Saturday, October 07, 2017

Magic in the method: The Art Ensemble of Chicago live in New York



Tonight's Art Ensemble of Chicago show at Columbia University's new Lenfest Center for the Arts uptown concluded with 10 to 15 minutes of what on the surface could be termed an old-school free-jazz blowout. (The above video captures an analogous sample from one of the group's shows at London's CafĂ© Oto this past February.) It had that familiar kind of multilayered density, with Roscoe Mitchell on alto sax, Hugh Ragin on trumpet and Tomeka Reid on cello all sending forth formidable streams of sound that swirled together with drummer Famoudou Don Moye's busy textural wash and dual bassists Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul's thick low end. But though the sextet worked up to a pretty intense boil, there was something about this episode that stood distinctly apart from codified "free jazz" practice. There was some matter-of-fact-ness here, some total lack of histrionics or extramusical drama — a refutation of the idea that this turbulent climax needed to convey any particular message outside of the literal impact of its sound — that seemed to sum up the utterly unassuming way that the group had worked its magic, and potently demonstrated so many of its core principles, over the preceding 40 minutes or so.

To put it more straightforwardly, this edition of the Art Ensemble, the only one I've had the pleasure of seeing live, covered an enormous amount of aesthetic ground with a remarkably little amount of fuss. The juxtaposition of styles — a consciousness-warping unaccompanied Mitchell solo on sopranino sax, say, followed by a conventionally "jazzy" group theme statement over an amiable swing rhythm — is such an elemental part of the AEOC's mission that they're able to pull this off, i.e., to construct an episodic set that flows surprisingly yet perfectly logically though a series of disparate soundworlds, without coming off as glib or contrived in the slightest. In the world of so-called avant-jazz, you'll sometimes see this kind of friction played more or less for laughs, e.g., a tight ensemble statement will give way to an exaggeratedly ragged, lurching bit of "out" improv, often eliciting a few knowing chuckles. But here there was no gimmick being trotted out, no musical punchline being delivered. I just felt from the whole set a sort of great serenity (even in its more abrasive moments) and focus, a sense that the group's comfort in its own skin was absolute — impressive since this particular configuration had never performed together before tonight. (Aside from the group mainstays Mitchell and Moye, Shahid, Ragin and Paul had all appeared at prior AEOC gigs; this was Reid's first live outing with the group, and her contributions were invaluable throughout.)

It was hard to tell how rigorously structured the set was, but the various sections flowed into each other with a masterful kind of ease, each new one following from the prior like a course in a meticulously plotted feast. A tender yet expressive Hugh Ragin feature, accompanied by one of the basses, if memory serves, to open the set; a Mitchell sopranino solo that started out sparse and tentative and built into a torrent of circular-breathing-abetted multiphonics; an alluringly fluid and fleetingly funky Moye drum solo; and so on. And then a poignant moment when Mitchell seemed to serenade a man in the front row of the audience, who was then led up onstage to sit in front of a microphone. It was none other than longtime AEOC mainstay Joseph Jarman, the night's guest of honor, apparently no longer performing on reeds, but game here for spoken-word recitation that verged at times on song. The band (with Moye switching to congas) built up a lively undercurrent while letting Jarman take the lead, speaking poetic phrases clearly informed by his Buddhist beliefs. He would fixate on lines ("We're in a maze together..."), repeat them, transform his speech into fragile melody as the band cushioned him, rising and falling with his cadences.

What struck me here, and during the various other times when one or more members took either an overt or subtle "lead" or solo-istic role, is how patiently each such episode seemed to unfold. I kept thinking of the sort of ethos and approach of Mitchell's classic Sound session, probably the Art Ensemble–related documented I've connected with most deeply over the years (I'm a passionate fan of a handful of AEOC recordings, particularly the Nessa box of 1967/68 sessions and Fanfare for the Warriors but I'm by no means an expert on their full discography), i.e., this idea of leaving aside the surging rush of classic "energy music" in favor of a more contemplative, exploratory spirit, yielding a situation in which each solo, so to speak, is really more like a mini research mission, with the player in question staking out a sonic terrain and then sort of drilling down in, burrowing ever deeper. Mitchell is of course a master of this kind of thing, and seems to be able to reach that place of almost monastic focus more or less instantaneously, but Moye's solos tonight carried the same sort of authority, the same thoughtful progression and play of virtuosic dazzlement and shrewd restraint. Just as the players demonstrated extreme sensitivity to one another, they seemed to put the same principle to work within their own improvisations — the notion of playing without simultaneously listening, considering, weighing, taking into account the overall micro- and macro- sonic narrative at hand doesn't seem to be in the AEOC's vocabulary.

And when at one point, after Jarman had spoken, a string trio of Reid, Shahid and Paul emerged out of the larger group and came to the fore, supported by Moye's bells, you heard how completely even the newest member of the group seemed to have internalized this core principle of how they operate. I can't recall the precise texture of this episode, but I remember feeling awed by its simultaneous daring abstraction and tasteful cohesion. Like so many of the musical chapters that made up the set, it felt at once obsessively focused and refreshingly compact. And as it was happening, the other players sat silent, absorbed, as if to transmit to their groupmates a message of pure "you do you" support. The full "Sound" privilege isn't just reserved for the senior members, in other words; everyone onstage got all the time and space they needed, not to "solo" per se, but to, to paraphrase Coltrane's spoken introduction to "Dearly Beloved," carve out a particular sonic space and "keep a thing happening."

The strings and bells would give way to the free ensemble climax, another brief, groovy theme statement (it might have been the band's signature tune "Odwalla") and personnel introductions by Mitchell. He has an easy way at the mic and a hint of the veteran showman to his delivery. For all the marvelous intensity and idiosyncrasy of his playing, his demeanor onstage is dry and no-nonsense. He clearly values the performative exchange (at the post-concert chat expertly moderated by my friend and former colleague Steve Smith, who was at least partly responsible for this gig happening at all, Mitchell spoke with great enthusiasm of the many outside projects he has afoot, including the marvelous trio-improvisations-turned-orchestral-compositions document Discussions — see Seth Colter Walls' typically sharp and detailed review here — and a challenging new ECM double-disc set. Bells for the South Side) but he doesn't get onstage to peddle any kind of mysticism or cater to any kind of mythology about the business of so-called experimental music-making. Paradoxically that only makes the group's insular, intuitive praxis feel that much more ritualistic, even alchemical. There's this methodology that these musicians, in various configurations, have been honing for half a century now, an approach built on the simple yet elusive principles of real diversity, depth and good old-fashioned concentration, and during tonight's unfussy tour de force, they showed how much vitality there still is in what it is that the AEOC (and in a more broad sense, the AACM) does.

It ain't magic, but it sure does feel like it.

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*A special word of thanks not just to Steve but also to Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang of Pi Recordings, who were also instrumental in making this gig happen, and who issued three key documents of the AEOC from 2003 through 2006.

*Do not miss Nate Chinen's excellent WBGO feature on the group's past, present and future.

*If you're in Philly tonight (Saturday, 10/7/17), the AEOC performs again as part of the October Revolution fest.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Goodbye, Tom Petty: dad-rock's sly revolutionary




I listened to all of Into the Great Wide Open yesterday, just as the sad news was flowing in, and I was struck by what excellent music this is. (Prior to this, I'd forgotten the deep cut "Two Gunslingers" even existed, but the song came back to me instantly, like an old friend.) The album came out just a couple months before Nevermind, but somehow, almost miraculously, Tom Petty's songs were in the air during his time in a way that none of his fellow dad-rockers' work really seemed to be. I remember those few albums, Full Moon Fever, ITGWO and Wildflowers being maybe the strongest musical bridge between my friends and I (all budding teenage punks and metalheads by this time) and our respective parents. Everyone seemed to love these songs.

Sure, the MTV exposure helped, but that cinematic quality was already in the songs themselves. As Phil Freeman put it on Twitter yesterday, the opening of "Listen to Your Heart" ("So you think you're gonna take her away / With your money and your cocaine") is "an entire short story in two lines" (a notion he expanded on in a very sharp Stereogum essay). Yes. And that's true of so many of these classics. The rise-and-fall Hollywood narrative of "Into the Great Open" (which seemed so spot-on then, in the twilight of hair metal) always got me, especially the part about how "their A-and-R man said, 'I don't hear a single.'" Petty just had this sort of hard wisdom about how he put things, combined with a knowing way of singing these words that felt, especially as his career wore on, sly and cynical but also deeply empathetic — in contrast to the more fiery, screechy delivery of the early hits like "Refugee." Add in that sort of hazy, drawling quality his music had, that shimmering vibe of California psychedelia that was so prevalent in songs like "Last Dance With Mary Jane" and "Free Fallin'," and you had an almost magically durable strain of radio rock.

Sure there were, say, Don Henley's poignant solo hits (not to mention the mighty Graceland) earlier and Neil Young's transporting Harvest Moon later, other efforts that seemed to transfigure the spirit of '60s and '70s rock into something more ethereal and enchanting, but somehow, Petty, with invaluable assistance from producers like Jeff Lynne and Rick Rubin, was the laid-back king of this quiet neo-dad-rock revolution.

Later on, I would discover Bob Dylan in earnest and probably began to take Tom Petty for granted a bit. Clearly, Petty owes Dylan so much and we tend to think of the latter as somehow more authentic, a true poet as opposed to a dad-rock figurehead. (Unless we just think of them as Charlie T. and Lucky Wilbury, respectively; shout-out to the sublimely corny "Last Night.") But the truth is that in some ways, Petty might be the greater songwriter, one who put as much poetry into his simple, indelible melodies as into his economical, evocative lyrics. Bob Dylan could do many things, but I'm not sure he ever wrote a song as catchy and gently wrenching as this:



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*I'm really enjoying my Rolling Stone colleague Andy Greene's interviews with Tom's Heartbreakers bandmates (Ron Blair, Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench). A lot of insights into the inner-workings of a great American band. This 50 Greatest Songs list is also an illuminating read.