Tag Archives: jazz

Vasudeva on the Hudson

The first or maybe second time I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I became enamored of the character of Vasudeva, the ferryman. The ferryman, as you may remember, has learned from the river how to listen. “Without his saying a word,” Hesse writes, “the speaker felt that Vasudeva took in every word, quietly, expectantly, that he missed nothing. He did not await anything with impatience and gave neither praise nor blame—he only listened […] with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions” (ps. 85, 87). I wanted to emulate Vasudeva: I, too, wanted to master the art of listening. Whenever my students tell me, as they have occasionally, that they liked my class because they felt I was invested in the conversations and truly interested in what they had to say—and whatever my reservations today about the novel’s philosophy—I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to Hesse and Siddhartha.

There is no music in Siddhartha, at least that I recall. Others of Hesse’s novels—Steppenwolf, The Glass-Bead Game—are steeped in music. But Siddhartha comes to me from the farther reaches of memory as a silent book, or no more aural than the soundscape of, say, the river itself. The ferryman has mastered the art of listening to others speak. Would the same hold true for music? If so, would it not be lovely for a fiddler to bring his fiddle onto that ferry, a guitarist her guitar? There he would be, the one true listener, a sufficient audience unto himself.

Hesse’s ferryman came back to me as I was reading Thomas Greenland’s Jazzing: New York City’s Unseen Scene (Illinois UP, 2016), one of two ethnographies of jazz I read this year; the second, which I read first, was Travis Jackson’s Blowin’ the Blues Away: Performance and Meaning on the New York Jazz Scene (California UP, 2012). Both studies examine New York jazz in the ‘90s and ‘00s, with Jackson’s concentrating on traditional (“WBGO”) jazz, and Greenland’s on a combination of “trad” and “downtown,” or avant-garde. Both authors stress the need to understand jazz by looking beyond the music itself, to the contexts of its production and consumption. For Jackson, this context mostly means African American culture as it is revealed through attending performances and recording sessions, and interviewing musicians. For Greenland, it mostly means the way different actors—musicians, fans, club owners, journalists, and so on—interact to make New York jazz possible and meaningful. (I say “mostly” because Jackson does consider the different actors in the scene, and Greenland does cite some interviews with musicians; but the bulk of their attention, respectively, lies elsewhere.) It was Greenland’s attention to jazz fans, whom he compares to sammi’ahs (of tarab music) and cabales (of flamenco), “dedicated connossieurs who think and feel music on a deep level” (48; Greenland’s emphasis), and who inspire others, including the musicians who perform for them, that recalled the ferryman to me. I like the colloquial term for these Vasudevian listeners, too: they have “big ears.”

Before going any further, I should admit a narcissistic attraction to these texts. I was active on the scene during the periods Jackson and Greenland study. As a fan, I was eager to see myself in the mirror of these texts, to imagine the authors as phantom patrons who might once have sat at the table next to mine, and to nostalgically identify with the places described—to murmur to myself, “I was there.” Indeed, by Scott DeVeaux’s definition (cited in Greenland), I was, for almost two decades of my life, a hard-core fan, one among only about half a per cent of jazz listeners who attend at least one set per month (more like one or two sets a week). I was—to use another lovely colloquialism from Greenland—“chasing the dog.” (A colleague of mine, who is still chasing the dog in his early seventies, describes himself as “a geriatric club-rat.”)*

What this means is that, in gleaning what I could from these books, I also had the expectation that I would learn something about myself. Not just, that is, how scenes function to create meaning, which would have repercussions for the way I understand other popular musics that I think and write about on this blog, or any other nuggets of wisdom I might acquire about jazz history or the recording industry or music per se (and there were plenty); but also about the musical history and context of the city in which I came of artistic age. I can’t help but see music through the lens of New York; and, musically speaking, I can’t help but see myself through that same lens. What might these studies reveal to me about the lens itself?

*

The goal of Jackson’s project is to understand “how participants in the jazz scene, and especially musicians, construct and construe meaning in musical events” (6-7; Jackson’s emphasis). As noted, for Jackson you get the most out of analyzing jazz in the context of the scene and, more broadly, the culture from which it arises. In fact, trying to examine the music outside of its cultural context reflects a bias imported from the study of Western (classical) music; and this bias has historically hampered our understanding of jazz. White critics who have told the story of jazz have tended to “whitewash”—Dizzy’s term, which Jackson uses as a chapter epigraph; they have “molded what they saw as primarily African American musical practices in the image of Western literary and musical traditions” (28). But jazz, Jackson asserts, can’t be just “about itself”; it is inseparable from African American tradition; it comes out of, and feeds back into, African American culture (212). Part of Jackson’s project, then, is to bring to bear on the music the specifically African American cultural context of jazz that many earlier studies had erased.

Jackson calls jazz “a spiritually oriented ritualized activity” (22) governed by a “blues aesthetic,” an “African American approach to music-making” whose elements he begins to describe via the scholarly writing of composer Olly Wilson: “use of (overlapping) call-and-response techniques, off-beat phrasing of melodic accents, percussive approaches to performance, timbral heterogeneity, use of polymetric frameworks, and the integration of environmental factors into performance” (Jackson 47). Overall, if jazz music and performance are deeply rooted in African American experience, which itself feeds back into said culture, then to consider jazz from a traditional musicological framework not only misses all the subtleties that can’t be notated by Western scorekeeping and analysis, but the very thing that makes jazz jazz.

Among other things, the above conclusions mean that Jackson must grapple with the knotty and contentious relationship between jazz and race: between, that is, jazz as American music (e.g., “America’s classical music”) and jazz as African American music. He traces the history of this controversy back to the emergence of the neoclassicism of the ‘70s and ‘80s, through the eventual institutionalization of Wynton Marsalis et al. at Lincoln Center, and the predictable backlash—particularly predictable against the backdrop of concurrent debates over affirmative action. White critics lamented that whites’ contributions to jazz were being overlooked, and argued that jazz was “supposed” to be about integration, a point Jackson legitimately questions (32-3). For Marsalis, Albert Murray, and Stanley Crouch, jazz was all about “blues feeling, timbral nuance, and rhythmic swing” (34)— that is to say, elements it derived from African American musical tradition.

Jackson consistently emphasizes that this is a question culture, not color, even as he acknowledges how much race and culture share. “Musicians of varying backgrounds,” he writes, “have learned to perform the music. Each of them has had to marry whatever musical skills they had […] with the conventions and aesthetic priorities of jazz performance, which remain consistent with the aesthetic imperatives of other African American and African-derived musical forms” (48; Jackson’s emphasis). The same, one imagines, should hold true for audiences: listeners “of varying backgrounds” can learn to listen to jazz. But the way race and culture shade into each other in the popular imagination and discourse makes me wonder. For the Marsalis camp, it is far from clear that racial/cultural others are capable of mastering the requisite elements of African American tradition as players (cf. Crouch’s comments on trumpeter Dave Douglas; Jackson himself notes that Crouch is “harder to defend” than Marsalis or Murray, and treats him, I think, rather too gently). The same seems to be true for listeners, at least based on some of the interviews Jackson foregrounds in his study. Any music, Joshua Redman opines, can be played with soul; and anyone can connect with music on a spiritual level. But there’s soul and there’s soul, “a certain kind of emoting which is associated with the blues idiom and blues expression” (qtd. in Jackson 115). For saxophonist Sam Newsome, for example, a black audience member who is familiar with the music—and possibly one who isn’t—hears the “soulful” side of his playing; a black audience member hears and appreciates what white audiences can’t. Others might connect intellectually, and perhaps “spiritually,” but not on that “deeper” level (Jackson 118-9). Again, Jackson himself calls this “learned cultural knowledge.” But is the spiritual learned? Or perhaps it’s the appeal to the spirit, the path to it, that is learned? If so, is there a point at which this learning must start, if we’re to imagine a listener able to connect on that “deeper” level? Is “deeper” a question of quantity or quality, degree or kind? However we slice it, in Newsome’s formulation, culture—and again, it is difficult not to project race onto the term—does determine how near an audience member can get to a music’s essence. By this logic, Newsome would presumably never hear Beethoven’s “Tempest” piano sonata the way I do.† There is always a residue of culture/race that will prevent the Other from reaching the citadel of “deep” connection, from hearing the way a musician “work[s] through and re-present[s] that culture for the benefit of ritualized performers and listeners” (Jackson 140).

As I struggled with these questions, I couldn’t help but think of Henry Louis Gates’s Jefferson lecture on Phillis Wheatley, the revolutionary-era African American poet I mentioned in a recent post (“Refined,” 5.30.18). According to Gates, when news of her poetic capabilities reached Jefferson’s ears, he took it upon himself to review her work (just as earlier an august committee of white men had taken it upon themselves to cross-examine her, to determine whether she could possibly be its author). In a letter to a friend, Jefferson basically makes the case that, while hers might look like poetry, it isn’t really poetry. Wheatley, like a monkey or parrot, had learned to mimic poetic form, poetic speech—this much was true; but the essence of poetry, the thing that makes poetry poetry, was absent. And so with the (culturally?) “white” player of jazz: he or she can, like parrot or monkey, copy what is played—can do, in other words, all those things that Western music recognizes in jazz (harmony above all; melody, less so; rhythm, not sure); but “timbral nuance, swing, and blues feeling” remain the exclusive property of the cultural other. And so for the listener. What I myself love isn’t quite jazz, but rather some watered-down version of it. Like a virtuous pagan, I remain forever on the outside of the circle of the elect, full of desire but without hope, as Dante had it. As the night of Wheatley’s blackness forever blots out the sun of true Poetry, so the suburban middle-class whiteness I carry with me like the mark of Cain forever sequesters from me true Jazz. No matter how much I learn or how deeply I listen, I am condemned to listen impoverishedly.

Miles touches on this whole issue of cultural learning beautifully in his autobiography. Visiting his grandfather in Arkansas, walking country roads at night, hearing music out of nowhere: he was the middle-class son of a dentist; but his skin color, and his contact with earlier generations, made it possible for him to be exposed to something that forever inflected his musical voice: “that blues, church, back-road funk kind of thing, that southern, midwestern, rural sound and rhythm” (Autobiography, p. 29; shades of “Sonny’s Blues” here, no?). A similar point was made in one of the roundtables Down Beat devoted to the question of jazz and race in the early ‘60s. Needless to say I don’t have any good answers here, and I’m wary of going on so long about a point which, after all, Jackson works mightily to contextualize. But I will throw out what are hopefully a few useful questions. If it’s true that African American culture has, through the agency of hip hop (one of the post-bebop Black popular musics Jackson notes have interacted with jazz in the last half-century), “become” American culture—or, perhaps better, white youth culture has more intimate contact with a particular strain of African American music-making than it ever has before—then to what extent does it still make sense to talk about a separate African American musical culture, as opposed to, say, a youth (urban?) musical culture deeply inflected by that of African America? (N.B.: This is not to say that we’re living in anything close to a post-racial society … which means I’m probably contradicting myself. Since it’s a question, I’ll let it stand and just move on.) Indeed, Jackson himself alludes to how much has changed in jazz over the last thirty years: the way the music has entrenched itself in conservatories;§ the way the scene, and the blues aesthetic itself, can change over history—indeed must, by his very definition of the music feeding back into and transforming Black culture. And then musicians today—like their audiences—are steeped in a wide variety of genres, some of them African American, from which they draw liberally, and which certainly impacts the way a listener hears jazz. “One might only guess,” Jackson writes, “what kind of impact such shifts will have” (213). But haven’t they already? And so what do these shifts mean vis-à-vis the “essence” of jazz and the relationship between “race”/culture and the music?

Conversely, if jazz has become, in the last half-century-plus, a music played and adored by European and Asian musicians and audiences—and if at least Europeans have remade jazz into something that blends their own tradition with African American music (see, for example, Northern Sun, Southern Moon, Yale UP, 2005)—not to mention the way jazz has inflected the music of other parts of the world, particularly (but not solely) those within the African diaspora—then to what extent does it still make sense to say that only those with cultural know-how about African American music-making can understand the “essence” of jazz, or to claim that the music’s essence is somehow restricted to “timbral nuance,” etc.? Should we give the music another name? Wouldn’t it sound as sweet? Or should we simply accept that this astonishingly brilliant cultural property (that word!) African Americans developed over the first half-plus of the twentieth century was a gift to world culture, and that part of giving this gift is the expectation that others will make it their own? Indeed, if the gift was anything, it was perhaps a recognition of possibilities, of a sheer openness about music-making. (I should probably remind readers that Jackson states at the outset that he is working with mainstream jazz, so the appeal to African American culture pace Crouch et al. makes sense. Then again, mainstream is a relative term.)

Oh, you’re probably rankled now. African Americans already “gifted” their labor to the world—that is to say, it was stolen from them—and now they must gift their arts as well? Is what rankles the lack of recognition and recompense, the long history of appropriation and exploitation of black cultural forms by white artists and entrepreneurs? If it’s any consolation, jazz makes up an idiotically miniscule fraction of the music industry. It’s not like Led Zeppelin not paying royalties for “Bring It On Home,” or whatever. In fact, Jackson himself documents the economic insignificance of jazz: the way major labels’ jazz divisions, no longer profitable but once important for prestige purposes, folded and artists were dropped as these labels moved to a portfolio model (cf. the 1976 film Network).**

In all this hand-wringing, I find myself a little flummoxed about the source of my own anxiety. It seems disproportionate to the issue. On the face of it, the idea of a style of music being a group’s cultural property that others can neither appreciate fully nor perform sensitively, at least without enormous labor and attempted immersion into said culture (and perhaps not even then), seems like common sense. I learned the lesson well enough from living in Andalucia and dilettantishly “studying” flamenco (which really meant reading and watching vids at the wonderful Centro Andaluz de Flamenco, and taking some lessons in guitar and compas). The andaluces are weaned on it; I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the level to which the rhythms, the palos, the whole ethos of the music, had been absorbed. So why my hand-wringing at the idea that jazz belongs to a cultural other, and is a form for which my appreciation remains limited? Is it because, whatever I might mouth about jazz being African American music, I still believe in my gut that jazz is an authentically American expression, and thus belongs to me, too? Or, as I noted above, that it might have begun as African American music, but now belongs to all citizens of the world? Is it that I still want to believe, in my core, that music is indeed a universal language, that its cultural specificities are a surface feature beneath which lies the pan-human experience; that, as such, it creates bridges in deep places; and that this is true, not just of classical music, as its one-time missionaries believed, but all music? I might note that my flamenco example is somewhat extreme, if less so than thirty years ago, given the difficulty of successfully translating it into other contexts. Some musics are harder to adapt, and so have remained sheltered and rooted in one place, while others have spread around the globe. Of course, such globalization (and “art-ification”) may also dilute a music’s cultural essence (whatever that is), just as a classical composer’s use of folk tunes may. Or would it be more correct, or at least more hopeful, to say—depending on the particular pattern of diffusion a music undergoes—that globalization simply shifts the center of that music, finds new essences, that these losses are compensated for by other gains?

I am perhaps particularly sensitive to this question right now, living through a historical moment where certain elements of the literary culture take offense at fiction writers “writing about experiences not their own,” which seems to me the yet-more-pernicious obverse of that spurious old coin “write what you know.” (So much for Siddhartha’s ferryman!) Perhaps we need to consider—as I have argued on this blog before, but here with Vasudeva in mind—that every act of listening, like every act of reading, is an imaginative act, an opening to an Other; that, for example, when Hester Prynne, pleading with the authorities Hawthorne describes as wise but utterly incapable of sympathy, to keep her child, and she turns to the child’s unacknowledged father and basically loses her shit at him, a young black or Hispanic woman in my class who has ever had to deal with DCS, or who simply has had struggled to raise children, might be able to see across the wide swath of history and culture and feel her words as deeply as any reader ever has; just as I, white, male and childless, am somehow always moved to near-tears every time I read this passage; because, somehow, Hawthorne, in his intermittent and fickle genius, has managed to capture something of her rage and despair so perfectly that the screen of years and the stilted, antiquated language and the alien culture in which the events are set suddenly drops away, and I feel, somehow, that the text becomes utterly and magically transparent. Probably I’m just deluded—you know, one white guy foisting another white guy—a dead one—on my black female (and male) students, and asking them to weep with me. Ugh. (It’s not like I’m not problematizing Hawthorne’s own status as a male writer and his constructions of femininity, of the “mysteries of an erring woman’s heart” that he claims to be able to fathom. Maybe we should be asking Suzan-Lori Parks why she wrote In the Blood?)

Basta. For me, it always comes back to the same questions. Have I listened closely? Have I really listened? How do I construct myself as a listener so that I really hear? That is, it always comes back to that ferryman, just as the ferry does, crossing the river over and over again, and always landing in the same spot. It is always the same river and always a different one; it is always the same spot and always a different one.

*

To formulate what he calls the “blues aesthetic” that governs jazz performance, Jackson mines his interviews and comes up with the following elements: “having an individual voice; developing the ability to balance and play with a number of different musical parameters in performance; understanding the cultural foundations of the music; being able onself to ‘bring something to the music’; creating music that is ‘open enough’ to allow other musicians to bring something …; and being open for transcendence to ‘the next level’ of performance, the spiritual level” (110). There’s nothing wrong with lists per se … but after the rather lengthy theoretical discussions that precede it, it feels a little reductive.†† The problem may stem from an overreliance on musicians as his source. Ironic that Jackson, who, pace Amiri Baraka, questioned twentieth-century writing on jazz for being overly influenced by the New Critical idea of the centrality of the text (and, more broadly, for too many doltish literary types trying to write about something they don’t understand (101)), seems to have reacted by resurrecting the artist from the ashes of Romanticism. The problem—one problem—is that musicians, like most artists, have a tendency to speak in tongues. Music, their true language, is at once utterly candid and maddeningly oblique. Like Socrates’s poets, they speak according to the inspiration of their god; their knowledge, their consciousness about what they do, is as the haze on a horizon after sundown. (There are of course exceptions to this rule; Joshua Redman, one of Jackson’s sources, is preternaturally articulate.) Now, Jackson himself does call attention to this. Discussing musicians’ difficulties in trying to explain the role that tradition plays in their music, he writes, “The silence […] is perhaps an indicator not of the illegitimacy of the concept, but of the difficulty of verbalizing experiential and musical concepts that are deeply felt” (120). True enough; but it puts a bit of a dent in his methodology, and, I think, points to a broader weakness of this study. Jackson seems to regard language as a transparent means of communication that, unlike music, well, anyone can do, rather than a craft that, like music, attempts to unfold one’s feelings and ideas—including feelings about music—via the messy, gummy medium that is words. It helps account, I think, for a certain flatness in his writing, a certain obtuseness about his argument. It most impacts his book when he moves from competently synthesizing the materials of other scholars and his interviewees to trying to describe the aesthetics and interactions of performances and recording sessions. (I will return to this question of language more extensively in my “year”-end post.)

Reading Jackson’s take on the Greenwich Village of the ‘90s, I found myself wishing, page after page, that he had more to say. A “jazz-related understanding of the neighborhood” (52)—yes; that a venue isn’t just, as it’s often been understood, “a scrim in front of which [jazz musicians] marched on their way to making history” (52)—yes again. As per Jackson’s thesis, you need a scene to facilitate and create meaning, and scenes include musicians, venues, and record stores, as well as changes in things like zoning and rent laws. But beyond these generalizations, I get little sense of what changes made what differences in the ‘90s Greenwich Village that purports to be his subject. We get a general description of clubs, their importance to the scene, their typical layout, and the way that they can en- or discourage audience-musician interaction, and camaraderie among fans. But what about, say, Smalls, or Smalls versus the Vanguard, the Vanguard versus Sweet Basil, in terms of, well, pretty much everything: how they’re set up, the relationship between audience and performer, the pictures they have on their walls, etc.? Jackson also mentions the perennial problem of staying in business, the way rent hikes drive up cover charges, which also tends to make clubs risk-averse, and to favor big-name artists with major-label contracts rather than allowing such decisions to be made in the more intimate, autochthonous interaction between artists, club owners, and audiences. That’s great; but again, there’s ne’er an example to illustrate this, to engage the reader, or to probe the way that particular venues or particular changes participate in the creation of particular meanings. What is Jackson’s jazz-related understanding of the Village, based on all his footwork and interviews? Where’s Gaston Bachelard when you need him?

When he gets to music and the mechanics of performance, Jackson seems to have even less to say. He discusses how performances are framed and organized, and how jazz tunes work, perhaps on the assumption that another ethnographer reading this text will have little to no understanding of jazz, or that a musicologist coming from another genre will need a crash-course. Perhaps my own fan status—spiritual deficiencies aside—blinds me to what other readers would need to know. After reading Jackson’s clear and complex theoretical underpinning to jazz as a ritual activity, and ritual activities like jazz performances producing “ritualized bodies,” I wanted to see these ritualized bodies—isn’t that the point of ethnographic fieldwork, of attending jazz sets with one’s anthro-cap on? But I never get more than a hint of them—certainly no fleshed-out portraits. As a result, although Jackson argues that observing performance in terms of its visual, proxemic and kinesthetic dimensions is essential for understanding (and that, conversely, recordings are biased and partial representations of musical events),§§ I never got the sense from his study that the recording sessions or sets he observed added much of anything. He notes, for example, the significance of body movement, and of glances exchanged among and between musicians and audience members. But his descriptions are too rote to be in any way revealing. A typical example: “One of my table companions […] was moving her head up and down in time, entrained to the groove in the same way I was” (152). Another: “Teekens, Bolleman, and I were glancing at each other briefly during these interactions, as if to say, ‘Did you hear/see that?’” (176). Again: “[The music of Meldhau, Hutchinson, and McBride] pulled everyone in the control room … into the performance, leaving us mesmerized” (184). (If this were music journalism, rather than academic anthropology, that’s the sort of bland generalization that would never make it into a magazine or newspaper.) Yet again: “Audience members were shaking heads as if to say, Wow!” (195). The smiles recorded between different participants come so fast and furious that I began to wonder if “smile” would be an entry on the index. (It was not.) The upshot: either Jackson’s own lack of data torpedoes his thesis that these other dimensions of performance are essential (i.e., there is simply little to nothing to observe); or his field observations were not sufficiently detailed to lead to any persuasive conclusions; or he is unable (as a writer) to communicate the nuances of his data. If the last, it’s a fitting reminder that the words aren’t just something; they’re the only thing.***

My frustration fairly boiled over with the recurring phrase “taking it to the next level.” It’s a colloquialism he adopts from an interview with Steve Wilson, if I remember correctly; but after a number of iterations it began to sound just plain silly. It also moved in and out of quotes willy-nilly, as if Jackson himself were unsure how to consider it. He writes, “When performers successfully synthesize and work with all the materials of a performance (space, time, tune, form, other performers. and other participants)—when they exhibit ritual mastery—that is when a performance is most likely to proceed to the next level” (151). Later, the music of Meldhau, McBride and Hutchinson “made it clear that they indeed ‘took it to the next level’” (187). (Did they, indeed?) Later, “The tunes were well played but never really moved to the next level” (197). And so on. I can just hear an audience in postgame analysis: “Was it on the next level?” “I think it was on the next level.” “No, wait: maybe it was on the same level.”

And so with this study: it never “proceeds” to the next level. A shame, because Jackson is incredibly knowledgeable about the music; he is well-versed in theory and thoughtful about the issues of race, culture, and history, whatever my penchant for hand-wringing. Perhaps it’s a problem of autoethnography, or its obverse; that is, perhaps Jackson thought that too much description and reflection, too much a book written not just about but according to a blues aesthetic, would make it appear he had sacrificed objectivity on the altar of navel-gazing. Or perhaps it’s the perennial problem of the reticence of the social sciences, at least when the reader is from the humanities. What else did you see? What’s it all mean? Can’t you speculate? Where does the language take you? Where is your imagination in all of this? (Chomping at the bit to talk about the “Sokal squared” scandal, I restrain myself, even from a footnote.) If jazz is a “synechdoche for African American culture,” does that mean we stop or start hearing it as jazz? What is lost, and what is gained? Is there only an anthropology of music today? Am I just a victim of my own narcissism, wanting to see myself in a text that, finally, doesn’t let me see much of anything?

*

Greenland’s Jazzing suggests not. Of the two, it’s the more satisfying contribution to the ethnography of New York jazz. I don’t think it’s just because the book comes half a decade later, so that Greenland has the opportunity to build on the work of Jackson and others in what, after all, is still a sub-field under construction. I don’t think it’s because Greenland is a particularly better writer, either—in fact, his paragraph conclusions are so clunky they made me rethink the standard pedagogy on paragraph structure. Rather, I think it’s because (1) he narrows much of his work to the New York avant-garde scene, and this allows him to speak with greater specificity and density about how this scene is organized and operates; and (2) his mosaic of interviews with critics, club owners, jazz-inspired visual artists, and fans gives a more well-rounded and grounded sense of how scene creates meaning.

Some of my favorite stuff in this book comes from his interviews with club owners. It certainly gave me a new, more humble perspective on going out to hear jazz. God knows I’ve kvetched about prices, and I’ve thrown more than one crusty look at a loud talker or phone addict during a set. The irony had never quite dawned on me: were it not for liquor and assholes—and expanded and diversified musical offerings, something else that sets off hard-core fans—these clubs simply couldn’t survive. Not that I was ever the sort to nurse a soda or anything; but it does make me feel like a huge churl to have complained to a friend that Smalls was now charging sixteen dollars for a Brooklyn Lager (or was it eighteen?)—to recollect that I had in fact refused to order a drink in silent protest over such ridiculously inflated prices. And I cringe within myself to remember the night I stood at the door of Smoke and declined to take the last cramped bar seat because, in my mind, it was unreasonable to charge the same as for a table. I mean, I had every right not to go in—where the hell was I going to put my backpack overstuffed with NYC loot for starters? It’s the self-righteous anger of the oblivious consumer I cringe at, the one for whom jazz has become another fetishized commodity. Anyway, there are a number of great vignettes in his chapter, and one diatribe, by Smoke owner Frank Christopher, is so hiliariously dead-on that I was tempted to type the whole two pages into this post. (Conscious of the length to which this double review has grown, I demure.) It might be argued that cheap talent is the perennial New York problem. But that would be to ignore the elephant in the room, one that comes up over and over in this chapter, as it did in Jackson’s study: if it was always hard as hell to run a moderately profitable jazz club in New York, in the Trump era it’s become pretty much impossible. (Sometimes, when I look around at my beloved city, I can’t help but see the skyline wearing a cheesy yellow toupee, like a smog.) Smoke’s Christopher sums it up beautifully: “The musicians play for less than what they deserve and more than we can afford” (108).

It was also nice to get some horse’s-mouth downtown history, particularly the backstory of the kerfuffle around The Knitting Factory, the one-time center of avant-jazz in New York. Musicians who had performed regularly at “The Knit” up through the mid-‘90s ended up defecting over their perceived exploitation by owner Michael Dorf. Chief among them was John Zorn—apparently the whole thing finally blew up over taping a Zorn rehearsal—who then went on to open Tonic, in 1998; and, when Tonic fell victim to the Lower East Side real estate boom a decade later (and that big fugly blue hotel that opened up across the street), the spartan avant-gallery The Stone, now become a ward of academia via The New School. (I’ve written about both the latter venues in earlier posts: Tonic in “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs,” 12.7.12, and The Stone most specifically in “Master/Class” (11.23.12) and “Un/coiffed”). Nor did I know that The Stone was named after Irving and Stephanie Stone, godparents of the downtown scene. Like club owners, hard-core fans like the Stones were a rich vein for stories, observations, and commentary for Greenland, both in terms of the history of the scene and the philosophy of jazz-loving.

I similarly appreciated Greenland’s discussion of the phenomen of transcendence, which is enriched by the attention his study devotes to audience. Jackson’s, while also fascinating, is largely limited to musicians’ descriptions of the feeling, when a performance is going well, that he or she is in touch with a higher power, variously described as channeling, becoming a vessel, or the sense that “the instrument is playing itself.” Jackson also draws important cultural connections to the Black church, and the concominant role of venue and audience to creating the proper ambience. Greenland’s study takes off from here, drawing out the role his “big-eared” audiences play in facilitating transcendence. “The collective act of serious listening,” he writes, “generates palpable energy that galvanizes and guides the creative efforts of improvising musicians” (156); the audience members become “vessels for mediated transcendence” (155; my emphasis). He cites saxophonist Sedric Choukroun on the chemistry between performer and audience, “reflecting your music and surrounding you with its attention,” that allows the performer to forget him or herself, to surender the ego (165). This connection, Greenland notes, creates a “synergistic feedback loop” that “dissolves” the boundary between audience and musicians (165). (Or, as the saxophonist Joe Maneri put it, the audience becomes “another instrument” (Otumo, qtd. in Greenland 166).) The audience’s experience of transcendence similarly depends on the communal nature of the event, as Greenland sediments in a lovely quote from Matthew Somoroff: audience members “want to bring their interiority into contact with those of the musicians and other listeners, to experience an interiority that paradoxically gains intensity from its grounding in public and/or social situations of performance and audition that enable a shared feeling of ‘we-ness’” (62). There is something at once exhilirating and terrifying in this, as there is in all acts of ecstatic worship to which the practices of free jazz bring us closest (see, again, “Two Free Jazz Epitaphs”): the intensity of the tongue of flame and the bacchanal; the sacrifice, the blood ritual that lies just beneath the mask of institutionalized religion or art, straining at its boundaries, and which comes through quite clearly in the words of Irving Stone: “I’m for blood” (166).

*

For all I appreciated the depth and detail of Greenland’s work, and the space he gives to different scene members—and even as I find this mosaic view more compelling and satisfying than Jackson’s—I am not entirely persuaded, and perhaps even a little troubled, by his foregrounding of audience … which is to say, his thesis, into which I will now back the belching tractor-trailer that is this “review.” From the outset, Greenland refers to audience members as “offstage participants” who are “‘performing’ jazz”; “they constitute the unseen jazz scene, the silent and not-so-silent majority that forms an integral part of communal music-making” (34). His goal, like Jackson’s, is to broaden the musicological lens, here to the audience, who he feels has been marginalized, just as, for Jackson, African American culture has been in jazz studies. In doing so, I wonder whether he swings the pendulum too far away from the stage. It reminded me of—and perhaps my reservations are based on—the postmodern “active audience” tradition in popular music studies: the idea that the audience is not a passive vessel for whatever the culture industry wishes to pour into it, as per the Frankfurt School, but rather active creators of their own meanings from the bits and pieces said industry proffers. Admittedly, this analogy doesn’t work very well for jazz, and is particularly ill-suited to the downtown scene, where labels are tiny, musicians and venues hawk their wares after sets, and many musicians and hard-core fans are on a first-name basis. Here, industry mediation shrivels to almost nothing. Such a scene permits an intimacy and a sense of community impossible in the world of pop music.

It’s not just a question of the size of the scene. As improvised music, Greenland notes, jazz in performance is uniquely susceptible to audience influence; audience response, or merely the so-called “energy in the room” brought by a particular crowd, can shape how musicians perform, and with what sort of intensity, both of which find their way into musical parameters like duration, tempo, repetition and dynamics.

Based on these criteria, to say that the audience is part of the performance is warranted. Even in stadiums, audiences do shape performances; and both the intimacy of this scene and the nature of this music gives them an agency perhaps unparalleled in other genres of music. A musician needs sympathetic, knowledgeable, and well-trained (i.e., “big-eared”) audiences who “play their part” in the “ongoing performance” that is a music scene, just as the musicians (and club owners, and music critics, and so on) do. They (musicians) might even speak in inflated terms about the music not “being there” if not for the audience. And all this may help us to re-imagine audiences, and give them their due in a scene. It may even help us to understand more fully certain nuances of how scenes operate. But if we take such statements too literally, we end up with absurd propositions about notes falling silently because no one’s there to applaud. And to call audience members performers seems to me to speak in postmodern generalities that do more to muddle than to clarify. An audience’s role is, finally, subordinate to and tightly circumscribed by the musicians and the music. I found myself bristling at the term.

What is performance, beyond that postmodern urchin we find begging on the corner of every humanistic discipline? Jeff Schlager, the jazz “action painter” who paints two-handed during performances at the Vision Festival, and thus himself becomes an object of attention, is quite obviously performing in the traditional sense of the word, even as his product is different, its mode of consumption bifurcated. We might even extend the idea of performance to the music critic, if we want to think about writing-as-performance—though here we are getting into murkier territory. This isn’t, after all, Lester Bangs beating up his typewriter on stage at a rock concert, though my first drafts often make me feel that way. When we extend the circle wider, to people like me, who show up and put their coats on the back of their chairs, their backpacks on the floor, and open their ears … can I really claim to be performing? Yes, I am “performing” my role in the scene. I may applaud a solo I like vigorously. I may even muster a “whoo!” or “yeah!” if things are going particularly well. And I do hope the attention and energy I bring as a listener combines, in some metaphysical way, with other listeners’, and that it is captured, somehow, by the musicians. But the level of activity is at once so much less integral and so different from the music-making, that I fear lumping everything together under the rubric “performance” is to empty the word of meaning, and does a disservice to both audiences and musicians.

“When listeners perform,” Greenland writes, “and performers listen, the imaginary boundary between them dissolves, clearing the way for mutually mediated collective improvisations” (156). And, elsewhere: “Attending live concerts allows audiences to become coauthors of collective improvisations in a living jazz scene” (49). Collective improvisations? Co-authors? Really? It’s just this sort of hyperbole that makes me suspicious of the whole framework of audience agency. In other places, Greenland hedges: “By closely following artists for an extended period, fans feel they are part of history in the making, witnesses to and participants in a voyage of discovery” (52; my emphasis). Aye, there’s the rub: do we “feel” it, or are we? Are witnesses “part of history in the making,” and if so, to what degree? To what extent can witnesses be participants? How much, if at all, do we really matter?

As with the question of cultural learning, I shouldn’t leave this point without turning the analysis back on myself. I think part of what rankles me is that, as a literature person, I associate it with the rise of the “new novel” in the mid-twentieth century, a novel that was supposed to break down the wall between writer and reader, and make readers co-authors, or something like that. I always found such experiments in “breaking the wall” much more manipulative than classic fiction; instead of revolutionary, they seemed to reify the existing ideology, making audiences believe they had powers they do not. And so with music. Like certain elements of the punk scene, the downtown jazz scene may bring us closer to a differently-imagined society than any other; but we’re deluding ourselves if we think it doesn’t still largely operate according to the rules of said system, even as it tries to carve out a different niche from within. When I pick a night to go to Vision, I’m looking for Hamid Drake, and Rob Brown, and then anyone else I can fit in. Of course, the more music I want to go hear, the more I have to oil the gears of capitalism. The musicians, as Greenland quite viscerally reminds us, also need to eat.

Maybe, though, I’m blinded by the prejudices of my own discipline, and would do well to tread more lightly on the paradigms by which another organizes itself. Maybe music is something else. For what has often troubled me about all of this active-audience stuff is how it plays into the contemporary moment. It’s the disease of the internet, of the cell phone, of connectivity. Today, it seems a listener can only imagine him- or herself as a co-creator, an author, an actor … never just a listener, a reader. We have become even more the people we always were. We are bewildered by the things Siddhartha learned when he was a samana (ascetic): to think, to wait, and to fast. (Well … I’d drop fasting. For me, fasting means thinking about eating. Two out of three ain’t bad.) But if the musician, as Jackson heard from his sources, has to learn to abandon his or her own ego, and the audience, as Greenland also records, does as well—if both musician and audience are conceived as parabolic mirrors in which Music can find its perfect echo, then perhaps in music is a way out of our postmodern madness. The terms—active, agency, co-author—are illusive; it is actually an abandonment of agency by all involved. In a world almost devoid of ferrymen, everyone who gathers in such spaces to listen, including the musicians themselves, are hearing the great river of Music flowing out of Time and back into Time.

We have much to learn from that river, today more than ever!

 

* Another wonderfully resonant moment from Greenland: the old NYC dilemma of too much going on at once. Downtown stalwart Steve Dalachinsky’s quip that “it’s always the best show when you’re not there” (79) was hilariously resonant, as was Stephanie Stone’s chiding him: “He’s afraid to miss anything, so he misses a lot.” (80) My jazzhead friends have occasionally lauded me for the way I succeed in jigsawing together two sets in an evening, trying to figure out, say, if I can walk across the Village in the probable downtime between sets. But then I spent years working as a part-timer, cobbling together complex calendars of cheap and free music around the City, particularly in the summers. By the time I had a full-time job and disposable income, I was an old hand.

† Except, perhaps, by the idea that Beethoven was “black,” which a student was finally able to source for me, a documentary called Hidden Colors, which I have not found time to watch yet. It seems to imagine a Beethoven who lived in the antebellum South instead of Vienna, and who was hence subject to the one-drop rule—so much for the distinction between race and culture Jackson is so at pains to make—; this tainting of the hemoglobin presumably connects Beethoven to contemporary Black America. I understand a certain protectiveness about one’s cultural property when it has been robbed for generations. But this is a strange fantasy to be sure. It reminds me of those Mormons who find the ancestors of people who have converted to Mormonism, and then convert them (or rather, their remains) posthumously on their gravesites. I imagine these poor souls, who now have to pack up their harps and such, and move to another heavenly condo, are not terribly grateful, unless what the Mormons say is true, that their condos have all sorts of amenities the other ones don’t. I guess I would feel about the whole race-of-Beethoven argument the way at least some Jews feel about these posthumous conversions, if I didn’t find the whole thing so silly. (It also strikes me as too much beneath the spirit of Judaism for Jews to even bother kvetching about.) And anyway, what would happen to my poor Black Beethoven living in the antebellum South? I either have to imagine that he would have held his tongue when ol’ massa came by, and so was not Beethoven at all—that is, the Beethoven who told a prince there would be thousands of others like him, but only one Beethoven; who refused to bow to royalty when Goethe did, but rather pulled down his cap and kept walking; and who gave the world music as earth-shattering as the Eroica—that is, a Beethoven without ‘tude; or I have to imagine my Black Beethoven scourged to death before he published even his first piano sonatas; for he was no br’er rabbit. (He might, for all that, have passed, just as he apparently did in Vienna.)

I should backtrack a little and note this represents an interesting pendulum-swing. Once upon a time (and perhaps still, for some), it was presumed that Western classical music was the pinnacle of musical achievement, and the expectation was that anyone from any culture would appreciate its greatness (and, by extension, the relative inferiority of their “own” music) if they were properly educated. Today, the paradigm seems to be that musics can only be fully appreciated by members of the culture that produced them, and remain partly or wholly inaccessible to everyone else: a matter of degree, to a point; a matter of kind, possibly, beyond that point. By the old universalist idea, Newsome would have access to the “Tempest” to the degree that he abandoned (or ignored) the tenets of his own culture.

Another way to think about the same problem: As Western classical music aspires toward universalism, it sheds its cultural markers, and by doing so its essence (embedded, I presume, in some romantic notion of the European folk musics from which it evolved). Of course, aspiration is not reality. A conundrum: either classical music is as culturally specific as any other music, and hence as accessible or inaccessible as, say, jazz, or any other “art” music that draws on culturally-specific materials; or it is drained of any cultural specificity, and hence accessible to everyone, but only at the price of what it has lost, to become what Miles, in one of his stupider comments, called “robot shit” (and the people who play it “robots”), that is, the mechanical reproduction of a score. So: either Miles in his time at Julliard couldn’t grasp the essence of this music, which belonged to a culture to which he was incompletely assimilated or wholly unassimilated; or classical music is indeed universal or trans-cultural, but at the price of some cultural essence that gave it life.

Before leaving Newsome, I should relate a wonderful anecdote that speaks to this very question. The Jazz Museum of Harlem organized a series of performances-discussions at the Maysles Theater maybe a decade ago. For one of them, Newsome performed solo soprano sax, and then spoke and answered questions. A woman in the row in front of mine noted the variety of sounds he got out of his instrument, and that, at one point, he was mimicking the drawing of a bow across strings. I don’t remember Newsome’s words, but I do remember his smile. Was it that the woman, who was “white,” came to the music with a different cultural preparation, and this allowed her to hear something in Newsome’s playing that many African American audience members might not? (Even when the bow comes out in traditional jazz, it is used with much more pluck than draw; my ignorance about other/later Black American music prevents me from generalizing.) Suffice to say the more widely and deeply we have listened, the more resonant any music will become to us; and the more we listen to what each of us has to say about what we hear, more still.

One last note: my cultural familiarity with the “Tempest” comes via the circuitous route of the Europeanized Argentinian intellectualism of the mid-twentieth century in which my parents were acculturated, and my father’s training as a pianist. Does that get me any “closer” to early nineteenth-century Vienna than Newsome? If so, how much? And why do I presume, based on Newsome’s skin color, that he himself didn’t come from a household in which classical music was listened to and/or performed? If either of us wants to really hear Beethoven, we still have to open ourselves, to make the imaginative leap, to listen. (By the time you’ve read the end of this footnote, you’ve probably read the bit about Hawthorne above, so … I’m being redundant.)

Footnote to the footnote: While I’m capable of imagining an affinity with jazz based on cultural origins regardless of whether the listener is “familiar with the music,” as Newsome suggests, I do have to point to the irony captured so well in #116 of Stuff White People Like: “Black music that black people no longer listen to.”

§ Interestingly, many players noted you have to be apprenticed to a master musician to really “get” the music. I am unclear why this wouldn’t happen inside conservatories, where so many master musicians now reside, though it’s true some of Jackson’s interviewees argue that conservatories, like the scholarly writing on jazz, have downplayed the role of African Americans. That acknowledged, there seems to be a weird romantic holdover about jazz being about the road and the speakeasy, just like hip hop is supposed to be about the ghetto.

** Based on record sales, European jazz musicians should live as hand-to-mouth as their American jazz counterparts. The difference is that European countries are more generous about funding their arts. I remember seeing a depressing article in the Times about this some years ago, suggesting the Euro jazz artists are pampered by their governments. As usual, the mainstream of American thought can only imagine extending American austerity for arts and culture to other countries, rather than trying to adopt a more robust approach to funding our own—a perfect example of the blindness of ideology.

†† In this regard, it might be helpful if Jackson noted what elements of the “blues aesthetic” are shared by music more generally. Transcendence is a big one. I still remember a story told by my junior high school music teacher, Mr Babbitt. (My parents thought he was beneath us because he liked The Beatles, which is probably a better indicator than anything else I could ever say of the musical environment in which I was raised.) In the story, a conductor was using a cane or staff to beat time with the music. This man was so enraptured that he didn’t realize until after the symphony was over that he was driving the cane through his own foot. Apocryphal? Probably. But that such a story exists—and dozens, if not hundreds of poems, and philosophical treatises about the sublimity of the musical experience—makes me wonder how this particular aesthetic might overlap with aesthetics more broadly.

§§ It’s true that audio recordings are a partial and biased representation of musical events which leave out much of what is most central to the musical experience. But how much less mediated are live performances? How “authentic” are they, and how much that happens there is really spontaneous? There seems to be a festishization of spontaneity here, which is imagined to happen in live performance. It may be more likely to happen live than in a soundbooth, but …. As Miles once noted, it was rare that he came up with something entirely new when he played live.

*** I still remember a set I went to in the late ‘90s, during the year or two Ron Affif’s Monday night sets at the Zinc (when the Zinc was still on Houston) were the preferred venue for passing musicians to sit in with him and Essiet Essiet and Jeff “Tain” Watts. There was one night that was so insanely good—I can’t remember who else showed up, or if it was just the three of them, which was usually more than enough—that I walked up the stairs to Houston Street, and Essiet was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk saying, “That was a great set. That was a great set,” as if he hadn’t yet figured out a way to come back down to the quotidian reality of New York: the honking traffic, the groups of Jerseyites going from bar to bar, the night breeze swaying the branches of the few sidewalk trees. And we were only a few steps beneath him in feeling the un-reality of the New York night, compared to the intensity of what we had just experienced. We thanked him. He looked at us. I am not sure he even registered us. I think he did. It hardly matters. The point: Jackson went to zillions of shows in the nineties, and I’m sure was lucky enough to see more than a handful of sets like this one. Where are they? Where are the musicians and audience members whose experiences are written on their faces, in their bodies, in their gestures, imprinted on the city around them?

Left Unsaid

What to do when, returning from the restroom after the early set of Dave Holland’s quartet at Birdland, you find Mr. Holland himself occupying the bar stool next to yours? Sit there and fidget, of course. Allow the window of opportunity to close, and the guy sitting on his other side to grab his ear. Then, sulk into your coffee, thinking about all the things you could have been saying to Dave Holland.

There sat I, preparing those few, perfect, penetrating words, those well-sifted nuggets of wit, those giant squids of wisdom—things that would reveal me as neither nerdy starfucker nor blithering idiot. Things that, upon hearing them, Holland would grab my shoulder, and look deep into my eyes, and say: “Helldriver. You get it. Of all the pathetic rabble here, typified by this guy on the other side of me yabbing my ear off, you’re the only one who understands my music. And not just understands: you’re able to articulate it in such a pithy, tuneful way. The Bard could do no better.”

And so, writing and erasing phrases and sentences in my head, my time, my historic opportunity to actually speak to Dave Holland, slipped away.

Bars are for raconteurs. And blogs? One can always aspire. Which is why, rather than talking to Holland at Birdland, I find myself sitting at my computer, talking to the Holland in my head.

There he is, in his black leather vest and blue buttondown, elbows resting on the bar, shoulders hunched. His white beard is trimmed to the length of his hair, his energy bespeaks a man well younger than his years. The bartender, miraculously nimble, shakes and mixes. Ice tinkles; the maitre d’ stalks by. A couple of men rise and tug on their still-wet rain jackets. Holland’s drink arrives. Staring into my coffee, I wait for the right moment to elbow him softly in the ribs.

*

H.D.: “Dave? Dave Holland?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Man, that was a hell of a set! You weren’t kidding when you said you guys’ve been having fun!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “You know, there’s two things I associate with Thanksgiving: turkey, and you. No relation, obviously. You’re what Broadway Danny Rose called a perennial.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, I beg to differ. Turkey may be better or worse from one year to the next, but you, you just get better. You know what, though. This year? I think you might’ve painted yourself into a corner. Seriously. But then all those cats you bring back with you—Potter, and at least one of the Eubanks brothers, and anybody near as good as Eric Harland—they get better every year, too. [Sotto voce] Hey, just FYI: you’re almost the only reason I drag my ass to Birdland. Their programming sort of sucks, if you’ll pardon moi. What can you do, with all these Broadway theaters around.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Doubtless. You gotta feel the love, though, if people are coming out to hear you in this weather. Of course, you’re from England, this is probably dry for you …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “They do look like cats in the rain! Speaking of cats: I see you traded Robin for Kevin, and mixed Chris back in. You know that Extended Play: Live at Birdland disc you put out maybe a dozen years back, with Robin and Chris on it? The title is spot-on. If you could wear out a CD like a record, just by playing it over and over, I swear, that thing would be trashed. It would sound like a car driving on rims! Sometimes I feel like running that disc up and down a cheese grater, just to make it show how many times I’ve listened to it. Crazy, right? If only discs would wear properly!”

D.H.: “???”

H.D.: “Yeah, but I like the hard copy. Sounds better. Looks nice. Listen, Dave. How does this sound: joyous noise. I mean, to describe the sound of this band. Joyous noise! Eh? And this … wait, let me look at what else I scribbled on the back page of my little book here …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I know, remember this? It was huge in the ‘60s. Just a few years before you started playing with Miles. Miles going electric was probably as much a part of the Zeitgeist as McLuhan was.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, he’s basically saying that new technology, by changing the patterns and pace of life, changes the way people process the world. In the electronic age, people stop thinking separately and serially—words across a page—and start thinking simultaneously. And collectively. He’s sort of guru-y, I mean, he kind of relies more on repetition than making a logical argument. Maybe he’s trying to dramatize his own thesis. But, you know, I’ve started to wonder if he’s right, if that’s why nobody reads anymore …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I guess it is sort of like jazz. Everyone in the band linked to everyone else, thinking together. He’s imagining a whole society that way, ‘wired’ together by radio, TV … and now the net. But yeah, he’d probably make a similar argument about the changes in music post-World War II. Like the stuff you were playing tonight: it was definitely more static than other stuff of yours I’ve heard—more like electric Miles in some ways. And the band feels leaderless, in a good way. Like everyone’s contribution is on the same level. Potter and Eubanks aren’t any more prominent than you are, or Obed for that matter—he certainly didn’t wait to step into the spotlight! Guy’s a freight train. Makes Tain look tame.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Sorry, you’re right, the whole jazz-as-democracy thing has been done to death. Hey: do you remember saying once, on this very stage, that you hoped people were going to support Obama? Were you early that year? I was wondering … is that why you only said a few words at the beginning of the set? You were afraid you were going to let loose about the election?”

D.H.: “@#$%&!!”

H.D.: “Easy, Dave! Don’t make me say Brexit! Brexit Brexit Brexit! There, I said it!”

D.H.:”%$#@!”

H.D.: “Man, they’re going to throw us out of this place! And you still have another set to play! …. Seriously, though—I love that you guys played straight through like that, with only a few pauses, no words. I’m sure the Birdlanders appreciated it, too—you know, us Amer’cans want to make sure we get our money’s worth! More bang for the buck! No, really, it felt very organic. That’s part of what made it seem so totally cooperative. Well, maybe not entirely …”

D.H.: “???”

H.D.: “I’m thinking of that blues lick Kevin came up with. He didn’t have to move his left hand at all to play it, right? But you were jumping halfway across the neck! Which you did effortlessly, by the way, or it sure seemed that way. I thought it was only horn players who could mess with bassists that way, not guitarists. You’ve played with enough of ’em to know.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “That’s funny, I didn’t think of him at all. You know who I did think of, listening to you tonight? Jaco. I’ve never thought of Jaco before, listening to you. Maybe it was all the harmonics—you know, ‘Portrait of Tracy,’ ‘Onkonkole y Trompa,’ that stuff on his first solo record. Beautiful. But it wasn’t just you; Kevin, he sounded like Hiram Bullock! Maybe partly because this band, like you said, sans Potter, was originally a power trio, I thought of those ‘punk jazz’ recordings from the late ‘80s, N.Y.C., with Jaco and Bullock, and Kenwood Denner on drums. Man, I really love Eubanks’s sound: hyper-distorted, breathy, lots of noise; and then, out of this ambient cloud of distortion, he’ll just strangle out these runs that cut you. I like how he’ll shift between sludgy power chords and funk progressions. The tunes are all really open, too, so they gave him plenty of room to wail.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Oh, c’mon, what’s wrong with ‘power trio’? It’s a compliment. I’m a power-trio junkie. I could live on nothing but power trios. Well, power trios and Nanaimo bars. I already wrote it down, anyway, so there. Hey, what about this: Holland’s band plays a rambunctious world music. (It’s good I read this shit back to myself—half the time I can’t read my own handwriting later on. Club’s too dark to be writing in anyway. Pencil’s dull, too. And look at how shitty the paper is, you can’t even dog-ear a page without breaking it.)”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Okay, okay, ‘world music’ is sort of a cop-out term. But there was something so … primal about it. I mean, some of what Potter was playing? They weren’t runs; they were calls. I could almost believe he was gonna make it stop raining. And Obed …!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I guess I’m trying to capture what seems different about this band’s sound. Usually, your compositions sound like—now don’t take this the wrong way—sound like really sophisticated cop-show music …”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Yeah, I like Streets of San Francisco, too, but I was thinking more The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. The original, obviously, with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Like, if Pelham was directed by Michael Haneke. No, wait: scratch that. I hate when arts writers do that shit—‘it’s like so-and-so baking a cake with so-and-so in an oven made by so-and-so, and then running it over with so-and-so’s SUV’ … man, I hate that shit.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Oh, I’m glad you hate that shit too!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “You know, for a figment of my imagination, you can be remarkably uncooperative. And I resent the suggestion that I’m throwing out names as a smokescreen for my own critical inadequacies.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “[Sigh] You’re right, I did say ‘show.’ Some people in the U.S. say ‘show’ when they mean ‘movie.’ I usually don’t, it’s sort of a Rocky Mountain thing. But to get back to the, ahem, rambunctious world? Obed. I loved the vocalizing—mouth and drum. He makes his toms sound like talking drums. Or does he have one back there? Look, you can’t see the drums hardly at all from this side of the bar, at least where they’re set up tonight. This one night, though, I timed it right, got a seat on the other side of the bar, and the drums were set up so that I could watch Rudy Royston from behind the kit. It was like taking a master class. Unbelievable. From here, though, you have to sit up just to see the cymbals over the bottles. And Kevin, I could only see the back of his left hand—see him not move it on that lick. You know, the one time I got to see John McLaughlin, he was playing electric, Dennis Chambers was on drums—you can just imagine what those two sounded like going head-to-head—at The Bottom Line. The Bottom Line was kind of a shitty place to see music—historic, but shitty—historically shitty, maybe—I don’t know if you ever got a chance to play there. No? Bully for you. Anyway, I was sitting way over on the right. My one chance to see McLaughlin, and he played half turned away from me the whole night. I couldn’t see his hands at all!”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Yes! What a band that was! Did you ever see the movie they made about the Isle of Wight festival?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, don’t bother. At least, if you want to see yourself. They gave maybe thirty seconds to Miles’s band. I think you appear for like two seconds, and John for two, and Chick, and Jack, and then the camera swoops out, and that’s it. The Hendrix footage is decent—better than Woodstock’s. You know what, though. These cats you’re playing with tonight? I think they could hold their own against any band Miles put together.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “I know I’m digressing. I’m making a valiant effort to bring this back on point. But I didn’t have that much to say in the first place, and this is a mock-up of a bar conversation. Besides, I have to fill all this white space, and I have all these little black marks to use.”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “No, I don’t really know why. I just have to. Why do you have to make all those notes?”

D.H.: “…”

H.D.: “Well, you better drink up, then, I’ll get the next round. No? Next Thanksgiving, then? Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to stay for the second set. But I live in a land far, far away. Besides, I have start writing, before you and everything else disappears.”

 

This post is dedicated to Rupert Pupkin.

Un/coiffed

1

“Where the future is present.”

So reads the banner hanging above the bandstand at New York’s venerable, vital Jazz Gallery. A place where talented young musicians can be mentored to carry forward the jazz tradition? Or a place where cutting-edge new music can be fearlessly presented to the public? Actually, both interpretations fit the Gallery well, though the two do not always sit easily with each other.

Alto saxophonist Patrick Bartley, whose Dreamweaver Society sextet played the Gallery a few Thursdays ago, also fits nicely with either interpretation. On the one hand, he is the founder of the J-music ensemble, a cross of jazz with Japanese pop and the ur-popular (among younger folk) aesthetics of anime and video games. On the other hand, he boasts an impressive resume of sidework with jazz veterans like Mulgrew Miller and Wynton Marsalis, on the latter of whose HBO YoungArts Masterclass he appeared, to much acclaim. Recording by seventeen, a Grammy nomination already under his belt, Bartley is the model young lion. He even looks a bit lion-like in his photo on the J-music website, with neatly-arranged beard and dreadlocks: a contemplative, serious young man, staring meaningfully off at some horizon.

The Jazz Gallery is currently located in midtown, on the fifth floor of a crotchety old office building, entered solely by way of a crotchety old elevator. (I’m sure they were priced out of their original second-floor, stairwell-accessible Hudson Street digs. At least they didn’t move to Brooklyn.) The elevator is festooned with warning signs: no more than five people at a time; do not jump, or the elevator will come to an emergency stop; if it does, here is a list of procedures to get yourself rescued before having to resort to eating your fellow passengers/your own foot/etc. It is also—almost needless to add—dreadfully slow.

So imagine my consternation a few Thursdays ago when, just as the elevator was arriving, a group of dapper, laughing young gentlemen breezed into the entranceway and proceeded to fill the car well past the capacity enjoined by the signs. No matter how edible they looked, I didn’t want to get stuck in the elevator with them: I ducked out and waited for the next car.

It was only on reaching the fifth floor that I realized they were the band. And it was only some fifteen minutes later, when they got up to perform, that I realized just how goddamn young they all were. Not a one older than 25, some maybe still in school, at least some of whom (including tenor player Xavier del Castillo and drummer Evan Sherman) had attended the Manhattan School of Music with Bartley.

The set was clearly intended to introduce Bartley as a composer and bandleader, and to this effect the pieces seemed chosen to demonstrate his range, from the Coltrane-inspired E-flat blues that led off the set (I thought particularly of “Chasin’ the Trane”), to the Mingusy, color-accented follow-up, the trio-only interlude that gave Bartley a chance to burn on tenor, and the couple of more pop-sounding ballads that closed the set. Bartley is a charismatic bandleader who plays his alto with an almost eerie effortlessness. His tone on that instrument is strong, almost biting, his solos nervy and technically dazzling. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Dolphyisms that squeaked out of his horn, particularly on the blues—enough, one might think, to make Wynton nervous. By and large, the sextet was well-utilized throughout—showcasing the fine band was as much a part of the evening as showcasing Bartley; only the guitar felt a bit vestigial. With a band this big, the de rigeur merry-go-round of solos could have turned into a lead balloon … so I was relieved that, after the blues—that is, after each of the musicians had a chance to introduce himself—the tunes became more economical in their arrangements; while the trio around the set’s midpoint made a nice palate-cleanser for the second half. There was much apparent chemistry and comfort between the two saxes, too, though their combination was sometimes flummoxed by a mellifluous, Lawrence Welk-sounding harmony.*

In terms of sheer energy, a young jazz band can outstrip even the most inspired veteran, and that often makes up for whatever failings you might identify with some critical distance, or just sourness of temper. The word that best describes it is exuberance; it arises, I would guess, from a sort of heedlessness about … well, about basically everything. The opening blues that evening was just such a nitro-burst of energy, propelled forward partly by nerves, I would guess, and partly by the familiar terrain offered by the blues themselves. Del Castillo was practically headbanging during Bartley’s solo, and Bartley himself wasn’t far behind when del Castillo, after an introduction of thoughtful, tentative pokes, like he was on a first date with his reed, found his voice and really started to blow. Watching them, I thought, Man, these guys could go all night. The thought had a tinge of (vicarious, nostalgic) eroticism. I mean, I couldn’t help thinking how cute they all were, del Castillo in particular, in his grey suit, with his hair not-quite-tidily pulled back; when he hit the sweet notes on his tenor, his eyebrows would do this funny thing, turn up and straighten out, so they looked penciled in.

But then this was their night on the town. Bartley surely has experience dressing up for Wynton & Co., and at least two of his sidemen, drummer Sherman and guitarist Gabe Schnider, have built similarly impressive resumes. I myself was particularly taken by pianist Mathis Jaona Jolan Picard. What a touch, and what a presence. A series of trilling figures down the keys on the blues was as perfect as anything I’ve heard of any pianist, of any age: a model of space and light; and his Jaki Byard-style comping on the high end of the keyboard was equally on-target. They have all already achieved remarkable things. Still, I couldn’t help feeling they had come to the Gallery this evening dressed up as the professionals, as the men, they were still in the throes of becoming.

Now, I know a band can’t really sustain the millennial exuberance of that blues for a whole evening; as a writer friend I have surely quoted before would put it, the “lights” can’t always be “on.” But there were aspects of the performance that unnecessarily turned the lights off. For example, Bartley’s propensity to chatter between songs. It’s natural enough for the music an artist writes to be sparked by something in his or her personal/musical life; the monicker for the sextet, “Original music inspired by dreams, fantasies, stories and images from childhood to present,” suggested as much. So why belabor the obvious? It’s different, of course, if one has been in the business for a long time and has a knack for storytelling (like Max Roach did), or one’s storytelling becomes a performance in itself (like Roy Haynes’s does, not always for the better), or one is just fabulously articulate (e.g., Joshua Redman). True, Miles himself was taken to task for never saying anything at all. And the parameters for how much to say may have shifted vis-a-vis the pathology of sharing endemic to the internet. With Bartley, though, I got the uneasy impression that he was practicing the sort of between-song banter that might be expected of him in his artistically well-heeled future. Maybe it shouldn’t have made me uneasy; after all, cultivating a public persona, finding one’s comfort zone for engaging with the audience, is part of maturing as an artist.

But then this might have struck me only in retrospect, after the penultimate tune, “The Heart of the Beholder.” During his solo, Bartley began some very practiced head-swinging, the antithesis of that headbanging on the blues, such that no dread threatened to escape from within his becomingly beige cap. No ecstacy, performed or otherwise. No sonic payoff (like the fade-in-and-out effect Branford Marsalis gets when he starts rocking in front of a mic, or the Hammond-like sound John Zorn gets when he turns side to side, blowing like a foghorn). Not even much in the way of spectacle. It actually reminded me of a live recording I heard once on BGO, I think it was of Joshua Redman. Every time he hit a high note, a cheer would go up from the crowd, like for a victorious gladiator. Tonight, the cheers were off somewhere in the future; I felt like I was watching a dress rehearsal for fame-to-be.

Anyway, I’m happy to blame it on that Grammy gig with the Dave Matthews Band.

Maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling that the bandstand had somehow been drained of its earlier vitality. On that penultimate number, during the guitar solo, Bartley made a point of looking at his watch. Twice, in fact. Looking at your watch during someone else’s solo suggests … well, a lack of enthusiasm. I didn’t entirely disagree with Bartley; of the sextet, I was least enthused by the guitar’s contribution, which sounded long on effects and somewhat short on ideas—my own prejudice, perhaps; never much cared for Frisell, either. But then I’m not the bandleader, with all the responsibilities that entails, like making sure the musicians look good (check), and keeping time—that is, if the club doesn’t do it for you—which, it must be admitted, can be to the music’s detriment, as sets are sometimes cut short to get the crowds in and out. Not that I can imagine the Jazz Gallery ever doing this; they’re not that kind of venue. Now, if a bandleader wants to express dissatisfaction with a particular member, looking at his watch seems like a viable way to do it. But for all his going-places demeanor, Bartley doesn’t seem like the sacking type. So what do bandleaders do when members solo? Close their eyes, nod (or bang) their heads, smile (check, check, check) … and maybe stand off to the side, even a little offstage, to check the time. (And yet, Miles again was taken to task for leaving the stage when his sidemen soloed. The pitfalls of bandleading!)

Though I appreciated the opportunity to hear the diversity of Bartley’s compositional palette as much as his prowess as a soloist, such a carefully-ordered parade might also have contributed to the deflating: like a graduating performance or competition, intended to please judges, faculty. Like them, it was a little too coiffed. The best thing about listening to these musicians over the next couple of decades will be hearing them steadily un-coiff themselves: as they stop thinking about their blindingly bright futures, and those first hairs fall out, and their beards get that touch of grey, and their bellies can’t quite be secured behind their coat-buttons. Of course, you can dress like a motherfucker and still let it all hang out musically; but first you’ve got to be comfortable with the pull under your arms and the tightness in your collar, the unreachable itch in the middle of your back. Then and only then can the music find a way out of your clothes.

2

About an hour after listening to Bartley’s sextet at the Gallery, I walked in on a quiet little pow-wow at The Stone. It might have been a sobremesa in some old artist’s parlor that I suddenly found myself semi-eavesdropping on. Marty Ehrlich was among them, as I realized a little later on—unlike with Bartley’s band, there was no sartorial riser separating musicians from audience. I recognized him when he went over to his bass clarinet and played a scale, perhaps an illustration of something he was saying. It’s enough just to hear the rich, still unjustly rare tone of the bass clarinet in a space as small as The Stone to be entranced.

It was Ehrlich’s sextet on the bill that night, just the latest in a remarkably fecund last few months at The Stone. I can’t remember a time since The Stone opened that I’ve been there as continuously. Week-long residencies by Joe Morris and Nels Cline (who managed to get Dave Rempis’s ass out to New York) and Susie Ibarra (so nice to see her again; I think the last time was at the Noguchi, more than a decade ago); and that month-long celebration of Steve Coleman’s sixtieth, yowza. This week belonged to Ehrlich, and this night, to the music of Andrew Hill, with whom Ehrlich and one of his sidemen, trumpeter Ron Horton, had worked in the late ‘90s/ early ‘00s. (Hence the presence of the bass clarinet: Eric Dolphy was also a Hill collaborator, and one of the personnel on Point of Departure.)

When set-time came the band didn’t march up in a bunch to the clearing that serves as The Stone’s stage, as they do in places like the Vanguard (or, for that matter, the Jazz Gallery), so much as bleed into it, man by man. The announcement was little more than a reminder to turn off cell phones and not take pictures without permission. Ehrlich called down to the basement (where the musicians usually lounge between sets) to tell someone to “take his time”; and this person, who turned out to be the drummer, clearly took him at his word: the band played the first couple of tunes as a percussionless quintet. A relaxed attitude toward the music, to be sure—which is in no way to say an unprofessional one. It came through, too, in the lack of a dress code, and in the informal, easy manner among the musicians, and between the musicians and audience.

The quintet-cum-sextet played a mostly relaxed and rather sweet set, too, with gorgeous, thick harmonies carried on by the horn trio on the front line, ravishing, once again, in a club The Stone’s size, and perhaps most redolent in the opening number, an elegy for Ornette Coleman that Ehrlich composed shortly after the great altoist’s death, the only piece of his own that evening. Though Ehrlich tended to let the whole band say their piece on every Hill tune, the solos were brief enough—never more than a few choruses—that they went by with Bird-like swiftness, and, interestingly, with less display, both harmonic and technical, than those of their younger counterparts at the Gallery. Bassist Dean Johnson might be the exception here; the sliding figures he used to knit together his wonderful solos brought into relief a certain understatement in the playing of Marty Jaffe, the very adept bassist of Bartley’s sextet, though this might be a matter of compositional temperament, i.e., where in an ensemble the bandleader “hears” the bass.

Who were these un-coiffed men? Don’t take this the wrong way, but: a bunch of old white guys, the youngest of whom was my age, the rest in their late fifties and early sixties. The contrast with the diversity of Bartley’s young band was striking, at least in hindsight. As for the generation gap, it is perhaps best expressed by their web presences: Bartley’s sidemen have a mix of websites (two), SoundClouds, and, most prominently, Facebook pages. Ehrlich’s all have websites. Not surprising: they are all widely-recorded area musicians and composers; three hold academic posts, a fourth routinely teaches at jazz workshops. In other words, they are the very sorts of people who the members of Bartley’s sextet were or are taking their classes from. In this regard, the question of race becomes particularly intriguing. It isn’t as though Ehrlich hasn’t played with a diverse who’s-who throughout his long career, Hill among them; or that African Americans are unrepresented in jazz academia (although perhaps under-represented, if other disciplines are any indication); or that New York’s “creative music” scene is not and has not always been diverse (although, again, one wonders whether crossovers with the academically-ensconced schools of contemporary classical and electronic music changes the complexion of this music community … but perhaps only to buttress its diversity, as the number of Asians would attest). The photographs blanketing the north wall of The Stone might be enough to lay to rest questions about diversity. In a country that is anything but post-racial, as the recent election so aptly reminded us, perhaps jazz, in the globe-trotting, genre- and culture-mixing transformations of its last few decades … perhaps jazz is?

I wouldn’t venture to say that anyone in Ehrlich’s band doesn’t “see” color (which always seems like the first clause in a racially-charged statement), or, for that matter, ethnicity, or culture. Ehrlich himself has made some brilliant recordings for Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series. But I don’t think anyone asks anymore whether a “white” player (who is unlikely today to have an uncomplicated belief in or relationship to “whiteness,” to riff on Ta-Nahesi Coates) is “qualified” to play or teach jazz. That said, it is an interesting, ongoing historical wrinkle that “white” instructors train a diverse cadre of young musicians in what is in essence an African American tradition. Have we moved beyond questions of theft and ownership, beyond the mirror-image diatribes of Miles Davis and Art Pepper? Perhaps never entirely; but for a niche audience like this one, where connection to the music happens through tiny labels and intimate live performances, probably more here than anywhere else. (Tradition cannot “belong” to anyone, true … but alas, record companies and venues can. (N.B.: I’m done with the scare quotes now.))

I’m also intrigued by something else: that the older cats gathered at The Stone to perform music in a more radical, less traditional (albeit mellower) vein than the younger cats at the Jazz Gallery. If the latter are perhaps still steeped in the canon—including the early avant garde one Ehrlich paid tribute to—and a bit blinded by their own bright futures, the Associate Professors in Ehrlich’s band don’t need to ponder their futures much, at least beyond the next project, and maybe a last promotion, an emeritus title. Comfortable in their professionalism, they can afford to be rumpled. This generalization can’t be too neatly mapped onto generations, let alone “races” (oops); but I do think it points to something funny about the state of so-called creative music more than a half-century after those first mavericks started to play so-called free jazz. To what extent do spaces like The Stone (and even more, events like the Vision Festival) exist to memorialize an earlier radicalism, the rupture of the once-unpalatably new, in a more conservative/ neoliberal age? To what extent do they exist to present the newest music? To what extent, that is, does The Stone play museum to the Jazz Gallery’s gallery? (The role of the artist as curator of a week’s exhibit at The Stone is particularly suggestive.) To what extent is the Gallery’s calendar a better indicator of “the future of music” than The Stone’s? Or are both niches equally unrepresentative of “the future of music,” as the oxymoronically tiny crowds for both gigs would seem to attest? (At this rate, it won’t be the future for long.) It seems logical that the situation of such music today would mirror a similar predicament in radical politics—the reason, perhaps, one feels like an exhibit at every protest, framed by police barricades, watched like a reality show by the inhabitants of a strange, disheartening America I can no longer even attempt to fathom. Some days, I feel caught between an older generation mired in ‘60s nostalgia and a younger one bereft of the cultural preparation to think beyond the terms dictated by the prevailing ideology: the essence of Gen X middle-agedom.

So. Ehrlich, the grey-haired academic, gathered with his begowned colleagues to play a set that began with an elegy, and then went on to memorialize the music of another dead man: a dinosaur exhibiting relics in a museum. What, you say, could be more thoroughly dead? Explain to me, then, why the music, like so much of Ehrlich’s recent work, sounded fresh and vital, at once reflective and spontaneous; why this place called The Stone continues, despite its name, to re-engage with the spirit of music’s present, wherever its future and past might be.

Toward the end of the set, Ehrlich looked at his watch to see if they had time for one more. They did, a short one. He said little else, besides the names of his bandmates, the dedicatee of the first tune. Certainly nothing personal—nothing, that is, except with his horn, which said everything that needed to be said.

 

* I don’t know if it was the particular harmony, or the combination of instruments, or something about the players’ approach. But this seems to require an explanation, a … justification. It’s often the case that people studying for their doctoral exams fall into some weird obsession or other to mitigate the day-in day-out mental strain of study. One friend, for example, got completely obsessed with Scandinavian black metal—unironically, he assured me. Another became an aficionado of European soccer. For me, it was The Lawrence Welk show. Utah being what it is, Lawrence Welk aired weekly, I think on the BYU station, right around my bedtime. I cannot claim, like my Scandinavian death metal-listening friend, that my appreciation for Lawrence Welk was unironic, or in any way deeply felt, as the other’s surely was for Real Madrid. But I would call it mesmerizing, and eye-opening as well. It’s a good way to take yourself out of your contemporary context, and confront a facet of the once(-and-future?) America, or rather the America that some wish(ed) for, with eyes tightly closed and heels clicking.

Elastic

milesSome years ago, while I was trawling YouTube for vids to show my Writing About Music class, I dug up a clip from one of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts from the early ’60s. These were educational programs presented and televised with the purpose of introducing the youth of the day to classical music. The youth could have asked for no better guide than the charismatic Bernstein. Somehow, though, whenever the camera deigns to look at the crowd, it finds the faces of sullen, pimpled preteens slouching dutifully next to their parents. Watching, all I could think was, “In a few years, these kids are going to be dropping acid and screwing in the mud at Woodstock.” In my mind, the black-and-white of TV’s childhood morphed into the meridianal colors of the summer of love. If you want to see an image of the end of an era in embryo, you can’t do better than these youthful faces in the crowd.

Alternatively, if you want to listen to the end of an era, put on Miles Davis’s near-concurrent (1964) concert recorded at New York’s Philharmonic (Avery Fisher) Hall. Originally released as two separate records that divided ballads (My Funny Valentine) from “burners” (Four & More) in 1965 and ’66, respectively, jazz yin and yang were eventually re-bundled, if not re-ordered—the integrity of recordings commanding a respect that the integrity of performance apparently does not—as The Complete Concert. It is something of an irony that the Concert is regarded as a good “gateway” record for budding jazzophiles. True that, unlike Kind of Blue, the Concert is not the jazz record everybody buys, and then never buys (or even hears) another. Also true that, like what Robinson Crusoe salvages for his lonely island, the Concert could serve as the cornerstone on which to build, if not a society, then at least a collection. (That it is a double album makes it even more like Crusoeian; a box set, or better yet an iPod, would really capture the spirit of that text.) It is, in fact, the first jazz recording I ever owned. The irony is that I—and apparently so many others—would begin at the end: with a record that was tearing up and rewriting the old rules, laying the foundation not just for a new phase in Miles’s protean career, but for jazz.

Of course, I didn’t hear that at the time. I couldn’t have. I’m sure what I admired was the energy and brilliance of the playing. Even if Collin Fleming’s characterization of the burners as “speed-metal, punk, thrash-jazz” (on NPR) is more than a bit of an overstatement, it’s probably a good indicator of why this record grabbed me so hard at the time. But without context, it would have been impossible for me to hear what makes it at once culmination and transition. What I have elsewhere called archaeologies of listening—the ways in which we access and interact with the sedimentary layers where a genre, work, or recorded artifact fits into our overall listening history—determines much, if not all, of what we are able to hear. In the same way I could not hear Paco de Lucia as a flamenco guitarist until I was familiar with the forms and history of that music—when I was a teenager, he was just another fusion monster—so there was no way I could hear the boldness of this record until the jazz firmament was clearer to me, the other stars in this and neighboring constellations visible. Even more, albums that we hear at certain times in our lives, particularly influential ones, become mired in the moment, trapped in the amber of emotional memory, so that it is difficult to hear our way outside of our original contact with them. And then, even after we have acquired the adequate contexts for listening, our own ossified associations discourage us from hearing them in these contexts. Whereas a Miles album that is new to me is fairly easily “placeable,” this one resists being tugged from the shell that nostalgia has secreted around it.

But then a few months ago, after a number of years without hearing it, I put this album on, and those old tunes suddenly sounded new to me. My ear unsettled them, and I heard it, for the first time: the cuspiness, the intimation of a break. It is in fact right there, always has been, in the brilliance and energy of the playing I originally admired. The Complete Concert is still a desert island disc for me, insofar as that old fantasy still has meaning in the age of Pandora and Spotify (asks Crusoe, “Can I get a signal here?”). It’s just a different island.*

Perhaps it was the particular nostalgia that developed around this record, a “first,” that made it so difficult to hear it as one of the most anti-nostalgic albums ever recorded. Listening to it now, it couldn’t be more obvious the way the playing is bursting at the seams, taking all the pillows from Miles’s career—his standard repertoire, his approach and his sound throughout the ‘50s—and pullin’ the stuffin’ out of them. The musicians, with the partial exception of George Coleman, play around and with the tunes rather than in them. There is so much room in the sound they create. It is as though, with the revolutions of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, whatever Miles might have thought of them—and he didn’t think much—the artificiality of the old language had been revealed. But what to the free jazz player appeared solid and breakable became, in the hands of this quintet, fluid, elastic. And so, everyone holding an end, they stretch, and pull, their impulse not to dismantle, but—standing from points beyond, outside—to speak in a new way. In this respect, I suppose the Concert could be called a dialogic record, as much as it is a prophetic one: the replacement of George Coleman by Wayne Shorter,§ the move (as Gary Giddins notes) to more open compositional forms, and to new instrumentation, including electronic keyboards, and then electronics more broadly, funk, and fusion.

*

The first thing you hear from Miles, after a brief piano introduction by Herbie Hancock, is the breathy 1-2-minor 3 figure announcing the melody of “My Funny Valentine.” It repeats, the notes pushed out, like the horn is a bellows; then it ascends, crescendo, to a peak that hangs wavering for what seems an impossibly long time, before disappearing. If you know the version of “Valentine” on Cookin’ from a little under a decade before, all you can think of is the difference in scale: how much thinner is the (muted) tone on the earlier recording, how much more spacious the horn here; the resolve, the confidence on which such a brazen, unaccompanied climb must be founded. It is an unforgettable entrance. And it tells us a few things: that melodies are to be pontificated, sidled into, pilfered; that dynamics are key. Timbre and ornamentation soon take their place beside dynamics: notes are crushed and bitten off, inflated until they explode, or deflated until they vanish. They are pushed off cliffs, or slid into oblivion. And it isn’t just his horn Miles controls this way, but his band. They can swing as hard at a whisper as at a shout; and when they all arrive together, as they do—once again, unforgettably, a few minutes into “My Funny Valentine”—and Miles peals that split note, man, they’re all there. Part of it, of course, is that they take their sweet time. Over the song’s thirteen minutes, the rhythm section will fall in and out, swing will turn to bossa and back to swing, but without ever losing their sense of center or direction, their Ariadnian thread.

As with the melodies, so with the solos. On “Valentine,” drunken guffawing; pokes and scoops that again emphasize dynamics; repeated bleats, sometimes even shrieks; hooked-down notes. On “All of You,” a bird-call will to play the same riffs a few times before tagging some note and moving forward; on “Stella by Starlight,” flight-of-the-bumblebee trills, clips and whines. Those forever-sustained notes, like Miles is balancing something on his nose—and then a popping staccato. It’s this oscillation between the sustained notes and the dropped ones, piercing runs and flat, deflated-sounding tones like a tuned-down guitar, that gives Miles’s solos their intense vibrancy. Through them, he asserts that one needn’t be thematic, or even melodic, but rather that variety of gesture and tone can (and should) carry the brunt of the musical expression.

“My Funny Valentine” is also the tune with what is perhaps Miles’s most famous gaffe, or “fluff,” as the jazz critics graciously call them. As Giddins reminds us, where Miles is concerned, these mistakes were generally taken as a sign that something greater than virtuosity was at stake in his playing. (Giddins calls him a “confessional poet,” Fleming an “emotional virtuoso.”) What strikes me is where this particular fluff appears: right after the tune plateaus on a tranquil bossa. It’s hard not to hear Miles and his horn recoiling from the sudden influx of schmaltz—as though he had laid a trap for himself, and barely made it out alive. If this is an unintentionally humorous moment, there are others that seem more deliberate: on “All of You,” for example, and again on “There Is No Greater Love” (this on Four), he wears his mute like a child’s party hat, bleating away more shrilly than Don Quixote’s wounded sheep. Sometimes, the mute sounds less like an expressive tool—ironic or no—than a blade for cutting. At such moments, I imagine that what I am hearing is the sound of Miles flaying his old skin, before hanging it on a pike for the audience to politely applaud. This is artistic self-remaking at its most brash and merciless.

George Coleman (Blue Note)

George Coleman (Blue Note)

The difference between Miles and George Coleman on this record has been much remarked, and is evident from the moment the latter first appears some five minutes into “My Funny Valentine.” With Coleman, you immediately want to sing his lines; Miles’s you don’t dare to (you’d hurt yourself trying). The same schmaltzy “Girl from Ipanema” moment that Miles falls apart on, Coleman hops through, or falls dreamily into. Coleman plays patterns, Miles shards. When Coleman trills, it is in clear places of resolution or climax; Miles no. When Coleman harps a single note, it has a melodic purpose in that place in his solo; when Miles does, it is pure effect. He can be more abstract—in parts of his solo on “Walkin’” and “Four,” for example, he seems infected by Miles’s playing. But overall, Coleman tends to fall back on the same sorts of figures that are either conventionally spectacular, tuneful, or bluesy. Indeed, his touchstone is the blues; his solos tend to move from lovely minor melodies, quadruplets a la Freddie Hubbard, and modal nods to Coltrane, to riffs with a bit more dirt under their nails, an effect like the epigram at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. Not to say that Miles doesn’t play the blues here; it could even be argued that the gestural, effect-heavy sound that Miles was consolidating around this time is more blues-inspired than Coleman’s melodic flights. But only Coleman returns to the blues and its stock figures with a regularity that suggests retreat.

The burners on Four & More are as revolutionary as Valentine’s ballads, but they shred the old tunes/old language differently. If the ballads are inflated into behemoths that ramble their way into odd, beautiful corners, the burners are played at Ben Hur chariot-race velocity. At these tempos, melodies begins to disintegrate,† and the resulting roughness of the unisons between Miles and (George) Coleman recalls Ornette Coleman with Don Cherry—which, as Ekkhard Jost writes in Free Jazz, are themselves appropriately “reminiscent of early Parker-Davis records.” Nor is it possible to sustain the syncopated pulses that Miles favored on “So Near, So Far” and “Joshua” (on Seven Steps to Heaven), and now attempts to add to “Walkin’,” one horn leapfrogging the other at the tail of the head, only for them to tumble down together. Needless to say, there is no time for the yawning strut of the 1954 original, no room for the lovely blurps and hiccups and stuttering around the beat that gave that version its preternatural swing. Here, the melody comes in gasps. (Better to call it sprintin’ … even if the down-home apostrophe-n of hard bop no longer applies.) The upshot is that the band is so tight, their sense of time and each other’s place is so intuitive, that they don’t need to be unified to stay together. Time has to be intuited more than heard if they hope to be able to ride the curling edge of time in the almost impossibly nimble way that they do here.

As on the ballads, the burners’ melodies are expressively disarticulated and circumlocuted. (Is that a verb? It is now.) Listen, for example, to the way Miles walks backwards into the head of “So What,” or, for that matter, the way he runs around Coleman on “All Blues,” the closest thing to a burner on Valentine. The overall effect, however, is different. If the ballads can be described as pushing rubato to the point that the melodies collapse into timelessness, the burners are whatever rubato’s opposite is: not trying to humanize a theme by making it beat with heart instead of the metronome, but dismembering it, detaching it from its frame of reference. Solos break into the themes in odd places and at unfamiliar angles. Miles cultivates shorter, harsher, more angular phrases: snorting arpeggios, piercing shrieks, long, strident trills, slurs and brays, bumblebee chromatic runs that zigzag into the upper register. Even when the lines are not short, the melodicism of a few years earlier has begun to come apart. His attack is sometimes reminiscent of Django’s guitar; his timbre tends toward the hyperbright, like a wah-wah pedal pushed all the way down. The wailing flamenco style of this “Walkin’” would not have been imaginable a decade earlier, nor is it the same wail as on 1959’s Sketches of Spain. On “Joshua,” notes crowd out other notes; riffs start to go somewhere, then collapse back on themselves. We are left not craving the forward movement or the shape of a solo, but the rhythmic lilt around some unclear center and the plastic shapes of consecutively-clustered notes. Sometimes, Miles just rides one note for all it’s worth; he plays like he’s leaning into a wind.

There is an interesting paradox here in the way Miles and Coleman play with the rhythm section. As noted, the general perception of this album is that Coleman is distanced from the rest of the band—the “young lions” and Miles—by his more classic style, as though he were standing on shore playing his horn alone while the rest of the band rowed out to sea. The paradox is that, of the two, only Coleman mixes it up with the rhythm section, engaging in the sort of back-and-forth we expect from small-group jazz. You can hear Hancock’s left hand goading him forward, and clear call-and-response between the two on “All of You”; on “Seven Steps to Heaven,” Hancock selects the shuffle breakdown in Coleman’s solo for the introduction to his own. In some ways, it is actually Miles who sounds distant, treating the band more as a platform for his leaps than partners in conversation (they are invariably there for him—they better be!), and jumping them through hoops like trained fleas (they are just as quick—they better be!). On the melodies, Coleman, too, is often the stable base Miles jumps off from (again, “All Blues”). It may be typical of bandleaders in general, not just Miles, that they call and you respond; listen to Tony Williams’s bass drum answer Miles on “Walkin’,” or the stuttered notes on “I Thought About You”. On the other hand, perhaps it’s the very transparency of the dialogue between Coleman and the rhythm section that suggests the distance we hear: they have to hail each other to hear each other. Miles is integrated with them without his having to say anything, to do anything but play what he plays. And yet … sometimes Miles sounds like he’s in danger of floating away—“in the sky,” as his last recording with the Second Great Quintet (sans Coleman) put it, or just ready to walk out …

… which is, in fact, how he often ends his solos. Subdued, to say the least; with a shrug, or a stutter, or a chromatic leap to nowhere. His “Joshua” solo has the perfect walk-out end: it’s all body, all attitude—anything but melody. The audience almost forgets to applaud; they don’t quite realize it’s over. Following Miles, the band sometimes ends tunes that way: letting them run out of steam, depressing the swing, draining the sound away.

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

Herbie Hancock (Blue Note)

A few words about the rhythm section, or at least about Hancock and Tony Williams—I’ll reserve my comments about Carter for some loquacious eternity. In a way, Hancock’s playing splits the difference between Miles and Coleman. While his figures are closer to Coleman’s, their organization, progression and rhythmic features are more arresting. Rolling chromatic figures recall Monk, when he is not outright quoting (e.g., “So What”); his percussive drive is sometimes reminiscent of Mal Waldron. Listening to Hancock on “My Funny Valentine” yields some sense of the variety and beauty of his playing, and particularly the way he takes Coleman’s figures and turns them on their head. The solo begins as a duet between he and Carter that becomes more steadily rhythmic over its first couple of minutes. From a series of beautiful, Debussy-inspired chords (at 11’40”), Hancock moves into a three-note figure that he develops, crescendo, and (in appropriately modern response to the chords) against dissonant, contrary-motion figures in the left hand. A few bars later, six staccato notes played on the upbeat, and Carter swings in after him. The blues appear, as they do throughout Hancock’s playing, here in a group of rolling slurred/doubled notes. Then an ascending figure in triplets, with a heavy accent on the downbeat. What happens next is (to my ear) remarkable: descending quadruplets in the same time, but against a swung rhythm that puts a downbeat on every third note, so that he falls in and out of phase with the beat. Since the triplets were accented on their last notes, and the quadruplets on their first notes, the last note of the triplets becomes the first of the quadruplets, and the two motions are welded together. It’s not just me who’s enamored of this riff: Hancock repeats it in a yet-more rhythmically oblique way on “All of You,” and even feints a third time, on “Stella,” before a fast run that rather abruptly concludes his solo. Attractive as it is, it is really just one in a constantly-varying array of rhythmic invention. On “All of You,” for example: from hard-swinging half notes into rising sextuplets (around 10’), then a double-time descent, then quadruplets (briefly), then 2-note figures that work against the grain of the beat, ascending, descending, one note for every two in the left hand—and then the quadruplet idea from “Valentine” reappears, but inflected differently. This is Williams’s doing: after failing to comment on “Valentine,” here he accents the first two notes of each descent, mimicking Hancock’s pattern. Who knows but that the manic on/off-time of his drumming was its original inspiration?

Of course, it’s possible that Hancock got the idea from Williams—God only knows what are the true genealogies of these riffs, the back-and-forth pre-history of jamming and gigging that results in what we hear on any particular recording. As for Williams, that oft-cited ride cymbal on the wide-open burners, always changing, never losing the moment, is a recording unto itself. The feeling it creates is night-and-day different from the hi-hat of the ‘50s: from fast shuffle to pace-clock, the 1’s and 0’s of an endless stream of code. His breaks are actually more spare, less spectacular, than his accompaniment (a little like Monk in this regard: the best fireworks happen in the corners of our ears, when he is comping). But then Williams is well aware of that night and day. On “Seven Steps,” in the very last break, he inserts three traditional swing beats on the hi-hat, followed by two light taps on the snare—and then the rest of the band leaps back into the melody (6’32”-4”). It is the opposite of everything else he does on this record—it sounds like a sample from the 1954 “Walkin’”—and so, like Miles and his mute, hard not to hear as parody, as cutting—in this case, of the hip-cat, square-glasses Mort Fega introductions that serve as both bookends and intermission: “Wet your whistle in the lounge, stretch your legs a bit … Take five, boys!”

*

There is a backstory to this record that is as irresistible as the music, and that has helped vault the concert into the realm of myth. The quintet was still pretty new, the venue prestigious; the occasion—voter registration efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as an homage to JFK—noble … the stakes, high. Miles, who was rich and famous, had decided the quintet would waive their fee; the rest of the quintet, who were not, balked. Tickets were expensive; for a still-emerging musician, there was a fair bit to be lost in such a venture. By the time they got out on stage, everybody was pissed off. Afterwards, they figured the concert was a botch. But producer Teo Macero knew different, and when the band heard the tapes, they did, too. In Miles’s terms: “We just blew the top off the place that night. It was a motherfucker the way everybody played—and I mean everybody. […] That anger created a fire, a tension that got into everybody’s playing.” “Fire” is in fact the most oft-repeated term in the story of that night, the wine-dark sea of this particular legend, the spur of the Ben Hur burners and the sinker for the expressive depths of the ballads. With this, the idea of the Philharmonic concert as a singular event took off: a kiss good-bye to the standard repertoire (Giddins notes that Miles would not record a standard again until the ‘80s); “a summing up,” as the liner notes have it—what are liner notes for, but to create myths?—“of all Miles Davis had learned to this point.” The CD packaging, which includes the staid Philharmonic program for that night’s concert, only further sediments the idea of the concert-as-classic. And when you put on the disc, before you hear any music at all, there’s Mort Fega, talking about “young Tony Williams” and “Miles … Miles Davis.” This is the concert everybody wants, myself included; the voice that you hear at the end of every installment of Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary, intoning: Nothing would ever be the same again. No one had ever heard anything like it before.

In the end, it all has a bit of a tendency to obscure the fact that the tensions that might have moved the quintet to such a brilliant performance that evening were not always creative—in particular, Miles’s reputed unhappiness with Coleman, the likely subject of that “and I mean everybody” in the quote above. Clearly, the record catches the quintet on a stellar night, and does a fine job of representing an important transition in Miles’s career. But it also seems essential to deflate the notion that this concert, this night, was anything more than representative of what Miles was doing more generally at the time. Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival, recorded about five months earlier, is as astonishing as Philharmonic ’64 … but in ways that are less comfortable for the myth. Much of what has been said about the ’64 concert could be said about Monterey: the “blistering” tempos; the shrill pulses, shouts, and Bronx cheers that were coming to define Miles’s style; the jazz-morphing tugging-at-time of his new rhythm section. They were even there, though to a much lesser degree, on Seven Steps to Heaven, the album for which Miles re-recorded half of the tunes with his new band. “So Near So Far,” which features only Carter of the new quintet, has the dramatically sustained notes and pulsing ostinatos that are simply exaggerated within the space afforded by the concert stage. The band has a tendency to stretch out more for Monterey‘s crowd, too—Bob Belden’s liner notes to the CD do a superb job discussing the role of Monterey and California culture in jazz’s burgeoning, forward-looking respectability—than at the stuffier, cause-heavy Philharmonic show.

But that’s just the point: in ’63, one gets the impression Miles was still finding his way out of the box, and the Quintet as a whole was still trying to find their sweet spot. The performance of “Stella By Starlight” on that recording is weak, particularly compared to the majesty of the ‘64 version. Perhaps they hadn’t quite figured out how to inflate a ballad to the size they wanted without losing its coherence, or Miles didn’t yet know how to channel his young rhythm-mates to approach a ballad as confidently as a burner—they had, after all, only been playing together for a few months. But it isn’t just the band; Miles himself is simply not on on this record the way he is in the ’64 concert (compare, for example, his solos on “Walkin’”).

If there is an exception here, ironically enough, it’s George Coleman. He steals the show. Not only does he sound more integrated than Miles, he sounds more willing to step outside himself, to enter the fray with the rhythm section, to meet them head-on. What a change, five months later. Thus, between ’63 and ’64 we’re hearing not just the consolidation of Miles with his new rhythm section, but the progressive distancing of Coleman. Comparing Coleman to Miles here, I can’t help but wonder if the “and I mean everybody” comment was directed, not at Coleman, but at Miles himself.

All this acknowledged—myth debunked, center shifted, degree-versus-kind difference invoked—there is still an edge to this recording, the ’64 recording, a sharp, cutting edge you don’t hear at Monterey. Maybe it was the political context that had tilted in those five months, past the point of no return; the “fire” in the playing is the one James Baldwin mentioned in the title of his jeremiad, published the previous year, now licking at the country’s heels; that while Miles, whatever his claims to radicalism, was waiving his fee to register voters for Civil Rights, Tony Williams’s generation was listening to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, as black militancy in the face of white intransigence morphed the movement inexorably toward Black Power. Maybe the aesthetic boredom with the old repertoire was not just about how to make a rote program exciting again, but the husk of a political kernel: the way those old tunes, not just the romances but all those tunes, masked something of the disharmony and violence of the country. Turning them upsidedown, shaking them, even gutting them—there’s a violence done here, the violence of violence unmasked. It is not, then, just the aesthetics of the music that is unmasked as artificial, but the entire political framework which made their creation and expression possible. It is the anger at the polite applause that appears when “All Blues” begins, ah, listen honey, this is a standard, a classic, before the band shreds it, almost in doubletime. An audience member’s shout, captured at one of Miles’s more inspired moments at the beginning of “Stella,” is its antithesis, a harbinger of the days of rage. Not that ruptures happen so cleanly, in a single night; but certain recordings more clearly and fully reveal the general tenor of the shift.

Hell, maybe it was about the money. But it was the young guys standing up for their money, refusing to be martyrs for a cause. You don’t sit down for the firehoses. You go get a gun.

 

* The “desert island disc” fantasy is the dystopia of an immutable taste and immutable identity. It strands us at a particular phase in our listening history. Although the idea is that these are albums we can’t grow tired of because they grow with us, the truth is that separating them from the surrounding ocean of music would cause them, and us, to stagnate. They become a static structure, only understandable in terms of each other, rather than dynamic points in our development.

§ Miles’s choice of tenor sidemen always tells us much about what he wants to achieve with a particular band, and what direction he is headed. Coleman’s situation in ’64 is a bit like Lucky Thompson’s on the ’54 recordings with Miles; he sometimes sounds like he stepped out of a  big band; I can almost see him standing up to take his solos. (Take that with a big grain of salt; it’s the only Thompson I know.) Miles clearly drew energy and ideas from tenors who pushed him in new directions, like Coltrane and Shorter. Shorter seems to have had a particularly pronounced impact on composition, as can be heard as early as E.S.P., which sounds more like a mid-‘60s Shorter record than anything Miles had done up to that point. (N.B.: each of the band members composed a tune for that record.) In a lovely piece comparing Shorter to Coleman, the saxophonist Bob Mintz places Shorter in the ‘60s turn to greater abstraction, which Miles picked up on: Shorter’s is “an almost free jazz approach to grooves” where “harmony and melody were very fluid, and secondary to rhythm,” an approach he refers to as “time-no changes.”

† It’s interesting to consider the place of tempo. In the hierarchy of musical elements that put us nearer to or further from the idea of composition, tempo would be at the bottom. Whether a musician plays a tune fast or slow is an interpretative choice that would hardly be labeled creative. What is remarkable about the burners on Four and More is that tempo is accelerated to the point that the compositions begin to come apart. These are tunes that seem to assert that tempo, humble tempo, if pushed to extremes, can yield a new identity. Speeded up, they are all but made new.

Ex Nihilo

OrnetteColemanI try to play a musical idea that is not being influenced by any previous thing I have played before […] The theme that you play at the start of the number is the territory, and what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure. (Ornette Coleman, qtd. in Balliett 407).

 

More than the music of any other jazz artist, Ornette Coleman’s gives me the feeling of creation out of nothing. His is an art of relentless unspooling newness, endlessly self-generating. Structures crop up from moment to moment, stretch out, morph into something else, disappear. Melodies without memories, or only the barest traces of them; even when they repeat—because they repeat—each iteration seems unconscious of the last. Each idea asserts its separateness, its uniqueness, preening and beautiful—only to be abandoned, bumped out of the spotlight by the next, the next. They are wrought from nothing, or next to nothing, are next to nothing themselves, and create nothing except, perhaps, a notch, a space, for the idea that follows, just as perfectly ephemeral. Vignettes, they balk at larger wholes; they do not believe such things exist. They hardly believe in each other.

Gunther Schuller once described Coleman’s music as “uncluttered” by convention (qtd. in Williams 216), and it is this lack of clutter one feels in the deepest sense: an abundance of discardable melody, fostered but never owned; a principle of dispossession, or perhaps unpossession. Hence the other adjectives often associated with Coleman: pure, liberated, egalitarian, transparent, Zenlike.

*

In the literature on Coleman, one finds an interesting counter-tendency to the above: a desire to find some hidden coherence in the apparent unruliness, to assign him to one or another tradition, folk or elite. Trumpeter John Snyder, for example: Coleman’s music, “which is supposed to be so free, is closely organized” (qtd. in Balliett 405). Or Gary Giddins, who commends “the specificity with which [Coleman’s] improvisations elaborate his compositions … the solo eventually works through every facet of the theme, modifying colors and tempos and dynamics” (470-1). Ted Gioia roots Coleman in bebop, standard harmony, modal improvisation, and 32-bar structure (43). And Schuller himself lauds Coleman’s intuitive sense of structure: he “is fully aware of his place in the overall formal design at any given moment” (“Compositions” 83).

Of course, Coleman’s earliest boosters (like Schuller and Martin Williams) had to find a way to defend him against the vitriol that greeted his emergence. Though Gioia’s writing is from a time well after Coleman’s canonization, his goal is not so different: to rescue Coleman—and with him, all of jazz—from the debilitating myth of the primitive.α And Giddins, arguing for the lasting importance of Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, reminds us that “musical patterns will assert themselves no matter how unbridled the situation” (471). It is a point Coleman himself has echoed, though in a typically ex post facto way: “From realizing that I can make mistakes, I have come to realize there is an order in what I do” (qtd. in Williams 213).

For the sympathetic critic, what sounds like madness must be revealed as method—a method different from what had been heard up to that point, true, but method nonetheless. Regardless of whether Coleman is intuitive genius or harmolodic intellectual, regardless of whether his work is a neurotic symptom or the product of a conscious intention, close listening and careful analysis will reveal precedent, coherence, logic, unity.β

Asserting that Coleman’s solos are closely tied to his themes, or that he always knows just where he is, denies him—and us—the pleasure of getting lost. Considered in terms of the epigraph I’ve chosen for this post—Coleman’s binary between territory and adventure—it might be said that the job of the critic—with music as with any art—is to show how the adventure arises from, and is subservient to, the territory. This desire to tranquilize Coleman and drag him back to the territory—to assert that, after all, there is no adventure, or only very little, and that tightly circumscribed—is perhaps the best proof that he was, maybe even is, a dangerous artist. For to admit the existence of the adventure is to scandalize the critic: to undermine some of his most cherished myths, and as such, the role of criticism in relation to art and the artist; to force us to find some other way to speak the adventure without making of it the territory.

*

For my money, Ekkehard Jost has come the closest to synthesizing these opposing tendencies of freedom and constraint, to respecting the autonomy of the adventure without entirely severing it from the territory. In his 1974 book Free Jazz, he coined the term “motivic chain-association” to describe the stream-of-consciousness movement of a typical Coleman solo: “one idea grows from another, is reformulated, and leads to yet another new idea” (48). Schuller had come to a similar conclusion some years earlier. But notice how Schuller works to recuperate this idea in the name of wholeness: “Short motives tried in different ways … [act as a] motivic springboard for a new and contrasting idea … only to yield yet another link in the chain of musical thought, until the entire statement has been made” (Ornette!; my emphasis). Jost resists this impulse, highlighting instead the unfinishedness and non-teleology of Coleman’s soloing; it is precisely each idea’s lack of conclusion that allows it to serve as a link to the next—a feature of Coleman’s playing that Jost nicely metaphorizes as a dash instead of an exclamation mark.γ

This “cohesion,” such as it is, is purely horizontal, formed moment to moment; each footstep along the adventure takes us—potentially—further from the territory. Coleman, it might be said, doesn’t know the woods or quite where he is … but he has left himself a trail of breadcrumbs, and has even brought along a compass, or two; sometimes he even crosses over his own trail, but that doesn’t mean he’ll follow it back.

As the distance between territory and adventure increases, the connections between the two become ever-more tenuous; and the critic, ambivalent about what has been set in motion, must suggest ever-more-tenuous links between the two. Balliett, for example, lists scales, rhythmic clusters, pitch areas, and mood (406). Then he throws up his hands: Coleman’s solos “move melodically with such freedom and originality and surprise that they form an independent music” (407). In another representative ambivalence, Jost asserts emotional unity between theme and solo, territory and adventure … and then goes on to note that Coleman’s compositions are characterized by emotional ambiguity (58). The “thematic framework” is “non-obligatory” (Jost 57)—meaning Coleman can do whatever the hell he likes … and generally does. Making a garden of these woods, it seems, will be more difficult than anyone had anticipated.

Coleman’s “unclutteredness” extends well beyond his freedom from the vertical demands of harmony (the sort which, to use Williams’s memorable analogy, turns the soloist into a “rat in the harmonic maze” (213)), or the relationship (or lack thereof) between theme and solo, or the syntax of the solos themselves. Take, for example, his compositions, which, like his melodies, he “has a tendency to abandon” (Giddins 470). If composition does not dominate improvisation, is brother rather than father, then why should “standards,” personal or historical, dominate a career? Why should any theme command more attention than the time it takes to be played? True to form, Coleman’s compositions are often as whimsical and bizarrely un-cadenced as his solos.

Then there is the matter of temperament. Pitch, as Jost emphasizes, is subjective, and more important, historically and culturally relative.δ To extend Coleman’s analogy: the tempered scale, the tempered ear, the tempered man, are just other figures for the territory; the adventure is the place where the notes squeal and waggle and bend out of their culturally-sanctioned frequencies, get lost in the wild blue spaces between. As for rhythm, Schuller and other have called attention to the absence of a clear downbeat, the absence of clear bar lines supposed to guide us like regularly-spaced blazes on trees (Giddins’s “willy-nilly toe tapping”). And so the adventure is not just out there, not just the ever-extending line of the solo away from the theme, the composition away from the standard, but in the interstices of the every facet of the music.

Spend long enough with Coleman, and the territory disappears: it all starts to sound like adventure.

*

The horizontality of Coleman’s approach to improvisation, composition, and the relationship between the two, and to the jazz tradition, manifests itself in another interesting way: a flattening of the aural space, troubling (if never quite eradicating) the hierarchy between solo and accompaniment, lead and rhythm. As with any of the above, it is possible to overstate the case; just as Coleman can choose to be more or less thematic in his solos—and they run the gamut from enamored to indifferent—and just as he can choose whether to solo at all, so some tunes and recordings fit more squarely into the traditional hierarchies of small-group jazz recording than others. (The very fact that it is Coleman who is the subject of this post suggests the limits of this argument.) As Williams and others have noted, the ensemble of Coleman, Cherry, Haden and Blackwell (or Higgins), and later Izenzon and Moffat, moved the music in a more purely collaborative direction, although some of the old hierarchical markers remain (e.g., pitch ranges, dynamic levels, tune organization). The double ensemble recording Free Jazz is widely regarded as the ne plus ultra of collaborative music-making: here, all of the musicians are listening and responding to each other, complementing and contrasting with each other, “soloing” together—hence Williams’s well-known comparison to abstract painting.

And yet, saying that something has no background is no different from saying it is all background, or as easily background as foreground. Each term loses its meaning without the other; it depends on where you are sitting, where you position your ear in relation to the music … and perhaps, where the music positions itself in relation to you. And here is where I would quibble with Giddins—though it is a quibble that gets to the heart of my own perception of Coleman. Far from “mak[ing] terrible background music” or “commanding full attention” (Giddins 469), Coleman makes music that is just as lovely in the background as in the foreground. Often, I cannot tell which—how far away I am sitting. The “immense pleasure” Giddins cites comes at no “price,” for Coleman does not finally demand anything of us. It is part of the non-hierarchical nature of this music that it does not place such demands; for the musician-listener hierarchy must fall, or at least be troubled, with the rest of them, in order to for Coleman’s revolution to achieve its ultimate aim. The fact that I can listen to Coleman or not listen to Coleman; that I can soak in Coleman as in a warm bath as easily as ignore him, knowing that, when I start listening again, he will be there—the same there, a different there—because I am as good in this place as I would have been thirty seconds earlier, or later—that I don’t feel like I “missed” something—that I can start the record over again, and often do—is the “immense pleasure” of his music. Paradoxically, despite this music’s relentless forward drive, the combination of lack of teleology, freedom of movement, and near-total absence of benchmarks creates a feeling of stasis, like the water in a wave, which only appears to move forward, when what we are really witnessing is a transfer of energy. A sense of timelessness and there-ness—what Santoro calls Zen; perhaps what Jost calls relaxation, the balance of an achieved simplicity.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve used Giddins’s line on Coleman plenty of times. To call something background music is to relegate it to the dentist’s office and the supermarket aisle. Except it’s one thing to reward close attention and another to solicit it. That Coleman does the former without the latter is, I think, the nature of his genius.

Just think what a supermarket it would be, anyway. I would spend hours and hours wandering up and down the aisles, and then come to the register with only a few items in my cart. Instead of purchasing them, I would throw them on the floor. There would be no express line.

*

Is it scandalous to suggest that the pleasure of listening to Ornette Coleman derives as much from not listening, from dipping in and out, skidding along the surface, from distraction as much as concentration, or from the oscillation between the two? In The Pleasure of the Text, exploring what Richard Howard calls “an erotics of reading” (viii; emphasis in original), Roland Barthes made a similarly scandalous case for the pleasure of reading—and not reading—classic novels. “A rhythm is established,” Barthes writes: “casual, unconcerned with the integrity of the text: our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skip or skim certain passages (anticipated as ‘boring’) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote […] we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations; doing so, we resemble a spectator in a nightclub who climbs onto the stage and speeds up the dancer’s striptease, tearing off her clothing, but in the same order, that is: on the one hand respecting and on the other hastening the episodes of the ritual (like a priest gulping down his Mass). […] The author cannot predict tmesis; he cannot choose to write what will not be read. And yet, it is the very rhythm of what is read and what is not read that creates the pleasure of the great narratives: has anyone ever read Proust, Balzac, War and Peace, word for word? (Proust’s good fortune: from one reading to the next, we never skip the same passages). […] Thus, what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I look up, I skip, I dip in again” (10-11; emphases in original).

There may be something perverse about suggesting a Balzacian pleasure in listening to avant garde saxophone. With the classic novel, the edges—always the source of pleasure in Barthes—arise out of the conscious parsing of useless from useful; the text takes on a granulated surface whose “abrasion” gives us pleasure. With Coleman, such a distinction is meaningless; since the solos do not build toward a revelation or climax, since every idea is as useless or useful as every other, we don’t “gulp down” Coleman to get closer to some anticipated end. My distraction is not calculated; my body—which, as Barthes coyly notes, “pursues its own ideas” (17)—makes its own distinctions. And yet, the pleasureful friction created by this “rhythm” of listening/ not-listening is identical.

In other ways, listening to Coleman is more reminiscent of Barthes’s description of reading the text of bliss: one “grazes” “aristocratically” rather than skipping ahead. We can listen to Coleman in either direction, in pieces, here and there, without having to observe ritual. (The libertine listener escapes them; there may be as much pleasure in flaunting once-culturally-sanctioned listening practices—unidirectional, undistracted, complete—as in observing them.) Whether Coleman’s music can be equated to the “lacerating of language” Barthes attributes to the text of bliss is another matter. It strikes me that Coleman’s solos and compositions, like Barthes’s modern texts, are doubled: “dismantled” yet still readable; the sort of text that puts the listener between comfort and crisis (Barthes’s terms). It would help explain the ambivalence in the writing about him. Regardless, is there not also a rhythm—halting, measureless—to the way we encounter the text of bliss?ε

One of the pleasures of reading The Pleasure of the Text—a text with its own peculiar rhythm, riddled with tantalizing gaps and ruptures—is the way the pleasure-bliss binary is itself confused, dismantled, re-erected, and dissolved over the course of Barthes’s performance. In fact, one gets a good sense of this troubled boundary in the passage quoted, from the clear indication that one re-reads classical narratives. I suppose that, like the gentleman who jumps onstage to hurry the striptease, there is no reason not to watch the same thing night after night: the end may be known, but its revelation, as well as (once again) his participation—even more, his sudden assertion of agency—is pleasurable. At the same time, the source of pleasure for Barthes is never revelation. There must be a pleasure in re-reading that is distinct from (though never entirely separate from) ends; if one reads passages one had skipped the last time, clearly the use-value of what is read shifts on each reading, and can be only tangentially related to “finding out what happens.” Given the sort of listening Coleman provokes in me, there is a similar pleasure in re-listening: I hear the passages I “missed” (“heard,” but with half an ear; let slip by; forgot as soon as I heard them), skip others that I heard before. Ironically, our ability to listen recursively to this most spontaneous of musicians reminds us that listening itself is improvisatory: spontaneous, different from one act and the next. What Coleman calls our attention to is this un-finishedness of all listening.

*

The word “scandal,” repeated throughout this post; the idea that Coleman “frees” us from certain culturally-sanctioned behaviors: I have been writing around another element of listening to Coleman that I think gets at the heart of the pleasure—one pleasure—of listening to his music. It appears in the Barthes passage as the parenthetical “no one is looking.” For the implication of having to say as much—and to say it in parentheses—is that someone is looking. We feel guilty about skipping passages, at least in canonical works of literature. The whole of Western culture is reading over our shoulders; it must be, for it is what has given us the tools to decode the text.

A better musical analogy to War and Peace would be a Brahms symphony: expansive, dramatic, with a clear narrative thrust and clear peaks and troughs, “important” and “unimportant” parts. It’s during the latter that we reach for the cough drop. We can—we do—fall in and out of an hour-long symphony. Yet, there is the expectation of immersion. If, as Milan Kundera pejoratively concluded (in Immortality), the Romantics “raised feeling to the level of a value,” then when we fail to fully immerse ourselves, fail to feel, we feel guilty. Clearly, the failure cannot be Brahms’s (he listens over our shoulder); it must be our own. Sustained attention is the pledge we make; catharsis is the reward if and only if we give ourselves away to the musical godhead. The Romantic symphony makes terrible background music. It must have all of our attention or none of it.

Now that jazz has become “America’s classical music,” it’s easy to treat, say, a solo by Keith Jarrett like a Brahms symphony.ζ The wonder of Coleman is that, even as his work has entered the jazz canon, its every element resists the cult of guilt. It is what Giddins hears, I think, when he writes that Coleman’s solos “incarnate an eternal innocence” (469). In this sense, the territory is more than the musical strictures of convention and tradition; it is the whole past. When Coleman solos, every previous melodic fragment becomes the territory; the adventure is that state of continuous becoming that characterizes his improvising.

In a word, I don’t need to feel responsible to Coleman’s music, and he does not need to feel responsible to me. The ultimate freedom of Ornette Coleman is to write music that frees itself from the tyranny of the listener and frees the listener from the tyranny of the music. Didn’t you feel it as soon as the piano was jettisoned, that weightiest of instruments, and with it its geometrically-ordered harmony, leaving Coleman and us to float together? To be ex nihilo is above all to be guilt-free. A perfectly American music and musician, then, performing on the blank slate of an always-evolving present. How can he have committed parricide when he has managed to convince me that he has no father at all?

 

α I don’t want to be misunderstood as making a bid for Coleman as the intuitive, unconscious genius without a past, or for an art that is entirely without structure. The title of this post, which I settled on a year or so ago when I first thought to write about the way Coleman’s playing makes me feel, has an unhappy correspondence with the “primitivist myth” that greeted Coleman’s arrival; i.e., the pervasive idea that Coleman came out of nowhere, entirely untutored, with a simple, “natural” feel for the music (cf. Gioia, “Jazz and the Primitivist Myth”). Several of Coleman’s early supporters drew on this myth (e.g., Coleman was “spared a conventional music education”; his compositions are “intuitive creations whose genuineness is for this reason alone unassailable” (Schuller, “Coleman,” 80, 82)), as did Coleman himself, perhaps recognizing the myth’s potential (e.g., “I was so in tune to music that I picked it up as soon as I assembled it [the horn] and played the same thing I’m playing today—only I didn’t know music. I was just hearing music” (qtd. in Santoro 93)). (N.B.: the language of the epigraph I have chosen for this post does not sound like self-mythologizing to me; it is too tentative, too qualified: “I try”; “may have very little to do.”) Coleman also consistently links his playing to emotion and the body, using organic metaphors that tend to discount musical influences in favor of natural, experiential ones … although this, too, has a long history in the annals of artists’ mythmaking. Anyway, in using the term “ex nihilo” I am not referring to Coleman’s musical roots (in bebop, Afro American folk tradition, or what have you) or lack thereof, nor am I denying the activity of the intellect in what Gioia rightly calls “spontaneous composition.” As Jost argues, the “simple” elements of Coleman’s playing (absence of changes, structure, bar lines, etc.) are not an argument for primitivity; rather, Coleman achieves “complexity […] by simple means” (53). And this: “Simplicity does not mean a reduced creative capacity, and has nothing to do with primitivism or banality. It is the expression of an inner balance, a poise, which brings an element of relaxation to even the most hectic musical content” (Jost 64).

β That Coleman happened when he did is particularly interesting considered in jazz historical context. In his seminal essay “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” Gunther Schuller credits Rollins, and particularly the track “Blue 7” on Saxophone Colossus (1957), for bringing a sense of large-scale structure and “unifying force” to the jazz solo: “What Sonny Rollins has added conclusively to the scope of jazz improvisation is the idea of developing and varying a main theme, and not just a secondary motive or phrase which the player happens to hit upon in the course of his improvisation and which in itself is unrelated to the ‘head’ of the composition” (96). That Coleman appears to have arrived at the opposite conclusion at virtually the same moment—how to pry the jazz solo away from a sense of large-scale structure, based on a purely forward imperative and the privileging of melody over harmony—suggests the ideas of the literary critic M.M. Bakhtin.

γ Not to give the impression that Jost completely abandons the idea of harmonic organization: Gioia’s modal “flavor” (which is not the same thing as being modal) is replaced by a tonal center, “an imaginary pedal point” (48), itself sometimes replaced by secondary tonal centers. The regularity of where Coleman moves to secondary tonal centers suggests that he “knows just where he is,” as Schuller puts it, though he has abandoned the hierarchies of blues harmony. Nor do I want to overstate Giddins’s desire to hear deep structure in Coleman; his is rather a typical ambivalence, that edge between admiring the beauty of the adventure and claiming it for the territory.

δ When Coleman appeared on the scene (in L.A.), he was competing with a “sterilized” West Coast/“cool” sound, which certainly would have impacted the way he was heard (Jost 53; Santoro 94). To the contemporary ear, raised among a heterogeneity of timbres and musics, perceptions of pitch may be a little more forgiving. To me, Coleman always just sounded a little raucous, a little squawky, like Perry Farrell with a horn.

ε Coleman’s violin and trumpet playing, beautifully described by Jost (65), are another matter. Perhaps what distinguishes Coleman, to consider another concept out of Barthes, is the particular grain of his “voice.” Grain, more broadly applied, seems like it might be a useful concept for thinking about music—particularly a music like Coleman’s, whose horn has so often been compared to the human voice, and who claimed he wanted to do what words do with his horn—this all with an eye toward Scott Burnham’s call for an approach to music that tries to take account of its materiality. A third point, somewhere off the evocation-analysis axis … perhaps one that occupies the vaunted space of The Real as against the Imaginary (evocation) and Subjecthood (analysis)? If analysis and evocation form a binary, then materiality, the impossible dream of language, dismantles it. Interestingly, timbre is the one aspect of Coleman’s music that is hardly ever mentioned, except insofar as it folds into our perception of pitch. In what ways does it contribute to the “grain,” and to the listening sensation I am trying to explain? Another aspect this post cannot really consider are the vertical aspects of Coleman’s music, i.e., the “serendipitous harmonies” (Giddins) and occasional atonal complexes (Schuller) of particularly Free Jazz’s Dixieland mutations, the dissonant unisons, resting places (but never ends) created by collective, largely unscripted improvisation. In what way is this “vertical din” (Giddins again) related to grain? In what way related to the multilayering (Barthes) of the text of bliss? (Sorry, this is the trash-heap footnote for dumping all half-developed ideas, undeveloped ideas, and ideas-to-be!)

ζ Gioia, who himself invokes Barthes to argue for a pleasure-based approach to listening to jazz, reminds us that it is possible—even probable—that art will bore us: “Let us not neglect the pleasures of the text, but neither let us forget the pleasures of not finishing the text” (131). While I would tend to agree with Gioia’s concerns about the sacralization of jazz, I have a few issues with his argument. First, rather than understanding listening and taste formation as products of culture, Gioia seems to posit a mythological common or naïve listener, one who “knows what he likes,” so to speak. Ironically, even as Gioia rejects the primitive in the jazz musician, he erects the primitive in the audience, and so denies the audience the very things he argued for in the musician: the role of education and the intellect, in this case in hearing and processing music. Second, Gioia ignores the text of bliss—the text that risks everything—or perhaps disparages it, if one is to take his comments about post-Coleman free jazz this way. We can be bored or harried into bliss as much as brought there by excess of pleasure. Finally, Gioia seems to assume that the listening process is closed, rather than open and evolving. As I suggest above, there are many different ways of not “finishing” a text. Gioia’s comments suggest turning off a CD or leaving a concert halfway through because the music has “bored” us. What about coming in halfway through, or starting in the middle? Skipping places, zoning out, coming back, staying for another set of the “same,” putting on the record again? The unfinished text is not necessarily the text of boredom, but rather the grain of a particular pleasure.

 

Citations in the post pertain to the following texts/editions: Balliett, Whitney, “Ornette,” in American Musicians (Oxford, 1986); Giddins, Gary, “Ornette Coleman (This Is Our Music),” in Visions of Jazz (Oxford, 2000); Gioia, Ted, “Jazz and the Primivist Myth” and “Boredom and Jazz,” in The Imperfect Art (Stanford UP, 1988); Jost, Ekkehard, “Ornette Coleman,” in Free Jazz (Da Capo, 1974); Williams, Martin, “Early Ornette” and “Free Jazz,” in Jazz in its Time (Oxford, 1991); Santoro, Gene, “Harmolodic Philosopher,” in Stir It Up (Oxford, 1997); Schuller, Gunther, “Ornette Coleman,” “Ornette Coleman’s Compositions,” and “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” in Musings (Oxford, 1986). The Williams and Schuller books are compilations of earlier writings, some of which are liner notes to Coleman’s early albums, which I also consulted, and which feature other texts by Schuller, Nat Hentoff, Ludvig Rasmusson, and John Litweiler. My discussion of Coleman’s music is shaped by (and limited to) his work as a saxophonist and composer on the following recordings: The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959); This Is Our Music (Atlantic, 1960); Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1960); Ornette! (Atlantic, 1961); Town Hall, 1962 (ESP, 1965); and Live at the Golden Circle, Volume One (Blue Note, 1965). Personnel on the first four discs include Don Cherry, trumpet; Charlie Haden or Scott LeFaro, bass; and Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, drums. On Free Jazz, add Eric Dolphy (sax) and Freddie Hubbard (trumpet). The last two discs feature Coleman with the trio of David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffat on drums.

Reflections of Orrin

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Photo by Howard Pitkow

Among the many small things I have to be thankful for (amid the many large things that I curse) is having had the opportunity to listen to Orrin Evans’s Flip the Script (2012) before the hearing loss in my left ear migrated to my right and absconded with my beloved piano. The album was a best-of-the-year pick in the New York City Jazz Record that a few-minute YouTube clip was enough to sell me on; I picked it up at Chicago’s envy-inspiring Jazz Record Mart, on a perfect too-cold June afternoon, on stopover between overnight legs on Amtrak. (Lake Michigan was restless as the ocean; the Blackhawks scored when I stopped for a beer: perfect.) I wouldn’t get around to hearing it until a couple of weeks later, driving around upstate New York, each successive track convincing me that there isn’t a better jazz pianist working today, certainly no one who can do as much with taking classic forms and turning them, as the title suggests, on their heads. I’m thankful, too, that I got to hear Evans once live when I could still more or less hear the actual notes he was playing, rather than the neighboring tones my brain decides to substitute, in its desperation to make sense of the data; and that I got to see Evans again, at least, even though pretty much everything he played sounded out of tune to me.

1

At the Vanguard, early August. The Steve Wilson quartet—Wilson on alto and soprano, Bill Stewart on drums, Ugonna Okegwo on bass. I’d caught the train down from the gardens of the Union Settlement Association, East Harlem, where the ever-impressive Sam Newsome had done a spot-on impression of Coltrane—split tones, circular breathing, “sheets of sound,” the whole nine yards—and things with Monk and to Monk that would have made Monk stop spinning. Between milking the short, edifying set in Harlem and grabbing a coffee on my way to the Vanguard, I barely made the first set. The lights went down just as I reached the bottom of the stairs. The club was packed. The hostess asked me softly if I’d prefer to sit right up next to the piano or in the back. My hesitation must have expressed that neither option was particularly desirable. I was actually contemplating bumming around the Village for a while and coming back for the 10:30.

Then she said, “Follow me. I have a nice seat for you upstairs.”

How could I not? The lights had just gone down, and the hostess’s voice had all the seduction of servile authority. I followed her up the stairs on the right side of the bandstand, to the corridor of tables that leads smack into the drum kit. Maybe she was in touch with some higher being who knew what was in store for me, who had said to her, “Give him a good seat. After tonight, he’s fucked.” Or maybe she’d mistaken me for some critic or other; I have a friend who always gets free food at the Standard, and he thinks that’s why. (I did pull out my notebook after the set and write down some observations, just to reinforce the potential misimpression—not that I wouldn’t have done so anyway, just under a streetlamp in Abingdon Square instead of at the club.) Whatever the reason, she sent some poor tourist back to the masses huddled on the couches across the aisle, and sat me alone at the first table on the left.

It was indeed a good seat. It wasn’t just the clear visibility of all the band members, piano, sax and bass to the left of the pillar rising up from the bannister at the end of the landing, drums to the right. For you see, on the wall to Evans’s left was a black-and-white photo of Tommy Flanagan. In the photo, Flanagan sits in profile, facing the same direction as Evans. It’s a very dark photo, and Flanagan wears black, so that the only things you can really see are his face, head tilted back, glasses lit, and the long necklace he is wearing, and his hands on the keys of the keyboard. It’s dark like those Roy DeCarava pictures, where black musicians half-dissolve into the shadows of the music’s mythological urbanness: the deep chiaroscuro of the city, the underworlds of speakeasies, that whole hazy Brassai aesthetic. They are pictures that seem to rewrite the very idea of blackness. Flanagan, after all, is the whitest thing in this photograph.

The remarkable thing was not that Evans played next to a photo of Flanagan, a kind of mise-en-abyme of the pianist, as though we might expect to see a picture of a pianist (Mary Lou Williams? Fats Waller? Flanagan himself?) in the picture, behind Flanagan. It was that, from this very good seat the hostess had secured for me, Evans was reflected in the Flanagan photo, so that I could see the ghostly image of his face, his newsboy’s cap, in the abyss of Flanagan’s turtleneck. Even more suggestive, the image was clearer when Wilson, who stood just to the right of the keyboard, stepped up to solo. Wilson wore a white shirt, and the white was clearly visible in the blackness of the turtleneck, framing Evans with a sort of halo, each musician nested inside the other, generation by receding generation, like Russian dolls. It wasn’t Evans, then, playing under the watchful eye of the spirit of Flanagan, gone from us so recently, present only as an image on the wall (or a disc), but rather the image of the living Evans that haunted Flanagan, head ducking and bobbing to the funkiness inside Flanagan, like an infant kicking in Flanagan’s belly. Like Evans was a space in Flanagan he filled. I suppose this means that Flanagan, like all great musicians, created a framework of ideas, and that all such frameworks create new spaces for other musicians to fill—make those spaces audible, because such spaces don’t exist until they have been given shape by someone’s music. And Evans is just that sort of player, not radically extending the vocabulary of the music, but rather finding those spaces inside blues and funk and bop to re-create idiomatically.

2

Smalls, around the corner, less than a month later. On any other night I’d have come here to see Donny McCaslin, the leader, but this night I came to see Evans. I can hear McCaslin; the tone gets dirty, doubled over part of the tenor’s range, but the actual notes still pierce through. Not so with piano, except at the extremes of its range. So I am here to listen to Donny, and to Billy Drummond, a Shandyesque name if ever there was one, but to watch Evans.

Smalls, as you may remember if you have ever been there, has a mirror hanging above and to the left of the keyboard, angled down, so that you can see the pianist’s hands from most of the ten rows of chairs, and a second mirror behind the drum kit, for an analogous reason. I have never asked for pink champagne on ice. Should I? A couple of times someone knocked the mirror inadvertently, once as they were bringing out an extra music stand out from the back, and the keyboard bobbed and rocked like a canoe slightly disturbed by another’s wake. In the mirror, the hands go the opposite way, high keys to the left of the phantom hands. It’s a bit like watching other dancers in the mirror of a studio, when you’re trying not to watch yourself.

When Evans found his groove, his neck would start to move, his hands to obey an interior rhythm, he would start to flash smiles across at Drummond. By watching those Sidney Poitier-beautiful hands in the mirror, and the pigeon-jut of the neck, the hop and roll of his shoulders as he began to fully inhabit the music, I guess I hoped that something of what I couldn’t hear would be translated to me directly, bodily. And maybe it was, and always is, when one is enveloped by such a presence. When McCaslin gets going, the ideas, those big rhythmic structures like the outlines of skyscrapers, flood and fill his horn; you feel the inspiration pouring out rather than just hearing it. The music is as much a personality as a series of pitches. And I think that as a player, Evans is enough like McCaslin—a similar love of pattern and repetition—that I could just imagine hearing Evans in the shadow of McCaslin’s tenor.

Drummond ended his last solo without his drums, waving his sticks across the edges of his cymbals, forehand and backhand, like a wizard with two wands. Thirty-two perfect chimes, and then the ending chorus.

Little things. Try to remember to be thankful for little things.

*

It used to be that the words were never quite enough to reach the music, and so I reveled in them, used them to cut out a sort of silhouette or stencil that would give shape to the music in the reader’s mind, but which was only ever the contours of a hole, an absence I could not fill. It was one way to adapt to the condition of being damned. But I did not truly understand the meaning of damned until, for some instruments, at certain pitches, even the notes were withheld from me. Now the words can no longer pretend to be anything other than what they are, to speak any reality or have any deep and actual connection to the notes they aspire to, like fish to the air, like the circle to the sphere. I cannot tap a wand on them and, presto, make them leap off the page. I can only dig deeper with them, which means into them, like a prisoner left to excavate his own pen.

I’ve written before, or at least suggested, that there is a moment in all music writing when the words have to leave the music behind, to acknowledge their separateness, the void in which they exist. This is the moment that some musicians seem to despise or resent: when the words no longer become “really about” the music, but only about themselves. (You know the criticisms: self-indulgent, pseudo-poetic, etc.) It is the point that every piece of writing about music must reach, if it is to be successful. I think it is despised and resented, too, because it is the moment when the writer sneaks around behind the music and, words like a flashlight, lifts up the music’s skirts. How could I not be punished for such a transgressive thought, and for such hubris? You say you can do without the music. Well, there you are. Words for you. Nothing but words.

When music becomes no more than words, then damned you are, damned, and damned utterly.

Big Ditty

john-scofield     John Scofield has recorded so much and so eclectically over the last few decades that making grand claims about his sound based on the music of a single album might seem suspect. And it would be, were that sound, that musical personality, that Sco-accent, not so immediately recognizable, whether he’s playing funk, roots, fusion or bop. If I choose 1993’s What We Do as my microcosm, it is not because I think it particularly representative, or even particularly transparent. It is simply the Scofield album I know best: the first one I owned—one of the first jazz records I ever bought, in fact—and an album I have listened to with a relentlessness almost worthy of the canonical rock records of my teenage years.

As a composer, Scofield is a master of creating a feeling of spontaneous gravity, of deep but momentary commitment. On first listening, the tunes on What We Do likely seem slight. Even many of the titles announce them as barely-sketched springboards for improvisation: “Little Walk,” “Camp Out,” “Why Nogales?” I’m just going out for a minute. Let’s sing around the fire. Why NOT Nogales? Somehow, these ditties tossed out for the musicians to bobble hint at bigger, weightier things, suggest much more than they say. At once playful and serious, they dance along a surface, dipping a toe in here and there. By meditating on trivial things, they hang on the cusp of revelations. It is hard to think of many jazz composers who have been so successful at wedding the flippant and profound. Monk was another.

This feeling is created partly by Scofield’s approach to melody: sometimes they seem to grow organically under the listener’s ear, notes accreting on notes, as though they were records of the composing process, of the stumbles and turns and cul-de-sacs of the composing imagination. But it is partly the way he plays his melodies, too—or rather, the way he plays, period. These are not paper melodies, sequences of pitches abstractly imagined. Rather, they are a by-product of his approach to the guitar—his touch, his phrasing, his physical relationship to the instrument—in a word, his sound: the almost-timid palpating of notes as he feels his way forward; the sudden, strong accents; the phrasing that keeps him always a little behind, smelling the flowers, while the rhythm section tugs him forward; the discreet use of flange and gain. Simply put, if Scofield didn’t play the guitar the way he does, he would not write the sort of music he does. And if this is pretty much true of all musician-composers, it is profoundly, uncommonly, confessionally true of John Scofield. So many of the melodic kernels on What We Do sound like what comes out of the guitar when he straps it on, when he’s not thinking of anything particularly important, when he’s just passing the time, when his mind is wandering one way and his hands another. The art is in the capture: when those paths cross, unexpectedly—there is the moment of composition. (“Hey, man,” Hendrix mocks the blues, “it’s rainin’ outside, man.” Like Jimi, Scofield watches those raindrops scooting down his window and turns them into music.)

Listen, for example, to the melody of “Little Walk,” the three-note motive that introduces both song and album, transposed down a step, repeated, and then varied more in rhythm and phrasing than in the notes used to form a bare-bones resolution. The melody doesn’t fully appear until the second time through, when the rest of the quartet joins in, with Joe Lovano out ahead on alto.* The first time, guitar alone, each of the notes that form the outline of the melody is shadowed by a low note on the off-beat: brushed, barely audible, coloring the main line with that hint of gain, creating a deep, easy swing that paces the rest of the song. These subtle accents are a hallmark of Scofield’s sound: whispered parentheticals, half-formed thoughts flitting on the margins, ghostly choruses floating around the melody. Or think of them as the consonants or syllables swallowed in spoken language that we hear more with our minds than our ears. There is just such an oral quality to Scofield’s playing, of someone speaking with you—not to you, but with you—about matters apparently insignificant—how to mow the grass, the shape of a dragonfly’s wing—but so intimately and with such subtle emphasis as to touch on things unreckoned. There is a breathiness, too, almost a bowed quality to the dynamics of his playing—again, in “Little Walk,” the unhurried rise and fall of the wedges of melody. It is not cantabile we hear, but conversation: interjections, asides, laughter.

“Little Walk” can serve as a template for the other medium-to-slow cuts on the record. Scofield generally precedes Lovano; when the latter enters, the brunt of the melody is ceded to the alto, the guitar harmonizing with and commenting on the melody rather than simply doubling it, something between a second horn and the traditional comping of a rhythm-section guitar. The gain is always there, shadowing the notes rather than throttling them; but harmonizing like this really brings it out, coloring each moment with the distinct resonances of different intervals, making gain a tool for expression rather than a mere element of the overall sound. Examples abound, but perhaps the most spectacular is when Scofield allows a dissonant, four-note arpeggio to ring together at the climax of the melody of “Easy for You.” (There is more than a little of the blues in this, except that Scofield’s harmonies are more rarified and equivocal than those preferred by blues players.) The melody of “Why Nogales?” is played freely around rather than with the leisurely corrido rhythm (ride-hihat-hihat, 1-2-3), Lovano shadowing Scofield, Scofield Lovano, giving it an almost tipsy feel, as if the two players were each expecting the other to lead through the steps of a slightly unfamiliar dance. It is not a difficult song to narrativize: the slightly drunken haze through which the girl on the other side of the room is cautiously approached; the two inebriated dancers left alone on the floor after everyone else has passed out or gone on home. But like so many of the tunes on this record, there is a triumphant moment when that hesitation (almost) melts away: here a sort of fanfare, elsewhere a boogie, some fiercer than others, some saucier, sometimes with a wink at the listener. While the other slow tunes keep an easy strut through the solos, in “Why Nogales?” the corrido falls in and out; the rhythmic freedom giving Scofield an even bigger sky than usual under which to improvise, and bassist Dennis Irwin after him. When the melody finally finds its way back into the song, it is on less stable footing, at least in its first iteration: the bass plays a new rhythm in seven, drumer Bill Stewart following on bells and rims while Lovano and Scofield stubbornly weave the old melody over the top. Of all the songs on the record, “Why Nogales?” is the most thrown-open, unstoppered; and in its tone of reluctant festiveness, it perhaps best expresses that quotidian through which larger things—beauty, truth—are unexpectedly, unbelievingly glimpsed. Its position one track from the end of the album makes of it a suitably understated climax.

What We Do does have several more assertive songs played at a faster clip: good-natured, straight-ahead, long-lined romps like “Call 911” and “Say the Word” and “What They Did.” But tempo aside, the “Nogales” feel remains. The burner “Camp Out” extrapolates on “Hello Mother, Hello Father (A Letter from Camp)”: inches upward, fails … then tries again, with a bit more decoration, before arriving at a sort of bugle call, harmonized in major thirds, and then plummeting octave-five-one to begin the climb anew. It is all here, again: the hesitant step; the unanticipated, perhaps mock-epic triumph; the unassuming (even goofy) fragments that add up to more than their sum; the wide open sky for improvisation. In other tunes, it is the variability of the length of the pieces of the melody that creates this feeling, each bit pushing a little further or stopping a little shorter, and in the oddest places, making them difficult to follow or play along to.

All these hallmarks of Scofield the composer translate into his soloing as well. The songs on What We Do all have traditional two-part heads and traded solos, but the way he riffs on the melodies, parodying or worrying them, changing one note out of three or phrasing them differently, furthers the improvised feel of the whole. The preponderance of short phrases, and the gaps between, make the extended runs that much more satisfying when he gets to them: you want to see how long he can surf the wave before he runs out of ideas, or frets. And then he’ll tie off these long, often very symmetrical but harmonically screwy runs with a bluesy tail, or a pinky trill—a sort of punch line to bring himself back into the harmonic fold. There are coloring notes aplenty here, too, with a penchant for seconds and sevenths, Scofield savoring the way his mild distortion resonates in these dissonant intervals. Sometimes, he will build from smaller to larger intervals with descending and ascending lines on adjacent strings, another example of gain serving an expressive moment. Nor is gain the only effect employed with artful infrequency. The flange rears up now and again as well: the disintegrating clang (amp coils?) while he comps Lovano’s solo in “Little Walk”; the trailing off at the conclusion of “Easy for You”; the Hammond B3 sound as he hoists a chord up the neck while trading fours with Stewart on “What They Did.”

*

In hindsight, I wonder if there’s something a little selfish in my attraction to John Scofield. He is one of a handful of guitarists who play in a style I aspire to, who make something lasting out of the sort of noodling I do whenever I pick up the guitar. Not the melodies I sing in my head but cannot quite realize, the sort of thing Hendrix cherished. No: my hands. This is an important distinction. My connection to Scofield is more physical, muscular; a sense of touch and phrasing unites our sensibilities. Those major sevenths with all that beautiful gain, pointer and ringfinger, strumming with the intervening string muted; the simultaneous descending and ascending lines on adjacent strings; the scoops upon scoops—did I play them first, and then hear Sco do it better? or was it him who started me on that trail? I can’t remember. And it doesn’t really matter. Scofield is the groove I’ve always wanted to fall into. His hands speak something about me I can’t; listening to him sets me more clearly on the path to myself.

 

* Lovano has a similarly light touch, scudding over notes on the slower tracks—listen to the way he enters on “Little Walk” or “Big Sky,” the way his notes mist in over the ground Scofield has ceded—or, on the more ribald “Camp Out,” how he comes tripping in over a ricocheting snare, as though a door were flung open at the top of a stairwell inside a listing vessel, and here comes Lovano, stumbling opposite Scofield’s exit, wearing his tap shoes. I probably shouldn’t bring in Monk so gratuitously, but in Lovano Scofield finds his Charlie Rouse, his perfect complement.

Year of the Oh

linda oh      I came out to hear somebody else, I can’t remember who. This was November of 2011, at Smalls. There were two bands on deck, two sets apiece. Somebody must’ve called in sick, or maybe the second band just asked the bassist to stick around, because she ended up playing all four sets. The old jazzhead sitting next to me wondered aloud if she was the house bass player. That’s all I remember—that, and the last-set bass solo. When it was over, and we got done clapping, we looked at each other as if to say, OK, and where the hell did she come from?

*

Where indeed? Born in Malaysia to parents of Chinese descent, raised in Perth, but that’s hardly an answer. In a global era, for a global music, Perth may just be the new Kansas City, Kuala Lumpur the West Coast. Still and all, rivers always reach New York. And so did she.

I think the pianist Vijay Iyer put it best: “I love the way she just blew into town and took over.” A year and a half ago I’d never heard of her; now, Linda Oh is hard to miss.

*

As so often happens, I lost touch with Oh for a few months after the Smalls show. She became just that amazing female Asian bass player, not to be confused with the other great female Asian bass player who gigs at Pisticci on Sunday nights (really, how many can there be?). And then, twice in March of ‘12, two very different trios: Fabian Almazan’s at the Vanguard, and Oh’s own  at the Rubin museum. Almazan is easily my favorite of the four young pianists spotlighted by Ben Ratliff in his Times article last year. Here, though, I wanted to focus on the Rubin set, and Oh’s first record, Entry, both of which feature Ambrose Akinmusare on trumpet.

From the opening bass strums and trumpet mewls of “Morning Sunset” to the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover for a closer, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the bass-led power trios I whetted my young ears on before coming to jazz. Today, it’s as easy to hear Roy Campbell’s Pyramid Trio, or the early electric Miles. Entry is a raw, heavy, tough, spare record, riff-based and rhythmically-driven, with a feel of bleak avenues and endless rooftops: music for a traveling cityscape, mournful but not without humor, homeless but never rootless, graspingly beautiful. Oh plays with a calculated heaviness, bellyflopping on low notes, slapping those fat strings, letting them hum and buzz. She doesn’t do much walking; when she finally does, at the end of “201,” just a track shy of the end, it’s more swagger than swing. There’s a gangly quality about the playing, too, a rough-and-tumbleness, as if we were waiting for the musicians all to collapse together in a heap.

The songs offer a pretty open terrain to improvise on, and at the Rubin set, as on the record, Akinmusire took full advantage, playing against the grain of the bass, missing high-note climbs by a note before careening back down, skittering into a solo and then backing off with a whine. He liked to fiddle with dynamics—bright, sharp cries and bugle calls followed by long, breathy interludes—his horn less an extension than a purer embodiment of his voice. As for Oh, it’s hard to know where to begin. Watching her play is half the fun; she’s so physically in tune with the music she’s creating that the instrument transforms her. Such a wealth of ideas, such a mastery of the bass’s rich vocabulary of harmonics, taps, strums and slides, and such a happy gift for melody and phrasing—each is rare enough in itself; to find them all together, and in a player so young, seems almost unjust.

Like the album, the set ended with “Soul to Squeeze,” the Chili Peppers ballad, actually a B-side from Blood Sugar Sex Magic. A friend of mine, a great writer, once said that the most affecting moments in fiction are the sort that take the reader by surprise—and very often, the writer as well. Something like this happened at the Rubin set with the Chili Peppers song. I’m not accustomed to being moved in this way by jazz. Exalted, excited, intellectually stimulated, sure. Once, though, I saw George Benson sit in as a vocalist during a Ron Affif set at the Zinc bar, this back in the ‘90s when the Zinc was on Houston and those Monday night jams had become a magnet for New York’s jazz Illuminati. He sang just one song, “All of Me,” and before I knew it there were tears in my eyes. It had nothing to do with the words, or the melody, or emotion per se, as it would with, say, a pop ballad, or a folk song, or a Chopin nocturne. It was rather a sense of presence, of contact, or the momentary revelation of the ideal in the guise of the real, like an avatar. True, “Soul to Squeeze” is a pop ballad; but I think the feeling on this night arose from something closer to the Benson experience. Oh started out with a pensive solo, really embellished statements of the melody, although this only became clear as the solo drew to a close. Then the horn, gently rising. It was like Oh’s bass had opened a door, and Akinmusire’s horn stepped through. An ease of walking, a lightness of step, as if answering some unheard call in the opening couple of bars of bass. They could have stopped there; nothing else needed to be said. You hear this, and the title of Akinmusire’s Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, seems anything but corny. You want every band to do what they did.

When the set ended, someone from the museum came up and hung white stoles around each of the musicians’ necks, which was itself weirdly moving, and so fitting after the last song, blessing them for the blessing they’d brought us.

While I was waiting to pick up a copy of Oh’s new album Initial Here, a couple of music students, probably high school age, were noting to each other (in tones of disapproval) that all the tunes were modal, with none of those tricky bop changes to keep the musicians on their toes, and dissuade amateurs from the bandstand. They were wondering aloud whether she could really play changes—dare I say “keep up with the boys”? I wanted to turn to them and say they should have heard her at Smalls. (In Miles Davis’s gruff whisper: “She can play those changes like a motherfucker.”) A decade from now, after she’s won a Grammy and has a dozen albums under her belt, they’ll be talking about how they saw her when they were eighteen, when they used to have that Friday night music series at the Rubin, before anyone really knew who she was, and with Akinmusire, too, no, dude, I’m not shitting you, really, they used to play together, I’ll burn you her first album. And the younger musicians will regard them with awe and reverence.

It turned out she was hawking her own records. I had to ask her three times what the title of that ending song was; I’d only listened to Entry once at that point, and would only make the connection between the tune and the record later on. Either I couldn’t hear her, or it was the Perth accent; but the third time I asked, she signed it for me: “Soul,” she said, and made some sort of gesture I can’t remember—maybe put her hand on her heart?—“to squeeze”—and she hugged herself, briefly. Now, I have spoken to a fair number of musicians, and the majority have warm personalities, and seem like the sort of people you’d have over for dinner, open a bottle of wine with, maybe even let the conversation wander into politics. They might squeeze your shoulder, as Bob Stewart did mine the other day, big hands of a tuba player, if not your soul. But this exchange was special. She could have said it louder the third time, with that edge of annoyance that greets the tourist who doesn’t know when to stop asking and just smile. Instead, she treated me with the cheerful patience due an elderly ward. I’m not sure what this says, but I know it’s the opposite of bad.

*

By the time I caught Oh again, with her quartet at the Jazz Standard in June, I’d had a few chances to listen to Entry, a few less to Initial Here, the record she was supporting this night. They are as different as the show at the Standard would prove to be from the Rubin, and as both were from Smalls. If Entry is a fledgling, fusiony romp, weighty and starkly beautiful, Initial Here is remarkable at once for the deftness with which it captures the contemporary jazz idiom—Dave Douglas’s quintet comes to mind, as does Dafnis Prieto’s—and for the breadth of styles, rhythms and cadences it exhibits—from the bluesy Ellington spiritual “Come Sunday” to the Sturm-und-Drang drama of “Deeper Than Sad,” the jaunty Caribbeanisms of “Desert Island Dream” and the seemingly cadenceless and deeply moving “Thicker Than Water,” featuring the preternatural vocals of Jen Shyu. In fact, Shyu serves to remind us how much this record, as much as Entry, bears the mark of all the players in the band—and the collective musicianship here is pretty phenomenal. Each track is a surprise; the riches stretch end to end, like pearls on a string.*

What was most remarkable about the Standard set, though, was not just the opportunity to hear Oh in yet another creative format, but to hear the growth of one tune in particular. Called “Ten Minutes to Closing,” the title reflects the commission that comes as part of the invitation to perform at the Rubin: the musician composes one tune about a piece of art at the museum. As Oh told it at the Rubin, she only found one at the eleventh hour, so to speak—necessity being the mother of invention; and so the tune is less about the piece itself than about the artist’s struggle to create on demand. Perhaps the tune was trying capture that feeling of contingency and indecision. If so, it tried too hard; the changes felt forced, the structure ungainly. It was the only tune in the Rubin set that fell flat, leaving me wondering if it was still under construction, an inspiration arrived at too late.

At the Standard set, “Ten Minutes” came second, right after the hoppy opener “No. 1 Hit.” It had obviously been worked over since the Rubin: very recognizably the same tune, with the same flippant tone and quirky changes … but in every other way, different. Somehow, the arrangement for quartet had welded it into a whole. I’m looking forward to hearing how it sounds recorded.

It was nice to see the electric bass come out for an extended cooker, certainly the jam of the evening, a side of Oh that appears on Initial Here, but which I had not had a chance to witness live: that elixir of Riot Grrrl, Jaco and Flea that couldn’t but push the already-bursting energy of the night another notch higher. And yet, “10 Minutes” was the tune I remember best, because it presented the opportunity to watch the music grow, and the musicians with it. I’ve somehow gotten to the age—it’s definitely snuck up on me, like those tears—where a lot of the musicians I go hear are younger than I am. They’ve become like the kids in some fantastic musical neighborhood, all moved out and making good, and my seat at the club, or maybe the virtual one in the Pit, the porch swing from which I watch history go by. Remember Linda from down the street? Yeah, she’s all grown up and playing music in New York. Making quite a name for herself, too. And Ambrose! Remember Ambrose? Well …

*

I guess I’ve been writing a jazz Horatio Alger story of sorts, or maybe a David Levinsky (remember, he’s the one who wanted to be Irving Berlin), tracing this young immigrant musician’s rise from the good company of her similarly-emerging peers to Soundprints, the supergroup featuring Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano and Joey Baron, at the Vanguard almost exactly a year from that night I first caught Oh at Smalls. By now I was a certified Oh junkie, waiting out in the cold an hour for my fix, for the proverbial man. I stood in front of that red door so long people started thinking I worked there, and I even came to enjoy playing the part, holding the door, answering questions—why I wasn’t taking money is anyone’s guess. About twenty minutes into the queue, a couple of music students from NYU joined me—they always seem to come in pairs, like missionaries—good people to shoot the breeze with while the wind cut through our coats and all those who’d thought far enough ahead to make reservations glided past. At 9 o’clock, the VV staff grudgingly found us seats, me at the absolute and utter rear of the club, back against the wall, band visible over a sea of heads, waiters milling in and out of my vision, assholes at the table next to me unable to shut up, even after being asked politely, and then asked again. But the music: the music that night could have cut through an acre of lead, like neutrinos from a star gone nova, so what could a few assholes, waiters and extra feet of space do? Afterwards I ran into the music students again, their faces all alight, and they asked me if I was staying for the second set, all I had to do was buy a drink, how could I think of leaving? Ah, I had to go upstate tonight, there was no hope for me; but wasn’t it nice to see their faces, hear their voices again. It confirmed to me what I was feeling.

It’s always great to hear Douglas and Lovano together—it had been too long—and Douglas and Baron, of course, half of Masada in a club where Masada maybe never played. (You can cut Masada six ways and you’re always left with the better half, how’s that for a paradox?) The pianist, one Lawrence Fields, was the find of the evening; in a year he’ll be the hub of yet another wheel, just like Oh, just like Douglas and Lovano and Baron before her. And Oh? What does it say that, on a bandstand with Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano and Joey Baron and yet some other genius in the making, you proceed to play a bass solo that puts in the phone call to God, throws everyone else in shadow, and becomes, like at that gig a year ago at Smalls, the thing I remember best? And what does it matter if the words I might have used to describe it to you have long since disappeared, if they were ever there at all? I can still hear the gasp and sigh that came up from the audience when the rest of the band started back in—how could I not, sitting where I was, with all that audience between us. It was a register of the collective emotion, there on the cusp of the sound, sound made a moment of exalted flesh, which is always easier to describe. I can tell you about that gasp and sigh, and I can swear to what I remember; the solo itself goads me with its unspeakability, an unspeakability that fills me with the urgency of words.

*

Initial Here made one of the three top ten lists in the New York City Jazz Record for 2012—not bad for a sophomore album. It’s on Greenleaf, Douglas’s label; he just tapped Oh for his last album, Be Still. Douglas is like a trampoline for fresh talent—look at Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin. Meanwhile, Fabian Almazan’s trio is back at the Vanguard this month, Oh still on bass. I’ll be there, on my porch swing. Have I told you about Fabian? Well, I will say, with a bit of old Miss Havisham and a bit of John Jarndyce, let me tell you about Fabian …

 

* While it’s true they’re very different records, I’m loathe to construct them as absolute opposites, which language and logic sometimes compel me to do. Entry has its fair share of rhythmic and other playfulness, its Jaco inflections even without the electric bass (check out “Fourth Hand”), its moments of textured harmony (the intro to “Numero Uno”), and the full range of the bass’s vocabulary on display. Still, Initial Here is nimbler, works with a broader palette, and is consistently richer and more surprising in its arrangements and compositions.

All That Is Solid

      It’s a Sunday afternoon in August, and I’m at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon, New York, to hear the Kazzrie Jaxen quartet. I’m here because Kazzrie is here, and because my neighbor, a pianist and friend of Kazzrie’s, invited me. In a broader sense, I’m here because I am new to the peaceable kingdoms of the Hudson Valley, and I am still trying to find my moorings amid the upstate exiles. In the City you get used to the weight of people, smog, and noise. It settles on you, over time. Here, I’m like a man walking on the moon: every step threatens to catapult me into space, and I look around in vain for someone or something to hold me down.

The Howland Center is a tall, airy space with a churchy feel. It used to be the town library, until 1976, when the collection outgrew its confines, the books were (re)moved, and the building joined the National Historical Registry. The shelves have been taken down, but the cabinets remain, the numbers still stenciled on them, and black and white pictures of the town-as-it-was hang above the spaces where the books used to be. Instead of rectangular reading tables and card catalogs, there are round folding four-tops covered with plastic. There is fruit, cheese, wine, brownies, kids. A metal balcony encircles the room ten feet above, with more empty numbered cabinets along the walls and four lights suspended from the grillwork. A big grandfather clock, its brass, lute-shaped pendulum stilled, fails to measure the time.

The musicians put their things on top of the cabinets: instrument cases, a red fabric cooler, a few bottles of water. Jaxen, who plays piano, stops by our table to say a brief, warm hello. She is blond, nimble, radiant. Sinewy, though there is something wispy about her, too. Charlie Krachy, standing a few feet behind her with his tenor already hanging from his neck, is grey, plodding, down to earth—her complement in every way. Together with the rest of the band—Don Messina on bass, Bill Chattin on drums—Charlie will spend the next hour holding on to the sleeves of Kazzrie’s blouse and the hem of Kazzrie’s skirt, as she refuses to let that great ballast of the instrument world hold her down, and threatens to float up and away, like one of those newlyweds in a Chagall painting.

*

I had the chance to hear Kazzrie only once before, in an apartment in Morningside, on a Sunday afternoon not so different from this one. The musicians who played that day, and the vast majority of those in the audience, were part of a musical collective that seems to have grown up around the pianist and educator Connie Crothers. It was a trio of violin, piano and clarinet, playing freely improvised music. In such a setting, there is no agreement about structure or melody beforehand, and there are no standards, at least in the jazz sense of that term. Somebody starts to blow, or strum, or pluck, or whatever, and the musicians go wherever the spirit of the moment takes them, and the jam lasts as long as that spirit inhabits them. Then they pause, and start again. It is remarkably beautiful to watch as well as to listen to.

When the “set” was over, there was a break to eat and drink and chat. Then the real jam began, real because it was yet more free. Different people got up to play as the mood struck them, like Quakers moved to speak. Maybe what was most beautiful was the humility with which playing was approached. There was not that sense you sometimes gets at late-night jams, where one player after another wants to muscle in, take the limelight for a few bars, be heard. Here, everybody knew everybody else, or almost, and pretty much everybody had played together at one time or another. There was much hesitation and politeness; a smile and nod across the room, like you might ask a stranger to dance; the sudden leaping out of a chair, because nobody else had; the desire to share something. Of course, almost everybody there was a musician, they had all brought their instruments with them, or just themselves. It was even a little eerie to find that everyone else in the room was touched with the capacity to create ex nihilo, as much as it would be to find that they could bend spoons without touching them, or read each other’s minds. And there was the feeling that they all know each other on a level more intimate than I could ever know them, or perhaps anyone; and this produced a combination of admiration, envy, and unease. If this were a Polanski movie, I thought, they would be a coven. I even began to suspect that the reason each of them could improvise in this way must have something to do with the rest of them being present; that they create a sort of magic circle in which such things can happen. That they were all holding the edge of an invisible net, which they cast collectively into the air, to catch the bits of melodies floating around like pollen. As for the music, it is as ephemeral as the dappled bit of sunlight I noticed falling on the carpet when I glanced toward the window late that afternoon; it is music of that Sunday, and no other. One is not leaving a legacy, but living a moment. And so it is all the more necessary just to play. Maybe the feeling of humility comes partly from this.

Kazzrie was not part of the original trio that day. She flitted up to the piano during the jam two or three times, once dragging my neighbor along with her for a duet at the same keyboard. I remember the immense sound she got out of that piano, for such a wisp of person. But then there was a special radiance about her, an energy far greater than her size. Walking home with my neighbor after the gig, I was reluctant to single out any one performance, the whole afternoon had been so enjoyable, the collective musicianship so impressive. We have a running joke between us, my neighbor and I. Both of us have had the experience of sharing music we love with friends, only to be disappointed by a lukewarm or patronizing response. So now, when we talk about music, no matter how much we like something, all we will ever commit to saying is that it is interesting. “Was it interesting?” “Oh, yes. Definitely interesting. I have something you might find interesting as well.” “Great, I’d love to hear it. I like interesting music.” In this sort of exchange, you depend on the off smile or wrinkle of an eye to say more than words.

But when we talked about Kazzrie that afternoon, it was in tones of reverent, gushing appreciation. We were suddenly comfortable dropping our masks; something about the music demanded it. It only lasted a few moments. Then we returned to our more generally laconic, dispassionate discussion of music, and then we moved on to other subjects.

*

In a way, the Beacon set was the antithesis of that intimate gathering in Morningside. Before the quartet began, Kazzrie told the audience they were going to evoke the days of Young and Holiday, as well as play some more free improvisation. The set that afternoon was definitely tilted toward the former. The nine or ten songs were all standards, with the free excursions relegated to digressions at the ends of tunes. With the exception of two ballads, and to a lesser extent the songs Kazzrie sang in her pleasant, Holiday-inflected voice (“All of Me” and “I Ain’t Foolin’”), the selections were identically imagined and approached: the same forward momentum, hippity-hop bounce, arrangement, and order of solos. “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” which appeared early in the set, is such a delicate, haunting tune; I’ve always thought it carried faint suggestions of conspiracy, of betrayal. But the band played it with the same foot-tapping energy as they did everything else. This wasn’t so much sunup as high noon; the melody lost all shadow.

Was it the audience? I wondered. From the Q&A after the set, it was clear that at least a few people there were new to jazz. Maybe the quartet was afraid of alienating them.

I don’t think so.* While Charlie and the rest of the band did indeed evoke the days of Holiday and Young—and Young is not a bad touchstone for Charlie’s warm, sumptuous tone and wonderful sense of melody, both of which really shone on the ballads, and which the Howland space served to amplify—Kazzrie, singing excepted, did not. Something I learned from one of my jazz guitar teachers many years ago: you can swing your way through just about anything. (He demonstrated this by playing an uptempo solo with as many “wrong” notes as he could squeeze in.) In the middle of a heavy swing, an excursion into dissonance or even sheer noise is passed over almost unnoticed by many listeners—even by educated listeners who have not had much exposure to jazz. A steady rhythm allows us to box in and measure such transgressions; it reinforces the sense that they are temporary, regulated. A good beat can square even the most crooked line. The early free jazz players knew this—compare early Dolphy records to Out to Lunch, or Cecil Taylor’s Love for Sale and Conquistador!, or Coleman’s Free Jazz to AACM records from the mid ‘60s. For the average listener, there is something much more transgressive about the bassist and drummer dismounting and tramping off into the meadows to screw around than in even the most outlandish melodies or harmonies. It is the difference between walking into a room and frowning at the décor, and having the rug pulled out from under you.

It wasn’t just Holiday and Young, then, but early Cecil Taylor, that was evoked in me: that time in Taylor’s career when the piano worked like so many IEDs, blasting the rest of the band, and the whole musical experience, off kilter—“Excursion on a Wobbly Rail,” indeed. Like my jazz guitar teacher, Kazzrie could swing when she wanted to, but delighted in getting the notes all wrong; and, like Taylor, comping or soloing, she delighted in throwing rhythmic and harmonic curve balls while the rest of the band swung away, balls that (I have the feeling) whizzed right by many of the foot-tappers in the audience.

If Charlie’s big, huggable sound was all about pleasure, Kazzrie’s was bliss. There was something almost haughty about her, sitting sidesaddle at the piano, her shoulders hunching and relaxing, her mouth occasionally moving. She is almost too big a presence; she is swept away from the moment she sits down. And the way she smiled at that keyboard! Yet, I never got the sense, as is sometimes the case when such different musicians sit in together, that she was off in her own world. Her desire to float did not mean she was leaving the band, but rather that she was finding her own ways to approach them, and the music (cf. her bizarre substitutions on “All the Things You Are”). Comping, she was always listening, prompting, teasing the other players—particularly Charlie, whom she spent the hour scampering after while he soloed, chasing up and down scales and throwing pie-in-the-face chords at. And didn’t Charlie take it all not only in good humor, but with more than a little love and respect? For he never knew, when she went to the top of the keyboard, whether she was going to splash around in the shallow pool of those high keys, or turn them into harp-strings, purling around his tenor. And if she went to the bottom, he didn’t know if those octave runs up from the rumbling depths of the keyboard were going to sound like a Chopin etude or a boogie-woogie … with a dash of Richard Strauss’s bass strings thrown in. She might start a chorus with a single note, and slowly build outwards into a thicket of chord, modifying the rhythm as she went, until Charlie’s tenor, caught up in that beautiful dream, had to hack its way out of the morass of harmony. And then she might climb the keyboard with that same idea, maybe using it to thread her way into a solo, holding onto the tatters of the original idea to create seams. For there was always continuity, the remarkable sense that the concepts on this wide, weird palette come to her fully-formed. There is little, I imagine, she can’t do with a piano, little to which she can’t make it bend, like those spoons, back in that apartment in Morningside.

Did Kazzrie lie to us? Maybe a little. Maybe unintentionally. Maybe just not the whole truth. There was that bit of Holiday in her voice, and Young in Charlie’s horn. And she did say they were going to go a bit … out. Only she was never in. And so there was a subversive air to the whole performance, as if she wanted to plant bad seeds in this green audience by smuggling all that fabulous chaos and dissonance into a straight, sincere, swinging jazz set, smiling the whole way through, as if to say, “Who, me? I didn’t do it!” My guitar teacher warned me about people like you, lady. She was, finally, impossible to resist: she is so sunny and untroubled, so goddamn sure of herself, so certain that whatever she plays is going to win you over, so poised, and so clearly transported by the joy of making music, that if you were to tell her that her playing was, well, a little unorthodox, she would look at you like you were crazy.

*

It’s the same story as everywhere else. They used to make things here. Things you could touch. Hats, apparently. Lots of hats. The factories closed down in the ‘70s, right when they were moving all those books. Now they’re lofts, and the library is a façade. It’s all widgets and MacGuffins. When this sort of thing happened in SoHo, and Williamsburg, at least there was the rest of the City to ground them, like stones around a hot-air balloon. I mean, some neighborhoods still have metal trash cans, and people live in the buildings where they were born and raised. Or they come from faraway lands to squat, old new people without a pot to piss in, as they say. But here? They’re building a hotel and conference center on the river. Same as everywhere. Beacon just did it better, stronger, faster. Dia. Noche.

In the bathroom of this library without books, there is a picture of a chicken. Music, echoing in the spaces where books used to be. Presence, filling the space left behind by representation, twice removed. This is what I am thinking, staring at that picture of the chicken hanging over the toilet.

Maybe it was the rest of the band who were living a dream: the quaint beauty of the old country, the last century, jazz as it used to be, when the men worked on the waterfront or in the factories, and many of the women, too, and they met on dancefloors or smoky pubs, when the boom was taking off and the bomb was so real it made every moment precious. Maybe it was Kazzrie, with her big piano and her big sound, and her sound, and her sound that was nothing like theirs, nothing like anything but itself, no matter how much I try to find musical stones to pin it, who was holding the rest of them down; Kazzrie they depended on to stop them from floating away into some dream of a former time that wasn’t coming back. Kazzrie who kept the whole thing anchored in the present, who said, simply, You are here, like those maps in malls and museums. I didn’t have to worry about pictures of chickens or libraries without books, or even the fact that I’d moved so far out that the City was a faint glimmer and tug in space, a picture from Voyager, because I was a satellite of other, nearer bodies, and Kazzrie was here with her big piano to ground me in the living present.

 

* Another reason I don’t think so: I’ve attended other concerts by musicians in the same collective (perhaps not the right word; “New Artists” will do, I guess, because many of them have recorded for the small, independent label of this name) just as standards-driven as this one, and others made up entirely of originals, and yet others tending toward the free improv of that afternoon in Morningside. They are an impressively ecumenical bunch; I never got the impression anyone would get called a fascist for playing the tonic triad. For these musicians, “free improv” does not necessarily mean painting on an exploding canvas. From what I have witnessed, they often seem more interested in finding consonances and erecting structures, however temporary or strange, with dissonance reserved for shade and ornament, like vines over a trestle, than in creating the esctatic maelstroms associated (a little too facilely) with free jazz.

Two Free Jazz Epitaphs

Fall is generally the time of year when I depend on finding some older piece to revise in order to keep the Pit Stop going. These two “epitaphs” are from 2003 or 2004. The evocation of the City in the first of the two is very much of that time. The second has been somewhat more updated. HD

1. CBGB’s 313 Gallery

Free jazz! Creative music! Avant-garde music! Liberation music! Et cetera!

In New York, once upon a time, it was called downtown music.

Downtown at CBGB’s 313 Gallery, they called it “freestyle,” and their Sunday night free jazz concerts “freestyle events.”

That word—freestyle—had a special resonance for me. I used to be a competitive swimmer. Everyone who swam knows what freestyle means. It means you wouldn’t get disqualified for doing something different. And that would have been fine, except the point was to win.

The 313 Gallery was not the place you would drag your out-of-town guests to, unless they shared your perversity—though I seemed to have a perverse predilection for trying to pervert the straight ones, once they’d tired of the museums, parks, and tall buildings. The next thing you knew, there we were, at CBGB’s, or Tonic, or Roulette, and they were enduring, like Bush’s freedom, squirming or angry or just plain bored.

There’s a reason these freestyle events were stuck into the cellar of CBGB’s, already music’s cellar, in the Lower East Side, one-time cellar of the City of New York. Like the Weather, the musical revolution, too, went underground. That club smelled like a cellar, goddammit. Must and damp, and behind that, and behind that

The skid mark in Dali’s underwear. Stop your ears, Wynton. We’re 20,000 leagues under Lincoln Center.

Otherwise, the basement of the 313 Gallery shared the found-object aesthetic of many contemporary art spaces, trying hard to appear as discovered and unreconstructed as the music. The ads in the Voice called the seating comfortable, though many of the chairs were of the plastic lawn variety, and the sofas were past exhaustion. Pillars stood fickly between the audience and the space for the band, like at the old Iridium, though here they were so obviously functional that they stopped being in the way. On each, a plain white sheet of paper listed bands, members, set times.

What drew my attention most, though, was a red curtain hung carelessly behind the space where the band played, sagging at its middle, exposing the broken brick behind it, a strip of tin foil, maybe the space for the boiler.

I said found-object; I could have said ascetic. It was a space of denial, as if we were gathered inside a hair shirt. Maybe the club used to be a mission, and its spirit lived on in us. Self-abnegation had driven us into each others’ arms. In a city of this size, there is a kind of immediate intimacy formed in groups this small, as if the pressure of all the millions outside were brought to bear upon us. Strangers, we were suddenly of one blood, revolutions plotted in our ears.

In a city this size, any gathering this small must be transgressive.

*

Early one Sunday evening, March of 2003. The band of the moment was called Test. A fourpiece: two multireedists, bass and drums. Daniel Carter, that downtown workhorse, was blowing long and dizzy into his tenor; tonsured, reed-thin, he swept and looped in figure-eights from squat to tiptoe. Sabir Mateen, on alto, also had his eyes closed, though his face was less placid than Carter’s, his body rigid; with each burst of sound his waist-length dreads swung. I got stuck on the bassist, Matt Heyner: the expression on his face, the reiterated thrust of his right hand across the strings. I’d seen that face, that hand, maybe, in a porn movie. Yet, in this context, it remained chaste. And it’s remarkable that this should be so. They were playing a sort of music you might have been burned for, once upon a time.

On that red curtain, the shadows of musicians leapt like the shadows of flames, the shadows of devils dancing around a fire.

Test of endurance. Test of faith. Weapons tests, and tests of emergency response systems. Experiment, rehearsal, trial-run for something yet to come, something on the verge of coming, the moment before the moment, always delayed—test-imony to the ultimate goal of free jazz, which is, which must be, presence. Writers envy music for being a language that can say “now” and mean it. Free jazz shouts it through a megaphone. Free jazz throws a tantrum over it. Free jazz wants it NOW.

If jazz is (as we’re so often told) a music hewn from the living present, then why is so much of it mesmerized by tradition to the point of turning itself to stone? Free jazz lets us imagine, if only for a moment, what it would be like to get out from under that stone, to float unmoored. The moment is a fiction, of course—not least because the avant-garde has its own well-developed tradition, “the shape of jazz to come,” long since come. But the moment is only artificial in retrospect. Experience has no memory; its faith is raw, primitive, total. What better way to understand that moment of exhilaration, of connection free jazz affords us, than that moment when doubt escapes us?

Test ended their set with a coda and yielded the stage to an all-brown band called Chocolate Nemesis, anchored by the bass of William Parker. In whatever context Parker’s bass appears, it creates an undertow, is more felt than heard, and so helps close the gap between listening and experiencing. This night was no exception. Parker likes to flirt with rhythm: as soon as he’s settled into a groove, one we can dig our toes into, he undercuts it; the groove fractures into a prolonged stumble. But there is no pratfall, no cymbal crash, no punch line. That moment before the comic’s butt hits the boards and the audience bursts out laughing is prolonged—not repeated, like in slapstick, but prolonged. Because once the comic falls, all he can do is do it over again. But in Parker, in freestyle, the music stays on the cusp of an endlessly-deferred, ever-arriving climax, until any sense of structure—verse, chorus, bridge, coda, A, B, climax, origin, end—is lost. Land hasn’t just disappeared from sight; land has just disappeared. And since there is no place to return to, there is no time we can imagine ourselves saved.

Collectively, intimately, chastely, band and audience participate in this voyage whose destination is loss. With a music that promises so much, perhaps it can’t be otherwise.

That sagging red curtain, drawing our attention to what it’s supposed to hide!

*

A couple of months later I was walking through the Lower East Side with a friend of a friend. He was lamenting the disappearance of the “dark underbelly” of New York. Maybe he had never experienced desperate poverty, as I had not. Maybe, like other people of our class and age (middle, thirtysomething), he’d fed off the spectacle of poverty to remind himself of his own reality in the fantastic surroundings of “new economy,” or doctrinally free market, New York—ever more fantastic as the economy thumped back to reality. Suffering built this city’s character, but not my suffering. So we lamented the death of a tragedy that had used to be performed nightly on these dark stoops, on Stanton or Rivington or Ludlow.

Could we be consoled? Hadn’t we attended these freestyle events, in these cellars, in this last ungentrified outpost on the Bowery?

And yet, could I really believe that these freestyle events didn’t depend on the Bowery’s gentrification? Now through January first, at the Museum of Urban Grit’s new I-MAX theater, I, too, could experience The Dark Underbelly. (In 3D, of course.) Skid row, skid mark—we have to believe it exists, that we can reach over the rope and touch it. And if that’s what the music was really about, then maybe the mystical evocation of the present was just what I wanted from it: a hold against my own slipping reality: my own freestyle, the way my body used to feel hitting the freezing cold water on summer mornings. Maybe the music was really a torch song for the Lower East Side, an invocation of past suffering, the ghosts of the penniless immigrants, homeless people, junkies, freaks. An injunction to remember.

 

2. Tonic

      Among the many criticisms leveled at free jazz, one of the most common is that it forgets its audience. It wears its esoterism as a badge; its adherents believe themselves the elect.

The assumption seems to be that, before we can expect an audience to decode “difficult” music, they require a palliative. After all, the people must be given what they want, music must delight first, instruct second. Free jazz, perennially unsweetened, bitter at the root, and real hard to understand, is thus relegated to music’s cellar—at least until some apparently ever-deferred revolution of consciousness overtakes the general populace.

If John Zorn is the best-known avant-garde musician to have emerged from New York’s “downtown” scene, maybe it’s because he believes neither that a music’s “avant” status exempts it from seeking an audience, nor that finding an audience requires sweetening the music. As a label mogul and club entrepreneur—not to mention working musician—to believe the former would be suicide. Zorn has gone out of his way to promote what he calls “creative music.” It’s a silly label, and particularly bizarre coming from somebody whose contempt for generic boundaries has been his music’s best promotion. Then again, given that Tonic, his first venture, buckled under New York’s tectonic real estate shifts back in 2007 (cf. the Himalayan condo that rose up just across its Norfolk Street home), it does make you wonder whether the branding of the avant-garde presents the only hope of a mitigated salvation.

The latter idea, though—sweetening—would be suicide of a different sort. “Sweet” is not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Zorn’s music. Take, for example, the first time I saw him, at 1999’s Vision Festival. He still wore his hair long then, and had on baggy pants, and he put one foot up on the monitor like Steve Harris (the bass player for Iron Maiden), and, head buried, horn braced against one thigh, and held at an angle less reminiscent of Pres than of the way those Tarantino gangsters fire their pistols, he proceeded to sonically violate me in a way that, once upon a very long time, believing my suburban white heavy metal the most transgressive music imaginable, I couldn’t have begun to fathom. And wasn’t I pleased to find out later that Zorn had recorded with Slayer’s original and only true drummer, that cocaine-infused dynamo Dave Lombardo? Didn’t I say then, “See, I told you he was a metalhead”?

Of course, Zorn’s no metalhead. Still, I like to imagine hundreds of such recognition scenes: “See, I told you he was a punk!” “See, I told he you he listened to [Stockhausen, Messiaen … fill in the blank]!” Suffice it to say Zorn’s musical universe is too elemental and too chaotic to adhere to the boundaries of any one genre for very long.

Were he to stop there, though, Zorn would fit neatly into the genre-bending that has characterized jazz for the last half-century. Nor is it enough to simply say that Zorn is at once an uncompromising musician and highly conscious of himself as a performer and promoter, or even that he knows how to market his uncompromising artistry. It’s rather how he handles—explodes, really—the “contradiction” between artist and performer that sets him apart. He wallows in it. He recognizes that only by actively invoking and manipulating the artist-entertainer binary can its conventionality be exposed, and the construct held up to ridicule.

*

       After the ’99 Vision Festival, I didn’t see Zorn again for almost four years. This was partly because I left the City half a year later to finish my doctorate, and didn’t return until the summer of 2002. In hindsight, though, I wonder if it wasn’t also to keep that Vision night’s cosmic mindfuck enshrined in my memory. There had been something so right about the church basement setting, the metal folding chairs in lieu of pews. Zorn’s partner that night was the percussion guru Milford Graves, a man for whom the word “grandstand” might have been invented. Between that set and the Anderson-Parker-Drake one that ended the night, I left feeling like some newly-minted evangelist, all ready to rush out into the wilderness and found a religion.

I guess four years was long enough, because when I saw Zorn billed with Brazilian singer-guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria for a set at Tonic, I decided the time was right measure, as Melville reckoned it, the size of god.

I got there late, but Zorn was later. The Goth-Tinkerbells who worked the door said he was having dinner, that he’d had a busy day and was running behind schedule.

The club was almost silent. Inside that halo of red Christmas lights, on the crotch-high altar Tonic called a stage, for the early-birds in the few chairs and the hipsters sitting crosslegged on the floor and the dozens shifting from one foot to the other behind them, Cantuaria thumbed bossas on his plump hollowbody, half-whispering in Portuguese. Erik Friedlander accompanied him on cello, filling the sonic near-vacuum with a restrained lyricism. After a few songs, a drummer sat in. He treated his kit like it was made of glass. Maybe it was the sound of bottles at the bar behind me.

Forty-five minutes later, Zorn trucked in, sat down on stage, and said, “That was the candy, this is the medicine.” There was no slow build into the cacophony, no time for the musicians or audience to adjust. It was like an evil clown had wandered onto a movie set right when the glamorous couple, lying on the beach in Rio, were about to kiss.

John Zorn: musical freedom-fighter or musical terrorist?

Wasn’t it just possible, I wondered later, that he’d planned the whole thing? It was of course so very very Zorn, just the kind of jump-cuts out of which albums like Naked City are built. And then the first piece Zorn drove into was longer, more dissonant and more wildly malevolent than anything that followed. When he finally let up (and Friedlander, too, and the drummer, both of whom had caught the wave without blinking), Cantuaria was still thumbing his bossas and whispering in Portuguese, a subdued act of resistance … or a state of shock. And Zorn lay his horn across his lap and looked wryly at the crowd, as if this Brazilian singer-guitarist had shipwrecked on a free-jazz set, and was playing the unwitting straight man in a musical comedy.

If music often finds its most nuanced accents in a blend of sweet and sour, Zorn, like some demented chemist, had separated the two—let Cantuaria give us the sugar until we choked on it, and then himself gave us the medicine until we choked on it. But far from demonstrating that each element couldn’t exist on its own, whether serendipity or plotted coup, the partitioning worked. It worked maybe because free jazz is finally not interested in musical instruction, but destruction—another kind of sugar, the kind that monkey-wrenches the culture industry, rotting the teeth of its gears, dissolving binaries—sweet-sour, instruct-delight, artist-entertainer. The show didn’t “work” in the sense of musicians playing together like good little boys and girls; according to that definition, it was a trainwreck. Later on, sure, sort of. But the minutes following Zorn’s entry were the performance’s jagged peak. There, in the unexpected moment where the performance “fails,” it finds its center as live experience. And how could that peak, or that abyss, when every expectation about the performance is torn away from us, appear, unless we had been fattened, sweetened, and kissed goodnight by Cantuaria?

It’s one thing to bend generic boundaries by bringing the free reeds of avant jazz to metal and punk—other musicians have done this, and clubs like Tonic and CBGB’s used to be around to capitalize on it. It’s quite another to descend like a roaring lion upon well-intentioned Brazilian singer-guitarists. The former marks a daring openness that has done much to expand the language of contemporary music, and to turn younger music fans onto new styles and sounds. The latter is a calculated effort to break down the perceived barrier between two conceptions of music’s role in culture—to mess with our heads at the very root of thought. It’s in the latter that Zorn really distinguishes himself. A serious and thoughtful musician, always ready with the blue note, the honk and squeal, this joker, macaw, one hand behind his back, always smiling at himself and at us. Shaman and showman, circus clown and medicine man, he is as much at home playing the ringmaster as with his head in the lion’s mouth, or swinging a hundred feet above the startled crowd without a net.