“Smart people don’t live in this neighborhood.”
—From the film Edge of Doom
“Excuse me Ma’am, I am an artist. The New Museum took my space away. Can you help me?”
—Junkie with his bike as he approaches my wife at
a crosswalk in the Bowery
“This sounds like an improvisation but it’s actually composed.”
—Joanne Kyger, poet
At my age, with all the music I’ve experienced, it’s very interesting to view inter-generational artists within a short period of time—all of them with unique qualities and skills. I was recently asked in an interview if there were any young players out there that interested me. My answer was “Yes. They range from ten to eighty-two years of age.” Here’s a sampling:
Ten-year-old drummer Koji Roney, son of saxophonist Anton Roney, recently did a three-day residency at one of my all time favorite venues, JACK, in Clinton Hill (they earned a 2015 Obie grant). Koji was joined each night by his father, plus luminaries Cooper-Moore and William Parker and an added soloist each night. The night I caught them, Nate Wooley was the guest. Before the others joined in, Wooley played a short set of abstracted standards. Koji started off the second set and the others gradually joined him. Having failed miserably at my attempt to play the drums at ten, I was more than astounded by his abilities. He was able not just to keep impeccable time, play triplets, and do a great job extending bop and post-bop language, but for more than an hour he kept up with—and at times surpassed—the elders with his energy. All the music was improvised and the configurations went from solos to duos to full ensemble. His possibilities of expansion seemed endless, and though like any musician he repeated himself a lot, I could only imagine how much better he could become if his language grows with him. Though at times he seemed to look toward his father for guidance, he was for the most part his own man, a well-formed, independent spirit with little self-consciousness. Toward the end of the set, they were joined by saxophonist Michael Foster, who curated the evenings, making the group into a five-generation band, and bringing the fireworks up a notch.
Twenty-six-year-old, Brooklyn-based Foster is one of the hottest avant-sax players and improvising multi-instrumentalists on the scene, his sound and extended techniques falling somewhere between John Butcher and Evan Parker. He is young, fresh (in both senses of the word), and very much alive. He was born on the Lower East Side, then moved to L.A., then back again to finish school in 2007. Foster works, as he puts it, “within […] improvisation, composition (both graphic and notated), jazz, noise, punk, industrial music, and video.” Since moving back to New York, he’s gigged with Weasel Walter, Steve Swell, Pascal Niggenkemper, Psychic TV, Chris Corsano, Kid Millions, Nate Wooley, Han Bennink, Marina Rosenfeld, and many others. His current working ensembles include: Foster, Michael Evans, and Niggenkemper; the Andrew Barker Trio; While We Still Have Bodies; a trio consisting of Foster, David Grollman, and Ohio-based Ben Bennett; plus a weird and wild duo with Bennett, the son of neo-fluxist, experimental, mail artist/poets Catherine Mehrl Bennett and John M. Bennett.
Bennett and Foster began playing with drummer Grollman, and their crazy improvisations landed somewhere between music and performance art. Their duo project resulted from their strong musical affinity, something that needs to be seen (as well as heard) to be believed, pushing the sonic boundaries of the drums/sax duo over the edge. At times their vocabularies overlap, so one is barely able to distinguish one voice from the other, Foster becoming compellingly percussive on the sax, while Bennett, who also makes his own instruments, blows on what I learned were membranes, like reeds—I recently caught them at drummer Andrew Drury’s salon series Soup and Sound. Their experimentation in sound, both together and separately, causes a dynamic shift and expansion of the sonic palette, plus a tense, vulnerable unpredictability. My bet is on these guys for adding to the healthy, solid future of improvised music.
On vinyl only, Hank Wood and the Hammerheads’s Stay Home is both a hard-hitting, at times frightening, neo-punk mélange/montage of fear, oppression, and—as the inserts, with drawings and lyrics by the twenty-five-year-old Wood reveal—a perfect description of the imperfect “Toxic State” we dwell in. Though the vocals are muffled and the words difficult to make out, one will surely get caught up in the (somewhat) vengeful monotony of the pounding beat, and following the lyrics is no assurance it will be any easier, but the challenge is there through the depth and conviction of lines like, “Outside on the street the ghost keeps calling my name,” “take my will / take my prints […] take my time / take my picture / take my space,” “the people on this planet are beat / trapped asleep,” and “nervous city / broken bricks / anxious / nervous heads.” The record ends with the simple plea “SPACE SPACE SPACE.” One thing is sure: this is not a sing-along.
One of the best gigs I’ve seen this year was also at Drury’s series. It was what has become one of my favorite working groups, Kaze (Wind), with pianist Satoko Fuji (Japan), trumpeters Natsuki Tamura (Japan) and Christian Pruvost (France)—who is undoubtedly one of the new young greats of improvised music and extended techniques—and drummer Peter Orins (France). Their repertoire consists of complicated extended compositions intertwined with uniquely singular improvisations. When my wife Yuko told Pruvost afterward how sophisticated she thought they were he said quizzically, “Sophisticated? I think we sound very wild.” I laughed and said, “Well you have to be pretty sophisticated (as well as mature) to play that wild.” They played Downtown Music Gallery sans pianist a few days later and the experience was equally provocative, convincing me even further of this group’s uniqueness, and that Pruvost and Tamura are possibly my two favorite in-tandem trumpeters. Their two latest CDs, Uminari and Tornado, are on Fuji’s extensive label, Libra.
At sixty-three, professor, composer, trombonist, electronics master, and author George Lewis has now tried his hand at opera. Though only act one was presented at Roulette recently—and much of the libretto could not be heard—one got the idea of what was in store via video, what was presented to us live, and in the program. The opera, titled Afterword, The AACM (as) Opera, is a rendering of Lewis’s book A Power Stronger Than Itself, which traces the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musician’s (AACM) roots from way before its beginnings. It is a musical equivalent of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, following the struggle of poor African-Americans as they move from rural Mississippi to urban Chicago, paralleling the struggles to make ends meet as they become upwardly mobile. It centers around the development of educational, spiritual, and musical growth that occurred in Chicago and led to the founding of the AACM, along the way invoking personal stories of Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, and others who grew with the changing times. As the notes testify, the opera grapples with “issues of power, authority, identity, and culture” and that what we are hearing is “history as it was being made.” Though at times I found it a bit difficult to imagine and listen to this type of text-based language sung, I am totally looking forward to the completed opera which will have its premier in Chicago this fall as part of the AACM’s fiftieth anniversary. There will also be many concerts in New York at that time by all the AACM greats. And where will I be during all that? Germany and France, sob sob.
As far as age goes, eighty-two-year-old Wayne Shorter, someone I’ve listened to since the mid-’60s, turned in a more than excellent performance with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in May. Shorter’s tunes, arranged by various members of the band, ranged from his Vee-Jay days through the ’80s. They included pieces he wrote for his own and Art Blakey’s groups, on Blue Note, to tunes he wrote for Miles Davis’s second great quintet on Columbia, to later tunes on seminal LPs like Native Dancer (not one of my favorites). Though I always championed Wynton Marsalis for his technique, I never thought all that much about the orchestra or his backward way of looking at jazz, but I truly have to say the arrangements were on the money and at times truly exciting. Everyone played well and with deep respect for Shorter and his compositions, and Shorter himself came to play—and play he did. We left the concert full, happy, and satisfied.
As I recently read or heard but forgot where or by whom, “Language is too wild a thing to support a fixed ego.” So keep it zipped.
I dedicate this to Ornette Coleman who passed away in June at age eighty-five. A true innovator and embodiment of music. Unique, brave, and above all FREE. THIS IS OUR MUSIC.
Poet/collagist STEVE DALACHINSKY was a long time contributor to the Rail. His book The Final Nite & Other Poems (Ugly Duckling Presse - 2006) won the PEN Oakland National Book Award. His latest CDs are The Fallout of Dreams with Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach (Roguart, 2014), and the book/CD Pretty in the Morning with the French art rock group the Snobs (Bisou Records, 2019). He was a 2014 recipient of a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. His most recent books include Frozen Heatwave, a collaboration with Yuko Otomo (Luna Bissonte Prods, 2017) and where night and day become onethe french poems (great weather for MEDIA, 2018) which received a 2019 IBPA award in poetry.