ALBERT AYLER/ DON CHERRY/ JOHN TCHICAI/ ROSWELL RUDD/ GARY PEACOCK/ SUNNY MURRAY – NEW YORK EYE AND EAR CONTROL
Release Date: February 2008
Tracklist: Don’s Dawn; AY; ITT
Personnel: Albert Ayler: tenor sax; Don Cherry: trumpet, cornet; John Tchicai: alto sax; Roswell Rudd: trombone; Gary Peacock: bass; Sunny Murray: drums
Additional Information: Recorded in New York City, July 17th, 1964 by Michael Snow for use as the soundtrack to his film ‘Walking Woman’ (a.k.a. ‘New York Eye and Ear Control’).
I haven’t seen the Michael Snow film for which this is the ‘soundtrack’, though, as with Miles Davis’ ‘A Tribute to Jack Johnson’, I think the album really exists as a separate document – these sounds are not dependent on images at all. Mind you, it is intriguing that the movie was made around the music, rather than the other way round. How one might structure a film around free jazz is the sort of problem that none too many artists have faced since then, and this endeavour attest to the cross-discipline fertilization that was going on in the vibrant creative air of the mid-60s (the album was recorded by a film-maker, at the flat of poet Paul Haines).
This is pure collective improvisation – ‘energy music’ was one of the (still-apt) terms that floated around as critics tried to work out what the hell was going on. “You never heard such sounds in your life” – indeed. Ayler dominates – by sheer force, one might say – his sound is so big, the execution of his ideas so compelling (that massive vibrato was pretty much unprecedented and is since unmatched) –though I’m not sure that I really agree with the argument, put across in several reviews I’ve read, that the music finds its direction solely from him, floundering when he’s not playing. Listen, for instance, to the section about ten minutes into ‘AY’, where Rudd’s trombone is stoked by Tchicai’s piquant, barely-heard counterpoint, Gary Peacock’s ship-mast low-end creakings and Sunny Murray’s groaning vocalized song over his slippery cymbal colour-rhythm. This is just one of several moments of superb Rudd-Tchicai interaction, which may come as something of a surprise, considering their rather different approaches: Rudd’s often humorous (boozy smears) and reminiscent of the joyous of the marching-bands that Ayler so loved, Tchicai’s more inquisitive and prone to introspective lyricism. In the particularly example I’ve just singled out, it’s true that things do threaten to stall, and the re-entry of the leader gets things going again – thus, this section does feel rather like an interlude. In addition, Tchicai perhaps suffers the most from competing for attention in a front-line consisting of such strong musical personalities – he’s the last horn player that you notice during ensemble passages – but he does get some glorious moments, such as the jittery interaction with Cherry, four minutes into ‘ITT’ – not quite the lyrical force he was on ‘Ascension,’ but doing something different and intriguing.
And, even if he does dominate proceedings, I don’t really see the problem of listening to Ayler in his prime. It’s especially nice to hear him in a completely improvised context, without constant resource to the march-themes that obsessed him elsewhere (although one does begin ‘ITT’). Whether blowing fearsome low end sounds which defy description, or up high in the altissimo heavens, it’s clear that this was an exceptional player – and any opportunity to hear him, especially at this stage, when he was playing ‘pure’ free jazz (as opposed to the semi-commercial later work), is most welcome.
Don Cherry is the melodic link to things– his swooning half-quotation from ‘Ruby My Dear,’ thirteen minutes into ‘AY,’ feels not at all contrived, not at all out-of-place, as quotations can, and comes a few seconds after he’s actually re-initiated the music, which had slid to silence. If anyone can be said to be ‘musical director’, apart from Ayler, it would be Cherry. A player still seriously underrated, from jazz cognoscenti who find him technically not up to scratch (hell, he wasn’t trying to be Clifford Brown, was he?) and dislike his explorations into the music of other cultures during the 70s and 80s. Whatever you think about the latter (I’m rather more inclined to be favourable than I was a few years ago), it’s clear from listening to his work here, and on his own ensemble projects (such as the quintet heard on ESP’s Café Montmartre recordings), that he had a very strong sense of structure, of timing, of playing what was required by the overall sweep of the music (at the same time as producing some lovely detail). In this particular context, he comes across as something of an intermediary, half-way between Ayler’s terrifying power and Tchicai’s yearning. One mustn’t overlook that, despite the density of musical events produced by the group as a whole, the individual players are often very lyrical – Ayler’s vibrato is torn from the depths of a soul that is as much melodic as it is about pure sound – and we know about Tchicai and Cherry (with Rudd the anarchist, liable to swing either way, to disrupt things with a sly gesture or outrageous about-turn).
So, while this is not quite the bridge between Ornette’s ‘Free Jazz’ and Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ that, at times in the past, I thought it was (maybe Sun Ra’s full-band freakouts hold the key to that), it’s still a very rich and important album– how could it fail to be, with these musicians?
(Review by David Grundy)
ORNETTE COLEMAN – TOWN HALL 1962
Release Date: Feburary 2008
Tracklist: Doughnut; Sadness; Dedication to Writers and Poets; The Ark
Personnel: On Tracks 1-2 and 4, Ornette Coleman Trio –
Ornette Coleman: alto sax; David Izenzon: bass;
Charles Moffett: percussion; On Track 3, String Quartet – Selwart Clarke, Nathan Goldstein: violin; Julien Barber: viola; Kermit Moore: cello
Additional Information: Recorded December 21st, 1962 at Town Hall, New York City.
For some reason, it’s always Coleman’s later periods that I’ve concentrated on, rather than his more famous earlier recordings with Don Cherry et al. The nakedness, the unadorned directness of his playing is just that much more affecting (despite the occasional lapses in taste, like the chirpy little theme, reminiscent to me of a school playground taunt, that surfaces at various points as ‘Dancing in Your Head’ and ‘The Good Life’). Yet listening to him on here – and this is meant to be a compliment – I was struck by just how similar his playing is in 1972, performing a rare solo feature at the Berlin Jazz Tage, and in 1962, stretching out within, and over the liberating confines of an extremely tight, wired ‘rhythm section’.
‘Town Hall 1962’ is the sound of Ornette unencumbered, adhering to nothing but his own vision. Yet, at the same time, as Ethan Iverson points out in a fascinating short essay on Coleman’s late 50s and early 60s music, the saxophonist relied very much on having the right musical partners – for his playing to sound right, he needs the space to be opened up beneath him, with just the right balance between looseness (or an impression of looseness, at least) and control. With this in mind, the music’s success is in a large part due to the fact that Izenzon and Moffett are so truly simpatico, so responsive to Ornette’s methods of expression.
Coleman launches in on ‘Doughnut’ – at least, that’s what it feels like. This is an immensely powerful statement of intent; like a diver pushing themselves off the board in order to give themselves the best possible landing in the numinous waters below. In truth, he probably plays those first few notes with no more force than he employs at numerous other points during the long solos he takes elsewhere on the album – but, as a review of last year’s concert in London in the previous issue of ‘eartrip’ reminded me, his sound is so startling that the first appearance is always bound to astonish, no matter how familiar one is with the man’s music.
A little over five minutes into the track and he pauses – for the moment. Moffett concentrates on the ride cymbal, creating a constant, yet delicate momentum, as if running on tip-toe. Izenzon’s bass harmonics at first sound out as if in the distance, a ghostly commentary on what appears to be a drum solo, but it soon becomes clear that this is going to be a duet, Izenzon alternating more classically-inflected arco work with scrawly runs that echo Ornette’s own characteristic yelps up and down the saxophone keys. Ornette’s return sounds more joyful and liberated than ever, Moffett and Izenzon throwing in their own special, subtle firebombs, one after the other, to create the sense of a dramatic conclusion. This isn’t just showing off, something to make the applause that little bit louder, but a necessary tactic; Ornette’s own playing, for me, often feels as if it could go on forever – what one might call, I suppose, a quality of timelessness. He doesn’t really seem to have the traditional sense of an ending, though of course there are varying degrees of intensity, and there is (spontaneous) construction in what he plays.
‘Sadness’, the album’s ‘ballad’ feature, is him at his most piercing, in a way that catches me in the throat every time. His notes have this way of singing out – staying at a sustained volume for seconds a time, then flowing into the next phrase. Moffett is less about strict time-keeping here, more impressionistic, concentrating on the cymbals to provide a sound palette which both merges, and, at times, gently clashes with Izenzon’s moaning arco bass.
‘Dedication to Poets and Writers’ is Coleman’s ten-minute composition for string quartet – very different in tone and texture to the trio pieces (though perhaps Izenzon’s bowed playing provides some sort of a link). Obviously swirling around at this time was the so-called ‘Third Stream’ movement of which Coleman was a part, and the musical language is similar to that being explored in Third Stream works by Gunther Schuller and Don Ellis– influenced by serialism, and often concerned with complexities of rhythm, as well as pitches of troubled emotion that it would be tempting to suggest represent a kind of zeitgeist reaction to mid-century insecurity: an uneasy modernism. Whereas ‘Skies of America’ deals in the more optimistic ‘rugged pioneers’ language of American composers like Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Howard Hanson and Roy Harris, this is Coleman at his most intellectual and technically advanced – proof that he could do the European classical music thing just as well as any conservatory-trained musician, without sacrificing what makes him himself.
Well, maybe ‘Dedication’ is interesting more for historical reasons than for being one of Ornette’s best pieces; but what follows, I’m bound to say, is the album’s centerpiece, ‘The Ark’: it’s so damned long…Twenty-three minutes: that’s Coltrane-style timing! Flippancy aside, this broadened context allows Coleman to reel off his most fully developed ideas on the record. He just keeps going and going – as I was hinted at earlier, there is never any sense of his flagging, just a constant, joyous ream of sustained invention. He could play one-hundred-and-twenty-three minutes and the music would still be just as fresh. There’s just so much going on here that I can’t possibly hope to describe it all, but I will note that some of the repeated figures bear a striking resemble to the sort of insistent, rhythmic playing that would come to the fore in the jagged funk setting of Prime Time. And Izenzon’s bass playing is just so good – while most bass players seem to use arco predominantly for ballads, for moments of the deepest seriousness, to add a touch of solemnity, Izenzon is equally happy to bow his way around the strings during up-tempo sections. The sound he creates when doing this is a mixture of the modern/progressive and the natural/ regressive – shuddering single-string figures obliquely echo the sound of the machine, of the motor, and yet somehow, feel very human – the sound of nature, of wood, of gut. That combination of modernity and something which could be described as primal is what lies at the heart of Ornette’s music-making too – and I don’t feel like I’m stretching things too far to say that this record shows genius at work. (Review by David Grundy)
TED DANIEL QUINET – TAPESTRY
Label: Porter Records
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Asagefo (prev. unreleased); Tapestry; Sweet Dreams; Mozambique.
Personnel: Ted Daniel: trumpet (1) flugelhorn (2-4); Khan Jamal: vibraphone; Richard Daniel: electric Fender Rhodes piano with Leslie speaker, wah wah pedal and echo-plex; Tim Ingles: ‘non-fretted’ electric bass with wah-wah pedal; Jerome Cooper: drums
Additional Information: Recorded at Ornette Coleman’s Artists House, January 26th, 1974. Originally released by Sun Records in 1974 (produced by Noah Howard).
Like Byard Lancaster, another artist whose work is being heard once again thanks to the re-issues programme on Porter Records, one of Ted Daniel’s early groups featured guitarist Sonny Sharrock. That group was Brute Force, which tended more towards conventional soul material, with the addition of a few wilder touches. Though the quintet featured here contains two of the members of said group, Ted’s brother Richard Daniel and bassist Tim Ingles, this music is a lot more exploratory in nature. The heavily electrified line-up might lead one to suspect something in line with Miles Davis’ 1970s jazz-rock odyssey, but Daniel approaches things more from a spiritual/ free jazz angle. Recorded in New York at Ornette Coleman’s loft performance space in 1974, this was one half of a concert shared with the Noah Howard Quartet, and, generally, Daniels’ group also shares the same sort of jubilant Afro-centric emotional power.
‘Asagefo’, a previously unreleased track, starts things off, with Daniel blowing ecstatic variants on a melodic fragment over a churning group whose sound is placed somewhere between the tempestuous and the celebratory. Richard Daniel’s Fender Rhodes is enhanced to the gills with distorting effects: Leslie speaker, wah-wah pedal and echo-plex succeed in making what could be a very gentle instrument into a seething, dirty monster, enhanced by Jerome Cooper’s almost constant cymbal spatter and Tim Ingles’ hyperactive bass work, with someone (presumably Ted) screaming exhortations into the mix. Ingles is never content to provide a steady groove, something else which distinguishes this from Miles’ work with Michael Henderson; indeed, if it were not for the instrumentation, one would immediately associate this quintet with free jazz rather than jazz fusion.
‘Tapestry’ takes things down a notch, though it’s not really a ballad – Daniel’s trumpet has the lyrical but muscular energy of Hugh Masekela (a very good jazz player, in my opinion, something which is rather overshadowed by the success of his vocal work over the years). This is scene-painting music, music of vast spaces and magnificent sun-drenched horizons, as the band leisurely rolls through the chord sequence, with Khan Jamal’s vibes giving things a bright edge, and the rhythm section preventing things from becoming too comfortable (Cooper never seems to stop – he’s tireless).
‘Sweet Dreams’ really is a ballad, though: hazy electric piano, gentle, deep resonances from Ingles’ bass and hovering cymbals lay a relaxed and undulating backdrop for some trumpet-work that has the feeling of a proclamation; Daniel as the griot, singing his inner feelings into public utterance, extemporizing on the moment while with a deep sense of the traditions and conditions that form his response, in moments that speak both of private and collective wonderment, building to organic climaxes and subsiding
‘Mozambique’, the shortest track on the record, is also the fiercest: the Rhodes’ wah-wah pedal is used to the full, creating an almost guitar-like accompaniment, while Daniels’ trumpet has a strong vocal quality – as, indeed, it had on the ballad, but this time more prone to the scream than the song, delivering an urgent call to the arms rather than a serene hymn to nature. I love that Rhodes sound, I have to say, and I love the urgency of this track: it’s a fine way to end the album.
So far, I’ve had only good things to say about ‘Tapestry’, but I should note that the recording quality a bit of a let-down; what with all the electrified instruments, and in particular the density of having both fender Rhodes and vibraphone in the same line-up, things do tend to get rather muddy, and that can make listening to the whole record in one go a somewhat more taxing experience than it needs be (particularly on headphones). Still, Daniel has not been recorded nearly enough, and this is an excellent opportunity to hear some passionate and powerful music-making, from a very creative time in jazz history – despite what Ken Burns would have you believe. (Review by David Grundy)
MICHAEL GARRICK – PROMISES
Release Date: 2008
Tracklisting: Promises; Parting is Such; I Got Rhythm; A Thing of Beauty; Merlin the Wizard; Second Coming; Requiem; Leprechaun Leap; Portrait of a Young Lady; Song By the Sea
Personnel: Michael Garrick: piano, celeste; Ian Carr: trumpet, flugelhorn; Joe Harriott: alto sax; Tony Coe: tenor sax, clarinet; Coleridge Goode or Dave Green: bass; Colin Barnes: drums
Additional Information: Originally released in 1965; first British CD reissue.
From the very off, ‘Promises’ actually delivers perhaps more than any other Michael Garrick album. The title track shimmers with Ian Carr’s eloquent solo underpinned by Garrick’s terse but incisive piano. A mixture on this album of Coleridge Goode and Dave Green on bass, Colin Barnes on drums and either Tony Coe or Joe Harriott on reeds. ‘Parting is Such’could be a track to represent the whole of the 1960s (the monochrome period). At times hymnal in its solemnity, with a wailing Harriott on alto, it portrays a picture of rainy England on a Sunday afternoon, better than anything before or since. The only standard on the album, ‘I Got Rhythm’ is a cheeky but novel paean to Gershwin’s original which only dissolves into a totally recognisable incarnation of itself in the last few bars or so. ‘A Thing of Beauty’ is exactly that, a ballad so perfectly apposite that it needs no further description. ‘Merlin The Wizard’ is yet another example of Garrick’s compositional skills at their finest. The head soon gives way to a boppish pastiche in the bridge which returns to the main theme before the solos. This is quintessential Garrick, as is the next track; a blues based number with an insistent locomotive inspired beat and muted Carr accompanied by Tony Coe on clarinet. ‘Requiem’ opens with solo piano followed by sax, bass and drums. Tony Coe solos here on tenor in his own inimitable style. ‘Leprechaun Leap’ has Joe Harriott soloing in his own inimitable fashion, where he is heard in as jovial mood as might be possible. ‘Portrait of a Young Lady’ is a 3 / 4 mid tempo tune that like most of the numbers here is hauntingly effective. The set closes in typically eccentric fashion with Garrick on eerie, child-like celeste backed by bass and drums.
To say this is an essential album in the canon of Michael Garrick is an understatement. It is almost certainly his best album and one of the most satisfying of all British jazz albums recorded in the last fifty years. Although it was previously reissued about five years ago by Universal in Japan only, this is the first time it has been reissued in the UK since it was recorded over 40 years ago. It is an unassuming but strangely powerful statement by Garrick and exemplifies his own qualities of modesty and imaginative creativity. Although over the years Michael Garrick has made recorded some of the finest albums ever to caress the ears of jazz lovers, ‘Promises’ in its own special way is probably his finest hour. (Review by Roger Farbey)
MILFORD GRAVES – PERCUSSION ENSEMBLE
Release Date: June 2008
Tracklist: Nothing 5-7; Nothing 11-10; Nothing 19; Nothing 13; Nothing
Personnel: Milford Graves: drums, bells, gongs, shakers; Sunny Morgan: drums, bells
Additional Information: Recorded July, 1965.
This isn’t really jazz at all, not only because of the absence of a melody instrument, but also because of the way it is constructed and the sounds that are used in its construction. That’s not a criticism, just an observation; the record remains an intriguing listen. In what was an unusual session for the time (solo percussion is not the most popular format) Graves is joined by Sunny Morgan, one of the many little-known artists whose discography is often limited to a few dates on ESP records (although, in fairness, Morgan did go on to play with singer Leon Thomas in the 70s).
Perhaps the best way into the music on this occasion is with the comments of a critic. Allowing for a certain amount of hagiography (“just about the most brilliantly conceived and executed percussion album to date”), Valerie Wilmer’s comments on the album in ‘As Serious as Your Life’ are worth quoting at length here. “Graves approaches percussion from a broader than average perspective,” she writes: “the use of bells, gongs and shakers on the ESP album was, at the time, as much Indian-inspired as African…At the same time, Graves’ use of Morgan in a subsidiary but contributing role heralded a whole new era of percussion. Coinciding with the growth of black nationalism and the need felt by many players to express their African background by including supplementary percussion devices, Grave’s innovations were exemplary and well timed.”
That’s the background, then. The record itself is a little over thirty minutes long, and consists of five tracks. Wilmer suggests that Morgan is more an assistant than an equal partner: whatever the truth of that, his presence allows for a greater textural density than would have been possible on a solo date, though things remain crisp and clear throughout – there’s never too much information coming at the listener at any one time. Clocking in at under three minutes, ‘Nothing 5-7’ serves as a sort of introduction to the record as a whole, a brief exercise for drums and gongs. ‘Nothing 11-10’ features what sounds like an African balafon accompanied by shakers and deep drum bangs, before the reverberations of a gong signal a chance of pace, for a slower, more spacious approach. A build-up of rumbling toms renders the still-sounding balafon more eerie, less ‘pastoral’ than it was at first. In a wind-filled monastery, a man stands out, stands alone, contemplating the natural scenery around him – though attractive, it is overwhelming and dangerous. The track carries on with rumbles and occasional bells, woody beats and sparing use of cymbals.
‘Nothing 19’ opens with jangling bells over alternating drum patterns: the trance of chimes over the ritual reminder of the earth, cold and solemn. On the right stereo channel is a log drum, on the left channel a resonant, low-tuned companion. Embarkation, the beginning of a journey. Bells, shakers and cymbals complement the underling monolithic tapping tattoo. Wood skitters, the march is broken now into something approaching a call-and-response dialogue. A struck gong fades away, and the track ends.
‘Nothing 13’: drums batter and pound, the players’ energy focussed in on the physicality of making sound. Gong tones don’t so much punctuate the rhythmic hyperactivity as spiral off on a separate course, making new sentences of their own over those that have already begun, overwriting without obscuring. All this multi-layering, this diversity of sound-sources, means that the ‘personality’ of the players isn’t always easily identifiable. The drums are being used here as a ritual instrument, while not performing any specific ritual, apart from the ritual of making music, the ritual of striking wood and striking metal. Rhythm, it’s true, is fundamental to the human being, but not on a consciously emotional level – at least, not in this unadorned, abstract exercise. That’s perhaps not Graves’ (healing) intention, but is what the music suggests to me. ‘Nothing’ is paradoxical – though we’d expect it to be negative, Zen and the whole 60s climate of thought leads us to suspect that it might be positive in this context. ‘Nothing’ – an absence of something – of what? Of self-assertive personality, of selfish ego, perhaps; though this music is very much concerned with, and created by, persons. The gong vibrates the last echoes away, unknowing, into the unknown of future silences.
‘Nothing,’ the final track on the record: a more structured dialogue, with Graves and Murray involved in virtuoso dashes from one drum to the other, exchanging volley salvos. Cymbals crash to fill up the silent pauses. Both men are responsive, on the move: another idea, another drum, overlapping ideas and patterns succeeding one another. Then gongs with their mysterious aura, pitched bells and others added on top. Things slow down, then the drums are back – yet the feel has changed, the listeners’ mood context is altered. A new sound, a scraping sound like a cricket, a natural sound, but with the impersonality, rather than the sustaining force, of nature. The scraping continues, silences the gongs and initiates a new phase of skittering drums, then falls silent. But, a few minutes later, it returns, eerie and insect-like, passages for gongs and drums alternating alongside it. Conclusion is sort for: this is, for me, some kind of highpoint on the record, as two gong pitches alternate and do end it, despite the cricket’s persistence.
‘Nothing’ has caused us to meditate, has ended up being the most human and yet the most mysterious of all the tracks on the record. So what to make of the album as a whole? Derek Taylor, in his review for Bagatellen, suggests that each piece tends to meander into an identical cul-de-sac, and certain effects are perhaps overused (the reverberating gong, for instance). I’d add that the music doesn’t have the sheer ecstatic playfulness of Graves’ and Sunny Murray’s freer playing. Still, it’s an intense, focussed record, which has no referent outside of itself – only sound – and that’s still quite hard to deal with. But it’s worth making the effort. (Review by David Grundy)
HENRY GRIMES TRIO – THE CALL
Release Date: June 2008
Tracklist: Fish Story; For Django; Walk On; Saturday Night What Th’; The Call; Son of Alfalfa
Personnel: Perry Robinbson: clarinet; Henry Grimes: bass; Tom Price: drums
Additional Information: Recorded December 26th, 1965.
For a long time the only album which featured Henry Grimes as a leader, ‘The Call’ makes its way onto the re-issue shelves with perhaps less of the mystique that it might have had a few years ago, before Grimes’ reappearance on the scene. That’s a good thing, I guess: it lets us focus exclusively on the music. This is a strain of free jazz which is often overlooked in blanket dismissals of an ‘angry’ style – it’s a strain which doesn’t shirk the dissonance or the difficulty, but is more prone to leave more space and to move at a slower pace. (Think John Tchicai, or Marion Brown.) The themes and textures can be quite ‘sober’– at times, more like an ‘enhanced’ version of chamber jazz, perhaps due to the use of the clarinet, which can’t help but evoke memories of Jimmy Giuffre’s revelatory early 60s trio recordings. Perry Robinson is a different type of player, though, expressive and not at all reverent, his solos filled with expressive smears and trills.
Grimes’ chattering arco bass makes for an inquisitive opening atmosphere to ‘Fish Story’, with Robinson swirling around in the lower registers of the clarinet. The entry of a stately, composed theme slows the pace down for a bit, but a lengthy pause, finally broken by a clarinet squawk, leads onto energetic improvisation. Tom Price is the weak link here, delivering a constant, rather boxy accompaniment that’s not best suited to the changeable moods of this track. Robinson and Grimes are fine, however, and things pick up as they state the mournful theme of ‘For Django’ in unison. Price is more restrained, working within the flow of the music rather than keeping up a sustained, un-changing barrage of sound. He drops out and the subsequent clarinet/bass duet reminds me of the superlative work of Dolphy and Richard Davis. Robinson takes a solo, increasing the energy with repetitive phrases, played with a wonderful effect in which his tonguing makes notes seem to double back on themselves, and fast walking bass spurs him on to dance over Price’s shuffling drum-set. Grimes’ arco solo finds him mixing melodic lines with woozy parallel lines for upper and lower registers; Robinson briefly continues where he left off in his previous solo, but dies away in quiet fluttering notes, and Price’s speeded-up funeral tapping re-introduces the theme’s solemn melancholy.
‘Walk On’, a Robinson composition, is constructed in a similar manner to ‘Fish Story’: two phrases, one spicily dissonant, the other more buoyantly rhythmic. Up-tempo, scrabbling bass and drums create a mood half-way between jazzy exhilaration and a busy, more abstract tension, while Robinson swoops about, notes lolling around and crying out in protest as he moves between smooth articulations, upper register swells and low-end honks. ‘Saturday Night What Th’ is more rough and edgy, with solos for all the musicians. ‘The Call’ begins with the repetition of a short phrase as its theme. Robinson concentrates on a range of related figures, juxtaposed with brief screams. Tense and smart, the solo ends with a smeary sigh, languorous notes dragging themselves out of the instrument as if exhausted by the hyper-wired explorations that preceded them. Grimes plucks out his solo, before we hear, once more, Robinson’s ‘call’.
The concluding track, ‘Son of Alfalfa’ has the feel of Dolphy’s ‘South Street Exit’. A memorable phrase repeats several times, then we’re into a short Grimes solo and Robinson starts worrying away at those compact little phrases again, building up to mini-climaxes with a trill and low note, up and on in little cycles that somehow manage to build up a cumulative intensity. Things get a little more abstract, and the return of the theme signals the end of the record. If Grimes is somewhat pushed into the background a little by Robinson, that doesn’t make this date any less appealing. An enjoyable listen.
(Review by David Grundy)
THE BYARD LANCASTER UNIT – LIVE AT MACALESTER COLLEGE
Label: Porter Records
Tracklist: 1324; Last Summer; War World; Live at Macalester/ Bonus Tracks: World in Me; Thought.
Personnel: Byard Lancaster: horns; Sid Simmons: piano (2-4); Calvin Hill: bass (1, 5-6); Jerome Hunter: bass (2-4); Paul Morrison: electric bass (1); Lester Lumley: conga and percussion (1); J.R. Mitchell: percussion; Unidentified saxophonist, bass clarinetist, pianist and percussionists (5-6)
Additional Information: Track 1 recorded in Boston, MA, 1970. Tracks 2-4 recorded live at Macalester College, St. Paul, MN, 1971. Tracks 5-6 recorded in Boston, MA, 1973, by the J.R. Mitchell Experimental Unit. Album originally released on Dogtown Records in 1972.
An excellent re-issue from Luke Mosling’s fine Porter Records, which has been releasing a wide variety of intriguing and obscure albums. Many of these originally appeared on small, and now defunct labels such as Sun Records and (in this case) Dogtown Records; the music mostly tends towards the experimental jazz end of the spectrum (with a strong Afrocentric vibe), but also including such delights as the lilting African vocals of Birigwa or Mosling’s own electronic soundscapes. A prominent player on his local Philadelphia scene for several decades, Byard Lancaster is adept on a number of horns, several of which are played on this record. As he reveals in his liner notes Lancaster was involved in a burst of activity during 966 and 1967, appearing on no less than six albums, some of them genuine free jazz classics: ‘Intents and Purposes’ by Bill Dixon, Marzette Watt’s self-titled album on ESP, and ‘Presenting Burton Greene’, a rare instance of a major label recording free jazz. In these recordings, Lancaster employed a characteristically diverse range of approaches and instruments; he was flexible enough to adapt to different contexts without losing his own voice, and is a striking performer whether lending a Charlie Mariano-like alto to the Dixon album (which creates a distinct ‘Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ vibe), or striking out with more extreme, noisier improvisations with the groups of Marzette Watts and Burton Greene. The striking black-and-white, hand-drawn cover art of ‘Live at Macalester’ (the artist is unfortunately not credited), with its mélange of different black faces/ symbols of black consciousness and liberation, could be said to act as a visual equivalent to Lancaster’s variety of approaches, disparate parts coming together to form a unified whole. As his business card puts it, his aim is to play music “from A Love Supreme to the Sex Machine” – sacred and secular, peaceful and agitated, soft and powerful, gentle and mighty.
Apparently this record was “the first avant-garde album in Philly,” and Lancaster clearly believed (and believes) passionately in the virtues of black experimental music. His comments on the philosophy behind free jazz give a flavour of the style in which he writes the liner notes: “Our music carries The Message that is the Universal Brotherhood of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. All red, yellow, brown, white and black people must learn to live in the vibe of love…This CD is a simple sample of musicians speaking the music language of the 1960’s. Then everyone had to say what was on their mind to be on time. We offered originality as homage to the advancement of humanity.” Those are big aims, and it would be understandable if became a little disillusioned at the lack of progress and recognition that he, and so many other artists had to suffer. It’s not a surprise, then, when he admits that, as time went on, “I lightened up my style to please the masses,” but now he claims to have a renewed enthusiasm for free jazz. Which is good news, and he promises a diverse approach, ranging from China, India, and South America to the Carribean and “North Philly Rap.”
While the band name ‘Byard Lancaster Unit’ suggests Cecil Taylor, this music comes from a slightly different direction to Taylor’s overwhelming torrents of detail. Things generally move in a straightforwardly linear direction, ideas coming one after the other, followed through to their conclusion, developed or discarded; theme-solos-theme gains the upper hand over collective playing (though there’s a fair share of that too).
The title is something of a misnomer – only three of the six pieces were actually recorded at Macalester College (though it must be noted that the CD contain additional material that did not appear on the original release).
‘1324’, apparently a studio track, gets things going. The rhythm section – electric and acoustic basses, drums, and conga – provides a churning, sometimes slightly muddy low end to the music which sets Lancaster’s squalling, high-pitched improvisations in high relief. He’s the only soloist on the 15-minute-plus track, and his playing, on a variety of different horns (alto and soprano sax, trumpet, and bass clarinet), is astonishingly direct. Even when he’s ostensibly playing ‘straight’, it feels as though he’s violating a whole set of rules – that he’s somehow gone too far. There’s a sense of what I can only call transgression – a combination of tone and attack which gives the impression of sheer, naked force being unleashed. By now means should this suggest that this is purely an aggressive approach, but there is something unadorned about it – this is utterly sincere expression, which doesn’t need the protecting veil of any kind of extra-musical rhetoric as justification. It exists as a self-perpetuating, and self-generating entity that nevertheless could be said to resonate outwards, to reach out of itself and touch the listener. The occasional use of electronic effects – discreet touches of echo and reverb which were, presumably, treatments added on in the studio after the recording – only serves to enhance the strangeness of Lancaster’s playing. It’s a wonderful, incredibly candid piece of high-voltage free jazz flight, and reveals the abilities of a player who’s tended to be rather neglected in histories of the music, remaining one of those names you see from time to time cropping up in the discographies of better-known musicians, without really knowing much about them.
‘Last Summer’ begins the Live at Macalester section proper. A ballad reprised from Lancaster’s 1968 album ‘It’s Not Up To Us’, which featured Sonny Sharrock, this treatment doesn’t differ that much from the studio recording, but it does provide a nice moment of repose after the energy of ‘1324’, with Lancaster’s soothing flute deftly complemented by Sid Simmons on piano. ‘War World’ launches back into the maelstrom, Lancaster laying down his stall over a stripped down backdrop of just J.R. Mitchell on percussion – in the vibe of such classics as Lowe/Ali’s ‘Duo Exchange’ and Wright/Ali’s ‘Adieu Little Man’ – before the rest of the band come in as well and take things out.
‘Live at Macalester’ opens with a Noah Howard flavour, Lancaster testifying the melody over a propulsive, gospelly rhythm section, and soon letting Sid Simmons ride the beat for a righteous piano solo, which, once it reaches its stomping climax, leads somewhat unexpectedly back into ‘Last Summer’, in a meltingly beautiful version that, to my ears, surpasses both the studio version on ‘It’s Not Up to Us’ and the live version heard earlier on this record. Flute over arco bass is followed by a lovely, limpid piano solo, before blaring, fierce saxophone fires us into free jazz territory. The track fades out after ten minutes, with the bass stating the ‘Last Summer’ melody under Lancaster’s urgent wails.
This re-issue also adds a couple of lengthy bonus tracks, recorded under the leadership of the percussionist on the previous tracks, and a frequent Lancaster collaborator, J.R. Mitchell. McCoy Tyner sideman Calvin Hill is on bass, but apart from him, Lancaster and Mitchell, the other musicians’ names are unknown (these seems to be a bass clarinetist, saxophonist, pianist and additional percussionists). Saxes and clarinet state the imposing melody of ‘World in Me’ before things break loose into collective improvisation. The recording quality is not perfect, tending to privilege rhythm section over horns, and thus perhaps causing the music to lose some of the impact it might have had, but what can be heard is certainly impressive. Free jazz cacophony cedes to a purely rhythmic passage for African percussion that, to my ears, achieves the sort of ‘authenticity’ Pharaoh Sanders was seeking (and missing) on his 1970s Impulse albums (fantastic though those albums are, of course).
The melody of ‘Thought’, with its upward sweeps accentuated by rolling drums and throbbing bass, seeks to break out – the atmosphere of ‘a change is going to/ has to come’. The template of the previous track is not followed, however; instead of letting loose as soon as the melodic statement is complete, the build-up is more patient, saxophone and bass clarinet in parallel improvisations which impart a fair sense of urgency while remaining within jazz-based phraseology – to start off, with at least. Of course, things increase in speed, volume and intensity – and the heavy wah-wah of a what sounds like an electric keyboard instrument (hard to tell, in the dense collective sound) assumes a greater prominence in the texture. Lancaster’s solo, ‘right-on’ though it is, comes as something of an interlude before the next burst of collective blowing, and a piano solo takes things in a more jazzy direction. Calvin Hill skitters in and out of reach, and earshot, on electric bass, almost ceding place to J.R. Mitchell’s dense ‘accompaniment’ on cymbals, before the main theme returns. A fade-out on the beginning of another solo suggests that things probably went on for a lot longer, and reinforces the impression of this music as capable of endlessly rejuvenating itself, sustaining itself of its own energy.
Like Arthur Doyle’s ‘Alabama Feeling’, one gets the feeling that the album has been pieced together from fragments – that’s it’s somehow incomplete as an artistic statement, like seeing the edge of a Picasso painting, which, however wonderful, can only be fully appreciated when seen as a whole. But perhaps that bits and pieces, snapshot approach enhances the whole ethos of the thing. I suspect that Lancaster’s true impact can only be fully appreciated by hearing him live – and if that’s also the case here, we can be glad that Lancaster is still performing, and with a renewed belief in the ideals and music he was making in the 60s and 70s.
(Review by David Grundy)
GUISEPPI LOGAN – THE GUISEPPI LOGAN QUARTET
Release Date: June 2008
Tracklist: Tabla Suite; Dance of Satan; Dialogue; Taneous; Bleeker Partita
Personnel: Guiseppi Logan: Pakistani oboe (on track 1), tenor and alto sax; Don Pullen: piano; Eddie Gomez: bass; Milford Graves: drums, tabla
Additional Information: Recorded October 5th, 1964.
I feel churlish criticising this because now, every time I think of Guiseppi Logan, I think of his appearance on a recent video, taken by a Christian mission team in New York City: a frail, sunken-cheeked, white-bearded old man, holding onto his saxophone, he has clearly been through a lot, and is hopefully on the verge of making a come-back (rumours are that he attended the latest Vision Festival). His life story reveals the pressures of being a free jazz musician in the 1960s – economic, emotional and political. A long period of absence and homelessness, during which he disappeared from the scene and was presumed dead, connects him with such figures as Charles Gayle, Sonny Simmons and Henry Grimes. Perhaps religion had something to do with his burn-out, as it did with Ayler – in the video he’s talking about his faith.
Whatever the reasons (and, by all accounts, they may be personal as much as anything – he reportedly had quite a temper on him), he was highly respected by many in the avant-garde, regarded by some as a mentor and by others, such as Bill Dixon, as a very fine player. Now Dixon is a formidable musical talent, and hardly like to heap praise on a below-par artist. And, on this date, Logan is joined by a fine group of musicians– the young Milford Graves, phenomenal pianist Don Pullen, and bassist Eddie Gomez, who would move onto more straight-ahead work after this free period.
Yet I have to judge by the evidence of my own ears, and, to me, the leader is the weak link in his own quartet. Often, much of the solo space is left for his sidemen – something which is even pronounced on ‘More’, where, for instance, he barely plays on the near fifteen-minute ‘Shebar.’ When he does solo (as on ‘Dance of Satan’) he appears to run out of ideas fairly quickly, having to return to the original melody or repeat a particular phrase while preparing his next foray.
Perhaps the problem is that Logan spreads himself too thin in playing so many different horns (three on this date, and an additional two on ‘More’), maintaining a certain textural interest throughout, but without really developing a compelling voice on any one instrument in particular. Indeed, for me, the best track across his two ESP releases is ‘Curveball’, the piano solo on ‘More’, in which he demonstrates a far greater technical proficiency and variety of expression than on the reeds, as he moves from piano bashing to surreal stride to classically-tinged impressionism in an attractively discursive manner – almost haphazard but with great discipline.
‘Tabla Suite’ features Milford Graves on the Indian tablas, before they had become widespread currency through inclusion in psychedelic rock music, while Logan plays a Pakistani oboe, which has a timbre somewhat akin to that of a bagpipe. Such instrumentation indicates an interest in musics beyond the American or European traditions that characterised much of the free jazz movement, but this is arguably one of the less successful manifestations of that trend. Critic Barry McRae, in a 1965 Jazz Journal review of a number of new ESP-disk releases, notes the problem Logan faced in trying to adopt the instrument to western standards. Coltrane’s oriental flavours on the soprano sax had approached things from a different direction – moving out from the western tradition (in this case, a particularly banal musical song) and imbuing it with exoticism. Logan tries the opposite: working in from non-western tradition, but it seems clear that he doesn’t have a necessary grasp of the complexities of Indian and Pakistani music for such an approach to pay off. Pullen is probably the best thing about the track: his piano includes various preparations, and he adds slithery high scraps and rumbling low menace which offers portents of doom. The tablas, meanwhile, are surprisingly backgrounded, despite the title. Logan doesn’t play for long, but, instead of taking the lead and playing soloisitically, as one might have expected him to do, Pullen is content to leave shivering shards and low-end punctuations over a rhythmic quest from Gomez and Graves, contributing an an atmosphere of mysterious dread. Graves gets a brief tabla solo, Gomez on bass playing figures behind it that are somewhat reminiscent of those heard in Scott La Faro and Charlie Haden’s duet on Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’. Logan returns, much as before, while, underneath, the stop-start bass prevents continual momentum, in a deliberate maintenance of tension.
‘Dialogue’ finds Logan switching to saxophone. A vaguely Spanish-sounding vamp is introduced and repeated over rich, dark piano and drums. Logan’s solo brings in jazzy phrases at times, but he seems to run out of ideas, not capable of sustained flight of elongated invention, and keeps returning to the theme in order to refresh himself, preparing himself for another brief excursion. And whereas one might cite Monk as a precedent, his solos often sticking very close to the contours of the melody, it sounds like Logan doesn’t want to adopt this approach; he wants to break free, but finds himself unable to do so for long periods. Thus, the music sits uneasily between straight jazz and more abstract sounds, and one can’t help but feel that Logan does not have the ability, or the willingness, to really go out there as Ayler would do.
‘Dance of Satan’ is the most memorable tune: having compared him unfavourably to Ayler just now, I will note that Logan’s statement of the melody has an Aylereque plaintiveness about it. A more lyrical, secondary theme has a repetitive rhythmic quality similar to that of ‘Dialogue’, but Logan’s solo is focussed on the opening mood, as Pullen rushes up and down the piano behind him in support. Gomez leaves lots of space, but his presence very much prevents the music from stasis, with his high-pitched plucking really adding tension. Now the lyrical melody again – Logan’s playing sounds slightly out-of-tune, somewhat awkwardly articulated, ‘naïve.’ Perhaps this is deliberate – yet, despite his reputation as player and teacher (attested to by references in Valerie Wilmer’s ‘As Serious as Your Life’), I can’t help feeling that the actual recording is something of a disappointment – there’s something lacking. I just don’t find that Logan has very interesting ideas, and doesn’t really develop them in his playing – it’s almost as if he’s noodling, without a direction. I’m not meaning to question his integrity – I’m sure he felt this music (and feeling, I’m told, is paramount in free jazz), I’m sure he played his experience, but it just doesn’t connect with me. Pullen’s piano playing is probably the best thing about the date, but the sound is rendered boxy – the piano doesn’t sound in very good shape, probably due to ESP’s financial resources not being the best as Stollman committed to recording as much of this unpopular music as he could. (Corners, I’m sure, had to be cut, and frequently too.)
Still, ‘Bleeker Partita’ is a better track, probably because it commits to a straighter approach, without the indecision between freeform and straight jazz that characterises the other pieces. Logan’s solo evolves into a series of Oriental-style clarion calls; Pullen’s more lengthy solo traces a nice path between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, and, on Logan’s return, the track ends with a surprising, but effective, introverted conclusion. The mood is haunting, and the sound is weirdly reedy and exotic – Logan’s slightly askew playing has some charm here, and some power too. It’s just a shame that it takes nearly the whole record for that to happen. Don’t get me wrong, this is an important historical document – Logan is a near-legendary figure in free jazz circles, and I’m sure many will want to hear this to see what all the fuss was about – but I do have some serious reservations about the music. (Review by David Grundy)
FRANK LOWE – BLACK BEINGS
Release Date: June 2008
Tracklist: In Trane’s Name; Brother Joseph; Thulani
Personnel: Frank Lowe: tenor sax; Joseph Jarman: soprano & alto sax; The Wizard (Raymond Lee Cheng): violin; William Parker: bass; Rashid Sinan; drums
Additional Information: Recorded live in New York, 1973. Originally released 1973, with tracks 1 & 3 edited down to LP length.
In an interview, Lowe claimed this was the sort of exercise in beyond-‘Ascension’ free jazz blowout that he wouldn’t want to be engaged in all the time – witness his other work, in other contexts, in which he demonstrates an openness to many different forms of music. So this is a kind of exorcism? If so (and even if it not), it retains a remarkable freshness. Despite Jarman’s presence, the ethos is less that of the AACM than New York ‘fire music’ – and it does burn.
‘In Trane’s Name’: thirty-three minutes (re-expanded to its original length, having been edited on the LP release), Jarman and Lowe state the theme, Raymond Lee Cheng alternates between joining them and whizzing off into buzzing upward runs while Parker boils and bubbles and Sinan rolls over and over, tumbling over himself in packed little pent-up cycles. Parker’s bass (this was his recording debut) is astonishingly energetic and the rhythm section really cooks, really drives things. Lowe solos, starts off intoning, then is wail-rasping into the righteous terror of a multiphonic tenor language, repeating and roiling while drums beat for hell for leather for life. Jarman’s solo immediately differs, centering at first around the theme, now made thoughtful, pensive, Jarman considering the implications of Low’s blasting, rising himself, rhythm section urging him on into honk/high/low(e) scream territory, rhythmic, some things learned from Trane, now squeaked hints of the thematic phrase come back in, he remembers the introductory register of his opening and goes into that –
and then over the top screams in an amazing (and previously unreleased) violin solo, Cheng ‘The Wizard’ on an instrument that’s electrified like a guitar, on one (or a couple) of strings repeat obsessively pluck, then bowed and really electrified wiz up and down with bizarre distorted tone giving real urgency and almost apocalyptic fervour (burn baby burn!) to the solo as it constantly threatens to go manic and erupt into…what? As if in realization, Cheng brings in little melodic fragments mockingly, Hendrix Star Spangled Banner fashion, impossibly competing against Parker’s woofing bass and the still repeating drums, cycle up to cymbals down to feet up again…wah-wah pedal now aches and cat squals, the uh violin now a note box, no a sound box, setting more flames to the romantic parlour instrument whose ghost burns at its feet. More devilish than Paganini, anyway…
Parker’s bowing now, now he’s about to briefly solo, but a commanding cymbal shot silences him as Sinan embarks on the solo he’s been bursting to deliver throughout, shouts go up, yes he revels/ obsessing over a single tom rhythm while round it he complements (a complimentary snare blast to go with your tom, sir?), with it cymbals’ climaxes, then out of nowhere springs Lowe shrieking, then Jarman in the other ear, and Cheng too in abstract pursuit of lines while drums continue on that rhythm. Jarman the lyrical bent again, Lowe just (just!) shrieking, Jarman hinting/ at the melody, Cheng almost lost as all music as all musicians compete for the ears’ attention/ now both saxes screaming now Jarman he’s off on one / high note-fly flight and Lowe’s barking at him and Cheng’s rolling a rolled theme with garbled electrocuted wah-wahed messages from inside his own head and it’s true creative dialogue and it’s imposible to follow, to separate, and it’s an ensemble music built of individually competing complex lines and it is a collective whole that screams itself in and out of existence and can’t be notated and really is free
Jarman is (marginally) the straight man in this and his thematic hints again lead Lowe to preach it (the theme) while Cheng dribbles it half-crazy hysteric drunk in the background but then they’re off again – Lowe: aaaow! ahwww! aooohw! Jarman on the theme, now scream, Lowe still awooorwoorworrwoorworr
Eventually after so many promises they all return to the theme, stated with the authority of the struggle, a message proclaimed. Lowe has that authority about his playing that Coltrane, Pharoah, Ayler, have – he’s telling you, he’s teaching you, he’s a preacher, a yelp as they end. How the fuck do you follow that?
With ‘Brother Joseph’, a tribute piece again, but it’s not distant respectful…A voice in the middle of a conversation drops out as Jarman begins an alto solo, tender, gruff low blow under, gush in air (human physical presence), yer, uh (ayeer) squawks he means it, overblowing it, a phrase of crystal beauty. ‘yeah, baby’, the voice. now the roof comes screaming down, altissimo with woof/vocalized bark and the theme so tender back in, a trill yearning up to a held note to end (‘oh yeah’).
‘Thulani’: fade in mid-way through Cheng scrap(p)ing over boomy Parker bass, then sax unison theme – powerful, authoritative, yet with an almost vulnerable feel to it. Even here, Lowe can’t resist throwing in a few yawls. He’s fractionally ahead of Jarman, seems to want to get ahead and blow free as soon as possible, and is off on one as Jarman still states the theme, seemingly oblivious to the man speaking in tongues next to him on stage. Lowe with rhythm section; Jarman back in with the melody, on soprano this time; now both screaming – Jarman pierces right through, high, piped. The pain is of expressing to the limit and still wanting to go further; of knowing that what you’re expressing is never quite enough, yet, it seems, as far as it is possible to go. “Nearly too much/ is, well, not nearly enough.” Now Cheng’s lyricism provides a needed relief; suddenly, in what sounds like a cut, he kicks in with the electrified, wah-wah sound, jump out of seat, Cheng going mad. Saxophonists trilling upwards, Lowe abandons trills for yawings, Jarman takes an soprano solo, high and piercing, yet, again, almost wistful, vulnerable. The melody, as it comes back in now with him and Lowe in unison, yearns upward to a high note. Lowe gruffbursts overbrimming with emotion. Buy this record.
(Review by David Grundy)
JACKIE McLEAN– NEW AND OLD GOSPEL
Label: Blue Note
Release Date: July 2007
Tracklist: Lifeline (A: Offspring; B: Midway; C: Vernzone; D: The Inevitable End); Old Gospel; Strange as It Seems
Personnel: Ornette Coleman: trumpet; Jackie McLean: alto sax; Lamont Johnson: piano; Scotty Holt: bass; Billy Higgins: drums
Additional Information: Recorded March 24th, 1967. Originally issued in 1968.
A re-release for a McLean album that is most famous – well, notorious – for featuring Ornette Coleman on trumpet. The words ‘acquired taste’ spring immediately to mind –and, to be sure, this does feel like something of a missed opportunity, a session which invariably raises several ‘what ifs’. What if Ornette had chosen to saxophone and we’d got to hear these two approaches to the alto, so different yet so convincing, side-by-side and head-to-head? What if Cecil Taylor hadn’t declined the offer to play on the date? But at the same time, this leads us away from what is really an extremely good album, brimming with soul and adventure, and it might also force us to over-generalise about Coleman’s approach to the trumpet. As Bob Blumenthal notes in his new liner notes, “Coleman bends to tradition and convention far more here than in other [sideman] settings, and on one of his recently acquired instruments at that, and a fresh listen to this music confirms that his success is both genuine and more valuable than is often acknowledged.” While this apparent equivalence between “tradition and convention” and success is something I’d query, it’s certainly true that this is not merely an untrained, slapdash approach, nor even one as askew (unhinged?) as that of a free jazz player like Alan Shorter; it charts its way through recognizably jazz-based territory, while maintaining a healthy disregard for following ‘correct’ procedure to the letter.
‘Lifeline,’ a McLean compostion, filled the whole first side of the original LP. It has what looks like a rather involved suite structure to it, and is something to do with the journey of life, as painstakingly revealed in the liner notes (I seem to remember there was a much more modest piece which had that kind of thinking behind it on Dave Brubeck’s ‘Gone with the Wind’!) Perhaps it’s best enjoyed just as music though, traversing a whole range of emotions and colours. Things begin with a bang, McLean’s sharp, cutting alto and Coleman’s brash, bursting trumpet in a clarion-call unison that threatens to burst apart at any moment. Both players get in wild workouts, pianist Lamont Johnson picking up on a hint of a demented bebop run in Coleman’s smeary trumpet blasts and responding in kind. Things quieten down for a ballad section, ‘Midway’, introduced by Johnson’s rich piano chords and Holt’s arco bass, and developing in a theme of the most exquisite, mournful beauty. Ornette’s trumpet solo here is perhaps the best he’s laid down on record – muted and concentrating on notes so low they can barely be heard, with an occasional fragile venture into the upper register bringing to mind none other than Miles Davis, who was publicly so critical of Ornette’s decision to play the instrument. When McLean comes in alongside him and ratchets up the intensity, the effect is one of the utmost artful construction, yet with the organic, natural quality that informs so much of both front-mens’ playing.
It’s notable how much space McLean cedes to Coleman – not many would have been brave enough to risk the critical opprobrium this move earned, but, for this listener at least, it paid off. Ornette has certain phrases, or certain ways of phrasing – licks, I guess you’d call them – that occur in virtually all of his alto solos, but his trumpet playing, though it does hint at these, is far more concerned with sound than with line (of course, the flowing, smeared quality of the saxophone playing goes some way towards blurring the idea of line too). The same essential quality, albeit from a very different angle, is illustrated in a more technically proficient way via McLean’s alternation of piercing held high notes and steely low-register runs and honks as he solos over ‘Vernzone.’ The final part of the track, ‘The Inevitable End’, eventually ends with just the sound of his desolate alto and Coleman’s muffled, held notes, which no more than hint at a cracking at the edges in a way that nevertheless is deeply affecting. Nat Henthoff thinks that these sounds might be “part of the climate of a Samuel Beckett novel or play” – I’m not sure they’re quite that desolate, but it’s an interesting comparison.
What would originally have been the second side of the record consists of two Coleman compositions. ‘Old Gospel’ is a rollicking delight, a tune of Coleman’s based around a set of gospelly piano chords underlain by a thumping Billy Higgins beat. The exuberance is maintained throughout, particularly highlights occurring when McLean, near the end of his opening solo, plays a section entirely in the altissimo register, and throughout Lamont Johnson’s piano solo, which is just a sheer delight, its churchy earthiness, its roiling, rolling chords hinting at the pure joy that comes through in the best gospel music.
To me, it seems that ‘Old Gospel’ is about the body, about the beat, about bleats of joy, about an almost unthinking affirmation of life (as Ornette is quoted in the liner notes, “it’s not about being good or bad. It’s about being”). ‘Strange as It Seems’ is less certain of itself, landing us back into the mysterious territory that informed McLean’s ‘Lifeline’ suite. The atmosphere is one of contemplation, hope touched by the merest twinges of doubt – it speaks of openness, of horizons, of reaching forth – and, while the rhythm section makes things a little more buoyantly jazzy for the solos, Ornette’s trumpet has a beautiful strangeness about it that constantly creates the unexpected, particularly while he speculates in free tempo over McLean’s arching interpretation of the melody.
If I’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the two front-men, it’s because they are clearly the primary focus of the record. But, though the names of Lamont Johnson and Scott Holt aren’t the best known, they probably provide support-work just as proficient as that of the Ron Carters and Tony Williams of this world – or, at least, even if they’re not quite as overtly brilliant, they give the music exactly what it needs. Appropriately enough, given the title, ‘New and Old Gospel’ is a record of revelations, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. (Review by David Grundy)
MIKE WESTBROOK – LONDON BRIDGE IS BROKEN DOWN
Release Date: June 2008
Tracklist: London Bridge; Wenceslas Square; Berlin Wall (Nahe des Geliebten/ B.V.B.W. (Belle-Vue Berlin Wall)/ Traurig aber falsch). DISC 2: Berlin Wall (cont.) (Ein Vogel); Vienna; Picardie (Blighters/ Les Morts/ Picardie Three/ Picardie Four/ Une Fentre/ Picardie Six/ Aucassin et Nicolette)
Personnel: Mike Westbrook (piano); Kate Westbrook (voice); Chris Biscoe (alto, soprano & baritone sax, alto clarinet); Brian Godding (guitar); Paul Nieman (trombone, electronics); Peter Whyman (alto & soprano sax, clarinet); Graham Russell (trumpet, flugelhorn, piccolo trumpet); Tony Marsh (drums); Steve Cook (bass); Le Sinfonietta De Picardi, Conducted by Constantin Bobesco
Additional Information: Originally issued in 1987 on Virgin Records.
A welcome re-issue of Mike Westbrook’s ambitious suite, originally issued on three LPs, and here taking up two CDs. In the interview with the Westbrooks printed in the last issue of ‘eartrip’, they claimed it as one of their most important works, and, true enough, its scope is matched by its execution. Having been mooted as much as two years beforehand, it was officially commissioned in 1986 by Michel Orier, the director of Amiens’ Temps Du Jazz Festival, with the jazz/classical relationship very much in mind (Le Sinfonietta, the regional chamber orchestra of the Picardy region was mentioned as part of a collaboration). The work that resulted brings together an interest in cross-generic fertilization, a cosmopolitan outlook that incorporates literature in three different languages, and a subtle, but sharp, concern with contemporary political developments, as well as featuring some of the most intelligent and non-soupy string writing that a jazz composer has managed to deliver. One thing that’s immediately worth noting is the collaborative skill that Mike and Kate have in setting words, often literary, to styles of music that wouldn’t normally be associated with them. The concepts can be quite simple, as in ‘Blighters’, which sticks to a fairly close approximation of Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter music-hall parody, but they always feel right. Like poetry itself, in fact, a happy medium is reached – not quite ‘natural’ speech, but not stilted – an organic form of unaffected artifice.
The suite is divided into five different sections, of varying lengths, which chart various points in the Westbrooks’ travels around Europe, and embody various states of mind and concerns. The titular first section arose from Kate Westbrook’s reading of some background information on the traditional song ‘London Bridge’, in Peter and Ioana Opie’s book on nursery rhymes. There was a rumour that a child was built into the bridge as a superstitious protection against catastrophe, and, in Kate’s hands, this becomes a metaphor for the increasingly desperate measures taken in Thatcher’s Britain to keep the country going at the expense of the people. Musically, this manifests itself as a dialogue (both voices being Kate’s) between a booming Thatcherite figure and a cockney woman, with the demands for protecting the bridge growing ever more ominous and extreme. It’s very much a reminder of the relationship between jazz and politics, without the one overwhelming the other in a descent into posturing rhetoric. And it’s not simple symbolism either – the bridge also foreshadows the concerns of the work as a whole, about the state of Europe as the Cold War waned, and about ‘bridges’ over the Iron Curtain, and between Britain and the mainland (Thatcher’s being a strongly Euro-sceptic government). Walls keep out, bridges bring together – but the construction of these bridges may involve disturbing events, and their collapse closes off, just as collapsing walls open up.
It all evokes the uncertainty of the time period, the mid to late 1980s, in which the collapse of Communist totalitarianism and rise of capitalism produced moments which are still watershed for us all. I find it hard to think of a comparable work which addresses such issues with such a breadth of reference and depth of emotion, even within the generally more ‘lofty’ aspirations of the classical world.
‘Wenceslas Square’, an instrumental movement, follows. As an example of the rich textural effects created by Mike’s score, it’s a fine one: Pete Whyman’s soprano sax comes across as at once a fore-grounded solo commentary and another part of the general landscape, the ghostly echo of a ‘hot’ jazz solo drifting over the square which had witnessed, and was to witness, events of great political significance. The repeating rocky bass-line and undulating strings both lull and tense, creating a sense of inexorable build-up: something is about to happen. Yet ‘London Bridge’ frequently does the unexpected, and the outburst, when it comes, doesn’t fully release this tension, as Tony Marsh trades drum salvos with the ensemble. A change of pace finds alto sax sounding over piano jazz and a ‘swinging’ trombone riff, the saxophone played fairly ‘straight’ but with Dolphyesque forays between extremes of register. This evolves into an alto duet, somewhat reminiscent of the opening of Mingus ‘Bird Calls’, the background a repeating turmoil; and more unexpected twists and turns follow. In a work of great length, variety is important, and Mike manages this at the same time as ensuring that he doesn’t switch moods or colours just for the sake of it – that all the ideas make sense as part of a wider musical argument.
I’ll skip over ‘Berlin Wall’ and ‘Vienna’, not because they’re unworthy, but because this review would go on for pages if I chronicled all the impressions I’ve jotted down about them – though I will note that ‘Fur Sie’ is a particularly nice version of a film noir score (it apparently began life as soundtrack material), and that there are fine soloistic contributions from reeds players Chris Biscoe and Pete Whyman, trombonist Paul Niemann, and guitarist Brian Godding (both Niemann and Godding use electronic effects sparingly, but effectively, adding yet another layer of richness to the ensemble sound).
That brings us to the fifth and final section, ‘Picardie’, which consists of a series of shorter pieces. It could be posited that the seven movements included herein chart a gradual evolution from sorrow to hope, from the uncertainty of Cold War Europe to the possibility of progress and renewal after the fall of totalitarianism, from the despairing and grotesque war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Rene Arcos to the rousing, life-affirming strains of a 12th century Picardie song. But, as one might have come to expect from this work by now, things are not as simple as that. The Velvet Revolution demonstrations that took place in Wenceslas square had not even happened when Mike Westbrook wrote his piece – in that sense, it’s strangely prophetic – and thus, perhaps, a more balanced, distanced perspective was possible: one might worry about Europe’s future direction, rather than being caught up in the euphoria surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall and embracing a Capitalism just as rampant and just as insensible of the needs of the disadvantaged (if not more so). In any case, as indicated by the oblique parallels with the state of Thatcherite England in the opening movement, ‘London Bridge’, such concern runs throughout the work.
Kate delivers Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Blighter’s, with its condemnation of British music hall tradition, followed by another anti-war piece, Rene Arcos’ ‘Les Morts’, which centres itself around a bleak drone. The same drone continues without a pause into ‘Picardie Three’, where Nieman’s electronically modified trombone echoes alongside Brian Godding’s hanging guitar tones, their eerie sounds then swirling round a violin duet, out of which emerges a gently pulsating rhythm in the strings, giving the impression of a slow, ghostly dance, before the entry of Tony Marsh’s drumset sees the piece evolve into a near-cacophonous melee whose most prominent textural element is the dual wail of Chris Biscoe and Pete Whyman’s soprano saxophones.
‘Picardie Four’ functions as a sort of interlude – downcast oboe alternates with viola and cello before a brief burst of jagged, anguished strings signals the vaguely troubled half-lullaby of Mike Westbrook’s piano chords, creating the sort of atmosphere so often expertly conjured on these discs. Kate’s voicing of Andre Chedid’s ‘Une Fentre ou se Pencher’ (A Window to Lean Out Of) is accompanied by Chris Biscoe’s soprano sax and by cyclical string patterns, complementing the piano’s course. The piece seems to suggest some sort of search for a reconciliation of the issues dealt with previously: the speaker seeks to reject the path of human suffering and failure (“Je ne crois plus aux naufrages” (I no longer believe in lives going under)). Yet glimpses of utopia are at best unrealistic (and patriarchal) – “Les porteuses de pain se succedent” (Women will bring bread without end) – and at worst, profoundly ambiguous – “Il y a un masque bleu au fond de tous les puits” (In the depth of every well is a blue mask). Appropriately, then, the last line is a question, and the metaphor preceding it echoes the vaguely sinister mask image: “Quelque part existe le visage de notre terre./ Qui nous dira son nom?” (Somewhere is the face of our land. / Who will tell us its name?)
Biscoe’s solo continues into ‘Picardie Six’, the third of the instrumental ‘interludes’ in the ‘Picardie’ section: perhaps it would be better to call them ‘commentaries’, extensions of the ideas raised by the vocal/text pieces, addressed in a more abstract sense. And then we enter the finale, ‘Aucussin et Nicolette’, a setting of a traditional Picardie song which is seems to be an affirmative, positive close to a generally very bleak work, acknowledging (and even delighting) in human frailty in down-to-earth language (Maxine Relton and Kate Westbrook’s translation includes phrases like “the bollock-naked and shoeless”). At the same time, it could be said to constitute some sort of social critique, in the subversive way that folk texts so often do – a kind of endemic distrust of authority that sees hell populated by “posh men of learning, handsome knights, brave soldiers and toffs, harpists, jugglers, Kings of the world”, while “them as is dying of hunger, thirst, cold, misery” – in other words, those who suffer at the hands of the privileged – make it through the pearly gates.
Pete Whyman’s clarinet solo captures this double-edged quality, treading a line between joyful exuberance and manic hysteria. The propulsive rhythmic jolts which accompany Westbrook’s vocals at times bringing to mind hard rock, and, like Whyman’s playing, seem as if they might spiral completely out of control at any moment. Eventually, a big band brass stab brings things to a decidedly ambivalent close.
BGO’s presentation is suitably thorough – a hefty booklet includes full personnel details and lyrics in English, French and German (though to call them lyrics belies their artistic intent – these aren’t just the work of Broadway songsmiths, but a wide and, as well always, carefully-selected range of poems from different contexts and cultures, which all share common ground – the common ground that Mike’s music brings out). Alyn Shipton’s new liner notes provide some useful background information on how the work came to be written, though they rather skimp on analysis of the music itself. I suppose he judged – perhaps rightly – that the listener should make of it what they will, and ‘London Bridge’ is indeed direct and easily comprehensible in its appeal, at the same time as being, in the words of The Wire’s Chris Parker “a major work which operates on many levels, incorporating a stunning variety of textures and moods into a deeply satisfying dramatic whole.”
(Review by David Grundy)
BILLY HARPER – IN CONCERT: LIVE IN POLAND (2007)
Label: Arkadia; V.I.E.W. Video
Release Date: July 2007
Tracklist: Light Within; Speak to Me of Love, Speak to Me of Truth; Thy Will be Done; Quest; The Awakening; Cry of Hunger
Personnel: Billy Harper: tenor sax, cowbell; Piotr Wojitasik: trumpet; Francesca Tanskley: piano; Clarence Seay: bass; Newman Taylor Baker: drums; The Sczezecin Technical University Choir, cond. Szymon Wyrzkowski.
Additional Information: DVD includes bonus concert performance of ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’, photo gallery and Billy Harper biography.
As every review of Billy Harper’s work inevitably ends up stating, this man is underrated, seriously underrated. He must be sick of the term by now, and indicated as much in a recent interview for Allaboutjazz.com, where he patiently explained how, by branding him in such a manner, reviewers are effectively relegating him to permanent underdog status, however good their intentions. You can understand his frustration: he’s being treated in the same way as a minor talent, or an up-and-coming figure, new to the scene, yet he’s steadily turned out fine release after fine release since the early 70s. Though his recordings have achieved cult classics status within a certain audience, and ‘Black Saint’ inaugurated the label of the same name, the majority of jazz listeners are unlikely to have heard more than a very small amount of his music, or even to know who he is. So it’s predictable that this DVD didn’t make much of a splash in the jazz press, and that’s a shame, because it contains music of the usual excellent standard you can expect from Harper.
The visual element, for me, doesn’t really add anything to the music – indeed, it perhaps diminishes the ‘pictures in your mind’ that Harper’s work, in audio-only format, might summon. The Metropolitan Basilica Cathedral of St Jacob in Szczecin, Poland, is grandly-named, and the notes on the back of the DVD talk about its “gothic brilliance,” but the interior, with its red-brick, isn’t the most attractive, and, though some might argue that it is an entirely appropriate for Harper’s music, with its religiously-minded grandeur, it also misses out on the more down-home aspects, the black popular music vernacular that Harper fused with the more elevated concerns he tends to foreground. His concert get-up emphasises that mixture: a long, flowing black leather coat, a bizarre mode of dress that he was adopting as far back as 1973 (he’s wearing it on the cover of the needlessly out-of-print ‘Capra Black’), which seems to mix the preacher and the pimp, and perhaps hints at the dashiki, in a nod to Afro-centric concerns. There’s also more than a whiff of the Blaxploitation picture about it.
The music itself is superb – the choir, though not used in a particularly adventurous way, continues Harper’s use of voices for dramatic shading and colouring – listen to the way they augment the brass and the quintet on the superb ‘Light Within’, the highlight of the concert. Inevitably, Harper’s best-known composition, ‘Cry of Hunger,’ gets a run out, and remains as powerful and moving as ever. While I’m not familiar enough with the supporting musicians to comment on them at great length, they perform more than capably – and have been supporting Harper for years. His sidemen have sometimes been somewhat obscure (although, of course, on ‘Capra Black’ he had Grachan Moncur, Billy Cobham and Elvin Jones, hardly little-known figures!), but always up to the challenge of the music, and that’s no different here. It’s time for Billy Harper to start getting the appreciation he deserves.
(Review by David Grundy)
GEORGE LEWIS – A POWER STRONG THAN ITSELF: THE AACM AND AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publishing Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 676 (incl. index)
Contents: Preface; Acknowledgments; Introduction; Chapter Summaries; Chapter 1 – Foundations and Prehistory; Chapter 2 – New Music, New York; Chapter 3 – The Development of The Experimental Band; Chapter 4 – Founding the Collective; Chapter 5 – First Fruits; Chapter 6 – The AACM Takes Off; Chapter 7 –Americans in Paris; Chapter 8 – The AACM’s Next Wave; Chapter 9 –The AACM in New York; Chapter 10 – The New Regime in Chicago; Chapter 11 –Into the Third Decade; Chapter 12 – Transition and Reflections; Afterword; Appendices; Notes; Bibliography; Index
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is an organisation of some importance: even its detractors must acknowledge the validity of that statement. Over the years, its ranks have included Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Famoudou Don Moye, Lester Bowie, Amina Claudine Myers, Fred Anderson, Leroy Jenkins, John Stubblefield, Pete Cosey, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill – and those are just some of the best-known. Yet, despite documentation and coverage in recordings, journalistic and scholarly articles, and references in academic books, ‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is the first full-length study of its kind, written by an AACM member who also happens to be a fine academic writer, and who has meticulously researched both the specific and wider contexts of the AACM’s genesis, from the background of economic depression in 1930s Chicago to the present day situation.
‘A Power Stronger than Itself’ is much than just a historical curiosity; in fact, I’d argue that it is one of the most important books about jazz ever written, and is worthy of the attention of anyone who claims to be serious about the music. Lewis is an academic who actually says something through the complexity of his discourse, and is not a vacuous or pretentious name-dropper (his relation of Theodor Adorno and Jacques Attali to what he’s talking about is very much to the point and not put in for some intellectual brownie points). I feel this important to assert because of the rather snobby dismissals I’ve read in various publications, which, dare I say it, come from exactly the sort of views he critiques in the book. A black musician talking about jazz in academic terms? That’s not his place – he must be doing something wrong.
This review can only claim to cover a small number of the issues addressed by Lewis; there’s simply no way that I can write about everything that I had jotted down as an area of immediate interest when reading through for the first time. So, where to begin? Let’s dive straight into controversy…
The issue of race will undoubtedly be raised, with the AACM criticised as an exclusive black-only club. In chapter 6, Lewis brings to light the case of Gordon Emanuel, a vibes player who was the organisation’s only white member (though he regarded himself as essentially black, being the adopted brother of bassist Bob Cranshaw and living in the South Side’s black ghetto). Growing pressures from black nationalists in the group eventually forced a meeting, in which Emanuel was voted out of the organisation. This will provide plenty of ammunition for those who want to argue that AACM members, in combating the detrimental effects of anti-black racism, turned the racism back on white people; indeed, at the time, Leslie Rout argued that the incident showed how, “in the final analysis, all white men are enemies [to the AACM].” Amina Myers, who has the advantage over Rout of an insider’s perspective, admits that “I was one of the ones that was against having somebody white in the organisation. Whites were always having something. They always run everything, come in and take over our stuff, but this was something black we had created, something of our own, and we should keep it black.” Such a mentality was something that Myers had in common with Malcolm X, and those he influenced. Well-meaning whites often did more harm than good; this was about black self-determination, and there was no problem with whites as such, but the process of explicit co-operation could only come about once the generally racist conditions of America had changed to a significant extent.
Myers admits that she has since changed her views – and they were undoubtedly very much of their time (though that shouldn’t diminish their validity at that moment in history). Today, she believes that “music is open, and that’s what I look at now. There’s got to be a spiritual quality, regardless of what the color is.” I tend to sympathise with the thought-currents that led to Emanuel’s expulsion, if not the expulsion itself – but they are undoubtedly problematic, and many in the organisation at the time did not share them to such an extreme extent.
One might also note that, despite the very heavy focus on racial injustice, there was often a strongly sexist element to male-female relationships in the free jazz world, with the woman expected to be the supportive home-maker who was there for her man while he went out on his musical explorations (see the relevant chapter in Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious as Your Life’). Of course, as a blanket statement, this is entirely inaccurate – think of Sam and Beatrice Rivers’ Studio RivBea, Ornette Coleman’s marriage to poet Jayne Cortez, or the relationship between Sonny and Linda Sharrock – but there is still an element of truth to the accusations of sexism. In a valuable sub-section of chapter eleven, entitled ‘Leading the Third Wave: The New Women of the AACM’, Lewis discusses the issue of gender politics. Multi-instrumentalist and composer Maia recounts how she asked Phil Cohran: “When we as black people reach utopia, reach this point that we’re reaching for, is that when you’re going to deal with this issue that we have between men and women? Because the black revolution is more about the revolution of black men. The problems that exist between men and women existed before racism came about.” There’s a slight confusion as to whether the AACM membership was predominantly male because of residual sexism from certain quarters, or whether the situation was more complicated. Maia suggests that the problem was not so much deliberate exclusion as a (perhaps inaccurate) perception of the AACM as what Douglas Ewart calls “a man’s club.” “The revolution was about black men. Nobody meant women any harm. But if you don’t have on a fire suit, you ain’t gonna go into no fire. It may have been open to women, but if it is not inviting to women, women are not going to come.” So, it was clearly important that artists like Maia, Nicole Mitchelle and Shanta Nurullah began to form all-female groups, to highlight female creativity, and the validity of female contributions to black experimental music.
As indicated by such a discussion, nobody is claiming that the AACM is perfect, least of all Lewis; what makes it such an important organisation is that its members acknowledge areas of complexity or disagreement, and seek to work through these. Such an attitude that was there from the start, as made clear by the transcription of the very first AACM meetings, from May 1965, in chapter four, ‘Founding the Collective.’ A major virtue of the book, then, is that it is not sanitised; that it shows the contradictions and struggles of the organisation, at the same time as the way that it remained, as the title puts it, ‘a power stronger than itself’, representing something much bigger than the Chicago jazz scene, and providing a model for all such initiatives. This is what is overlooked by those who criticise the October Revolution in Jazz, the Jazz Composers’ Guild, or the AACM, by those who argue that the ideals of self-determination and creative autonomy shared by these bodies are laudable but inevitably fail. The AACM was not intended to be the solution to everyone’s problems, but was firmly rooted in the realities of a specific socio-economic, musical and racial situation, and was therefore in a good position to make an impact (on a local level, and perhaps further, as with the migration to New York). Thanks to Lewis, this is now clearer than ever; that should silence those who claim that he lavishing a disproportionate amount of attention to the AACM.
The issues of race and gender are clearly of importance, then: also crucial to Lewis’ investigations is the economic side of things. An academic not mentioned in the book, but relevant to the argument, is Ian Anderson, whose essay ‘Jazz outside the Marketplace’ contains an analysis of free jazz’s growing reconciliation to capitalism, through funding and grants from banks and institutions, that may prove depressing reading to those who associated the music with radical political hopes. This would seem to fit with the standard narrative, to which there may be some truth , which would place the trend identified by Anderson alongside the failure of post-’68 activism, as evidence of the decline of the left. However, pessimism, leading on to capitulation, and, ultimately conformity, are what brought about this change in the first place, and to react in the same way is not the answer.
For, what Lewis’ book offers, beyond informative and (generally) rigorous scholarship, is hope. Lewis shows how (predominantly black) self-organisation and self-promotion could provide a viable alternative to commercialisation, line-toeing and subservience to the greedy, exploitative machinations of big-time club-owners, promoters, and record company bosses. The AACM was not primarily a for-profit organisation –members contributed funds to keep things afloat at first, even if payments were not always diligently kept up, and proceeds from concerts were plunged into further musical developments and, importantly, educational and social projects. Thus, while the AACM was in the service of the art foremost, the art was intimately linked to the life. “My youngest son’s wife called me,” Jodie Christian recalls. “She said, do you know any place where they give piano lessons? I thought, the AACM, that’s what they do. If that ever dies, then the AACM dies. That’s what’s holding it together. That, to me, is the backbone of the AACM.” (P.506) One cannot understand the music without a knowledge of the socio-economic and racial conditions of Chicago (or, for that matter, America as a whole), and one gains a deeper appreciation of the AACM project if one realises its political significance, rather than simply seeing it as ‘interesting’ music. ‘Interesting’ music is what divorces the experimental tradition from a wider audience, creating an ivory-tower elite (most notably in the classical music world) which the free jazz musicians sought to combat from the outset (Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ provides further evidence of such ambitions).
Yes, perhaps some of the participants have gained (even courted) the support of the ‘establishment’ (George Lewis’ own work at IRCAM, for instance, although that was a slightly strange episode, and one he felt somewhat uncomfortable with, I believe) – but, as Lewis argues, quite persuasively I think, the ‘establishment’ (the sort of ‘high culture’ institutions that Anderson argues have come to support free jazz) tended to (and still does tend to) look down on the music. As many, many people will tell you, it is still a struggling music – consider the state of free improvisation in the UK (the closure of one the major venues, the Red Rose; the cutting of funding for the LMC; and the post-Thatcherite bureaucratic muddle that complicates things still further). I think it’s more the case that that a few token ‘progressives’ and ‘radicals, get establishment support, as a means for the capitalist hierarchy to appear ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’, at the same time as denting the subversive force of the art they have ‘embraced.’ When trumpeter Bill Dixon was featured on a BBC Radio 3 programme devoted to ‘new music’, for instance, his work was treated with a marked lack of respect, in comparison to the numerous classical composers that the programme features, week in, week out. Underlying it all, I’m afraid to say, is a residual racism that is all the more pernicious for being unconscious. If Dixon, one of the most important instrumentalists and composers of the past forty years, is characterised as “mad,” there’s not much hope for the free music project being taken seriously.
I mentioned the danger of elitism for (predominantly white, classical) experimental music, and there are those who criticise black experimental music in a similar manner, as elitist and inherently anti-popular. These charges are not hard to repudiate, and the connection between the black avant-garde and popular music should not need too much defending – Amiri Baraka had always maintained that Albert Ayler and James Brown were equally important as figures of black self-consciousness and self-expression (see his essay ‘The Changing Same’), and Lewis provides a corroborating anecdote about Henry Threadgill playing “free” in evangelical meetings (pp.75-6). Yet the other attack, often from critics with a black power agenda, like Baraka or Stanley Crouch, needs addressing – that connections with European classical music (Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and George Lewis with Cage, Stockhausen and IRCAM) are betrayals of blackness, ‘whitening’ the music and rendering it impotent, effectively obscuring and ignoring a part of one’s identity as an African-American by moving away from one’s heritage. This leads Baraka to claim that he would prefer to listen to the hegemonic comfort of Wynton Marsalis’ revivalism than to Lester Bowie or Henry Threadgill (though he believes that they too should have “regular stages” (p.444)). Lewis’ book is crucial in this respect, showing how misguided such criticisms are, and how the AACM’s avant-garde approach actually stays truer to heritage than Marsalis’ more overt engagements with black tradition. Maybe the Lincoln centre ‘jazz neo-conservatism’ is on its way out by now, though Stanley Crouch is still yelling out its propaganda at the top of his voice – still, for those taken with its proclamations, it might be helpful to consider this: who would berate contemporary rock musicians for not sounding like Hendrix, or contemporary composers for not sounding like Vivaldi?
Lewis, then, persuasively shows how much criticism of the work of black experimentalists, from both black and white critics, is based on outmoded principles and simplistic assumptions that might have people up in arms if applied to white composers – hence the famous ‘anti-jazz’ slur on Coltrane, and the assumption that one must be in the tradition (this mysterious, single tradition, always prefixed by the definite article) or one is nothing, and hence the straitjacketing of people to fit rules that you yourself have artificially imposed onto them. I don’t have the space to go into it here, but there are some crucial passages in which he argues that the annecdotalism of (predominantly white) 1950s and 60s jazz criticism (such as Leonard Feather’s ‘Blindfold Tests’) deliberately stirred up antagonism, and opened up a false and unnecessary chasm between traditional musicians and experimentalists, as well as creating a simplified and distorted climate, ill-suited for the reception of music (like the AACM’s) that went beyond a certain level of complexity, that went outside the bounds of certain fairly strict parameters.
In conclusion, then, Lewis has much say that is relevant and of interest, in relation to perceptions of music, and ways of avoiding the capitalist norm (communal, self organisation, art and mastery of a craft valued over ‘product’ and the market). Most relevant is his penetrating analysis of the still-present subtle and perhaps unconscious racial discrimination that exists when talking about this music: put the black man in his place, don’t let him mix his entertaining jazz with serious music of any kind – hence the criticism of Braxton for taking an interest in Stockhausen. There are numerous thought-provoking passages which really do change one’s perceptions of things might have just taken for granted – but I’ll leave individual readers to discover these for themselves.
In the end, despite compromises that may have had to be made (the move to New York, while creatively fruitful), and difficulties overcome. As attested to by the work of Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Wadada Leo Smith, and Lewis himself, these artists are still as creative as ever, and, even if some have moved beyond the AACM, they retain its ethos in all their activities. The younger generation is thriving too, and is in a reciprocal relationship with the older generation of pioneers, as seen in such examples as the collaboration between Matana Roberts and Fred Anderson on her album ‘The Chicago Project’ (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Characterising all these diverse activities is a strongly-held belief in the power of music as a force for good – not in a vague utopian sense, but as something that can have a real and positive impact on the lives of human beings. As Nicole Mitchell puts it, “we take for granted the power of what music really is. It’s not about trying to make a few dollars at some concert. It’s not about, do we have a crowd, or do I have an image, or have I, quote-unquote, made it.” (p.512) What it is about is the substance of this book. (Review by David Grundy)