Tania Chen/ Shabaka Hutchings/ Mark Sanders
This performance was filmed live by Helen Petts at one of John Russell’s monthly Mopomoso nights at The Vortex in London (see www.mopomoso.com and http://www.youtube.com/user/helentonic). Shabaka Hutchings (pictured above), a truly fine player who was briefly name-checked in the previous issue of this magazine, is here paired with pianist Tania Chen (a classically-trained interpreter of Cage and Feldman, who has studied with John Tilbury) and veteran drummer Mark Sanders. The music begins quietly, gradually swelling from the silence as the trio feel their way, cautiously echoing each-other’s instrumental lines. At 6:41, when some melodic agreement/ concord/ coming-together is reached between Chen and Hutchings, the silence is not allowed to roll to cessation, to applause and the appearance of a false ‘conclusion’. Rather, Chen launches into a monologue – solo extrapolations on the melodic essence of the previous section – to which Sanders’ bells impart a further meditative air. Hutchings builds circles on a recurring pattern, spinning out and out in questioning webs; threads and journeys, quick forays, a rumbling panic-stricken march from Sanders’ rumblings and Chen’s lower-keyboard spikiness. When they reach another silence three minutes into the second clip a similar transformation could occur – but the applause cuts in and Chen shifts in her chair, smiling, in some way even embarrassed.
Given the way things start off on the second piece, the direction seems inevitable: Hutchings’ clarinet sets out a kind of off-kilter motor-rhythm momentum into which Chen and Sanders could easily slot. But when they don’t wholeheartedly join, the turn to quietness is both unexpected and completely convincing – a hush built from Hutchings’ willingness to gauge the situation and to respond appropriately, Chen’s refusal to play except when necessary, and Sanders’ refusal to be the ‘up-front’ drummer.
Improvisations by one-off groups such as this one may develop in different ways to those by regular ensembles, which is part of the excitement of something like Mopomoso: the necessity of developing new approaches, of finding ways of working together, leads to a greater sense of risk, which can spur the musicians on to move outside their comfort zones. On the other hand, such risk can also generate a tendency towards politeness, a laudable desire not to assert oneself over others creating music that is, in the end, perhaps overly tentative in its approach. Such pit-falls are avoided here, for, while the three musicians are certainly respectful, paying careful attention to what their trio partners are doing at any particular moment, they are not afraid to take their improvisations in unexpected directions, yielding some fine results.
All About Cecil McBee
The name of bassist Cecil McBee may have inadvertently become associated with a leading clothing store in Japan,1 but it seems that his work as a bassist is still too often unacknowledged by both critics and public. That’s a real shame, because his work on Pharoah Sanders’ early 1970s albums for Impulse Records contains a textural richness and an emotional depth rarely matched in the more one-dimensional role which the instrument has had to play in much jazz music, perhaps the finest instance being his solo feature on ‘Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord’, from Sanders’ ‘Summun Bukmun Umyun.’ The Sanders recordings also demonstrated that McBee was perfectly capable of playing in a more conventional, groove-based role, as attested by the hypnotic rhythmic interplay with Stanley Clarke on ‘Black Unity’ and ‘Live at the East.’ Continuing to work in the ‘spiritual jazz’ vein that characterized Sanders’ output at this time, he recorded as leader for Strata-East: the varied ‘Mutima’ contained ensemble pieces with the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater, as well as a feature for two basses played at once.
The more recent video featured here is a podcast made by the ‘Jazz Video Guy,’ Bret Primack (http://planetbret.com/): it documents the recording sessions for the album ‘Seraphic Light’ by Coltrane tribute band Saxophone Summit (Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman, joined by Ravi Coltrane, who replaces the late Michael Brecker). Focusing on McBee, it mixes footage of the group laying down one of his compositions with ‘talking-heads’ interviews featuring the other musicians (including fellow veteran Billy Hart). Perhaps one day someone will make a full-length feature on McBee: for now, this short video provides an intriguing look at some of his working methods.
John Klemmer – 20th Century Blues/Late Evening Prayer
The work for which John Klemmer has become known is not exactly my cup of tea – he’s one of the principle culprits responsible for the growth of the smooth jazz movement – but, like fellow culprit Grover Washington Jr., he was actually capable of playing some very fine jazz saxophone when he felt like it. He might never have become an absolutely top-rank musician anyway, but, by limiting himself to the unchallenging world of commercial smooth jazz, he ensured that he wouldn’t even stand the ghost of a chance. Signed up to Impulse Records in the mid-70s as one of the new wave of young jazzers, he was seen at once as a firebrand in the Gato Barbieri/post-Coltrane vein, an experimental musician (through his use of Echoplex – which, ironically enough, was the tool which turned him to commercialism), and someone able to connect with more popular musical traditions (his very fine, non-Impulse record ‘Blowin’ Gold’, which features Pete Cosey as a sideman, contained a cover of Hendrix’ ‘Third Stone from the Sun’). His tone is hard and steely, and he has a penchant for building his solos up to passionate squawks – it’s a very direct approach, if not as out-there as Barbieri’s, and you can see why Impulse had high hopes for Klemmer.
Neither the image nor the picture quality on these two videos, recorded at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, is very good (it’s clearly been transferred from an old VHS), but Klemmer has a solid band to back him up as he opens with a solo echoplex ballad feature, which segues into a driving blues built around the dug-in bass-lines and comping of Cecil McBee, pianist Tom Canning, and drummer Alphone Mouzon, best known himself for his fusion work. The second clip is a vamp-oriented track which contains the same exuberant skronking as ‘Blowin’ Gold’, as well as an enthusiastic Mouzon solo.
Lucio Capece and Christian Kesten
This is footage of what looks to have been a very focused small gathering at Labor Sonor, Kule, Berlin, back in December 2006, with the musicians sitting in a space that’s barely separate from the audience, who are within touching distance. The atmosphere is one of respectful openness, and the music itself has a similar sense of space within it, opening up vistas of silence while at the same time being very intense, focused, even constricted, claustrophobic in its limitation of the sound field to extremely quiet ‘extended techniques.’ In such a context, playing a conventionally blown note or a recongisable harmonic progression would come as the biggest shock of all, and it’s admirable that such a radically committed approach exists at all, an approach which provides an intensely absorbing experience. On one level, what we have here is in some way not ‘reality’ – it must take place behind closed doors, in chambers of quiet – yet at the same time it forces a concentration on the closest details and mechanics of bodily performance and of situation of sound, event and gesture in space: in other words, some fundamental aspects of the human experience.
What does this actually mean in terms of what we can see and hear in the video clips? Three minutes have gone by and hardly anything has happened (someone’s mobile phone has unexpectedly gone off, the loudest sound we’ve heard so far). Capece starts to rotate a violin bow around the surface of his saxophone bell in a kind of machine rhythm. Kesten’s hands are clasped between his legs, almost in an attitude of prayer. He doesn’t sing, he simply breathes audibly. Capece swings a cardboard tube in circles to make music from the air. Kesten picks up some tiny plant pots from the floor and rubs them together.
But to go on describing the music in this way wouldn’t do it justice, for it’s not really concerned with presenting a narrative sequence of sound events – at least, not in any developmental sense; although, given the long periods of silence, even the smallest gesture can assume great drama, and the music necessarily unfolds along a linear axis, necessarily exists in unfolding time. Low-quality video is hardly a substitute for being in the same room as the musicians, especially with this kind of improvisation, but it’s nice to get an extended glimpse at such an occasion. Just remember to use headphones…