Monday, January 26, 2015
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
*"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
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
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
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.