come on, brothers, sisters’, etc, it’s abstracted, they’re not in a place, they’re in a fantasy version of Africa in his head.
SB: Which is the weakness of the later poems – even then, he’s talking about a fictional community he wants, and which he can only speak to, he can’t speak from. So he’s forever there saying, ‘Come on Africans, be beautiful’, or he’s saying, ‘Organise yourselves into a revolutionary party’, but the weakness of those poems is that he’s standing outside of this and he’s trying to tell some imaginary community what to do, this community that he longs for. But that’s probably not quite true, actually – ’cos Baraka rejects those earlier poems because of their isolationism, some kind of individualistic anxiety. Maybe the problem with the later poems is to do with historical factors – the failures of the left in the United States etc. I mean, Baraka’s performance on ‘Fried Shoes’ is great – “this is a communist poem” etc – especially in the context of all the Buddhist crap around Naropa.7 But we can only watch it from the hindsight of the collapse of the left – which changes it. The destruction of community.
DG: What community is ‘Live in Seattle’ in?
SB: Is it even concerned with that, or is it just six people standing there and doing this, and then there are people in the audience?
DG: I guess Cecil Taylor is more concerned with the notion of group and ensemble than Coltrane is, and he explicitly theorizes it in his writing. There’s that bit in ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ by Ishmael Reed where Moses misreads the book and says he’s going to give a solo concert where no one’s allowed to join in with whistles and handclaps, etc – Reed says that’s the moment when the divide between performer and audience is set up. I don’t know if Coltrane cares about the audience or wants to reach out in that way, or if he’d actually be displeased if they started waving tambourines and so on.
SB: This is probably one of the bits on the album where it gets closest to some ecstatic thing, but it doesn’t quite reach it.
DG: It’s still nightmarish, it sounds like someone screaming.
SB: But it’s not so much like the earlier pieces, where it sounded like someone trying to break out of something, trying to articulate something and not being able to do it; here, it is being articulated, but it’s not ecstatic, we’re not all reaching up to the sun like in the late Albert Ayler piece…What physical space is this? What physical space is this suggesting or conjuring? It’s a hellish thing…
DG: Like being in a black hole or void, when the ground opens up beneath your feet. It’s that moment of uncertainty and transition when you move into the impossible, and you can’t stay there: “the place is/ entirely musical. No person can live there.”8 Which is from a poem about Haydn, rather than a poem about free jazz, but it’s still applicable. Everything being musical sounds like Cage, actually…
SB: That notion that music is any sound that you might happen to hear. I hate that, I think it’s bullshit.
DG: It’s about a quality of attention: phenomenological, being in the world. It does aestheticize everything though – if, say, you treat a riot as a piece of music of theatre, you sell it short.
SB: Which is the mistake that these Voina people make.9 They’re either thinking of their whole lives as works of art, or they’re dodging the actual responsibility of political activity but saying ‘oh, we’re just making art.’
DG: Which is like Norman O. Brown saying everything’s poetry, or the Situationists saying we need to make everything poetry. It’s eschatological, some kind of nirvana where everything dissipates…
SB: Absolutely, it’s the same moment with different names: so, for people like the Situationists who’d grown up with the Surrealists, it’s going to be poetry; for Allen Ginsberg, it’s going to be Nirvana; for a revolutionary, it’s going to be that moment of transformation into the collective.
DG: It’s a kind of thinking that it’s impossible not to have if you want any kind of change. Marxism is eschatological. But at the same time, total dissipation is not really something you’d want – which is why those moments when you’re reaching out of the force fields are like the death drive or something – wanting to go back, wanting to re-enter the womb. I guess the idea is that you have to go into a new form, but how do you make that transition without everything just crumbling?
SB: …Without just dying – “no person can live there.” If this continues forever it will kill us.
DG: “Did John’s music kill him?” There’s that poem by A.B. Spellman. There’s also an article Spellman writes in ‘Ebony’, before the poem, I think, in which he says: “I remember wondering aloud to my friend Marion Brown, himself a brilliant saxophonist, if John’s music could have killed him – the man, after all, did not smoke, drink, chase women, eat meat or get high for the last several years of his life – and a…” this bit is awful, you’ll have to excuse the hipster sexism… “and a hip-looking, micro-miniskirted chick sitting next to me said, ‘you know brother, I was just thinking the same thing. When I first went to hear him I couldn’t believe what I heard. Like there are some things that are so personal and so threatening that you don’t even say them to yourself. But Coltrane would give all that up and then he’d take it even deeper.’ ”10
“No person can live there” – no person can live ‘out of this world’, either.
SB: But also, equally, no person can live here – that’s the argument of any revolutionary, that you’re trying to get out because to be in is impossible. Like in ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’ – “find the West // a grey hideous space.”
DG: Which I guess equates to the two poles in the music as well – on the one hand the repeated, insistent, claustrophobic element, but on the other bits like that clarinet solo, where it all opens up, but that’s equally strangling, fearful. In the Rimbaud poem it’s not, ‘oh, it’s all going to be great, we’ll have a great revolution.’
SB: No, it’s, ‘the revolution will kill and crush us all.’ But it’s still necessary. Diane Di Prima says, in the ‘Revolutionary Letters’: “for every revolutionary must at least will his own destruction / rooted as he is in the past he sets out to destroy.”
I think it’s interesting on this album as well that the collective solos which come at the end of every piece are really quiet – they’re almost like the bed of the piece under this pounding from McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Maybe that’s something to do with the recording quality – but it makes it interesting, listening to the record, because it reverses what you would normally expect: the rhythm section are right in the foreground and the collective solo is this thing that’s beneath it.
DG: The voices of the dead bubbling up.
SB: What Pasolini calls ‘the magma.’
DG: This one has a totally different atmosphere to the rest of the album, at least at the start.
SB: It sounds quite tentative and chastened. Compare it to the version that opens up the ‘Live at Birdland’ album – there it’s a huge, joyous, triumphant, confident statement, and here it’s not that at all. I suppose this is the only tune on the album which comes from his standard repertoire.
DG: Mm. I suppose, before we end, we should say something about the specific context of the particular club and the city that Coltrane was performing in for the album. So, the Penthouse, Seattle: they had weekly live jazz radio programmes there. There’s an article about the album in Seattle Music Weekly. “Veteran DJ and patron saint of Northwest jazz Jim Wilke was there that night. He reports that the Penthouse jazz club was crowded, but may not have been a sellout. Cannonball Adderley’s appearance the week before had been a much bigger deal. ‘To some people, Coltrane was still Miles’ former tenor-sax player,’ says Wilke.”11 Here’s Wikipedia: “World War II brought many changes to Seattle, including a “flourishing” “vice scene downtown”, where “booze, gambling and prostitution” were unchecked by “paid-off cops”. The Showbox Ballroomwas a major center for these activities, and was open twenty-four hours a day, geared towards active members of the military. Police officers also tolerated an after-hours jazz scene, based in Chinatown, Seattle and including most famously the Black and Tan Club. This period produced a few local performers of note, including Hollywood star Ray Charles…Seattle’s local regulations changed in 1949, facilitating a shift from “private clubs” to “restaurant-lounge combinations” which “didn’t support much in the line of creative nightlife” and even helped to drive out the city’s jazz nightclub scene…The early 1960s saw Seattle become home to a local dance scene…a series of teen dances… Perhaps Seattle’s most famous black musical export is Jimi Hendrix, who began performing in the city but didn’t gain a major national or regional reputation until moving to England.”12
SB: Well Seattle was also historically a very political town – the Wobblies, and all of that.
[Meanwhile, the record ends]
DG: And that’s the end of the record.
SB: It just fades away. Great, isn’t it.
DG: Do you have any juice?
Sean Bonney’s Letter on Harmony was initially published on the blog http://abandonedbuildings.blogspot.com.
David Grundy’s piece was initially published on the blog http://streamsofexpression.blogspot.com
1 These two quotations (from Niedlinger and Conrad) are lifted (with gratitude) from the 2006 double-issue of David Meltzer and Steve Dickison’s jazz and poetry magazine Shuffle Boil, where they appear as appendages to Clark Coolidge’s excellent piece on the Cecil Taylor Feel Trio box-set, ‘Two T’s for a Lovely T.’ The issue in question appears to be currently out of print, though other issues are available from: http://www.spdbooks.org/Search/Default.aspx?SearchTerm=shuffle+boil.
6 Refers to the November 2010 protest against the education policies of the British Coalition government, at which a group moved off from the designated route to break into, and occupy, the Conservative Party headquarters at Millbank Tower.
7 Refers to the film ‘Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds’ (1979), which contains footage of various poets, including Baraka, reading at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
9 Voina is a Russian street/ performance art collective: http://en.free-voina.org/
11 David Stoesz, ‘Coltrane, Live at 45’ (Seattle Music Weekly, Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010) http://www.seattleweekly.com/2010-09-29/music/coltrane-live-at-45/