Duke Ellington (feat. Harry Carney) – ‘Sophisticated Lady’
A short clip of the Ellington orchestra live in Copenhagen, this is a solo showcase for baritone saxophonist Harry Carney; after a spirited introduction from Ellington, Carney takes the melody and a solo (which is mostly based around the melodic pattern), his forceful playing pushing past Gerry Mulligan smoothness with some real bite – I think I even a Brotzmannesque quality a couple of times, although, for contrast, listen as he suddenly drops back for some higher-register flutters around two minutes in. And then he holds a single note for a full minute, nearly a third of the clip’s running time.
At first this might seem like a gimmick, but it’s actually also Ellington and Carney playing with form, stretching out the ‘jazz’ ending, the held note, and running with it. Carney’s note functions as a drone, over which Ellington and the unseen bassist trade a skittish melodic shape, but, in large part due to its volume, it refuses to be merely background, and there’s thus a sense of ‘how much longer can it go on for?’: an extended tension, the anticipation of an ending which is actually in progress, but which has been stretched out far beyond the expected length (in fact, it’s something of a false ending, as Ellington swoops down the keyboard and brings in the band for an emphatically final ‘real ending’). This is not so much a musical joke as a brief experiment, then, and it’s a surprisingly effecting one.
And there’s something about watching it on film too: the expression on Carney’s face as he circular breathes to maintain the note, the sense of effort this imparts to a ‘sophisticated’ ballad. Also worth noting is the bored expression on Johnny Hodges’ face as he sits next to Carney during that final note, suddenly picking up his sax and blowing as he realizes he has to come in for the final band crescendo: moments such as these didn’t have quite the same appeal to everyone, even members of the band.
Dunois Jazz Channel
I’m putting this one down as the whole channel, rather than selecting any individual videos, as the channel consists of short (1-2 minute) videos featuring many great jazz and improv performers during the 1980s, recorded at a jazz club in Paris. Given that they remain clips only, rather than complete performances, it seems to make more sense to place them side by side. Looks like the club where they were filmed was an exciting and diverse place: featured are American jazzers like Sonny Sharrock, who kicks out the jams in typically mind-boggling fashion and breaks a guitar string in the process, without missing a beat – (w)rapt as he is in total, joyous concentration – and then spinning out some surprisingly gentle jazz balladry, a side of him not much heard. Mal Waldron also makes an appearance, with some great, hard blowing from saxophonist Richard Raux in a hard-bop context somewhat similar to Waldron’s work with Archie Shepp, but perhaps a little freer.
British free improvisers can also be seen doing there thing: Steve Beresford, John Stevens, and Lol Coxhill performing one of his wonderful spoken word pieces with the Recedents (from the extract, it sounds like a surreal one-man conversation, mixed in with the sudden intrusions of a popular song – at once funny and a little disturbing (particularly given Coxhill’s clean-pated resemblance to Donald Pleasance’s character in Polanski’s ‘Cul-de’Sac’). Coxhill also turns up alongside French maverick Jac Berrocal, this time playing the straight man as Berrocal swings bells and cymbals around while dressed in leather trousers and jacket.
Of particular interest for me are the two videos of a Ted Milton’s British No-Wave-style band Blurt. Milton was a poet and puppeteer as well as a singer and sax player, and it’s a great chance to see his performative antics, laid out over the aggressive mechanical chug of the other band members.
Another highlight, in a completely different vein, is the extremely powerful vocal style of Basque singer Benat Achiary, in duet with soprano saxophonist Michel Doneda: a blend of raw folk tradition with the unpredictability of improv that reminds me a little of the work of Ghedalia Tazartes. Though he’s made recordings of traditional folk music and in improv contexts (and some where the two cross over), Achiary is too little known, but he’s clearly a passionate and skilled musician.
Of course, it would be nicer if all these clips were longer, but, as it is, it’s a great cross-section of things – give yourself half an hour, pop all the videos into a youtube playlist, and watch multiple delights unfold.
‘The Universal Mind of Bill Evans’
An unusually thoughtful jazz documentary, this is a particularly welcome find, this. Too often even quite promising modern jazz docs are overly scattershot in their approach: for example, you arguably learn more about Sun Ra from the fiction film ‘Space is the Place’ than the more recent ‘Brother from Another Planet’ (which draws on ‘SITP’ as well as the 1980s documentary ‘A Joyful Noise’ – ‘AJN’ does the right thing in letting Ra and members of the Arkestra speak their mind without ‘amplification’ or ‘enhancement’ from obtrusive journos or critics). ‘Talking heads’ (whether these be critics or musicians) tend to be used merely to deliver fairly obvious factual snippets or unsubstantiated opinions, with short bits of music that aren’t given time to breathe amongst the commentary. A good example might be the film about ‘New Thing’ jazz released on DVD by ESP Disk, ‘Inside Out in the Open’, which is admittedly hampered by its length – it feels like it’s trying to cram a whole TV series’ worth into a mere hour.
But even those programmes which have the luxury of giving more time to their subjects, such as Ken Burns’ ‘Jazz’, fall into the same trip – most infamously when Cecil Taylor could be dismissed by a wilfully ignorant Marsalis comment and an extremely brief snippet of a piano solo whose overall feel is actually very different to the chosen excerpt. (The performance comes from Ron Mann’s 1981 film ‘Imagine the Sound’, which gives interview and music space to Archie Shepp (who’d by then moved out of the free jazz stage of his career), Bill Dixon (in a trio setting), Paul Bley, and Taylor. Portions of the Shepp, Dixon and Taylor bits of the film are, as you might expect, scattered around youtube: the Taylor clip in question can be found at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cP5L8tjnB6w.) Some might argue that, as with television news, an agenda is being pushed – the impression of ‘neutrality’, of hearing several sides of the issue, is foisted upon us by the wide variety of talking heads, even as they merge into one voice, crowing the party line. This might not even be their fault – but selective editing can make it so. And, importantly, it might not even be the fault of the film-makers (debate Mr Burns’ motivation in the aforementioned Cecil Taylor example as you will), as much as a result of the constraints they have to work under – most obviously, with regards to length, and to the sheer scope of material they have to address within such limiting confines.
Which is why I think the ‘small is beautiful’ approach is probably where the best jazz docs come from. There are no such compromises, no glaring omissions and skewed/chopped viewpoints in the Bill Evans documentary. By limiting things down to three people – Steve Allen, for the introduction; Bill Evans, as the documentary subject; and his brother Harry, as interviewer – it allows their thoughts to emerge at greater length, and with greater clarity; allows us access to the creative process of an artist without the talking-heads’ schizophrenic data-barrage of dates, annecdotes, narratives. It’s willing to be slow and to give time for actual thought about jazz as a serious artform.
As for the actual content of the prog, there are some interesting ideas, though I’m not sure I agree with all of them. The intro from Steve Allen is surprisingly shtick-free (apart from the rather forced gag where he pretends to forget his name), and his point about technique becoming so ingrained that the spontaneous aspects of improvisation can flow naturally, without forced or pre-planned conscious thought – that the artist can think with/through technique – actually parallel some of the comments Evan Parker makes in David Borgo’s book on improvisation ‘Sync or Swarm’: Parker backing up his ideas with scientific reference to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, or to psi phenomena.
The statement by Evans which opens the doc is particularly controversial: the notion of a “universal musical mind” somewhat similar to Chomsky’s ‘universal grammar’, or even to Hegel’s ‘Absolute Spirit’, relies on non-interrogated notions of the ‘real’, the ‘true’, the ‘good’. (Though admittedly, later on, Evans demonstrates (by some variations on the tune ‘How About You’), how playing ‘simply’ can be more ‘real’ than approximating a more complex approach for which you do not have the technical skill). I’m also intrigued by the way in which he thinks a ‘sensitive layman’ may have more insight than a hardened professional, unconcerned as they are with the technical niceties of performance, more able to appreciate the spontaneous joys of creation. I’d only go along with that so far, though I think it’s a valuable corrective to the ‘high priesthood’ of critics telling us what to think, whose opinions may be no more valuable than those they ‘teach’.
But let’s not get into that whole ‘role of the critic’ debate. There’s much to digest on this documentary, the whole of which can be found in 10-minute segments, linked from the original video.
Terror Threat (‘Re-Sonorisation n.1’)
I guess this is more in the line of the novelty videos which seem to be youtube’s stock-in-trade – if you follow the mainstream paper and digital media sources, that is. But, while it may not be a valuable historical record or a serious documentation of the process of music-making, I don’t think it’s to be sniffed at. The rather alarmist-sounding title ‘Terror Threat’ might, I suppose, hint at the nightmare nature that you always find in the surreal dream-world of cartoons, the permitted world of anxieties, a psychoanalytic playground I’m sure. What we actually have, though, is a vintage Felix the Cat short from 1930 entitled ‘April Maze’, a spring fantasy filled with dancing flowers (see picture), sinister thunderstorms, bursts of sunlight, and odd interactions between cartoon animals which, given the lack of dialogue or of sound effects, take on almost ritualistic nature – a kind of symbolism without symbolizing, perhaps, the appearance of standing in for something else (or maybe just existing in its own world without the need for that sort of justification). Sound has been provided by syncing up Eric Dolphy’s ‘Hat and Beard’, from ‘Out to Lunch’, which fits remarkably well with what we see on screen.
As Scott Bradley realized when scoring countless ‘Tom and Jerry’ shorts, the sort of sounds generally associated with ‘avant-garde’ music bring with them an irresistible pull to laughter, when deployed in the right context and with the right comic timing. Drunken, mock-sinister 12-tone marches were thus an integral part of the ever-changing audio landscape which Bradley provided, and which doubtless influenced the methodology and outlook of John Zorn’s frantic pace changes in Naked City. Humour, too, is a part of Dolphy’s approach, those exhilarating switches of register and yowling smears and squawks hinting at the same anarchic impulse that lies behind the classic MGM cartoons; that’s not to downplay Dolphy’s discipline and dedication to his craft, but I don’t think humour has to be immediately frowned on. In fact, separating the ‘avant-garde’ off as purely ‘serious music’ does a disservice to a music with the emotional variety and frequent joie-de-vivre of Dolphy, and this ‘re-sonorization’ brings that out beautifully. To take just one example, a beaming sun comes out as Dolphy’s solo comes to an end, a bird landing on a telephone wire perfectly syncing with the brief flutter from Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes which introduces Freddie Hubbard’s solo. I’m not sure whether this is so much a re-imagining of Dolphy’s piece or a re-imagining of the cartoon; rather, it’s a neat match-up which manages not to do a disservice to ‘Out to Lunch’.
Sun Ra Arkestra – ‘Shadow World’
This one finds Sun Ra live in West Berlin in the 70s. The sound quality is a little muddy, and the picture quality is fuzzy – this has clearly been ripped off a VHS tape – but it’s a great example of the Arkestra’s sense of theatre as they launch into a particularly liberated workout, albeit one set up by the relentless rhythmic riff which Ra plays on piano. The guitarist in particular gets the spirit/ gets into the spirit, with some chair and cymbal throwing sparking the emergence of several players from the Arkestra’s ranks for a bizarre trance-dance up the front of the stage, the baritone player doing a full 360-degree rotation on his back, while still playing, bass clarinet thrown up and down in the air in ecstasy. But this isn’t just a visual aspect – it’s a complete performance, mythic archetypes of sound and image, or, more prosaically, a re-figuring of acoustic space which one might compare to Sonny Rollins’ ambulatory performance style, writ large.