“There’s something magical about opening a book and closing a book.” — John Zorn
“It’s time to get back to the way humans ate before industry ruined food … we cater private parties and corporate events.” — health food restaurant window
Since I was a kid I’ve been fired from four jobs, two of which I never got paid for. The first paying job: clerk in an art supply store. Reason for termination: too slow. The second paying job: in a print shop. Reason for termination: too stoned. The two freebies were: emcee of a festival, a job I held for 12 or more years—reason: being rude to the audience (I finally kind of got hired again); two: writing for the New York Jazz Record—reason: one of the main editors told me I wrote too much like myself and then went on to say he thought I didn’t really want to write for them anyway. How would he know? It was a way to get into gigs free, as well as getting free CDs.
Ah well, so here I am at the Rail for interminable years now. Where was I? Why am I saying this? Oh yes. When I was growing up, the only women in jazz one ever heard of were the vocalists, with an occasional nod, mostly, to pianists like Mary Lou Williams or Marian McPartland, organist Shirley Scott, and the rare mention of arranger/musicians like Melba Liston—or the even rarer mention of saxophone players such as Vi Redd. Well in one recent issue of that paper that fired me, I was happy and overwhelmed to see a large variety of women interviewed and mentioned (CD reviews), in all the above categories, though most were still singers and pianists. To name a few: Ingrid Laubrock, Sarah Vaughn, Barbara Carroll, Annie Ross, Nina Simone, Kris Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Angelica Sanchez, Irène Schweizer, Magda Mayas, Karin Krog (I hope that’s a woman), and a review of a book, How it Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement. Also, more of the paper’s writers are now women as well.
More by coincidence than by design, I had the opportunity to hear three very distinctly different big bands in one week. The first was lead by saxophonist Laubrock, at Clemente Soto Velez, and consisted of some 30 or more reed and brass players and one drummer. The music was totally improvised and consisted primarily of collective solos and physical movement, beginning with folks coming from all sides of the room and converging in front of the audience while playing an extended drone—à la Phill Niblock. This became a cacophony, that, as the musicians spread themselves out again into various areas, dissolved into soft disjointed echoes, finally falling into silence.
The second was Rufus Reid’s Quiet Pride at the Jazz Standard, which consisted of more or less the usual configuration of brass, woodwinds, reeds, bass, guitar, piano, and drums, with the addition of a conductor. The compositions were part of a suite and were inspired by the work of African-American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett. The three final pieces, “Tapestry in the Sky,” “Singing Head,” and “Glory,” grew in texture and intensity, creating a completely woven thread of ideas and sounds that filled the palate in the same way Catlett’s sculptures occupied the spaces they inhabited.
The third was one my editor George really wanted me to hear (I mentioned this in an earlier column), Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at the Jazz Gallery, which had a similar configuration to that of Reid’s. The tunes were all originals and had very interesting themes. One was a tribute to Levon Helm, another, titled “Codebreaker,” to the Englishman Alan Turing, who cracked the German codes and later committed suicide due to England’s intolerance toward gays. Other pieces included parts of a suite called Brooklyn Babylon. These dealt with various parts of the borough, like Coney Island, and problems like gentrification and over-expansion, portrayed in a piece called “Builders,” the standout tune for me.
All three bands incorporated women. While Reid used one woman in the standard role as vocalist (all vocalese), Laubrock and Argue utilized many as instrumentalists. Several in Argue’s band were key soloists. What set the three apart were the dynamics, structures, and freedom exercised by each. While Laubrock employed pure improvisation, with probably some advanced planning, the others relied entirely on charts and individual solos. What they had in common was, like most large ensembles, they left the audience feeling exhilarated and uplifted by the sheer volumes of energy the music produced at its climaxes.
Sadly though, no one, it seems, has managed to extend the sound of the modern big band much beyond Ellington, Mingus, Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva, Anthony Braxton, or William Parker’s Little Huey Orchestra, and a few rare others.
After Argue’s set I headed for the subway with my friend Marthe. The ride downtown ended with us discussing the pros and cons of music and the younger generation of musicians, while a minstrel on the subway sang Russian folk tunes.
Speaking of exhilarating, Charlemagne Palestine’s solo organ recital at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn literally pulled out all the stops. I sat up close so I could watch what he was doing, what methods he used to sustain the notes or how he let his hands occasionally flutter across the keyboard to create slight melodies. The impact of the (nearly) one-hour recital was completely compelling, engrossing, and liberating in how it drew us in. For those on the ground floor, Palestine created an altar piece out of his beloved stuffed animals, two of which held pulsing colored lights with alternating colors. This added to the weirdly personal/mystical environment the music helped to create. Afterward, Palestine said that there was no finer instrument than the organ and that nothing has ever beaten it and nothing ever will. We all then went to one of Palestine’s favorite haunts, Junior’s, for meat loaf, pastrami and corned beef combos, and cheesecake.
Shalom Neuman has been creating his comic, emotional, and bizarre art for decades, and music has always played a vital role in his pieces—many of which sing, talk, and/or have musical backdrops. Neuman has a long history of collaborating with musicians and including their soundtracks in his artwork. He has worked with John Cage, Don Cherry, Charlie Morrow, Oh Zee, Philip Rostek, Brett Zweiman, and Butch Morris, whose music is part of the Toxic Paradise series. This series, created in the 1980s, will be on exhibit as part of his upcoming retrospective showat the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada. His work will also be exhibited at Grave Art Center in Victoriaville, Quebec concurrently. Much of the artwork on exhibit contains motion detectors and its own unique sound track. The audio for the art is either original music or spoken word by the Unbearables, including, but not limited to, Ron Kolm, Jim Feast, and Carol Wierzbicki. Neuman calls what he does Fusion Art and indeed it is. It is almost always three dimensional and oftentimes combines every medium, be it visual, literary, or musical. His concerns are of the utmost relevance and import, spanning the heresy of religion and extreme political and ecological disaster, often incorporating live performance. His work appears in many anthologies and catalogues, such as the Unbearables Big Book of Sex.
“Amerigo Mackeral & the Octave Doktors,” a collective band of artists, poets, and musicians and the brainchild of Aaron Howard, have released their first handmade, CD, on the hook. It is scary, folksy, fun-loving music. With the exception of “fireball,” sung by Sarah Moskowitz (with Howard on backup vocals), the song based on a story by guitarist Pat Cuatico and co-written by the three, and “americana,” which is an instrumental, all artwork, lyrics/ poems are by Howard, who sings/speaks/reads all the text.Howard uses his alter ego, Amerigo Mackeral, to tell stories in the form of letters written to various entities: mocking birds, hats, lace, string, worms, doctors, night. We are taken into the world/head of Mackeral the way John Berryman takes us into that of Henry in “The Dream Songs.”
The group consists of Howard, Jeff Burns, Pat Cuatico, Sarah Moskowitz, Sami Buccella, and Brian Sloan. The instruments range from whistling to jew’s harp to banjo to organ to typewriters, drums, and organ. This very surreal, down-home CD should keep everyone company, whether cooking, driving, or tearing one’s hair out. It is definitely one of the most relaxed tension-filled pieces of art I have ever encountered.
Paraphrasing both Ross and Carroll: to keep the audience captive you must tell them a story. So I suggest that one should listen to what is behind the notes to HEAR what’s there, if at first you can’t digest what you don’t first comprehend. If there is something truly moving or important being said, or if it is truly monumental and momentous, eventually the music will speak to you, decide for you and possibly even change your taste as well as your LIFE.
And as Cornell West so aptly put it: “There is nothing you can say about music that is more sublime than the music itself.”
The world lost another fierce musical/political warrior last month, saxophonist/composer Fred Ho, who lost his long battle with cancer. This column is dedicated to him.