“ “There is no such thing as history. There are only historians.”” — from the Peter Greenaway film The Tulse Luper Suitcases (2003)
““Look at me,” she sternly told her young son.
“I can’t look at you. You’re right in the sun,” he replied.”
So I’m at the Jazz Standard listening the Maria Schneider Big Band. So? So nothing. I just wanted to make that point. To my left is a cute, young Asian woman with whom I am gradually falling in love until she starts in on her fries. I’m thinking bad music played well. She stops eating and stares intently at the stage. I start falling for her again. Her cheeks are shiny and round. She begins touching her nose and gently pulling her hair. I immediately fall out of love again. The song ends. Its title: “Home.” She claps. Smiles a big innocent smile. Then resumes eating her fries.
I’ve heard so much GOOD music played BAD and BAD music played GOOD. Or as Alan Sondheim recently pointed out to me, “It’s WELL not GOOD.” Whatever. The bottom line being that all through history there’s been a lot of BAD ART DONE WELL. Like this CD I’m listening to right now. Folks should learn to move things around. Reduce details. Germinate. Discover flexibility. Talk with “real” people. Distinguish noise from fog. Work and play should be inextricably intertwined. Most things build or descend into chaos then seem to disappear. Why? Even good musicians playing good music can lose the flow. I’ve heard this countless times, especially in extended improvisations, even melodic ones. Players have to stay loose and not try to employ or overuse various languages within the basic body of the piece or the thread gets lost. There’s such a thing as “too much,” as well as the watered down version of one’s self.
Speaking of real, a colleague recently said of many young writers “There’s too much reality and not enough realism.” Ditto with music. There’s this axiom: It’s permissible to write tunes, so I will. Like with different styles of poetry, tunes are encouraged. For the most part they follow generic patterns and structurally, harmonically, and melody-wise sound like hundreds of other tunes. Materials picked up by listening too well, rather than through the bop practice of fracturing, re-arranging and rendering the original (standard) almost indistinguishable. Playing off the changes rather than simply playing with them. Making something new rather than repeating what’s there. I’ve spoken before about the importance of listening but if one loses one’s self and then goes on to (re)create music that’s been heard, the result is a randomly, casually, deceptively “new” creation without anything NEW.
It is said there is nothing new under the sun but I can cite many instances that refute this. One must try to move forward. This problem is recurring: duplication, imitation, and the result is “trying” rather than “doing” or “being.” When the three together enter that third realm of BEING then new ground is broken, even if only a spoonful. The “head” into bass, drums, sax, trumpet, guitar or variations on the basic quartet, quintet, sextet over and over again. Ideas that were all done before are still fresh in the composer’s mind. Why not? He/she is doing it, no one else! How to cut up the pie? Some form of collective cubism, or a variation on the idea of the inclusive harmolodic structure perhaps instead of endless mono-dimensional patterning? There are direct efforts to emulate or pay homage to. We see this lineage in Haydn > Mozart > Beethoven > Wagner > Mahler > Schoenberg. Bird > Trane > Dolphy > Ayler. But one must incorporate and/or go beyond. All the above did.
There is a huge difference between extending, expanding, changing the language and merely being another appendage of the existing body. Recently I heard a singer/songwriter from a “famous” underground group of the late ’80s/early ’90s. I asked someone working the venue what she thought of him because I found it quite conventional and boring. She replied, “He’s really an innovative rock guitarist, you just have to listen.” I arrogantly but softly retorted, “I’ve always felt that if someone really was innovative there’d be no need to LISTEN. I’d hear it right away.”
Whoa, Steve. Settle down. What are you trying to get at? Nothing. Just trying to pass the time, fill up my space. Unlike Poe putting down Longfellow, I hopefully have nothing to lose.
“Speak up—we can’t hear you,” a voice from the front of the audience shouted. “Okay. Thanks Mom,” was the musician’s reply. I wondered, did Monk’s mom ever go to hear him play? Or Bird’s or Sun Ra’s?
And on the subject of Sun Ra, New York’s Kicks Books recently published the first of a trilogy of Ra’s science fiction poetry titled This Planet is Doomed (2011). The collection is shot through with such lines as “the past is a dream / if it is not a dream / where is it now?” and “I gave up my life and am here on this planet of death” and “the greatness of any country is music” and “black is space? / sometimes music becomes more than music” and “there is music everywhere / infinite infinity is the language of enduring impression.” The poems go from dark to light to naïve to prophetic. All are incisive, deep, philosophical “strange worlds,” summed up by Ra’s lines “if I win I win / if I lose I win.”
One of the supreme events of 2013 was a tribute/benefit for altoist/composer Arthur Blythe who is on the west coast and is ailing. It took place at Shapeshifter Lab (one of this Brooklyn boy’s ultimate Brooklyn venues) and was led by Oliver Lake. The performers included Vernon Reid, Gerry Gibbs, William Parker, Michele Rosewoman, Bob Stewart, Reggie Nicholson, Kelvin Bell, Craig Harris, Amiri and Amina Baraka, Darius Jones. Except for one well-constructed improvisation, the tunes were all Blythe’s. The evening began with the classic “Bush Baby” and ended with “Lenox Avenue Breakdown.” Much of Blythe’s music is colored with shades of blue all in a swirling tradition with Latin tinges, and literally makes one want to jump, like the old musical term. It was a rollicking and poignant evening.
Albert Ayler said, “Music is the healing force of the Universe.” Well, at this year’s 10th anniversary of the Winter Jazz Festival I experienced that firsthand, however briefly, with the first set I took in on the first night. It was a second time hearing, and only the second performance of, the Chess Smith Trio with violist Matt Maneri and pianist Craig Taiborn. This came on the heels of the deaths of my dear friend and birthday brother, trumpeter Roy Campbell, followed closely by the death of poet, friend, and mentor Amiri Baraka. That set nearly spoiled the entire festival for me though there were other moments of what I caught that I truly relished over the two days. Most were of tried and true groups, including an expanded Henry Threadgill group that performed a piece Threadgill wrote and conducted for the late Butch Morris, another overwhelming loss to the community.
This year saw the use of some added venues like Judson Memorial Church, N.Y.U. Memorial Law Library and the warm, welcoming SubCulture. Later on the first night, the Peter Brötzmann Trio played Judson, matching everyone’s expectations. Brötzmann ended his set with a warm Ayler-esque melody, reminiscent of Ghosts, that he’s played many times but this time I felt like he played it for Roy and that weird healing feeling overcame me again for an instant. After the set I thanked him, gave him a hug and said, “It’s been a rough week.” Knowing well what I was referring to, he turned his head slightly to my left averting my glance and replied, “It’s been a rough life.” And so indeed it has Peter.
There’s been an outgrowth of musician-run salons throughout Brooklyn. Drummer Andrew Drury runs one in his apartment, as do members of Z Couch, a collective of musicians who do various in-apartment concerts. I recently had the privilege of participating in one at the wonderful bassist Pascal Niggenkemper’s apartment. It was well attended, mostly by musicians, and provided camaraderie, food, and drink. The hat was passed and all the players got paid. Like in Europe, this trend is flourishing.
2013 closed with the death of two music greats: guitarist Jim Hall, a true innovator of sound, and the beyond-inspirational Yusef Lateef, a true gentle giant and force on the scene for decades. 2014 began with the passing of Phil Everly, a major voice from my childhood. I dedicate this piece to Campbell, Baraka, and the others for their spirit, vigilance and truth.
Big thanks and farewell to Dave Mandl, my long time editor at the Rail, and a big hello to my new editor George Grella. Hello George. Sorry I never got over to catch Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society after you mentioned I should, but I did catch him on YouTube. “All …We … Have To Do Is Dream.”