Friday, February 27, 2015

Spellcasting: Jim White drums with Xylouris White

The drums. You think you know the instrument, all of how it feels to play, to watch and listen, to experience. And then something comes along and reminds you that, well, no you don't. You know what you know, and what you don't know is vast, as well as inspiring. (In this regard, I highly recommend picking up Arcana VII, the latest volume of John Zorn–edited musician writings, and checking out the essays by Ches Smith, on his experiences learning Haitian Vodou drumming and incorporating it into his own aesthetic, and Tim Keiper, on his travels and musical experiences in Mali, Brazil and beyond.)

I've written before about the irreducibility of great drummers in performance, the way that if you're not in the room with them, picking up every sensation related to what they do—sound is just the beginning—you're not even coming close to experiencing their art.

Last night, I saw another drummer whose work I'd classify this way: Jim White, probably still best known as one third of the Australia's foremost violin-fronted instrumental-dirge-punk trio Dirty Three. He's also a sort of drummer to the indie singer-songwriter stars, most notably Will Oldham—before Thursday, the only time I'd seen White live in recent years was with Oldham, in 2009— and Cat Power, but also Nina Nastasia.

I remember being riveted by White's performance at that Oldham show and making a mental note that I needed to hear and see more of him. I'd listened to quite a bit of Dirty Three growing up, appreciated what White did in that group and seen them live once, but I never saw his percussive voice as something vital and elemental until these last couple show experiences, where White's weird, almost ritualistic vocabulary of gestures, his conjurer's approach to his art, really hit home for me. (Looking back, the fact that I hadn't yet delved into jazz when I caught that first Dirty Three show, probably around 1998, might explain why his playing didn't strike a chord with me at that time.)

Last night, White's current focal project, Xylouris White—a duo with the Cretan lute player George Xylouris—opened for Swans at Bowery Ballroom. (This New Yorker piece, into which Fugazi's Guy Picciotto figures prominently, serves as an excellent introduction to the band.) White was set up at center stage; this is clearly an equally matched pairing. What Xylouris does is gorgeous and absolutely essential to the project. Given that I know essentially nothing about the Cretan lute tradition, I humbly point you to the article linked above. Xylouris's contributions sounded at times Arabic, at times Jewish, at times even Indian. Hearing Xylouris blind, "Greek" would not have been my first thought. His lute playing suggested ragas as much as folk dances. There was a trance element, and an element of deep, stirring passion, as filtered through forceful virtuosity.

If there was a solemnity to Xylouris's playing—and given that he's coming out of a very strict tradition of lute performance, into which he was indoctrinated by his family, this makes perfect sense—White's presence embodied a certain kind of earthy flow, a sensuality with a hint of mirth. It seems impossible, or perhaps merely inadvisable, to attempt to describe his drumming without describing his appearance. A stocky man with a sort of mad-scientist Afro, White has a bearing of unflappable cool. His face bears a strange resemblance to that of longtime Altman actor Henry Gibson, but his dress (billowy shirt, unbuttoned about halfway), aura and presence suggest, to me, the Most Interesting Man in the World character you see in those beer ads. He looks, basically, as though he's seen just about everything there is to see, and that the years have engendered in him not jadedness but soul-deep contendedness and a sort of easy amusement with his surroundings.

White approaches the drum set as an object of fascination, as a site of mystery and delight. His movements are breathtakingly fluid. There is a dance that occurs, a pantomime, a flow, when he's behind the kit. He has strange tendencies—moving his arms in big, slow, exaggerated arcs, from over his head down to the drum, sometimes glancing up at his stick or mallet as it's poised over his head, as though marveling at the percussive act itself, the coil before the strike as much as the strike itself. There's a kind of inquiry and interrogation of the process, in the midst of that process. His torso dances. His shoulders shimmy. Sometimes he sort of clutches his left leg up and inward toward his body. He plays weird games with his unusually long sticks, not just tossing them in the air for a quick flip, but sometimes dropping one on the snare, letting it roll across the drum and picking it up with the other hand, and then doing the same with the other stick; back and forth, back and forth, as though in the midst of drumming, he were also juggling.

All this strange business brings about a kind of enchanted state, a feeling that's exactly analogous to what White does sonically and rhythmically. He has a way of sort of flowing around the kit, draping his sticks on the heads almost lovingly, that can disguise the power he commands. One minute he's consummately unobtrusive, offering up a quick subtle mallet roll across the toms or a tap on the tambourine he sometimes attaches to his hi-hat, and the next he's slamming out a fervent, rapid pulse on the kick drum, or playing some sort of bastardized backbeat with conventional sticks or those bundles known as Hot Rods. In these latter moments, his playing gives off the sense of limitless power deployed almost casually, like he could go full-on Bonham if he wanted to but prefers to keep the beat aerated, stumbling, fragmented, open-ended. There are miniature controlled detonations that, to me, at least, recall the more painterly realm of free jazz, but in general, I hear very little reference to any familiar tradition in White's playing. His pulse is insistent, yet blurred, hazy, always in service to the dance his body makes, rather than the other way around. His presence in the music is all about a personal experience of rhythm, a fluid exchange between a drummer's textural and timekeeping roles.

White surveys the audience as he plays, neither glaring nor smirking, but with a look that can touch on each of those. Last night, he flashed grins at Xylouris. There's much more of a sense of effort, of bearing down, in Xylouris's playing than in White's, and the drummer's glances at the lute player seem to say something like, "I'm right there with you, mate; I just don't have to try so hard."

Seeing White play, the overall effect was of having an experience you can't get anywhere else. In my mind, this aligns him with great jazz-oriented originals such as Ronald Shannon Jackson, Paul Motian and Milford Graves and with avant-rock masters ranging from Bill Bruford to contemporary giants such as Brian Chippendale, Zach Hill and Greg Saunier. As with those players, when Jim White is on a gig, you're hearing a concert of Jim White Music, as much as you're taking in whatever else in going on. That's not to say that he's a domineering force; sometimes, his sonic presence is downright self-effacing. Only to say that he is one of those elemental drummers. He walks onstage and there is a certain thing happening, between him, the kit and the air around it, that can't happen except in his presence.

Jim White's background is a bit hazy to me. I know the Dirty Three output fairly well, and I want to revisit it. I'm intrigued by Venom P. Stinger, the punk band he worked in with future D3 bandmate Mick Turner during the ’80s, which reunited and played New York in recent years. You can hear punk in his playing, and you can feel jazz in there too, in the overall looseness and his favoring of traditional grip. But there's a sense in which no genre you could invoke entirely accounts for his approach and aesthetic. He's created a whole world of behavior around his drumming. He walks onstage, sits down and begins not just a performance, but a relationship with the kit, the sticks, the room, and this attunement gives him unusual control over the flow and sensation of the music. When Jim White is drumming, I can't help but feel that he's casting a spell—slyly, without visible effort. It a spell that only breaks when he says so. I look forward to the next enchantment.


*A brilliantly conceived Xylouris White video. (Check out White regarding the dog around the 1:00 mark.) The Xylouris White homepage and their 2014 debut album, Goats. A Ben Ratliff review of a 2014 Xylouris White gig.

*Here's a Ratliff review of a 2010 Venom P. Stinger reunion gig, as well as video of a 1988 VPS performance.

*A beautiful White/Nastasia duet.

*My friend and former Time Out New York colleague Jay Ruttenberg wrote a remarkable profile of White back in 2007. Like most Ruttenberg pieces, it's funny, sharp and, in my view, definitive. Please excuse the horrendous web formatting and enjoy the article. (Here's the Conan performance Will Oldham references.)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

New York, instrument: John Zorn at the Village Vanguard

John Zorn is at the Village Vanguard through Sunday. Last night I caught a pair of sets I've been looking forward to since the series was announced: the duo of Zorn and Milford Graves, augmented by special guest Steve Coleman, and the trio of Marc Ribot, Trevor Dunn and Tyshawn Sorey, playing material from the Asmodeus and Valentine's Day albums, with Zorn on live conduction.

Check out the samples from Asmodeus above, and you'll have an excellent idea of what the latter set sounded like. (G. Calvin Weston plays on that album, while Sorey is on Valentine's Day, but interestingly, the most compelling pieces from last night's set—such as the Sharrock-via-Hendrix stomper "Mufgar"—were from the former.) I have relatively little to say about this set, honestly, mainly because it was so much goddamn fun. The entire club—me and two of my best friends, those at all the tables visible around us and, crucially, the musicians onstage and especially Zorn—were beaming en masse, reveling in the vaguely transgressive thrill we were sharing. Ribot, Dunn and Sorey, who are, when they want to be, three of the straight-up nastiest musicians on the planet, simply, gloriously just kicking out the jams in a sort of acid-rock-meets-prog-punk-meets-screaming-cathartic-blues mode, and on the stage of the Village freakin' Vanguard, no less. Zorn offered plenty of on-the-fly instruction, orchestrating impromptu drop-outs and unison accents, stoking the flames of each musician in turn, but mainly what he offered was a platform for something this awesome to go down.

Zorn's core principle, as I understand it, can be reduced to some variant on "Music is community" or "Music is people." His greatest gift, in my eyes, is the way he locates the best musicians on the planet (which usually means in New York)—not just the chopsiest virtuosos, but the ones who shred with passion, fire and abandon, slams them together in dream-team assemblages, provides them with just enough compositional fuel that they can attain lift-off and simply gets out of the way. Yes, he was stageside last night, calling pieces and conducting, but mostly, he was sitting there grinning his ass off and rocking the fuck out, just like everyone else in the club. The thrills of primal, bashing jazz-rock, occasionally coming off the rails and zooming along in freeform tumult. It was such a basic concept, but the depth of heart and musical resources of the three musicians involved made it profound. Yes, Ribot, Dunn and Sorey were, in a certain sense, just jamming on some skeletal themes, but they poured so much love and aggression into the endeavor, returning the gift Zorn had given them by assembling them in the first place and giving them this material to work with. This was a high-order act of brain-frying. Someone should book this trio at a big rock club—would love to hear them that much louder.

There was noise and riot in the first set, as well, but that performance vibrated on a whole different wavelength, and I think that had a lot to do with the presence of Steve Coleman. Zorn and Graves have been working together as a duo for a long time, and they have a pretty well-established sound as a band of two. (Compare their first documented meeting, from 2003, with their 2013 Metropolitan Museum performance -- a trio with Jackson Pollock, in a sense.) Meditation, yes, but mixed in with plenty of catharsis in the classic free-jazz sense, with Graves providing the weather-event rumble and Zorn the jagged stabs of aural lightning. To my ears, the meditative element won out during last night's set. Zorn played his share of his patented aggro sandpaper, but he doled it out thoughtfully. For me, this set was about a special kind of unity, the two horns meshing in a snaking, interlocking dervish display, as Graves conjured rhythm, his patented primal shimmy, out of the earth.

The set had a nice arc to it. As I remember, the pieces went like this: full trio, Zorn/Graves duo, Coleman/Graves duo, brief Zorn/Coleman duo, full trio. Hearing the Coleman/Graves duo really drove home the contrast between the two horn players. Whereas Zorn's home base in these sorts of settings is an eruptive mode, Coleman seemed to hear in Graves's pulsations an invitation to control rather than release, an encouragement to find ecstasy in discipline, to craft and sustain a coherent soloistic line. When the three played together, the latter impulse often won out. Zorn and Coleman were two horns looking for one voice, darting, overlapping and at certain moments fusing, so that it was hard to tell their alto sounds apart. Both working admirably hard to, in some profound way, agree on the current they were following—striving for utmost harmony in every sense. To my ears, Graves was, this time around, homing in on the dance. It's always an element of his performance, but here, it seemed like the root of the whole endeavor. (Maybe it had something to do with the fact that before the show, he got stuck in traffic driving his drums from Jamaica, Queens to the Village—"You want to talk about avant-garde?" he said to the audience, playfully. "That was avant-garde"—and needed to counteract vehicular frustration with pure body-moving joy.)

At times, as during the Coleman duo, Graves would assume a more upright posture, with his back against the metal folding chair that he always uses as a drum throne, and fixate on simple right-hand motions that aimed for what my friend Will (an extraordinary drummer whose playing effortlessly connects the dots between Ed Blackwell and Clyde Stubblefield) referred to as the sweet spot of the floor tom, that zone that every drummer knows, where you strike and draw sound out of the three core elements of the instrument all at once: skin (the head), metal (the rim) and, through the percussive act, wood (the body). Milford Graves is the absolute unparalleled master of locating these sweet spots on his kit and using them to make the rhythm sing like a three-dimensional choir, pouring forth impossibly funky pulsations, not quite "in time" but always related to a certain groove imperative.

It made you want to dance and sing, and so the altos did. You heard the core strains of what these three players do—the Jewish music in Zorn's blood, the bebop in Coleman's, the Afro-Cuban root of the Graves endeavor—all swirled together in a kind of blurry oneness, a single stream, not barreling forth, but sort of riding a current. And while Graves was clearly the one directing that current—not just with the single-hand free funk described above, but with his full-kit massage/barrage, including moments where he held two sticks in the right hand so as to grab both the floor tom and a bongo nearby—no one was in charge here. At its best moments, this was a set that felt like a group submission, a burying of ego in the service of flow. You can talk it about it other ways, but to me, it sounded nakedly spiritual—a beautiful contrast to the heat and bombast of set two.

So music is community, music is people. And I'd add that music is event, the simple act of willing things to happen. I've had my reservations about John Zorn's work in the past, some published on this blog, but I've felt them melting away in recent years, from the 2013 Met takeover on. The bottom line is that, as the Met event demonstrated, and as the two sets I saw last night reaffirmed, this guy is an expert at making impossibly cool stuff happen. Free jazz and contemporary classical music at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Dirty punk fusion at the Village Vanguard? Yes, please. In a very real sense, John Zorn's instrument at this point in his career is New York City itself—its musical geniuses, its hallowed institutions. He's assembling world-class artists in any number of styles and presenting them in the way they ought to be presented: as cultural treasures, via events where you celebrate the artists, the spaces, the inimitable New York–iness of it all. These Zorn gatherings are, increasingly, real events, not just shows. He's changing the fabric of how we engage with art in NYC, and he has been for a long time, and that's a serious feat. (And not just through events he's directly involved in; his LES venue, The Stone, presents live music six nights a week.) And on a more immediate level, he's facilitating a very specific kind of fun—quintessentially abrasive perhaps, but also so inclusive. Anyone, not just a "free-jazz fan" or a "Zorn fan" could've checked out those sets last night and understood that something joyous and special was going on. Community, communication, communion—basic acts of bringing artists together and inviting audiences to join in. It's a profound cultural project, and based on last night's magic, boy, is it ever working.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Panorama: The joys of the Fugazi Live Series

In a recent post about the Paul Motian Trio, I wrote about spirit music, sound that feeds, and maybe even heals. My current obsession is Fugazi—kicked off by an excellent interview with drummer Brendan Canty, via The Trap Set, a new podcast hosted by Joe Wong, who happens to be my West Coast counterpart in the band Aa—and though the sound is very different, the effect, the aftermath of listening, feels similarly restorative.

It's common to speak of the uprightness of this band, whether in terms of how they resisted the evils of the business of music (or the often-barbaric practices that attend its live performance: moshing, crowd-surfing, etc.), or how they helped raise awareness re: the evils of government and commerce. And it's also, perhaps, in a sort of reverse-cliché way, common to speak about how their real contribution was a musical one, or how they were one of the most transformative live bands of their (or all) time.

What I don't hear a lot of, in terms of general Fugazi-ology, except among my closest friends, is appreciation for the meat and substance of the Fugazi experience, which is the songs. It's easy to forget, since the hoopla has died down—see this NPR piece and this New York Times article, both from 2011—that the Fugazi Live Series is still online and accessible to all. If you're not familiar with the endeavor, it's very likely the most extensive authorized single-band concert-download archive in the world. (Short of maybe the Dead, although I'm not even sure if they make their shows available direct to fans in such an accessible, no-b.s. format.) You don't have to mess with iTunes or any kind of tedious sign-up process; you just go in and browse the shows—all helpfully rated in terms of sound quality and equipped with a free sample track—and grab whichever ones you like for a suggested price of $5.

I'm nowhere near an authority on this archive—it would take years of dedicated listening and browsing to really get familiar—but I have zeroed in on particular favorite periods. The 2002 shows hold a special fascination for me. For starters, I can highly recommend the Boston gigs from April 19 (mislabeled in the URL and iTunes tags as May 19) and 20 of that year—also available as YouTube videos, here and here. I love the shows from this era simply because by this point, the band's final year of performance to date, Fugazi were drawing on their entire recorded output, all seven albums (well, six plus a pair of EPs that I came to know jointly as 13 Songs). What strikes me as I listen to these sets and others from 1995 (the year that one of my favorite Fugazi albums, Red Medicine, came out, and the year that I saw them live for the first time, at this St. Louis show; have just downloaded that, and it sounds incredible—I picture myself back in that room; and my friend/bandmate Joe told me he had a similar experience looking over this set list, from the first Fugazi show he attended, earlier in the same year; this Philly show is also a must) is that one of Fugazi's main contributions, and maybe the one that means the most to me, is their egalitarian approach to their own catalog. We all know that Fugazi didn't release proper singles (a couple scattered 7-inches, yes, but no actual singles, in the classic "airplay"-oriented sense) or videos, but beyond that, the degree to which they really stood by—as in performed live, consistently, and with passion and conviction—just about every song they ever put out is really striking.

Most bands of any longevity gradually whittle down their catalog, encapsulating entire periods with just a few songs sprinkled into their live sets. Fugazi refused to let their songs die. The main Fugazi Live Series search actually has a song selector, so you can track individual songs as they appeared in live sets throughout the band's career. Just for fun, I typed in "Burning Too," a track from 13 Songs (or from the Margin Walker EP, if you want to get technical), and, if I'm being honest, one of my least favorite Fugazi songs and not one I've heard fellow fans shout out as a particular favorite. Sure enough, there are eight pages of results, stretching from 1988 to 2001. My point is that Fugazi put their entire weight behind everything they released. Yes, of course, the band had what you might call hits—"fan favorites" is probably more accurate—songs like "Waiting Room," "Bad Mouth," "Suggestion" and "Merchandise," songs that every Fugazi fan, however casual, knows by heart, but in terms of how they operated, especially near the end of their performing lifespan so far, they treated their entire catalog with equal care, did away with the oppressive hierarchy of "greatest hits" and "deep cuts" that ends up polluting the catalogs of so many great bands (Zeppelin, for one; how wonderful it would be to revise "classic rock" history and do away with the idea that this monster band's masterful, meaty output ought to be reduced to 10 or so radio staples). So at the best of these Fugazi performances, you get the early material colliding off the late, as though the band had placed their entire catalog on shuffle. But of course this is live and real and organic. We've all heard about how the band didn't use set lists and how they all had to be prepared to unleash pretty much any one of their songs at any time, which is a pretty staggering notion once you really think about it, especially if you've ever had the experience of being in a band and dusting off material you haven't played in years; the recall / muscle memory is often pretty appalling.

I love how, in the second Boston show mentioned above, the band uses 1993's In On the Kill Taker (another album I adore, not that there's a Fugazi album I don't feel that way about) as a center of gravity, starting off the show with two of that album's most rousing songs, the Ian MacKaye–sung rager "Facet Squared" and the Guy Picciotto–sung partially a cappella masterpiece "Rend It," and sprinkling the set with various other IOTKT gems, like "Public Witness Program" and "Last Chance for a Slow Dance" (maybe my single favorite Fugazi song), while also making room for plenty of material from the then-new Argument album, as well as two brilliant Joe Lally–sung songs in a row ("Recap Modotti" and "By You"), a couple 13 Songs oldies (notice how "Waiting Room" is sort of thrown unassumingly in the middle there; no "Let's encore with our best-known song!" hoopla here) and Steady Diet of Nothing closer "KYEO" to end the set.

If you know all these albums by heart, the effect—the thrill of "What song are they going to play next?" and "How will it play off the one before and the one after?"—is a profound one. You start to see Fugazi's whole catalog as this glorious 360-degree panorama. The fast songs, the slow songs, the Guy songs, the Ian songs, the Joe songs, the instrumentals (dig "Number 5," from the "Furniture" single, which opens the 4/20/02 Boston show). It's all material—to be used, to be played, to be savored. No song privileged over any other. No staples—songs that have to be played at every show or the audience will go home unhappy. You create, you amass and then you just play, from the heart, whatever song wants to come out at that time, in that city, under that set of conditions. Yes, the $5 door price and the outspoken political stance were radical, but to me, this attitude toward one's catalog is even more so. You aren't writing a bunch of songs just so you can hit the jackpot with one or two, sell a million copies of those and then populate your albums with all the filler. You're standing by everything you create, letting none of it go to waste. And you're keeping your legacy pure, because every single one of those albums stands up, all the way through. As do the shows themselves. Each one has its own logic, its own arc, its own emotional and intellectual journey, its own story. I have a feeling I'll be playing in the Fugazi Live Series sandbox for years to come.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man": A Milford Graves master class

Never enough Milford Graves, okay? His drumming, its presence, the sonic and physical space it inhabits, is one of my musical food groups. As I wrote last week, I'm currently on the lookout for nourishment, hungry for truth and wisdom in music. At that point, I was finding what I needed in Paul Motian (I was remiss not to link to this incredible 1986 Motian/Frisell/Lovano vid, btw), another one of my listening staples. Then I stumbled across the clip above (part one of a three-part Milford Graves master class, filmed last year at the New School, and graciously documented in full by bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic) and my attention shifted. For the past few days, I've been all about this series of videos. I have some thoughts to share on this document, but the most important observation I can offer is that it's precious and essential. I urge you to watch the whole thing.

If you've ever attended a Milford Graves concert, you know that he loves to rap with the audience at different points. He always drops bits of heavy knowledge during those mini sermons, and the above is like a two-hour version. Concentrated, conversational insight. Mystery and majesty. Not capital-T Truth; just the distilled experience of one lifetime. The testimony of a fully realized artist, scientist, healer, scholar.

This master class does have an element of rant to it. Graves is, to cite one of his central principles, which he discusses at length here, anti-metronome and pro-biorhythm. He's anti-machine, pro-man; anti-rigidity, pro-fluidity. Clichéd notions, perhaps, when taken in the abstract, but when coupled with the great sweep of Graves's knowledge, his hard-won authority, seven-plus decades in the making, and with the way he plays—and, it should be said, he barely plays at all during this master class, though there is an intense musicality to the delivery; even when speaking, he's all about rhythmic soundmaking, teaching through song and dance as much as word—his insights take on great profundity. He's anti- bottom heads on drums, anti- overly fussy charts written by non-drumming bandleaders, anti- equal temperament. Anything that impedes flow is suspect.

And there's invaluable history here, both personal history and that of a time and place. Milford Graves (and many Graves devotees will know this, either from call it art, another invaluable Graves-related document, or elsewhere) is, at base, a Latin-jazz musician, a player of the timbales who focused on that instrument and its surrounding idiom to the point that, as he relates here, trap-set masters such as Art Blakey and Elvin Jones meant relatively little to him during his formative years in the early ’60s. His idols were percussionists such as Willie Bobo and Graves's friend and contemporary Bill Fitch, his bandleading models artists such as Cal Tjader. Graves led a Latin-jazz group featuring a young Chick Corea, apparently a fearsome player even at that time. He didn't touch a set of trap drums till ’63, the year before he began working with the New York Art Quartet in the idiom he's best known for, so-called free jazz.

You watch this, and you realize that a musician like this—an artist like this, a person like this—is truly beyond category. "Free jazz" seems so small compared to the worldview expressed here. Graves tells of foraging for herbs, absorbing nature, studying and practicing acupuncture, learning martial arts, playing in Africa and Japan. He's a gatherer and an aggregator, a mystic and a skeptic, a teacher and a student, pouring out notions for you to take or leave. What does it mean to really study music? How far can academia take you? (Bear in mind that Graves taught at Bennington for close to four decades, so he clearly believes in higher education, but he approaches it from a personalized, humane, experience-driven standpoint.) What is an artist's responsibility to an audience? Should you prepare a show, or take the temperature of the room and build a performance based on the environment you find yourself in? Why, fundamentally, do you do what you?

We speak of personalities and presences as animated. If you've ever seen Milford Graves perform, you know he is that, both when playing and when speaking. But just as importantly, he is animating. You leave his presence (even virtual presence) with wider eyes, a broader gaze, a renewed awareness for all that there is out there—the scope not just of music, but of knowledge, betterment, fulfillment, understanding. There's no boundary on this kind of inspiration—it seeps into every corner of your life.

I'm currently immersed in the autodidactic study of double-kick drumming. I've recently signed on as the live drummer for a metal-oriented band I really love called Psalm Zero. I've spent 20 years as a single-kick drummer, and proudly so, but idiomatically, this music demands double kick, and so I've set out on that path. It's tough going, but rewarding—and, more importantly, fun.

And learning should be, if you have the right teacher. Milford Graves is a—not the, because there could never be just one—right teacher. In his view, you learn out of love, not out of careerism or competition or any other base reason. You make a life out of it. You cultivate confidence and humility in turn. You form strong opinions and you make them known, but you make it clear that you only speak for yourself; you never wield dogma like a billy club.

Most importantly, you share. There's a bit near the end of the third part of the talk where Graves speaks about pedagogy, and about how he made a point to actually play with every one of his students. He even goes so far as to say that a teacher who doesn't do the thing they teach alongside their students is quite literally not teaching. Teaching is giving. It's spending time. It's encouraging and helping and inspiring—literally breathing into those one instructs. It's coming to terms with the fact that while books, systems and schools of thought are great, people are greater.

No wonder you leave a Graves performance feeling so renewed, so uplifted. It's because every one is a deliberate act of inspiration. "You don't get it in front of a blackboard, man," he says at around 25:00 in part two, repeating the line several times for emphasis. Nor do you get it—nourishment, knowledge, experience, aural or otherwise—with earbuds squashed in your ears, or when mashing buttons on your iPhone, or sitting at a desk staring at a screen. You get it by being there, either by paying physical witness (I treasure my collection of Milford Graves recordings, but they're nothing compared to the thrill of seeing him live; that's true in the case of almost every great artist, but with him it's, like, mega-true; you have to feel those soundwaves on your skin) or, if you want to do the thing yourself, by putting your body somewhere, temporarily shutting out the world and getting to know it—it being your own private, physical reality and the skill/art you want to make manifest. It doesn't have to be drumming; it could be anything. But is has to be real, not virtual—experienced, not read about. Not in front of a blackboard, indeed.


More Milford Graves on YouTube:

*Steve Coleman interviews Milford Graves at the School for Improvisational Music (2013)

*"Milford Graves and the Japanese"—concert film and documentary, from a Japanese festival organized by dancer Min Tanaka (1987)

*Milford Graves and William Parker, live at Jazzores (2010) [Graves discusses this performance during the master class]

*Milford Graves Quartet (1973) [Some sharp commentary on this vid, and Graves's work in general, via Weasel Walter]

*Milford Graves at the Vision Festival Lifetime Achievement event, via Don Mount (2013)
-NY HeArt Ensemble
-Transition Trio
-Afro-Cuban Roots

*"Speaking in Tongues"—Milford Graves documentary featuring David Murray, Stanley Crouch and others (1982)

*"A Tribute to Milford Graves"—highlights from event held at Bennington College (2012)

*Milford Graves and Japanese percussionist Toshi Tsuchitori—performance and interview (1993)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Just song: The Paul Motian Trio's "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago"

The past six months or so have been a time of change in my personal life. Positive change, in the long run, but not without its difficulties. The other day, a friend asked me whether I'd ever considered writing in detail about what I've been going through. My reply was, in so many words, "Maybe sometime, but not now." None of this is a secret—my amazingly supportive family and friends of course know what's up. But at this stage, there's no need for the details to be anything but private.

Still, to pretend that my life and my writing don't intersect, that one doesn't inform the other, whether I like it or not, is silly. And the same goes for my listening. During the past couple weeks, as a sort of sequel to my chronological Keith Jarrett ’67–’76 project, I've listened to little other than Paul Motian albums, specifically the first chunk of records he made as a leader, from his debut, Conception Vessel—recorded in ’72, while Motian was still a member of Jarrett's band—through 1987's One Time Out, the second LP by his famed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, and the last Motian album on Soul Note before a long run on JMT / Winter and Winter. I've heard these records before, but I felt them more acutely this time around, and that probably has something to do with my emotional state.

In the second of the two Jarrett posts linked above, I wrote of Conception Vessel that it "…feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that [Jarrett's] Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full." I've been thinking a lot about this idea of emptiness, or probably more accurately, simplicity, with respect to the Paul Motian bandleading concept. To listen to these early Motian records in sequence is fascinating. You can hear Motian trying out different approaches, from the moody, textural improv of Conception Vessel to the openhearted, melody-forward, almost psychedelic ’70s jazz of Tribute, and on to the sometimes placid, sometimes violent post-Ayler/Ornette saxophone-trio-isms (starring the great Charles Brackeen) of Dance and Le Voyage.

Then Bill Frisell comes along and alters the DNA of the Paul Motian sound. The intermittent turbulence and outright nastiness of the Brackeen years are still in evidence on the early quintet albums Motian made with Frisell (Psalm, The Story of Maryam and Jack of Clubs, recorded in ’81, ’83 and ’84, respectively), especially given that the guitarist was working with a seriously outré sonic palette back then, opting for sounds that sometimes come off as appealingly gnarly, sometimes as merely quirky and even a bit dated. But the romantic, atmospheric side of the Frisell sound was also blooming during these years, and bleeding together with Motian's own like-minded tendencies. The result was that when Motian scaled down the band to just himself, Frisell and Lovano for 1984's It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, he hit upon a startlingly fresh concept. It's as though the quintet albums, good-to-great as they are, were a kind of training-wheels version of the trio to come, introducing the overall soundworld of the later band, but in a more conventional, less stark format.

To me, the Motian/Frisell/Lovano trio is one of the most, if not the most, emotionally resonant bands in all of jazz. At its best, this band strips away all the "head" elements of jazz, the detached, rote quality that the music can embody at its worst, and leaves only heart, feeling—sometimes warm and comforting; other times cold and forbidding—the nerve endings underneath the style, without the protective skin of genre.

In my current emotional state—hopeful, yet also vulnerable and reflective—this music feels like a balm. No other music, jazz or otherwise, will do, because no other music that I know has such a nakedness to it. It's pure affect, setting aside, or seeming to, technique and method and style and convention, and leaving only flow. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" is, to me, a kind of theme song for this trio. It's the first piece and the title track from their debut album, and in many ways, it's the purest distillation of what made them great.

The track feels holy to me, like a kind of communion with melody. There is nothing but the song, the chant, the murmur. Each player is dancing only with the music, never with "chops" or with technique. It's just a group mission, with the objective of "How can we get closer to the root?" The whole song is the root. There are solos, I guess, but there's really only one sound, and it's the sound of this swaying, haunting waltz, a tune that, once you've heard it, sounds like it's always been there.

Motian wrote many different types of pieces, and this trio with Frisell and Lovano performed them in many different ways. But the "ballads," if we can call them ballads, such as "It Should've…," are the ones that really hit home with me. "It Should've…" feels both minimal and infinite. I hear it and I start grasping for similes that imply both simplicity and great depth: like a smooth stone that you keep in your pocket and turn over and over in your palm, learning every contour; like a game that, as the saying goes, takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master.

These concepts speak to me right now, during a time when, partly by necessity and partly by choice, I'm paring down my life, devoting as much time and attention as possible to the people and pursuits I love—family, friends, drumming, listening, writing, reading. I guess I'm looking for mantras, and I'm finding them in the work of Paul Motian. I'm wary of projecting my experiences onto music, of regarding art in a utilitarian way—i.e., "What can this piece of music do for me, right now?" But sometimes your listening ventures beyond enjoyment and into a kind of sonic therapy. "It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago" has become a kind of chant for me, a North Star, a way of centering.

I can't recommend It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago, the song and the album, highly enough. This trio made a ton of great music together, but there's something about the purity and perfection of this initial statement that really speaks to me. (Read Thom Jurek's take at AllMusic: "This set is made of the kind of music that made Manfred Eicher's ECM such a force to be reckoned with. It placed three musicians in a context that was comfortable enough to make them want to sing to one another.") As I've suggested above, Frisell's guitar language—see the ray-gun tone he employs on "Fiasco," for example—sometimes has a way of grounding an otherwise timeless-feeling album in its early-'80s era, but that's a minor quibble. "Conception Vessel," reprised from the album of the same name, is like a sculpture built from straw, focused and purposeful but also light and porous enough to blow away in the wind. The contrast with the wilder pieces is startling. On "Two Women from Padua," the trio plays a brief theme and then moves resolutely into the anti-gravity zone, speaking an alien language of texture and noise. All of a sudden, the music is the opposite of soothing—it's edgy and almost random-feeling. But Motian drops out and the surface of the sound smooths out; Lovano murmuring and praying through the horn, Frisell buffeting him with clouds of sound.

The band's intuitive motion into and around one another's sounds, the way each player always seemed to take into account not only the other two musicians, but also the immovable fact of the song they were playing, the bubble-thin delicacy of the vibe they were crafting together, only deepened over time. I'd love to embed the first "It Should've Happened…" here, but it's not streaming anywhere. Instead, I draw your attention to this 2005 Village Vanguard performance of the piece, 15 short minutes of bliss:

Watch Lovano lean back around the :30 mark. I relate to the feeling of communion his gesture expresses, the idea that a "jazz club" has become a kind of space station, a place where musicians and listeners alike take no sound for granted, where you don't move on to the next idea till you've fully processed the gravity of the one that came before. Minimalism seems like too pat a word for what Motian himself contributes here, the one-impossibly-profound-idea-at-a-time patience of his drumming. Again, the idea of paring down a performance till all that's left is the essence of the song, filling the room like a mist. Lovano begins to toy with the familiar theme around 3:30, emphasizing its dancing, almost klezmerish quality. Frisell chiming forth—accompanying but also enveloping. The performance is a slow group levitation, determined yet effortless. It's a sonic essay on the pleasures of concentration, of uncluttering. Lovano drops out around 6:30. Motian continuing unperturbed. Frisell intent on doing justice to the priceless vibe the three have built up. Not soloing; just flowing. I'm invoking concepts that seem cliché, but in practice, they don't come along all that often. This band, in its own muted way, exhibited a fierce dedication to this idea—you let the song guide you. Not "jazz," not "theory," not "convention." Just song.

When Lovano reenters to a scattering of applause, I'm reminded—as I am nearly every time I attend a jazz performance—of Keith Jarrett's admonition of the audience on the CD reissue of Fort Yawuh: "There's absolutely no need to clap." He's right, because in a great jazz performance, who's soloing doesn't matter. Yes, solos can be chapter markings, but this performance is all about three musicians who share a common goal simply passing the baton back and forth. Everyone's a steward of the song, so it doesn't matter who's in "front" at any given moment. Motian ratcheting up the groove and tension ever so slightly around 10:40, bringing the song to a low boil, this trio's version of a climax. The theme returning in fragmented form, then in full bloom. Motian's two-handed accents around 12:30 signifying a kind of destination: "We're here at the meat of song." And then the final statement around 13:00, followed by a long trail of, for lack of a better term, song dust—a dispersing of essence.

Attention and care and focus and oneness. Performances like this are like life rafts for me at this moment. Again, I'm not trying to dramatize recent events in my life, nor am I trying to co-opt sound for my own good. I'm just trying to point out how music can inspire and guide, offer a framework for living as much as a sound for hearing. To sing one's song so plainly, with such serenity and determination, seems like the right idea, right now.


P.S. One more gorgeous version of this piece, a 1993 performance from the Motian album Trioism:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"…as long as there's an Earth": Celebrating Charlie Haden at the Town Hall

At some point during last night's Charlie Haden tribute at the Town Hall, I realized that the expectations and considerations I'd walked in with were meaningless. As I attempted to convey last year, upon Haden's passing, I adore this man's music and felt compelled to show up to this public event to pay respects. I also, I'll admit, felt a bit of what they call FOMO—fear of missing out. Denardo Coleman was listed among the participants, and as I had learned over the summer, that meant that Ornette himself might show up. And who could say for sure, I thought, that Keith Jarrett, whose Haden collaborations have been a recent obsession of mine, wouldn't surprise us all and make an appearance?

So when was it that I chucked this admittedly narrow-minded checklist mentality? It could've been when, during a duet by Lee Konitz and Brad Mehldau, I realized that I was witnessing one of the most relaxed and conversational musical events I've ever seen take place on a stage. "Performance" seems almost too pretentious a word for such a casually majestic and—to use a word that Joshua Redman, after his own too-brief turn with Kenny Barron, Scott Colley and Jack DeJohnette, attributed to Haden's own musicality and humanity—empathic duet, which found Mehldau gently buoying that exquisitely sweet, breathy Konitz alto sound, as well as the saxophonist's impromptu scat-style vocalizing. Or during a piece commemorating Haden's love for and collaboration with Alice Coltrane, which featured staggeringly gorgeous harp ripples from Brandee Younger, saxophone work of stunning poise from Ravi Coltrane and Geri Allen's warm, subtle piano magic. (Yes, I'm running out of terms of breathless praise here, a feeling that anyone who was in the audience last night can probably relate to.) Or maybe it was when Dr. Maurice Jackson, an author, Georgetown professor and Civil Rights Movement veteran, spoke movingly about his longtime friendship with Haden, singling out the bassist as one of "too few good white men" and aligning him with Anthony Benezet, an 18th-century French Quaker whom Jackson, in a 2010 biography, labeled the "Father of Atlantic Abolitionism."

What I'm trying to get across is that during last night's proceedings, a certain kind of alchemy occurred, through music and through speech and through the projection of emotion, that made the late subject feel palpably present, as though, at the event's conclusion, Haden's name would be called and the audience would all turn to face him, standing in the crowd or onstage, and honor him with an ovation. Having not attended many political rallies in my lifetime, I can't remember being present at any other gathering where I felt such a strong sense of consensus, shared by audience members and those onstage alike. And the collective conviction was, simply, that Charlie Haden was an extraordinary man and an extraordinary musician, and that these two qualities were inseparable.

Haden's wife, Ruth Cameron, a wonderfully dignified, gracious host throughout the three-hour event, spoke candidly about her husband's struggles with addiction, about how he had always told her that he was "in trouble" as soon as he put down his bass and had to navigate life as it existed apart from music. True as that may have been, Haden must have sorted out his issues to some degree, because nearly every associate who stepped on the Town Hall stage last night spoke about how knowing Charlie Haden and playing with him had enriched their lives. From Cameron herself, who spoke of Haden's sense that it was his mission to bring beauty into the world. To Mehldau, who, speaking after his performance with Konitz, alluded to his own history with substance abuse and how Haden's example had helped him cope. To Pat Metheny, who played a beautiful acoustic medley of Haden pieces and then reflected on his countless collaborations with the bassist, and on how he had shared things in conversations with Haden that he had never shared with anyone else. To Denardo Coleman, who spoke, self-deprecatingly but with great dignity, on his father's behalf, and discussed how Haden had always—from their first session together, when Denardo was only 10—helped him feel happy and at ease, as well as personally and musically validated. To Joshua Redman, who, remarkably, spoke of listening to Haden's many collaborations with his father—Dewey Redman, who had been mostly absent during his upbringing—and how the intimacy he felt radiating from that music actually helped him learn to love a dad he hadn't really even known.

Everyone spoke of Haden's zeal for beauty and positivity, each in their own way: Putter Smith, a fellow bassist (in the extraordinary Mintz Quartet, for one) who had known Haden in L.A. in the ’50s, asserting that Haden's contribution to the language of the bass was a certain kind of profound intimacy, the handling of the instrument as though it were a baby to be cradled. Ernie Watts, saxophonist in Quartet West, which played a marvelous two-song mini set near the end of the show, with Colley on bass, talking matter-of-factly about how Haden's musical language was nothing less than the manifestation of God speaking through him. Haden's friend and lawyer Fred Ansis and friend and record-industry associate (seemingly there was no figure in Haden's life that did not also earn the distinction of friend, along with whatever other role they might play) Jean Philippe Allard recalling with good-natured exasperation their years of fielding Haden's ever-urgent phone calls about session budgets or packaging design, all of which would begin with, "Hey man…" (Haden's religious use of that phrase became an in-jokey refrain throughout the evening), and how despite the day-to-day difficulties, they were always happy to help Haden realize his unwavering commitment to excellence. And the comedian Richard Lewis, who in a video statement spoke of how much he valued Haden's friendship and inspiration and, like Ravi Coltrane, Maurice Jackson and several others, alluded to the bassist's deeply corny sense of humor. ("Charlie—in heaven, if there is a heaven, play bass; do not tell jokes.")

And those who didn't honor Haden's quest for beauty verbally did so through music. As epitomized in the Konitz/Mehldau performance, there was a deep humanity and soul coursing through all of last night's musical events, one that like Haden himself, transcended genre, transcended the notion of a "tribute concert" and felt like nothing less than a collective embrace, an affirmation, with each player summoning an almost superhuman, and quintessentially Haden-esque generosity. Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxophonist Tony Malaby, trumpeter Seneca Black and others taking, in turn, stupendously emotive solos during the Liberation Music Orchestra's rendition of "Amazing Grace" during their show-concluding mini set, presided over by the magisterial, impossibly cool Carla Bley; Ernie Watts displaying, in his tenor work with Quartet West, otherworldly degrees of virtuosity and passion; Henry Butler and Gonzalo Rubalcaba offering solo piano performances (the former also singing) that blended staggering command with wrenching tenderness; Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden (a.k.a., the Haden Triplets) and their brother, Josh Haden, accompanied by Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Fain, displaying their magical vocal harmony on the gospel song "Voice From On High," an echo of the honoree's own upbringing singing country and folk with his family's band. (We got a taste of that via one of several clips from Reto Caduff's wondrous Haden documentary, Rambling Boy, still sadly unavailable as a DVD or download due to music-rights issues. Can anyone help remedy this?)

There was no intermission, no lull. The unfamiliar faces were as riveting as the stars, the speeches as profound as the music. The event, and here I have to credit Ruth Cameron again, had a real narrative arc; it told a story of a musical life, and gave you a sense of the life in and around that music. There was so much giving, verbally and sonically. What wasn't there—Ornette, Keith or, and this last part was strangely welcome, any sort of imitation, invocation or even recorded representation of Haden's own bass sound; nor did the program feature what to me is the bassist's signature composition, "Song for Che," which had to be a calculated decision—was ultimately irrelevant, because of the bountiful richness of what was.

Any Charlie Haden fan feels, through the countless recordings, through the immense humanity and courage of his sound on the bass, a certain kind of, to borrow the title of one of my favorite Haden albums, closeness with this folk hero of modern music. Last night's event affirmed that feeling, the sense that anyone who knew this man in life, worked with him in music, felt his presence in any way, came away uplifted. As I suggested above, I have a sense that a lot of what I've written here might, to those who weren't in attendance at the Town Hall, read like hyperbole. But just as Haden's various friends and associates related, I felt nothing but beauty, joy and profundity from this event; in short, it was like a megadose of what I feel every time I listen to Charlie Haden—with Ornette, with Keith, with Old and New Dreams, with the Liberation Music Orchestra, on his many treasured duet albums. I thank Ruth Cameron and all the other participants for affirming everything I already knew I felt for this giant of music, for encouraging me to explore all the Haden I don't know (I need to get familiar with the Quartet West catalog, pronto) and for generally illustrating in such a poetic, human way how music and emotion are the same thing, how true artistic generosity, the kind that Charlie Haden achieved, can only be achieved by living a truly empathic life. The story we heard last night is a story that bears infinite retelling. Fortunately, as Richard Lewis put it, with funny yet sincere hyperbole, it's a story—the Charlie Haden story—we'll be telling as long as there's an Earth.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Four free spirits: Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian, together and apart

Happy New Year to anyone who might be reading this!

Since I last checked in on DFSBP, I completed my listening survey of the entire output of Keith Jarrett's American Quartet and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio that preceded it, a body of work that spans just under 10 years, from the May, 1967 session that produced Life Between the Exit Signs to the October, 1976 ones that yielded both Byablue and Bop-Be. I skipped over most of the Jarrett releases from this period that don't feature this band, though I did make time to revisit the pianist's excellent 1971 solo debut, Facing You, and to check out Jarrett's sketchy but intriguing 1971 duo album with Jack DeJohnette, Ruta and Daitya, and his stunted yet weirdly charming 1968 singer-songwriter effort, Restoration Ruin. (Fascinating, and in a way, completely logical, that Restoration was recorded while Jarrett was working with Charles Lloyd and already leading the Haden/Motian trio.) I did take a stab at Köln but it didn't really stick—I enjoyed what I heard but wanted to stay focused on the group recordings.

Conclusions, beyond what I wrote about the earlier records? Listen to these albums! Every one of them is worthwhile. In terms of the Impulse! period and beyond, which starts with 1973's Fort Yawuh, the ones that really struck me this time around were 1974's Treasure Island (which plays like a tidier sequel to the mighty Expectations, discussed in the prior post), The Survivors' Suite, Eyes of the Heart and Byablue. The latter is basically a Paul Motian album as played by the American Quartet, and it's everything you'd hope for from a session of that description. The two ECMs, Survivors' and Eyes, recorded in April and May of 1976, respectively, are mandatory for any fan of these players working together during these years. The former, in particular, is simply overwhelming, that rare jazz album that has a real narrative arc and isn't simply a series of performances. As the years went on, the American Quartet seemed to settle into a sort of comfy way of working, with the wild idiosyncrasy of the early-’70s Jarrett output crystallizing into a more or less predictable aesthetic; that is to say, you know you're going to get roughly one raucous burner, one gorgeous ballad and one world-music-y texture piece per record. There's not a dud among the mid-to-late period Impulse! releases by this band, but I admit that some of them—Back Hand, Death and the Flower, Mysteries, Shades, Bop-Be—do blur together a bit for me.

Survivors' bucks that trend in a big way. It does play with many of the same elements, but it feels entirely other to me, 1) because it's split into two big uninterrupted chunks, 2) because it's so packed with great writing and urgent ensemble performance and 3) because of the marvelous production values, which make the Impulse! American Quartet albums sound rickety by comparison. I only played it through once, but I felt absolutely spent afterward, wrung out. I feel comfortable calling it a classic, and the apex of these musicians' long, fruitful collaboration. I really wish someone had steered me toward this record sooner; seems to me like desert-island material.

Eyes is less monumental, but summons a similar kind of grandeur. An intriguing aspect of this album is the fact that, aside from Hamburg ’72, it seems to be the only album-length document we have of Jarrett, Haden and Motian working as a trio from after the point when Dewey Redman began playing with the group. Yes, Redman is on Eyes of the Heart, but—for reasons I haven't been able to fully verify—half of the album's roughly 50-minute running time goes by before he enters. As several Amazon commenters suggest, the intensity of the final section of "Eyes of the Heart (Part Two)," once Redman does begin playing, is extraordinary, so much so that it almost seems like a strange blessing that he's absent from what came before. Eyes is a mellower album than Survivors', but as with Survivors', the loud sections really go for the throat. ("Encore A" features some of the most ecstatically bashing Paul Motian drumming I've heard.) Chronologically, these albums sit within the greater American Quartet discography, but in terms of the listening experience, they almost seem like a little two-volume side project, during which these four musicians entered into some sort of collective trance and propelled themselves beyond where they went on any of the Impulse! discs, entering a truly elite realm. To me, if you're going to argue, as Ethan Iverson has and I'd second, that Keith Jarrett's American Quartet belongs in the jazz-working-band-hall-of-fame, along with, say, Davis/Shorter/Hancock/Carter/Williams and Coltrane/Tyner/Garrison/Jones, these are the albums you point to, particularly Survivors'. Both of these are records I need—and, more importantly, want—to spend way more time with.

I'm exaggerating, of course, but in a way, the American Quartet is a prism through which all jazz of this era (late-’60s through late ’70s, a period that's often been unfairly labeled as a low point for the music) can be understood. You have all these strains colliding in one band, currents crossing: alumni from bands led by giants such as Ornette and Miles, collaborators of major figures like Bill Evans, Charles Lloyd and Paul Bley. And just as importantly, you have three other budding bandleaders aside from Jarrett, who were working out their own respective personal aesthetics while helping to shape the group one. Just as Jarrett had when he was a member of Lloyd's and Miles's bands, all of these players made masterpieces under their own names during the time they were in Jarrett's band: Haden's classic duet sessions Closeness and The Golden Number, both recorded in 1976, not to mention the Liberation Music Orchestra's debut, from ’69; Redman's The Ear of the Behearer and Coincide, from 1973–74, albums which I've loved in the past but really need to revisit; and two remarkable Motian records, Conception Vessel (a nearly fully improvised album, featuring Haden and Sam Brown, a frequent American Quartet collaborator, on guitar, that to me feels beautifully empty of compositional, directional content in the same way that Survivors' Suite feels so beautifully full) and Tribute, from ’72 and ’74, respectively. (Also, it's crazy to think that just two months after participating in the July, 1971 sessions that yielded Jarrett's Birth, El Juicio and The Mourning of a Star, Redman and Haden were recording the immortal Science Fiction with Ornette, and that two months after that, they were doing this onstage with Ornette and Ed Blackwell. Still think the early ’70s was a fallow period? That's a rhetorical question; chances are, if you're reading this in the first place, you don't subscribe to that outdated shorthand.)

All of this music above rewards attention. All of it is worthwhile. And the tangled who-played-with-whom account above speaks to something I hinted at in the Jarrett post that precedes this one. There, I quoted an essential 2008 Ted Panken interview with Jarrett, in which the pianist characterizes his trio with Haden and Motian (the one that fed directly into the American Quartet), in contrast with his later group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, like this: "The early trio represented three free spirits, and I chose them because of that." This "free spirits" concept isn't necessarily novel; it's a driving force behind just about any great jazz. But the way it played out in and around the American Quartet during the ’70s is really remarkable. The same way Miles or Charles Lloyd did, Jarrett wasn't just recruiting top players to staff his groups, he was also growing great bandleaders. The same way everyone seemed to leave Miles a great leader (Tony Williams, to name just one shining example!), or Jarrett and DeJohnette did in the case of Lloyd, so did Jarrett's "sidemen" do the same.

The more leeway you give, the freer you allow "your" spirits to be, the more cross-pollination you foster, the more leadership you inspire, the better your jazz is, the better their jazz is and the better jazz is as a whole. Yes, the American Quartet broke up, but its members took bits and pieces of that aesthetic and spread it ever outward, Jarrett himself into his European Quartet, Motian into a series of compelling groups that culminated in his landmark trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, Haden and Redman into Old and New Dreams (which, though of course primarily Ornette-inspired, could also be looked at as a continuation of the Haden/Redman partnership that started in Ornette's bands and only strengthened in Jarrett's) and beyond.

As with Miles's bands, and many other era-defining partnerships in and outside of jazz, Jarrett/Redman/Haden/Motian was impermanent, non-exclusive. "Fleeting" would be wrong because, after all, these four musicians did play together for the better part of a decade. But what I mean to say is that each artist had somewhere else to go, a personal destiny to fulfill, a freedom of spirit to realize. And these sorts of alliances, groups composed of equally masterful, equally distinctive, equally free spirits, each a born leader and an aesthetic dynamo in his or her own right, are where maybe the greatest pleasures in jazz lie. What a gift that this particular alliance, as well as its countless offshoots, was so well-documented.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"…that revolution period": Keith Jarrett's anti-purism, 1967–’72

"We were in the midst of that revolution period, and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways… If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that."—Keith Jarrett on his late-’60s/early-’70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, from a 2008 interview with Ted Panken


 "It seemed to me with Keith it was more fun in a way. It was so open and so free that you could almost do whatever you wanted. It was almost like you didn't even care whether the audience was there or not, or whether they liked it or whether they didn't. It was quite different with Bill [Evans]… I think that was the influence of the times too, you know? I mean, playing with Bill there wasn't much rock and roll around, really. But playing with Keith, that was a whole different thing."—Paul Motian, from a 1996 interview with Chuck Braman


I briefly mentioned the recent ECM archival release Hamburg ’72, a live recording of Keith Jarrett's trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, in my 2014 jazz round-up. Since compiling that list, I've fallen down the rabbit hole with this album, and with the Jarrett/Haden/Motian records that led up to it: a series of LPs under Jarrett's name starting with 1967's Life Between the Exit Signs and including 1968's Somewhere Before, a trio of albums culled from various 1971 sessions—El Juicio (The Judgement), Birth and The Mourning of a Star, the first two of which feature Dewey Redman—and 1972's Expectations, a double album recorded before Hamburg ’72, but released after. The pre- and early history of Jarrett's great American Quartet, in other words.

This body of work fascinates me for a couple reasons.

1) You don't hear about it a lot. During the past few years, the American Quartet itself seems to have really gotten its due from Ethan Iverson and others—Iverson's interview with Jarrett, where the latter calls the Redman/Haden/Motian quartet "this absolutely raw commodity," is required reading for anyone interested in this band—but most of that praise tends to center on the group's later recordings, from 1973's Fort Yawuh on. For one thing, until recently, I didn't realize that the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio had laid such extensive groundwork for the better-known quartet. (Just to make it clear, the Redman-less Hamburg ’72 dates from after Redman was already working with the band, at least on record; I'm not sure whether Dewey had played live with Jarrett by the summer of ’72 and just couldn't make that particular gig, or whether he had yet to make his onstage debut with the group.)

2) And here's where the above quotes come in, specifically Jarrett's "If we wanted to swing, we could / If we didn’t, we didn’t" credo, and Motian's "fun," "open" and "free" characterizations: There's something about the broadness of this band's aesthetic that, at this exact point in my listening life, appeals to me immensely.

More on that second point:

When I was first really getting my head around jazz, my primary reference point was Blue Note. I still consider the label's early-to-mid-’60s output to be my personal gold standard for what jazz can achieve. To me, the Blue Note aesthetic is inseparable from a certain kind of purity. Rudy Van Gelder's impeccably clean, vibrant recordings; the stark personnel listings on the back of each record, with each musician typically listed as playing a single instrument, the one he had mastered. Yes, you had your brilliant multi-instrumentalists such as Eric Dolphy and Sam Rivers in the mix, but mostly you had your one-ax champs, your Joe Hendersons and Lee Morgans and Jackie McLeans and Elvin Joneses and Larry Youngs and Bobby Hutchersons and Tony Williamses. No fucking around; no dabbling; these guys just played what they played. And even when the context is freer and more exploratory, such as on Williams's Life Time album, there's a certain kind of focus to these sessions that I found and still find immensely attractive.

It's hard to overstate just how greatly Jarrett's American Quartet, and the trio that preceded it, diverges from the purist Blue Note aesthetic. This is a band that throws that kind of focus out the window in favor of something more mongrel, more open-ended, more porous. You could invoke Motian's descriptor, "fun," here, but that seems to indicate some sort of value judgment. Better to just point out the American Quartet's wild stylistic swings, Jarrett's staunch commitment to multi-instrumentalism during these years, the random percussionists thrown into the mix, the hippie-ish insanity of it all, the overall, yes, raw-commodity-dom of the enterprise. It's such a blender of an aesthetic, and if you're going into the work of the American Quartet or the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio expecting simple Blue Note–ism—three or four dudes playing one role apiece and just getting down to business—you're going to be extremely frustrated by this band.

To get into this music, you have to throw all those expectations out the window. No two pieces on Hamburg ’72, for instance, really sound anything like one another; as with the Quartet, there is no definitive performance by this trio—or rather the most un–"jazz combo"–ish performances could be considered just as definitive as the more straightforward ones where everyone plays their "proper" role. There's the polite, Bill Evans Trio–y "Rainbow"; "Everything That Lives Laments," a two-minute interlude from The Mourning of a Star that's expanded here into a near-ten-minute patchouli texture-quest with Jarrett spending a good deal of the running time on flute; the frantic, scampering, and, yes, suitably Ornette-ish "Piece for Ornette," a chance for all three musicians to really unleash, with Jarrett playing exclusively soprano sax; the super bluesy "Take Me Back," a gloriously infectious piece with a poppy turnaround that, like many of the great early-’70s Jarrett themes, reminds me a whole lot of the contemporary Steely Dan output (I highly recommend watching the video of this performance); and so forth.

That kind of variety was in evidence from the get-go. Life Between the Exit Signs, the recorded debut of the Jarrett/Haden/Motian team-up, is a fascinatingly eclectic piano-trio album that convincingly reconciles Bill Evans with Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, and also advances its own unique concepts. (For example, I've never heard any other piano-trio piece that sounds anything like "Church Dreams.") It's also obvious, here and on the later Somewhere Before and The Mourning of a Star—both of which run the gamut from thorny free jazz to covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell—that Jarrett was soaking up bandleading influences from his successive employers Charles Lloyd (note Keith's already-rampant multi-instrumentalism in this great extended performance—he's reaching inside the piano one minute, picking up the soprano sax the next; in this sense the American Quartet and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio are direct extensions of this Lloyd quartet) and Miles Davis, both of whom built their careers on the idea that populist and experimental impulses shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive, that a set of jazz can veer wildly between crowd-pleasing and self-indulgent modes. (For context, consider that Jarrett was a member of Lloyd's band when he recorded Life Between the Exit Signs and Somewhere Before, and a member of Davis's when he made Mourning, Birth—home of the outrageously funky "Mortgage on My Soul"—and El Juicio.) So you put all these influences together, the Lloyd and the Miles and the Evans and the Bley and the Dylan and the aforementioned Ornette, and it's only natural that you'd end up with an aesthetic as fun and free and borderless and anti-purist as the one documented on these releases.

If Hamburg ’72—and if you enjoy that release, you really want to hunt down the uncut bootleg version (see here, for example) of the same show, which contains about twice as much material—represents the live peak of the 1972 Keith Jarrett Experience, so to speak, Expectations, recorded two months before, represents the studio peak. In some ways, Expectations might be my single favorite Keith Jarrett album, at least of the ones I've explored so far. What this album does is take the eclecticism described above and turbocharges it, studio-izes it, adding extra strings, brass and guitar (on this album, the American Quartet is really a quintet, since guitarist Sam Brown is a full-on featured member of the core band). Expectations is the ultimate anti–Blue Note jazz album, a sprawling beast of a thing that explodes with poppy melody, gritty expressionism and just a general overflow of ideas. Nearly every track presents a different approach to the Jarrett aesthetic. You have your Steely Dan–meets-opening-credits-theme soul-pop groovers, such as "The Magician in You" and the aforementioned "Take Me Back." You have your shaggy, celebratory Ornette homages like "The Circular Letter (For J.K.)" and "Roussilion," the latter of which shows off just how deadly the American Quartet could sound when it stripped down to its "central" elements and simply burned. You have your 17-minute odyssey, "Nomads," which elongates and expands the "Take Me Back" aesthetic into a borderline psych-prog zone. And you have your orchestral, melody-drunk bliss-outs such as "Expectations" and closing track "There Is a Road (God's River)," the latter of which breaks out into a drummerless, down-home Jarrett/Haden/Brown jam that's one of the most outrageously joyful musical episodes I've ever heard, on a jazz record or otherwise.

Again, in setting Expectations and these other Jarrett records against the ’60s Blue Notes I learned to love as a younger listener, I'm not indicating some sort of hierarchy or value judgment. What I'm mainly trying to convey is how expansive jazz is, that it can contain all these different flavors of greatness. During my hard-core Blue Note years, I'm pretty sure I would've dismissed Hamburg ’72, Expectations and other Jarrett releases from this period as unfocused ("Put down that soprano sax, dammit!" "Why are you all playing steel drums?" "Give me some jazz, not vampy pop!"), maybe even pandering. Now, though, I'm in more of a tear-down-the-walls phase. I still want my music undiluted, but that's not the same as wanting it segregated, with the "straight-ahead" over here, the "free" over here, the soul off in one corner, the rock and pop in another. If it's all flooding over you in a single experience, if an artist wants to serve you sushi and rice and beans on the same plate, there's profundity in that, too.

Obviously, and especially in light of Jarrett's career trajectory, leading up to the seemingly more conservative Standards Trio (I say "seemingly" because I haven't yet delved deeply enough into this body of work to feel comfortable categorizing it, and I know that this group has ventured into plenty of experimental areas over the years), the eclecticism displayed on these ’67–’72 recordings was about capturing a moment in time, about, as Jarrett suggests in his invocation of "that revolution period" or Motian in his mention of "the influence of the times," taking the temperature both of the jazz scene and the music scene as a whole. Just like Miles, Jarrett was at this point both an insular and confident bandleader and one obsessed with currency. The result was a true Woodstockian jazz, born of and tied to its age. It wasn't better or worse than the classic Blue Note stuff; it was simply other. And right now I'm loving it both for what it is (wide-eyed, unfettered) and isn't (severe, walled-off from pop). Can't wait to really put the later American Quartet recordings under the magnifying glass and see how they fit into this whole, neverending discussion.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ornette Coleman and New Vocabulary: Old friend; fresh context

Update, 12/30/14: Read an exclusive Q&A with Jordan McLean and Amir Ziv on the making of New Vocabulary here, via the Time Out New York blog.


Black Messiah isn't the only surprise release from a major figure in American music this month. Ornette Coleman has a new record out. Yes, Ornette Coleman.

No, it's not an Event Album like 2006's fantastic, Pulitzer-winning Sound Grammar. New Vocabulary, apparently the self-titled debut by a group of the same name, is a low-to-no-fanfare release on NYC label System Dialing Records. It features OC in a trio with System Dialing principals Jordan McLean (trumpet, the same instrument he plays in Antibalas, and electronics) and Amir Ziv (drums), augmented on some tracks by pianist Adam Holzman, McLean and Ziv's bandmates in the group Droid. Just to be clear, the tracks aren't exactly new; everything on the album was recorded in July of 2009. But as far as I can tell, the album just came out. You can order it right now in a variety of physical and digital formats. Yes, right now. I won't be offended if you simply click over there and stop reading right this minute.

New Vocabulary made, and is making, me think. An unsolicited package containing LP and CD copies of the record showed up at the Time Out office yesterday, along with a press sheet featuring quotes from, among others, actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both of whom are also thanked on the record. (No idea what the connection is there.) I'd heard nothing about it beforehand, and judging by the response when I mentioned the album on Twitter, no other writers in my circle had either.

That's kind of cool, no? Like if Bob Dylan randomly turned up as a sideman on some local alt-folk group's Bandcamp demo. This is an odd situation any way you slice it. For many years, I've heard rumors of Ornette jamming with younger musicians, but we don't typically get to hear the fruits of it. And how often is it that the maestro appears on albums not released under his own name? I can think of only a small handful of instances like this: Jackie McLean's New and Old Gospel (on which OC plays trumpet); For the Love of Ornette, an under-the-radar 2010 release by Jamaladeen Tacuma; guest appearances onstage with the Grateful Dead and on record with Lou Reed, as well as the Naked Lunch soundtrack. I'm sure there are other examples that I'm not aware of. But I know enough to know that the release of New Vocabulary is a pretty special occurrence.

For one, because Ornette appears on the entire album. This is no cameo situation; it's an honest-to-God group effort, and OC is a full-fledged member. From what I can tell, the album is entirely improvised. It sounds like a pretty casual affair—the result of a few days spent jamming in the studio. At the end of the ninth track, "The Idea Has No Destiny" (a title that sounds like it could be plausibly be Ornette-derived, as do some of the others: "Baby Food," "Sound Chemistry," "Wife Life"), we hear Ornette say, "You know that wasn't the plan; there was no plan there." It's a good summation of the feeling of New Vocabulary as a whole. There's a certain aimlessness to the recording, a sense of turning on the tape and seeing what happens. When I first played the record, I found myself wishing for a greater sense of structure or direction. Now, on my third or so listen through, I'm relishing the meandering, almost casual character of the project.

What New Vocabulary sounds like to me is a portrait of a guest artist stepping into an established group's insular world. McLean, Ziv and Holzman clearly have an established M.O. as collaborators. Having sampled a bit of Droid and checked out their contributions on New Vocabulary, it seems to me that they're working in sort of a contemporary dub framework, not specifically reggae-oriented, but simply in reference to a philosophy of music-making that values atmospherics, vibe and the malleability of sound as much as melody, rhythm, harmony, etc. They're clearly engaging with elements of electronica and a sort of murky, aqueous funk. You could broadly call New Vocabulary a free-jazz record, but rather than a post-Coltrane soundspace, this group operates in a post-Miles one—touching on the more otherwordly reaches of Davis's late-’60s/early-’70s period ("He Loved Him Madly" comes to mind). I love, for example, the noirish strut of "Value and Knowledge." (Now that I think about it, to throw out another reference point: the overall character of the sound isn't that different from recent albums by Chicago Underground Duo.) There are tracks here that have a bit of a recognizably Ornette-ish feel—some of Ziv's beats, as on "Alphabet," seem to channel Denardo Coleman's jittery, irrepressible grooves, for example; and on "H2O," the drummer gets pretty damn Blackwell-ian—but there's no sense that OC's collaborators on New Vocabulary are making any effort to accommodate him in any obvious way. They're not imitating any OC context that we know—the tracks with Holzman, such as ominous, slow-burning closer "Gold Is God's Sex," really hint at something new, and not just because hearing Ornette with piano has been a relatively rare occurrence—and for that, they deserve serious kudos. It must be pretty difficult to approach your instrument with Ornette Coleman in the room and just play as you normally would.

When I mentioned New Vocabulary on Twitter yesterday, someone asked me, "How does Ornette sound?" He sounds like Ornette! And he sounds fantastic. There are a few moments here where he plays signature licks that any OC fan will recognize immediately with a knowing grin. (Examples: 1:40 in "Bleeding," and :17 in "H2O.") But he's not just going on autopilot during this session; not at all. He's embracing the context fully. He doesn't want to dominate; he wants to participate. It says something about Ornette's composure and confidence as an improviser that he doesn't seem disoriented in the slightest by his bandmates', well, vocabulary. Toward the end of "What's Hotter Than the Sun," the track breaks down into a kind of pure ambiance, with McLean's ghostly, glitchy electronically treated trumpet echoing into the distance. And there's Ornette's alto, dancing away, broadcasting OC's signature rambling, lifeloving joy, but also engaging in real time with the starkly abstract character of the soundworld taking shape around him. You hear a similar phenomenon on "Baby Food," where McLean and Ziv work with pure rumbling, burbling texture, suggesting only the faintest hint of form. And there's Ornette, playing. Fearlessly, yes, but not obliviously.

It's an attitude and an approach that reminds me of this past summer's Prospect Park event. And Ornette's willingness to embrace the moment on New Vocabulary makes the album essential for any OC fan. Is it a great record? That seems to me to be entirely beside the point. What it is, is a document—a very honest, straightforward, unfussy document—of Ornette and these other musicians getting to know each other musically. It isn't technically an Ornette album, per se, any more than it's a Jordan McLean album, an Amir Ziv album or an Adam Holzman album. New Vocabulary is a hang, a jam, a session, a snapshot, a document. It has no agenda, no compositional objective, and therefore, as an album, it demonstrates all the pros and cons of most fully improvised recordings. But if you're in the mood for it and you put it on, you'll hear interaction, engagement, celebration and the establishment of a very genuine group dynamic.

Will there ever be another New Vocabulary record? Will this group ever perform live? Both seem unlikely, but you never know. In lieu of any sequels, I'm glad we have this album. The more I listen to it, the more I appreciate its humility. It has no pretension of brilliance, of instant-classic-hood, and I hope that writers/listeners don't jump to ascribe those qualities to it simply because a giant like Ornette is involved. It's enough that it exists. No, New Vocabulary might not belong on an Ornette Coleman discographical short list, but in terms of a document of what it's like to be in the room with OC as he is now (or close to now), it's essential.

Ornette's sound is absolutely intact, and just as importantly, his ears and reflexes are intact. He's engaging, working as one third (or fourth) of a collective, and nothing more. He steps forward; he recedes; he offers what he can, which is that inimitable sound. And that inimitable way of embracing an improvisational flow. On New Vocabulary, you hear him taking sonic events as they come rather than stepping out in front of the group. There's real profundity in that, especially coming from a veteran of OC's stature.

To listen to New Vocabulary is to visit with an old friend in a totally unfamiliar setting and to realize anew how much you'd missed their company, how life-affirming their presence is, how much beauty there is in the simple sound of their voice and the character of their conversation, the way they view and interact with the world. It's good to see you, Ornette; I've loved your work for years, but I've never thought of you in quite this way.