BIRIGWA – BIRIGWA
Label: Porter Records
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Okusosola Mukuleke; Uganda; Kanemu-Kanabili; Lule Lule; Njabala; Obugumba; Yelewa
Personnel: Birigwa: voices and guitar; Stan Strickland: flute and tenor sax; Arthur Brooks: fleugelhorn; Mait Edey: piano and misc. percussion; Phil Morrison: bass; Yusef Crowder: shiko drum and misc. percussion; Vinnie Johnson: drums
Additional Information: Originally released in 1972 by Seeds.
Birigwa, a Ugandan vocalist who came to Boston in his early twenties to study at the New England Conservatory, doesn’t seem to have recorded anything subsequent to this self-titled album, though his liner note promises that “soon more will be on the way!” Does that promise to make it one of those ‘curiosities’ that vinyl-hoarders and diggers so treasure? Maybe, but that it’s something more than just nicely obscure is indicated by the care which Luke Mosling has lavished on the re-issue (something which could be said of all the releases on the increasingly burgeoning Porter Records): the carefully constructed foldout CD case manages to look neat but not buttoned-up, its ochre tones and minimal cover design giving the feeling of unwrapping a parcel, the interior contents not quite certain – though the attached sticker seems more keen to pin down some generic reference points: “Jaw-dropping Afro-Jazz with wild, soaring vocals and strong rhythms.”
I’m not sure that description quite gives a fair impression of what you’ll hear when you put this on: it strikes me as a lot more laid-back. Though the liner notes, by pianist Mait Edy, who ran the ‘Seeds’ label on which the album was first released, and who organised the session, tout this as a meeting between jazz and traditional African music, the gentle, folk-like sounds which one must assume to have been Birigwa’s speciality are very much the focus here; only on ‘Yelewa (Mosquito Song)’, does the album really get anywhere near the Leon Thomas territory that is claimed for it, as Birigwa’s clicks and shrill trills simulate insects and birds, in a more directly mimetic way than Thomas’ ecstatic yodel. I’d say that the jazz players function strictly as a back-up band, perhaps to provide a little colouristic variety under the singing and guitar playing (and one might argue that they almost serve as a distraction, at times, from the solo material). Whatever the case, Birigwa’s voice is very pleasant, in an unusually nasal way, and the aforementioned ‘Yelewa’ makes an appropriately rousing conclusion.
(Review by David Grundy)
PAUL BLEY QUINTET – BARRAGE
Release Date: November 2008
Tracklist: Batterie; Ictus; And Now the Queen; Around Again; Walking Woman; Barrage
Personnel: Marshall Allen: alto sax; Dewey Johnson: trumpet; Paul Bley: piano; Eddie Gomez: bass; Milford Graves: drums.
Additional Information: Recorded on October 15th, 1964, NYC. All compositions (and ‘tape assemblage’ on ‘Barrage’) by Carla Bley.
When looking at the line-up – and, indeed, the album-title – for ‘Barrage’, which includes that old fire-breather Marshall Allen and trumpeter Dewey Johnson, of ‘Ascension’ fame, one might be forgiven for expecting something a little more obviously ‘out there’ than one ends up hearing. Perhaps the cover art provides a more suitable guide, with its multiply-duplicated use of the Michael Snow ‘Walking Woman’ motif (the silhouette of Carla Bley) appearing alongside photos of a sunglasses-clad Bley, who is demonstrating an almost Belmondo-esque mix of stand-offish but sensual cool, serious yet unpredictable – with an explosion into inverted colours in the centre hinting at the molten tensions which might sometimes boil up from beneath and within this veneer, lava-like. In any case, the ‘cool’ surfaces are almost always illusions: ‘Ictus’ opens and closes with a fairly frantic race through the melodic material, and, as the piano solo takes its turn in the roster, it’s particularly noticeable how Bley’s spindly lines are both undercut and reinforced by Eddie Gomez’ busily resonant bass. Indeed, the Puerto Rican Gomez’ playing on a number of ESP dates from this period is an important, if sometimes overlooked part of the their success – the ‘rhythm section’s’ fluidity and tense, crabwise-motions impart a real sense of urgency even to ballads as lovely as ‘And Now the Queen’ – a bit like those moments in conversation when someone leans forward to earnestly make their point, hands momentarily freezing in gestures of tensed emphasis.
That said (and the more I listen to the album the more I feel its internal dynamics really rippling through and catching hold in an almost muscular fashion), the trajectory of ‘Barrage’ as a whole may be somewhat different. It unfolds its tensions in contained units, in a series of what feel almost like miniatures, revolving around the beautifully poised elegance of Carla Bley’s compositions. Tracks tend to last for an average of five minutes, meaning that solos are kept brief: though of course the likes of Marshall Allen only need a few seconds to make an impact – his alto tone is somehow incredibly coarse, exhibiting a particularly kind of sound that only John Zorn really dares to match. I’m in two minds about this brevity: given the individual skills of the quintet members, I can’t help wishing that they’d recorded more than thirty-three minutes of music. On the other hand, perhaps that’s a contrast to the occasional flabbiness of the lengthy (never-ending?) ecstasy (flabbiness?) of the prototypical free jazz blow-out: here, instead, Bley’s Quintet provide us with bite-size chunks, not just in the sense that they are small and thus easily consumable, but that – inverting the phrase as the cover designers inverted their photos – they also have sharp teeth. (Review by David Grundy)
LOWELL DAVIDSON – TRIO
Label: ESP-Disk Release Date: September 2008 Tracklist: “L”; Stately 1; Dunce; Ad Hoc; Strong Tears Personnel: Lowell Davidson: piano; Gary Peacock: bass; Milford Graves: drums
Additional Information: Recorded July 27th, 1965
From the beginning of ‘Trio’, it’s clear that this is no fire-and-brimstone ESP date. I guess the nearest equivalent on the label would be Paul Bley, whose piano style, like Davidson’s, could be construed as almost dry, in comparison to the manic energies of much free piano playing (or, what many people expect from free piano playing – in practice, the instrument, or its tradition, encourage something very different).
Davidson is clearly a consummate craftsman, with a very particular idea of where he wants the tune to go; this by no means precludes the spontaneity of improvisation, but there’s always the feel of a delicately formal mind, rather than of someone over-egging the emotional pudding. There’s clearly a lot of thought going on as the music moves in time (which presumably happened before the record date as well –of course, artists are thinking through their music when they’re not playing, all the time, but this feels as if specifics and plans of campaign have been laid, though apparently it was an un-auditioned recording).
The melody of ‘L’ (standing for ‘Lowell’?) has a strange and alluring charm to it; repetitive and with a certain feel of being locked into itself. Fragments recur throughout the piano solo, and, indeed the idea of the melody and its construction seem to influence the whole unfolding of the improvisation: individual phrases respond to each other in a continuous expounding of ideas, yet all seem to dance on and off the initial thematic material as well.
Davidson’s touch is almost Ellingtonian on ‘Stately 1’, the rippling, slightly exotic piano over rumbling (as well as the slightly boxy sound) reminding me of the particular aesthetic of ‘Money Jungle’ (particularly ‘Fleurette Africaine’). While Davidson sounds a more consciously ‘avant-garde’ than Ellington (there are far more sprinkles of notes quite far up the keyboard), his tendency to make pithy statements, and to think two-handedly (tending to alternate chords with virtuosic right-hand runs), as well as the wonderful shiver of his occasional trilled octave chords, is very similar. The playing is often very elegant, swirling round on itself in hundred of miniature arabesques. Though it’s a ballad, it’s rhythmically sharp: Peacock and Graves, like Mingus and Roach, are a rather provocative rhythm section – very sympathique, absolutely serving the needs of the music and fitting very well with Davidson, but not conventionally subservient or even ‘supportive’. Graves in particular keeps up a skittish commentary underneath, rumbling low with toms, prodding with cymbal taps and letting hang the occasionally sustained shimmering wash of sound, Rashied Ali’s carpet under Coltrane.
The album makes me feel slightly heady, though not in the sense that a free screech-fest will make the blood rush and heart pound and pulse the neck to spontaneous affirmation; instead, it spiders its way to the throb of body and mind, and even it’s most beautiful melodicism (the end of ‘Stately 1’) is sharp and piquant rather than expansive. Phrased as if each note half-stumbles to the next, splashily tripping a kind of melancholy that’s too polite, and too wise, to declare itself as ‘blue’. The tender shudder of the ‘Dunce’, the hand stroked over black and white ivory in compassion. (Review by David Grundy)
KEN HYDER’S TALISKER – DREAMING OF GLENISLA
Label: Reel Recordings
Release Date: 2007
Tracklist: Dreaming of Glenisla; Diddlin’ for the Bairns & Lament for Dairmid; Drum Salute & Lament for Mal Dean; Mrs Macleod Raasay & Soldier’s Song; Ca’ the Yows; Mngulay Boat Song; Heel an’ Toe, Foot an’ Moo’; Homeward; He Mandu; That Cu Ban Againn; The Black Bear
Personnel: Davie Webster: alto sax; John Rangecroft: tenor sax/clarinet; Lindsay Cooper & Marc Meggido: bass; Ken Hyder: drums
Additional Information: Recorded June 14-15th 1975, Worthing (1-8), and February 24th, 1976, London (9-11).
This is very special: first released in 1975 on Virgin Records, and, after being lovingly remastered from an audiophile vinyl transfer, re-issued by the rather fine Canadian label Reel Recordings, it finds Scottish drummer Ken Hyder fronting what one might call a free jazz quintet in an exploration of traditional Scottish music, and music which displays such influences. In a brief note, Hyder explains that the group arose partly in reaction to the way in which American jazz had so dominated the playing of Scottish musicians that they were overlooking their own heritage. But this wasn’t just a sudden burst of reactionary nationalism, for, though the aim was to “get back to these roots, and [to] play off the emotion of Scottish music, that feeling isn’t exclusive to the Celtic people. It’s there in the blues, in African music, jazz, street funk, and people’s music throughout the universe.” Hyder’s right, of course: on the first piece, the glorious dual lyrical flights of Davie Webster’s alto sax, and, in particular, John Rangecroft’s clarinet, build to a particularly rousing climax that, while certainly a lot ‘folkier’ than much British jazz, has definite African-American inflections. After all, I suppose, jazz is as much a ‘folk music’, an indigenous music as anything else – and free jazz arguably moved it even closer (or back) to these roots: just think of the New Orleans marching-band ethos in Albert Ayler’s work.
Maybe I’m just being a sentimental simpleton, a propagandist-softie, but I can’t help finding something immensely refreshing about the way in which this group’s free jazz doesn’t seem so much to be reacting to the various constraints of be- and post-bop (which were, of course, particularly pronounced in the rather conservative British scene), as to be bypassing them entirely, as if that’s just the way things are done, as if there is a folk tradition just waiting there to be re-connected with, a ‘universal song’ of the kind Ayler was talking about.
That just fills me with hope and a sense of possibility; yes, it is easy to sneer at, and yes, of course, it could be the excuse for some rather bad music – particularly of the ‘new-age’/’world’ variety. But Hyder knows this danger too, when (on his website), he talks about the “upbeat – or happy-milkmaid tastes of World-Music. Or worse, the ironed-out echo-saturated cosmic bliss appetites of the New Age.” And his own music challenges both those silly pigeonholes: the music is ‘new age’ in that maybe it evinces a belief that a new age could be entered, one which doesn’t simply wallow in misery and grime and gore, but is built on a changing yet resolved sense of community; and it is ‘world’ in that it is music made in the world, as all music it is, is open to the sounds coming through the window and heard across the bay and across the ocean, blaring and beseeching over the water and over the mountaintops.
It helps that it’s all just so well played. Take, for example, the double (double)-bowed basses of Lindsay Cooper and Marc Meggido, holding drones and imparting a particular kind of 1960s/70s free jazz solemnity over which the saxes can intone and incantate: a prime example is ‘Diddlin’ for the Bairns & Lament for Dairmid’ (one of several tracks in which the band re-interpret traditional pieces). Hyder himself provides an overpowering ‘drum salute’ which leads onto the wonderfully sonorous, measured mournfulness of the ‘Lament for Mal Dean’, in which the way the saxophone is played over the drone conjures the effect of a giant jazz bagpipe.
And by no means insignificant is the role of that most ancient medium of human expression: the voice. All five players occasionally add their voices to the collective cauldron, to stirring effect: on ‘Diddlin’ it sounds almost like Native American chanting, which reminds me of the similar, and extraordinary effects generated by on Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre’s 1969 ‘Humility in the Light of the Creator’ by the obscure George Hines. Elsewhere, the celebratory shouts of joy and screams verging on terror enter the collective swarm in a manner that feels entirely appropriate: it is clear that at those moments the players could not do other than give further strength to their instrumental utterances through the rising to sound from lung to throat to air.
As the track titles indicate, there’s quite a strong sense of lament and of yearning, as well as of (communal) celebration – but that’s only one side of the coin, as whip up to the frenzied celebrations of ‘Mrs Macleod Raasay & Soldiers’ Song’, Davie Webster’s ‘straight’ penny whistle melody already prodded into more adventurous territory by Hyder’s relentlessly fast drumming before John Rangecroft roars in truly ecstatic form. While there’s a sense of the manic about such sections, more often, the experience is intensely joyful, or intensely mournful, or intensely powerful in some incommunicable mixture of the two (is that not one of the great strengths of both ‘folk music’ and of ‘jazz’?). What I’m trying to say, I think, is that one frequently gets the impression of things being pushed into extremes which seem genuinely risen from a compulsion to create and express that which must be created and expressed – a compulsion, a necessity. And the reason for this – the reason Talisker’s playing feels as deeply felt as it does – is because it is informed by whole worlds of tradition and of communal feeling, not just from Scotland but from America and beyond. ‘Dreaming of Glenisla’: these ‘dreams’ are as real as they come.
(Review by David Grundy)
ISOTOPE – GOLDEN SECTION
Tracklist: Illusion, Rangoon Creeper, Atilla, Spanish Sun, Crunch Cake, Mr. M’s Picture, Frog, Atilla, Spanish Sun, Lily Kong, Edorian, Golden Section, Illusion
Personnel: Guitar: Gary Boyle, Percussion: Aureo de Souza, Bass: Hugh Hopper, Drums: Nigel Morris, Keyboards: Laurence Scott
Additional Information: Previously unreleased recordings. Tracks 1-6 recorded live in Bremen, 20/5/1975. Tracks 7-8 recorded in NYC, April 1975. Tracks 9-13 recorded in London, 23/7/1974.
I’ve always been torn on Jazz-Rock Fusion. It has never really quenched my thirst for anything Jazz or Rock. Their fuzzy, futuristic sounding keyboards feel like a sci-fi nerd’s fantasy compared to the crisp, cool, and forever swingin’ piano styles of people like Duke Ellington and Herbie Hancock. But Herb more than put the funk in Fusion with “Head Hunters.” The guitars never did much for me either, but then there’s John McLaughlin’s work with Miles that never sounded as cheesy or as dated as some of his 80’s counterparts. “Golden Section” by Isotope keeps me on the fence about Fusion, but it’s got enough to keep me from bailing on it all together.
Again, my biggest beef with this album is the guitar playing of Gary Boyle. It’s virtuosic, but he could hardly be more self-centered. Boyle’s persistent riffing is quite annoying, and when he gets tired of playing the same line over and over and over again he wails like an under-sexed show-off, which is a real shame because his band is quite good. Laurence Scott, keyboards, shows some killer chops on “Rangoon Creeper” and “Spanish Sun” while Nigel Morris on Drums and Auereo de Souza on Percussion try their best to keep it funky throughout.
Surprisingly though, there’s plenty on “Golden Section” to get the mouths of hip-hop heads and beat-diggers watering. “Lily Kong” is one of the best breaks I’ve heard in a long time. I find it very hard to believe (and don’t believe it yet) that after some research, it appears to have never been sampled. Hugh Hopper and his fuzz-bass take a very funky walk down the block while Scott drops some tasty Keyboard vamps for us to drool over. This one is just begging to be looped! Although, there aren’t any other clean breaks, a savvier producer could have plenty of fun with this album thanks to Morris’s and Souza’s percussion.
Isotope is a band of talented musicians. Their style of music has never been fully embraced by critics and who knows if it every will be. But at this point I’ll respectfully leave them with a firm handshake rather than a “call me later” or the ever-dreaded snub.
(Review by Aaron Hicks)
LEVITTS – WE ARE THE LEVITTS
Release Date: November 2008
Tracklist: The Saints of My City Are Children; Notes So High; Fun City; Then Was Then; Springtime (Primavera); Candy; Once I Had a Little Duck; Departed Hymn; O Amor Em Paz; Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most; We’re All Through (Theme Song)
Personnel: Chick Corea: Piano, Cymbals; Don Heller: Vocals; Teddy Kotick: Bass; Bob Leeman: Piano; Al Levitt: Drums; Michele Levitt: Vocals; Minou Levitt: Vocals; Sean Levitt: Guitar; Stella Levitt: Vocals; Teresa Levitt: Vocals; Ronnie Cuber: Baritone Sax; Lou Orensteen: Flute; Larry Provost: Guitar; Eddie Shu: Harmonica; Evaline Steinbock: Cello; Pete Yellin: Flute, Alto Sax
Legend has it that 13-year-old guitarist, Sean Levitt, was auditioning for ESP when he mentioned his family’s exceptional musical talent. His 3 sisters and mother, Stella, were wonderful vocalists and Sean’s father, Al, had drummed with the likes of Paul Bley, Stan Getz, and Charles Mingus.
So, put the family in the studio with Chick Corea and Toddy Kotick for some biting musicianship. Get a little spice from a Bossa tune by Jobim and Gilberto. And toss in a liberal dose of drug references for an album with more potency, skill, and unity than any recording by the “families” of David Cassiday and Barry Williams. The result: “We are the Levitts.”
“Notes So High” is all about the musicians. Pete Yellin with his Alto Sax starts tearing it up from the get-go. Soloing behind and throughout Stella Levitt’s singing, he picks off enough of her notes to avoid taking the focus away from her voice. Yellin and Stella drop out after two verses making room for Teddy Kotick to stretch out his fingers on a slightly-swinging bass solo that is quickly overlapped and overtaken by a much more powerful round of improvised notes from Chick Corea on piano. Corea speeds it up and darkens things down to set the mood for Yellin to re-enter and simultaneously solo with Ronnie Cuber on Baritone Sax. The duo swaps notes and swirl around each other in a violent, cyclonic exchange which Al Levitt savagely accents with a hailstorm of drumming acuity. Stella returns to the mix to re-sing the verses from before, but with the musical foray still fresh in their minds everyone’s playing is much more dramatic, giving lyrics like “Winter’s here/And the womb soon will burst/Winter’s here/Little child soon will thirst” a sense of prenatal panic that didn’t sound quite as urgent the first time around.
For a less heavy, but nevertheless somber, tune there’s “Departed Hymn.” During the announcement Robin Levitt obliquely describes it as “a tribute to two brothers;” however, it’s worth presuming that the brothers are John and Robert Kennedy considering the proximity of Robert’s assassination to the album’s release date. Although it isn’t a terribly emotionally stirring song because of George Levitt’s apathetic recitation of uninspired prose and downright boring musical accompaniment, it is worth a listen to hear the Kennedies reduced to humble, unnamed brothers preaching hope and peace.
From there, the family enters into more psychedelic territory. “The Saints of My City Are Children” talks about “tasting the colors and touching the light” while children search for the “key that opens the door to the sky.” “Fun City” recommends that you “get yourself a token (toke in?) and give your mind a ride” while “Candy” has its share of sugar-coated drug references like “Mmm chocolate drip kiss/Mmm butterscotch bliss/Vanish in the haze/Of Mary Jane days.”
However, the song isn’t only about the family’s favorite muchies; it gives Sean Levitt a chance to show off the guitar chops that scored them a record deal in the first place. He gives a simple, heart-warming solo that’s skillful, but indicative of his youth. And Eddie Shu’s harmonica playing brings to mind scenes straight from an old Western.
“Once I Had a Little Duck” is as endearing as your spouse’s baby pictures. Teresa Levitt, with her 11-year-old voice and her possibly-had-a-few-lessons-but-probably-grew-up-with-a-piano-in-the-house playing style, gets the spotlight for a 37 second song that sounds like a twee-pop outtake from the Juno soundtrack. Essentially it is a child singing about a duck, yet it’s always entertaining to hear music that sounds contemporary, but is far from it.
After that small stretch of bizarreness, “O Amor em Paz” is a refreshing bit of normalcy. Stella’s voice takes on a surprising sensuality when singing in Portuguese. Who knows whether it’s the proposition of foreign romance or simply a language of tremendous beauty, but she does an exceptional job interpreting this classic by Jobim and Gilberto. Corea puts forth a sweep-you-off-your-feet piano solo with a dancer’s delicacy and the tender touch of true love. Pete Yellin also provides some fluttering flute work giving the song an extra sense of sentimentality.
The Levitts are a very talented musical family. They exist in a world where any style is fair-game and no lyric is too abstract. They are superbly creative with their original material and still very much themselves on standards like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” Listening to “We Are the Levitts” is like watching a stranger’s home movies: everyone is a part of an obvious whole, but each family member has their own nuance. All of their personalities are right on the surface without any fear of judgment or limitation. This is an unmistakably charming album which stands as an example of why record companies need to reissue any and all unreleased material. (Review by Aaron Hicks)
ROSCOE MITCHELL – NONAAH
Label: Nessa Records
Release Date: September 2008
Tracklist: CD1: Nonaah; Ericka; Nonaah; Off Five Dark Six; A1 TAL 2LA; Tahquemenon.
CD2: Improvisation 1; Ballad; Nonaah; Sing; Improvisation 2; Sing; Chant; Off Five Dark Six.
Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell: alto saxophone; Anthony Braxton: sopranino saxophone; Wallace McMillan: alto saxophone; Henry Threadgill: alto saxophone; Joseph Jarman: alto saxophone; George Lewis: trombone; Muhal Richard Abrams: piano; Malachi Favors: bass.
Additional Information: Recorded 1976-1977 in Willisau, Chicago and Mapenzi.
This marks a welcome return to the catalogue of what might be called an AACM classic. The title, enigmatically, refers not to a fixed composition even in the sense of a written score or a head but, as the liner note tells us, ‘not to be regarded as static forms, but as working, evolving structures’ and to quote the composer ‘when I do it solo I do it many different ways’. The first recorded version was on ‘Fanfare for the warriors’ by the Art ensemble of Chicago; at the other extreme is a chamber version for flute, bassoon and piano. 1 This of course is all in keeping with the AACM ideal of non-duality between performance and composition.
But it is the opening ‘Nonaah’ that has given this album much of its fame, or notoriety. The Willisau audience, already annoyed at not seeing Anthony Braxton as advertised, but Roscoe Mitchell as a substitute, voice further discontent as the unaccompanied alto repeats a nine-note phrase over and over, not that the repetition is literal; the long note that ends each phrase is slightly different each time, either in duration, in dynamics or timbre. (The liner note mentions a struggle: to quote Mitchell ‘…building tensions…and when I did finally release it my alto had just given in to me (it said “OK you can play me now”)’). Around the 5.30 mark this difference becomes more marked with extreme timbral distortions caused by singing thru the horn, and probably holding the bell close to the microphone, blending with microtones and increased fragmentation to suggest more of a resemblance to the staccato interval leaps of the original. By the nine minute mark the dynamic level has dropped and something like a slow movement, still on the staccato side, begins. Before too long this builds into a call and response pattern with phrases in the upper register being echoed non-literally in the lower register. Around the 13.25 mark this comes to an abrupt end. The volume rises again, and stays loud. The prevailing language from now on is wide interval leaps, staccato phrasing, a shifting pulse and an array of extended techniques that has almost certainly influenced later saxophonists of the ‘paint-peeling’ school like Jeffrey Morgan or Mats Gustafsson. A pause about two minutes before the end elicits applause; the heckling of course has ended. After this more legato, if not jazzy, lines take it to the end, and the audience’s accolade.
Space and the reader’s patience would prevent me from giving this kind of attention to every track, but this is the longest on the album, and I hope you have some idea by now what kind of tour de force it is.
After a relatively straight-ahead (or at least free jazz) version of Joseph Jarman’s ‘Ericka’ there’s a short reprise of ‘Nonaah’, possibly even more intense than what went before.
The rest of the set comes from 1977, and it’s worth comparing a totally different version of ‘Nonaah’ by an alto saxophone quartet in which Mitchell is joined by Joeph Jarman, Wallace McMillan and Henry Threadgill, all on alto. Again a slow middle part is sandwiched between two faster movements, but, while a sophisticated sense of form is at work here, the thematic developments and recapitulations associated with classical sonata form should not be expected. It opens with a fortissimo contrapuntal passage lasting about four minutes, in its ostinato repetition with slight variations maybe reminiscent of ‘minimalists’ like Steve Reich (I prefer the French term la musique répététive ), but without any trappings of ‘new age’ or trance music. The slower part that follows also has a fixed pulse and consists of short phrases with plenty of space between them, with the horns coming together now and then to produce shifting harmonies, or dissonances. It ends with another fortissimo passge, more like a hocket in the strict sense than the opening movement, bearing a recognizable remblance to the original art ensemble ‘Nonaah’. The staccato attack becomes gradually more legato, the single-note phrases become looser and before long there is mayhem of the kind even WSQ in their wild early days never quite achieved. Startlingly original.
The other pieces for more than one musician are all briefer. ‘Off five dark six’ is played as a duo with Anthony Braxton’s sopranino. The opening thematic material is based on very short high-pitched notes, sometimes sounded in pairs, always with space surrounding them. (These polarities of sound and space were to be enduring concerns in Mitchell’s music.) The liner note is not quite accurate in stating that here one saxophone is an extension in pitch terms of the other, as the alto can be heard at a few points playing higher than the sopranino. The only other recording I know that Braxton and Mitchell did as a duo is a rare LP on Sackville 2, not available on CD at the time of writing; this makes the duo on ‘Nonaah’ a valuable glimpse into the way they interacted.
The solo version of this number shows that it is a more stable compositional form than ‘Nonaah’, being broadly recognizable. The lack of a second saxophone is compensated by the use of multiphonics (sounding more than one note at a time by unorthodox fingering or embouchure.)
The duo with Malachi Favors brings into the spotlight a duo that received little enough exposure with the Art ensemble. There is a studied avoidance of legato playing; even when Favors picks up the bow, his playing is not continuous, but full of rests.
Something similar could be said for the trio with Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis, where all tend to steer clear of lines, except for the dotted kind. The interface between composition and improvisation, where one ends and the other begins, as so often in Mitchell’s music, remains tantalizing, and inscrutable. Of course these three have returned this century with the more freely improvised ‘Streaming’ 3 and some acclaimed festival appearances in Europe.
The bonus tracks previously unreleased were recorded at both US sessions on the album, a concert at Berkeley in January 1977 and a studio session the following month. The version of ‘Off five dark six’ has been discussed already. Listeners to the ‘Wildflowers’ sessions made at Sam Rivers’ loft may recognize ‘Chant’ here rendered in a much shorter version with variations not really bearing much resemblance to jazz improvisation in the usual sense. Listeners also have a chance to compare studio and live versions of ‘Sing’, an expedition into timbral distortions. The live version is much more ‘in your face’ and contains some of the rare passages on this album that might just about be called ‘free jazz.’ A piece called ‘Improvisation 2’ contains enough repetition of motivic material to give the impression that it might be pre-composed.
If you have an active interest in the music of the AACM, this recording is an essential statement and example of working methods in the early days of consolidation. If you’ve been attracted by the Art ensemble of Chicago’s work, and would like to check members’ work away from the band, this might be a good place to start, bearing in mind that this music can be challenging, but bracing, and ultimately rewarding.
Personally, the more I listen to Roscoe Mitchell’s music, the more I’m convinced he is a master musician of a high order.
1 Roscoe Mitchell- Four compositions (Lovely music LCD 2021) 1987
2 Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton- Duets (Sackville 3016) 1977 (LP only)
3 Muhal Richard Abrams, George E.Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell- Streaming (Pi 22) 2006
(Review by Sandy Kindness)
HEIKKI SARMANTO/ SERIOUS MUSIC ENSEMBLE – A BOSTON DATE
Label: Porter Records
Release Date: 2008
Tracklist: Top of the Prude; A Different Kind of Smile; Ibiza; Grass Dream; Run; MC
Personnel: Juhani Aaltonen: saxophone; Heikki Sarmanto: piano; Lance Gunderson: guitar; George Mraz: bass; Craig Herndon: drums.
Additional Information: Boston, 1970.
Juhani Aaltonen’s saxophone is what really elevates the date, giving a slightly rougher-edged tone that is often seems lacking in the more polished playing of the rest of the group. Nonetheless, there are other, interesting things going on, particular in the interaction between the leader’s piano and Lance Gunderson’s guitar. It’s not the most frequently used instrumental combination, and the players exploit this, the timbral overlap between guitar and the piano’s higher range creating some almost shimmering textures which hover between soloistic interplay and more abstract colourism. At these points, the musicians are content to let the music just wander in a less obviously soloistic, purpose-driven way, and that, for me, is more interesting than the solos per se, which probably provide more focus, but also suffer from taking the more predictable route.
Mraz is one of those fine, undersung bass-players, always sure to provide firm support and really shine when asked to – one of those generation of players, Cecil McBee and NHOP included, who really add a melodic freshness, perhaps less woody than Mingus, interested in exploring much higher registers with liberal use of harmonics and arco playing. Drummer Craig Herndon, though he tends to assume much more of a background role, injects some nice tension into the quieter moments with well-placed cymbal blasts and knocks, ensuring that everyone stays on their toes.
But Aaltonen is the star performer here, imparting a Shepp-like breathiness and burnished, swooning lyricism to ‘A Different Kind of Smile’ (he’s less successful on the other ballad track, disc closer ‘MC’, where his soprano sax comes near Jan Garbarek’s shrill pipiness), and really quite burning flurries on faster numbers – the energy noticeably increases when he begins soloing on ‘Top of the Prude’, swirls of multiphonic notes breaking up the linear focus for a more directly emotional approach. At times it feels like he’s played ahead of himself – as if the emotion of the moment has carried him forward into a place which slightly surprises him, as he draws back into some more jazz-like flurries.
A mention, too, for Saarmanto’s compositions – while approaching blandness in the more solemn moments (‘A Different Kind of Smile’ might suffer without Aaltonen’s directness and burr), the knotty, maybe more ‘European’ sound of a tune like ‘Top of the Prude’ establishes a nicely energetic, nearly frantic atmosphere for the improvisations to build on. ‘I’m Late, I’m Late’, Eddie Sauter’s Bartok arrangement for Stan Getz on ‘Focus’, springs to mind.
(Review by David Grundy)
OTOMO YOSHIHIDE – MUSIC(S)
Label: La Huit
Release Date: 2006
Tracklist: DVD 1: Orange was the Color of Her Dress/Tails Out; Turntable; Hat and Beard; Theme from Canary; Eureka. DVD 2: Song for Che; Orange was the Color of Her Derss/Tails out; Soft Stuff; Loud Stuff; Gomen; Misty; Lonely Woman.
Personnel: Otomo Yoshihide: solo guitar and turntable, and with Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Ensemble (ONJE) – Kenta Tsugami: alto saxophone; Alfred Harth: tenor saxophone, trumpet; Sachiko M: sinewaves; Kumiko Takara: vibraphone; Hiroaki Mizutani: contrabass; Yasuhiro Yoshigaki: drums, trumpet.
Additional Information: DVD 1: Interview and in-concert excerpts; DVD 2: Concerts. Available from lahuit.com (DVD-R, Region-Free).
This double-DVD-R release came out on the Parisian La Huit label a couple of years ago now, but I’ve only just discovered it, and very fine it is too. These are the same people who put out the recent Wadada Leo Smith Golden Quartet DVD, which I’ve heard many fine things about, and they clearly know what their doing. Like the Smith disc, this is part of La Huit’s ‘Freedom Now’ series.
The first DVD consists of the film itself: ‘Music(s)’, directed by Guillaume Dero. This is mostly taken up by performances from Yoshihide’s New Jazz Ensemble, recorded in France in 2005, interspersed with interview excerpts and solo performances on guitar and turntable from two different Tokyo concerts, also given in 2005. And the second disc has very much more fine extra footage from the same concerts, adding more than an hour of extra music to the fairly short original running time of 49 minutes.
What I particularly like about this is that the music is very much to the fore, with just the right amount of interview clips to give you something to think about theoretically, to give you some sort of background as to what Yoshihide is out to achieve. This challenges the idea that a ‘proper’ film (not just a concert document) has to be clipped up short, with talking heads everywhere and the merest snippets of music to illustrate what they are saying. Recent offenders would include Alan Roth’s fascinating ‘Inside Out in the Open’, which yet infuriated because its approach to the subject came across as so scattershot.
So let the pure music flow – and this is well-shot too, camera angles and movement being inventive but not intrusive. There are none of the weird ‘psychadelic’ visual effects, for example, that mar the recent Soft Machine DVD (‘Alive in Paris’) or footage of Miles Davis’ 70s concerts. And there’s rather attractive colour filtering too – almost with a soft focus haze over it, adding a slightly dreamy touch that sits perfectly, for example, with the New Jazz Ensemble’s version of Mingus’ ‘Orange was the Color’, all passionate nonchalant saxophones spaced out over Sachiko M’s prickly flowing carpet of sinewaves, with guitar strums even adding a touch of surf music, so blissed-out of itself that it survives only as disembodied fragments.
(Review by David Grundy)
HENRY GRIMES – SIGNS ALONG THE ROAD: POEMS
Publisher: buddy’s knife jazzedition
Publishing Date: 2007
Number of Pages: 129
Contents: signs along the road being put there; the march; easternal mysticism, virtue, and calm; sed; the arch stairwells; the walk in the dark that was heard at night; ortherama the king; of europe; untitled; untitled; the rivers run into the sea; amazed heart, all ponderous eye; the infant of attention; the luckbill; death; ghost and spirit; the place; the world our society, society our world; the chime around above time; lilith; the feeling of ahaz; that was the quip lib; as oceans – head; coasts; at any; a pre-revolutionary cabin; moments; egregious grows the light of dawn; adama and pourquory; hieroglyphics; to adopt a child; grenth; prose lefthand; in the day; the river end; peace; monk music; friend; apologia pro vita sua; water wax; back to down along spring street; in case the place should change; the ground; gage’s pick-ups; two; metabites; against the shadow of the moon; a chart of heart a chart of mind; the last chord
Additional Information: Available from http://buddysknife.de/
The facts are well known. Henry Grimes, established as absolutely one of the leading figures in the new music of the 1960s, through his work with Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders, disappeared in 1968. Presumed dead ever since, he was discovered in 2003, subsequently remaining in demand around the world, playing with many different groups and in many different contexts, creating anew the wonderment of the 1960s’ fervent ferment, with that same energy and ear for the serene howl of uncouth beauty. In the thirty-year gap, he did not touch a bass once. But neither did he suffer from the ills that forced so many jazz musicians off their paths of brilliant creation – drink and drugs. And thus his mind still roamed, seeking other avenues down which to travel, apart from the music which it sustained and which sustained it. It was to words that he turned, and though Marc Ribot claims in his introduction to this book that Grimes is “a man who almost never speaks,” through writing he was able to exercise his mind, to make that transference from thought to art. Filling thousands of pages with his thoughts, with diary entries and with poetry, he had no audience but himself (how different to the glass-clinking, cash-register-ringing, conversation-ringing atmospheres of the jazz-clubs in which he had played!).
Yet writing with this freedom imposed more discipline, not less – one should not expect anything otherwise, given the beautiful freedom of the bass playing. What emerges out of this selection from Grimes’ notebooks is that he was truly was using poetry to think, deeply and seriously. As he treated music as a philosophical and spiritual activity, so he understood that poetry can be fundamental to an understanding of where and what one really is. It could be argued that this absolute concentration of faculties emerged from necessity, but it was also self-imposed: no one told Grimes to write, it was his own compulsion to do so. In the thirty silent years during which he remained virtually alone, poetry was a way of reaching deep into his own innermost recesses, but also of engaging with the world from which he had cut himself off – whether this be through the use of history and mythology (‘a pre-revolutionary cabin’, ‘ortherama the king’), religion (‘easternal mysticism, virtue, and calm’) or consideration of the surrounding urban environment (‘the arch stairwells’).
Paradoxically, it may have only been by cutting himself off in this way that he could manage to so deeply engage, with the world and with himself – although it is worth noting that quite a few of these poems were written after Grimes’ re-emergence. Nevertheless, it was arguably that extreme cut-off which presented the conditions in which this poetry could be brought into existence (though one must be careful not to romanticise solitude, ‘dropping-out’, as one might be tempted to in the cases of Sonny Simmons, Charles Gayle, or Guiseppi Logan (himself perhaps on the verge of a return)).
Part of the poetry’s beauty is its individuality. Not for the sake of wackiness or trying to seem/appear anything. Compare these lines to your standard jazz poetry: “Distance was spatial/ and the time drew/fathomless,/ in quire to condescend/in the mystic measures/overlapping” (‘the walk in the dark that was heard at night’). This is difficult stuff –not just because of the use of obscure words like ‘quire’, ‘mien’ or ‘zygocity,’ but because of the whole construction and content of the poems’ almost every line. Grimes’ phrasing is genuinely knotty; he is genuinely attempting to say things that cannot be said any other way. Prose paraphrase will really not do. Recently I’ve been thinking about how it would be possible to develop a new vocabulary, or set of vocabularies, to deal with the intense demands that music like Grimes’ makes on the traditional resources of music criticism/journalism. I think that ‘Signs along the Road’ is the closest that anyone has so far come to doing this, the trade off being that it is so much a poetic conception that I’m not sure it would, or could desirably, be fitted into the confines of criticism.
In any case, music is far from Grimes’ only theme. “Events are the polarizing of urban waves in spiritual displacement”: this is a poetry that addresses that great theme of Frank O’ Hara –the contradictions of living in the modern urban world, and specifically, in the modern American city. Admittedly, Grimes’ methods and results are very different to O’ Hara’s, his city poetry being interior and private-public. By this I mean that the initially inward meditations reach outward to encompass the public (most often in its facade as architecture and constructed living space – hotels, roads, churches, parks) rather than starting out and moving in. This is a more complex process than I allow, in fact, for an observed image tends to be the initial trigger (‘signs along the road’, ‘the arch stairwells’), and the inward/outward relation often exists, as far as that is possible, in a simultaneous relation. Yet still I think there is a difference to O’ Hara’s predominantly social and public-private sphere – by which I mean that even though one is alone, one always writes about one’s friends, about lunches and parties and boat trips and sexual couplings, that even one’s deepest fears are considered in terms of others, and probably could not exist without them (“when anyone reads this but you it begins/to be lost” cements the very personal address of ‘A Letter to Bunny’). Grimes’ scope is both wider and narrower: ‘the world our society, society our world’ – this ‘world’ feels much more abstract than that of O’ Hara, which is constructed almost entirely out of those that people it.
Considering one’s environment so deeply inevitably leads one to question how one is placed within it. The poem just cited does this, to be sure, but perhaps the most direct engagement is in ‘the place’, found on pages 52 and 53. By its final lines (“and i was right: i knew/ just where i was”), one knows without a doubt that the piece’s journey is genuine. It begins: “The place was always – a thing/ to wonder, and/ always it seemed like/ it had propensity/ to outright.” This seems relatively straightforward, compared to some of Grimes’ other contortions of syntax, but read those lines again. “The place was always – a thing/to wonder:” the dash placed between the first four and last two words of the first line, importantly adding an extra dimension of meaning. Not just “the place was always [some]thing/ to wonder [marvel at]”, but “the place was always [in existence],” as well as “a thing/to wonder.” Why would this be? Because ‘place’ is not just the realisation of where one is at any one particular moment (‘I am standing on Fifth Avenue/ I am standing on 52nd street’), but of where one is placed as a human being within the world at large – beyond that, within the cosmos. “Going to the ritual,/ grown in time and beyond the gate…to the indoor place” (‘eastern mysticism, virtue, and calm’) – this awareness of the very largest context within which one is placed is the very truest way of understanding the very smallest context – one’s self, one’s body and soul. This mystic background forms an unspoken, but to my mind crucial part of ‘the place’s argument.
That should not imply any sort of shallow mysticism – rather, much of the poem is concerned with observations of thing seen, with sense-data – “a place, a hotel room…architectural archetype sameness…roadside slides”. But these things are always more than single, solid concepts, leading instead to trains of thought and association; in this highly charged context words assume more than themselves, have the ghosts of other words behind them – so that the beautifully assonant “roadside slides” conjures the phrase “roadside dives”, and makes one ponder the use of metaphors of movement (‘slides’, ‘dives’) to talk of places, buildings which do not move – and this ties back to the road (‘roadside’), to the way that cars slide or dive (in rain) along its surface, or that people slide from their cars out to these ‘low dives’, dive out (while never escaping) the cold comfort, the “couching ambiguity/ of modern life”. And then those roads connect to those “signs along the road” which make the subject matter of the titular first poem. Grimes is not necessarily thinking about these connections explicitly – they are not necessarily ‘there’ in the surface linearity of the poem’s observations, but, because of his depth as a thinker and artist, they enter his words anyhow, as if oozing from the fibres of his being.
In the poem discussed above, Grimes notes that “the place has…propensity to outright.” One can clearly not take ‘outright’ as meaning any bald, factual, common-sensical statement. The sense of Grimes’ poetry, so much a product of his senses (sensual attune-ment to, at-one-ment with the world), is far from common, if ‘common’ means ‘repeated into triviality’. Yet the humanity it translates to words could, potentially, be common to us all – it’s just that there are only some people who are willing to confront themselves and their environment with as much as honesty as to be able to access it.
Based on all this, one should be able to class Grimes, along with Cecil Taylor, as the jazz musician-poet par excellence – or, like Taylor, as more than this: as a poet whose conception is undoubtedly musically informed, displaying the same resources, reflexes, turns and emotions as his music-making, but whose writing stands alone, independent of the music. Grimes captures this best himself, in one of the few poems explicitly about music, ‘monk music’: “Music functions in a pattern./Patterns.” That line-broken, end-(full)-stopped ambiguity is something to be savoured, as it teases out this meaning: that music is both patterned and patterning, the patterns created by the musicians in some mysterious way turning round to pattern them. In that sense, Grimes goes some way towards allowing us a glimpse into just what people mean when they talk about the ‘magic’ of free improvisation – the sense of being both in and out of control, of controlling the music’s flow while also not knowing what is going to happen next. Grimes is also saying that music cannot be limited to just one pattern (the full-stop and line-break act as a pause, a hesitation before a correction – “Music functions in a pattern – no, wait, that’s not quite right, it functions in patterns.”) If we apply these insights to the poetry, I think we gain something useful: Grimes’ poems use patterns, but not so much the traditional patterns of strict metre and regulated stanzaic shapes, coming nearest to such a tradition only insofar as the ‘open field’ of Charles Olson hovers somewhere in the structure of ‘signs along the road being put there’ (Olson’s conception obviously a reaction against those older patterns, anyhow). Instead, these patterns tend, perhaps, to emerge more from a way of thinking and speaking unique to Grimes (just as reading J.H. Prynne’s prose helps one understand some of the characteristic twists of phrasing that contribute so much to the strangeness of his poems).
Perhaps they emerge from the patterns of jazz also– the sense of placement and timing in ‘monk music’ does become a lot more comprehensible if one thinks of Thelonious Monk’s playing. This is a poetry with an intensely oral/aural effect (as indicated by the fact that Grimes now recites his words as well as playing bass and violin), but the intricacy of its many effects is very textual – not in terms of numerous allusions requiring hoards of footnotes to decipher (though the range of reference is very wide), but the way in which many of the twists of meaning simply cannot be understood by hearing the poem read aloud – line breaks, punctuation, differing implied emphases which occur simultaneously. It is perhaps for this reason that ‘signs along the road’ seems to read itself aloud inside one’s head as one reads. It’s a phenomenon that I don’t recall ever happening to me with any other kind of poetry – the voice that plays itself out in my head is not that of Henry Grimes, nor is it mine, and perhaps it is not even fully a voice, but it does exist in some capacity. This sounds fanciful, but one could describe it as the voice of the poem itself, speaking independently of writer and reader but emerging only from the encounter between them. I hope, and I don’t think, that such philosophical considerations are something I am imposing on the poetry; rather, they arise from the conditions which it creates – it makes one think in this way. It forces one’s experience to become enriched, with the gentlest and most studious of touches.
It’s a shame that the book doesn’t seem to have received much coverage, either from the jazz critics (who might not be quite sure what to make of it), nor from the literary critics (for whom this is off their usual radar – ‘what does a free jazz bassist from America have to tell us about poetry?’). There are ways of writing about it intelligently, though, as Marc Ribot’s introduction shows. Thankfully, he doesn’t try to grasp for too many literary parallels – but he does mention Celan, which I think is appropriate, given the stress that both place on individual words and phrases, the way they force language to say things that one almost feels it doesn’t want to – the way that their poetry is wrenched into being from the very depths of their self. Such poetry is incredibly honest, and incredibly generous; it is what is meant by being aware, awake, and alive.
(Review by David Grundy)