MICHAEL GREGORY JACKSON – CLARITY
Release Date: 2010
Tracklist: Clarity; A View of This Life; Oliver Lake; Prelueoionti; Ballad; Clarity (4); Ab Bb 1-7-3o; IOMI
Personnel: Michael Gregory Jackson: acoustic & electric guitar, vocal, bamboo flute, timpani, marimba, percussion; David Murray: tenor sax; Oliver Lake: flute, soprano & alto saxophone, talking drum, cowbell; Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet & soprano trumpet, flugelhorn, Indian flute Additional Information: Originally recorded in 1976 (in NYC, Hartford & LA) & released in 1977.
A player associated with the ‘Loft Jazz’ movement of late ’70s New York, Michael Gregory Jackson (subsequently known simply as Michael Gregory, in order to avoid confusion with his more famous name-sake) adopted that movement’s ethic of multi-instrumentalism and a wide-open conception of genre, wedded to a distinct compositional ethic and an elegant, sometimes wistful, sometimes astringent sensibility. On this, his first release, but one of the last to come out on ESP-Disk, we very much hear Jackson as composer; also – occasionally – as folk-club singer-songwriter, and, perhaps less than one might think, as improvising jazz musician. One notable thing about the record is Jackson’s refusal to play a supporting role, his continued insistence on being a ‘lead instrument’ alongside the horns (in contrast to, say, the more jazz-fusion-flavoured ‘Gifts’ from 1979). This is after all, his record date, these are his pieces; and who’s to say a guitar should always be part of the ‘rhythm section’ anyway? In fact, Jackson does away with a rhythm section altogether, choosing to pair himself instead with the horns of Oliver Lake (with whom he regularly played as a sideman), David Murray and Wadada Leo Smith. It’s no mean line-up, certainly, and if the results don’t quite deliver on the caliber promised by those names, it’s for reasons that are rather hard to pin down.
For the most part, Lake, Murray and Smith play Jackson’s compositions in melodic unison, only occasionally moving into improvised sections, which sometimes (to my mind) sit rather uncomfortably with the more obviously ‘formal’ material. ‘Clarity (4)’ finds Jackson moving from guitar to a variety of percussion and wind instruments – gong, marimba, bamboo flute – in a free-flowing dialogue never content to settle on any one texture or melodic impulse. It’s the sort of thing that had been pioneered by members of the AACM, and it’s an approach that often produces fascinating music, but it’s maybe best suited to long-form pieces, and here it feels as though there’s never quite enough time for things to develop. Similarly, Jackson’s vocal on the title track suggests an intriguing marriage between wistful singer-songwriter material and the more spindly, drawn-out unison lines played by the horns, but it remains a one-off, the only time voice appears on the record. Arguably the most cohesive, and certainly the most immediately attractive track is ‘Prelueoionti’, a solo guitar piece recorded live in Los Angeles – though the audience are so quiet and attentive one would imagine this to have been laid down in a studio, were it not for the applause at the end of the piece and a single stray cough. Here Jackson concentrates on alternating cyclical patterns and melodies, the rhythmic momentum swelling up to a strongly strummed climax before dipping back down to catch the breath in reverie, then once more building. It’s very atmospheric, sunlight-dappled, more in the ‘finger-picking’ tradition than the compositions that make up much of what we hear on the rest of the record, and a fine example of its kind.
Jackson was only 23 when these selections were recorded, so perhaps he was capable of; and, truth be told, on repeated listens, the album seems more cohesive than I’ve made out. It’s certainly quite different to the rest of ESP’s output, the absence of drums ensuring a generally slower, more pensive approach akin to chamber music, and the textural combination of brass and guitar is one not generally found in any genre. In the end, I find myself craving more moments in the vein of the gorgeous section near the end of ‘IOMI’ (a track which, for some reason, reminds me of Andrew Hill’s piece ‘Faded Beauty’) where Lake’s sweet-toned saxophone flurries are joined by Smith’s muted trills, Murray’s barely-audible breath-tones, and Jackson’s accompanying chords. It’s a moment that sounds totally spontaneous, yet every individual fits into the whole with delicious formal exactness, each complementing the other and keeping the texture fluid and uncluttered. Elsewhere, though, such a balance proves harder to attain. Things are, in fact, almost too clear, too clean, as if the musicians were deliberately reining themselves in (compare, for instance, the reading of the title track here with the much looser, more freer-flowing rendition on the ‘Wildflowers’ Loft Jazz Anthology, where Lake’s saxophone is tart yet sweet, his flute mellifluous and floating, and Jackson’s guitar merges with a shimmering combination of arco bass and cymbals). That said, whatever my personal judgements, ‘Clarity’ never feels false or hollow; it has integrity, and is very much worth a closer examination. (DG)
SONNY SIMMONS – STAYING ON THE WATCH
Release Date: 2010
Tracklist: Metamorphosis; A Distant Voice; City of David; Interplanetary Travellers
Personnel: Teddy Smith: bass; John Hicks: piano; Marvin Pattillo: percussion; Barbara Donald: trumpet; Sonny Simmons: alto sax
Additional Information: Originally recorded & released in 1966.
There is no printed information, no lettering on the front cover of Sonny Simmons’ 1966 album ‘Staying on the Watch’; instead, Sandra Stollman’s black-and-white photograph of the artist takes up the entire space, a striking and intriguing visual statement that still grabs the attention on the occasion of the album’s re-issue. Simmons stands on a rock, towering over the New York City skyline on which he has turned his back, looking out of the frame as he plays his horn. The pose he strikes is defiant, confident, bold; he is playing from his experience of the city, of the contemporary climate, of life as it is, but at the same time ‘looking ahead’, suggesting what the future might bring – as the record’s title suggests, he is simultaneously a watchman and a ‘seer’, someone who sees ahead, who offers us a share in that glimpse.
Simmons had made his first visit to New York City in 1963, when he had recorded a number of sessions with Eric Dolphy and Prince Lasha. Though adventurous and to this day essential listening, the resultant albums did reach the extremes of dissonance, timbral distortion, and pulse-playing that characterized much of the ‘New Thing’ music with which the ESP-Disk label became so interlinked. Thus, it was clear that a definite move ‘outwards’ had taken place in Simmons’ music when, on his next visit to New York, he recorded two sessions for ESP. (The three years in between the two visits must have been a fascinating time of development, but, as no recordings survive from this period, we can only guess at the ways in which changes began to manifest themselves.)
‘Staying on the Watch’, the first of the ESP sessions, finds Simmons leading a quartet comprised of his wife, Barbara Donald, a fine player who was stood out in the jazz world of the time (and still stands out) for being both white, and a woman; the pianist John Hicks, who would go on to have a long and prolific career, playing up until his demise in 2006; bassist Teddy Smith, better-known in mainstream contexts (previous to his work with Simmons, he had appeared in groups led by Betty Carter, Horace Silver, Jackie McLean, Slide Hampton and Sonny Rollins); and drummer Marvin Pattillo, whose only other appearance on record is Pharoah Sanders’ debut recording, also for ESP. This is clearly not a thrown-together session – the playing is tight and together, opening compositional material delivered with a crisp and clean articulation, often at high tempos, before each player makes their individual mark through extended solos. Hicks makes interesting play out of McCoy Tyner-esque chords, Simmons combines a ferocious tone – smearing, searing, white-hot – with R&B phrases that disarmingly pop out of nowhere, while Donald makes confident free-bop statements. The theme-solos-theme format is mostly adhered but also deviated from in ways that keep the music structurally fresh, avoiding the by-rote ordering that besets even some ostensibly ‘free’ recordings from this period. Brisk opening and closing melodic statements lend proceedings a crisp and bracing edge; though tracks are fairly long (lasting from seven to thirteen minutes), the session doesn’t feel sprawling but, tight, compact – a ball of energy packed into forty-four minutes that fairly speed by.
‘Metamorphosis’, though still credited to Simmons, is apparently an adaptation of a composition by the late Bill Dixon; as played here, in swift unison, it sounds like an opening fanfare, an injunction to ‘listen up!’ The leader solos first, his alto pitched high and edged rough, though this is certainly not a ‘screech-fest’ – listen to the way he and Hicks mirror each-other, exchanging melodic lines in a manner that suggests parallel improvisation than ‘soloist’ and ‘accompanist’. Under Donald’s trumpet, Hicks switches to more standard jazz comping, giving her solo a ‘freebop’ feel – indeed, Donald at one point plays a line that sounds fairly similar to some of the more aggressive phrases Miles Davis was beginning to employ during the mid-60s. Her solo ends with a sustained low note, Teddy Smith taking over, bowed and melodic, serious but with a rhythmic spring in his step. Now Hicks, like McCoy Tyner combining busy right hand runs with left-hand chords plonked out at regular rhythmic intervals; unlike Tyner, however, the chords, at least initially, threaten to overwhelm the single-note lines (perhaps due to the rather boxy recording quality?). The runs become freer, more dissonant, interrupting the locked-in chordal juggernaut (which, nevertheless, soon gets itself back into gear), and there might seem to be a slight disjuncture between the two approaches – but, as the solo continues, it’s as if something suddenly clicks into place, the player and listener both ‘getting it’ or ‘getting into it’. When Hicks settles on a rolling, lower register figure accompanied by string plucks that sound quite different from the usual ‘inside-piano’ forays, it feels apt but surprising in the best way. And one has to admire the way in which he jerks straight out of his solo journey to play the returning full-band theme in perfect tone and time.
‘A Distant Voice’ provides a nice contrast in mood, tempo, and colour, being a duet for Simmons and Smith that seems, in large-part, to be through-composed. Simmons’ oriental-sounding timbre, bending notes and striving to make the harmonies ambiguous, prefigures his later English Horn work, and both players sound closely attuned to each-other, carefully and subtly blending written and improvised material. ‘City of David’, the record’s longest track, opens at a similarly slow tempo, and takes in a pretty bass solo before the speeds suddenly shoot up and Donald plays bright, open lines over sparkling bass and drums. An apparent tape edit take us into a unison theme and Simmons, throwing in an R&B lick early on, holds high, questing tones built up to from coruscating, exhilarating runs. Hicks seems to be winding things down in order to prepare us for a breather after Simmons’ impassioned statements, but instead we move into a drum solo which energetically – and, it turns out, succinctly – emphasizes a couple of rhythmic patterns before the horns’ thematic blast ushers in Hicks’ solo. Once more, as on ‘Metamorphosis’, this is the longest improvisation on the piece, the pianist hammering home the logic of chordal sequences and occasionally leaving little pauses between on-the-beat-emphasis to add a little tension, as bass and drums keep up a constant forward rush. A touch of gospelly articulation, right-hand runs with renewed vigour, urgent yet grandiose repetitions – Hicks enthralls almost by dint of sheer persistence.
The composition at the start of ‘Interplanetary Travelers’ is in two parts: an elongated initial melody leads to a faster, repeated section. As with all the themes on this record, it’s snappy but not riff-like or ‘easy’ in the slightest. Now Simmons over just drums and drums, going fast, starting out with a scalding shrillness, settling on an almost lilting melodic phrases before whirling out again, the dizzying tonguing and slurring of repeated phrases threatening to dissolve the bass-drum combination’s continued patter into a more abstract pulse. The solo ends with a high, staccato passage of great virtuosity, not that dissimilar to the sort of thing one might hear played in contemporary ‘European Free Improvisation’. By contrast, Donald almost seems to drag the notes out from her trumpet, in a kind of luxurious, distorted play on fanfare figures, soon giving way to Smith on bass, bending notes, imparting them with a snapped edge, winding down from the preceding high-tempo playing into something more spacious, breathable. Drums lead back to a brief passage where the thematic restatement is mangled into parallel improvisation for the horns, Simmons’ extreme staccato articulation throwing things deliberately off-balance, arco bass making its presence felt somewhere underneath. And then a quick unison flourish to end. None of the Coltrane Quartet’s swelling codas here (those codas pushed to their full potential by Roland Kirk in the concert film ‘I Eye Aye’, where a full twominutes of dissonant closing pounding sees Kirk smashing a chair on-stage as things threaten to erupt into an ecstatic, joyful riot). Instead, Simmons & Co. keep it tight and punchy – the band is on its toes, not dwelling on what has just happened, ready for the next piece, ready for the future, ‘staying on the watch’. (DG)
PATTY WATERS – SINGS
Release Date: February 2009
Personnel: Patty Waters: piano (1-7), voice; on ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ (8), add Burton Greene: piano, piano harp; Steve Tintweiss: bass; Tom Price: drums
Tracklist: Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight; Why Can’t I Come to You;
You Thrill Me; Sad Am I, Glad Am I; Why Is Love Such A Funny Thing; I Can’t Forget You; You Loved Me; Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair.
Additional Information: Originally released 1965.
Of Patty Waters’ two records for ESP-Disk, it is the second, ‘College Tour’, that has the greater colouristic range and, perhaps, emotional scope: nonetheless, the very limitation of this, the first record – its frequent concentration on just one dimension, one mood – imparts it with a unique claustrophobic power. The microphone picks up every nuance, every imperfection in Waters’ voice; the hesitation before singing the next phrase, the way each line is given near-ponderous, equal weight, piano and voice in a kind of sparse and motionless alternating dialogue. Waters rarely sings directly over the chords and melodic phrases that she plays, instead using the keyboard to accentuate and contrast the vocal line: often, her voice sounds out over the piano’s last reverberations (most of her playing is sustain-pedaled), though, occasionally, she uses a kind of solfège effect which actually seems to render the music even more delicate, rather than amplifying its volume and ‘power’. Some might argue that the songs on the first side are the disposable items before the real standout, ‘Black is the Colour’; and they do indeed all lie within a similar piano range, each unfolding at the same slow, hesitant tempo, each plumbing the same lyrical and emotional mood of insecurity and fragility. Sometimes, they feel like cast-offs rather than fully-fledged songs; sketches, lasting barely more than a minute. Nonetheless, taken as a whole (for they seem to merge, to melt into one another, insubstantial yet haunting), they create a fitting prelude, as if the emotions packed into the fragile miniatures of the first side expand and explode into the unadorned starkness of the record’s best-known track, the near-fifteen-minute ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’. And perhaps, without them, ‘Black’ would lose some of its power.
Structurally, ‘Black’ would appear to be largely improvised: Waters almost whispers the melody over Burton Greene’s dissonant, harp-like playing of the piano strings, before Steve Tintweiss’ bass and Tom Price’s drums add sea-sick rhythmic articulations as Greene moves to the keyboard, while Waters alternately lets out piercing, terrifying screams, and repeats the word ‘black’, over and over, with a kind of despairing, obsessive, almost mocking quality. It’s impossible not to think of the racial and political connotations that would have been evoked at the time by that word, ‘black’, despite – and even because of – the fact that Waters’ singing seems so strongly personal. Fittingly, the last seconds of the record are left to her voice alone, once more whispering fragments of melody, this time wordlessly – not resolution exactly, but the exhausted aftermath of an emotional purging, the last resort of a voice that’s been through the gauntlet – crying, screaming, pleading, shouting out – and can find nothing but the merest wisp with which to ‘conclude’.
Despite the fact that this album – that final performance in particular – would go on to have such influence on those female singers interested in expanding the range and acceptable ‘musicality’ of the human voice, its power lies precisely in the fact that Waters’ take on jazz song – and on song in general – is so personal, so idiosyncratic, so uncomfortably direct and seemingly unpolished, so unconcerned with its placing in musical history. ‘Sings’ is not aiming to be a trailblazer, a ‘classic’, a standout: instead, in whispers and screams, it is the act of an artist reaching deep into herself, both within and without the confines of traditional form, as if willed by an inner imperative, an imperative that still sounds loud and clear nearly half a century on. (DG)