Diary of a Mad Composer
“Welcome to the resistance.” – Darcy James Argue
“What resistance?” – Random dipshit
The first notes I heard in the Winter Jazzfest were the elegant, intelligent, muscular sounds of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and his ensemble, Sicilian Defense. It was only a few notes: the New School Glass Box space was at capacity with an overflow crowd—this for a 6:40 Friday start time—and the internal prerogative of age told me not to endure the standing-in-the-club experience any more than was absolutely necessary. Unfortunate for me, but encouraging for Finlayson, who has one of the most beautiful trumpet sounds in contemporary jazz and is making terrific music.
Fortunately for me I did get a seat for Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at SubCulture. Heading over there, it felt like a default choice—I’ve seen them several times, have all the albums—a little comfort food before Jacob Garchik’s Ye Olde. With trombonist Garchik in front of guitarists Ava Mendoza, Jonathan Goldberger, and Mary Halvorson, and Vinnie Sperrazza on the drums, Ye Olde is like if Sonic Youth, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin got together to riff. They played blistering funk-metal, and the set exploded with energy and a sense of fun. Then, near the end, they ripped into the loping lament of “Ye Olde of Flatbush,” and hit a profound, wrenching emotional note.
But I need to go back to Darcy James Argue, because the Secret Society set was probably the most important hour of the festival. The theme this year was a commitment to “equal justice for all humanity,” that basic thing our own Declaration of Independence promises.
The band played Argue’s latest composition, Real Enemies, in abbreviated form. Reinforcing morale and solidarity, calling to action, expressing determination through jazz—I heard and felt all this power through excellent sets by the ageless David Murray and from William Parker’s In Order to Survive quartet. But that music treated the symptom; Argue got at the disease.
Real Enemies is a music theater piece, ideally seen with its accompanying video by Isaac Butler. A Parallax View-style, eerily manipulative visual catalogue of the events in modern American history that have birthed a thousand conspiracy theories, the images and music together bring one to the verge of thinking that Argue is, well, arguing that the moon landing was indeed a hoax (etc.). Then James Urbaniak’s dry reading of edited passages from Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” cuts through the waves of influence. It is a visceral experience of the kind of fugue-state, hermetic thinking that leads down the path of conspiracy thinking, and an unsparing analysis of what drives such thinking.
It is stunning how drastically the 2016 election transformed the experience and meaning of Real Enemies. In polished, cool tones that deliberately recall TV show soundtracks by hip musicians like Neal Hefti and Elmer Bernstein, Real Enemies was no longer a knowing look at the Other, but an examination of what’s happening and how we got here. The ongoing wrangling over who and what is to blame over Clinton’s defeat cannot hold a candle to the music’s insights. The piece is interspersed with snippets of audio from news archives, and when Senator Frank Church’s voice warned of how propaganda planted by the C.I.A. in foreign news journals could come back as news that would influence domestic politics, the chill made everyone’s heart skip a beat, including the random dipshit quoted above.
Argue’s score is sophisticated, subtle, complex, and challenging for the musicians, who played it with precision and cool fire. Listen to the record several times; let its intelligence and determination grow in you. It’s important. There is plenty in jazz and music that says “this is wrong”; there is nothing other than Real Enemies that says “this is how it got that way,” or that does so via satire and critical analysis. There are constant calls for fact-checking, but no recognition that propaganda is the tool to use against people who have abdicated knowledge and reason. Real Enemies shows that the fundamental disease is government secrecy, and that those who will be running America are paranoid conspiracists, aided and abetted by default by the smug, lazy dipshits who surround us on cable news and in newsprint. In the absence of Mingus-like mockery—and mockery is the primary tool to use against authoritarians and their sycophants—see who the real enemies are.
It bothered me that there was that dipshit at the show, a real bro-type. The audience for Argue was almost entirely white and predominantly young, while the audience for Murray (and his young band that included his son, Mingus, playing some extraordinarily fluid guitar) and Parker was bunched around middle age and had a far greater racial balance. These were old-school avant-garde fans out to see their heroes, and Murray and Parker did not disappoint—in Parker’s group Cooper-Moore played some fiery piano, and altoist Rob Brown was stronger than I’ve heard him before. At the foundation of the performances was abstract social critique with direct roots in the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements.
The exhilarating freedom and social uplift in the music was wonderful, but these alone are inadequate to face the times ahead. And if Real Enemies is to be a linchpin of resistance, then Argue and his younger, whiter audience could use some lessons in experience from the original, all-American resisters, African Americans. Jazz musicians come together in a living continuum of past and present, but I feel no certainty that their audiences will follow.
As small as it is, the jazz world has camps of fans and critics, who see and accept narrow ranges of styles and ignore everything else. The programming at the festival this year seemed to exacerbate that, by mixing like styles and generations at the same venues on the same nights. I hope they’ll consider shuffling the decks more next year.
This was irrelevant at the ECM stage, which brought musicians together in that label’s unique emulsification. This is no a bad thing: ECM has long created an abstract ideal of listening, a sense of warm purity where the beauty of the notes is the most important thing. With the most mixed crowd in terms of age, race, and gender, I was pleasantly surprised by the energy of guitarist Jakob Bro, and disappointed by the staidness of Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan.
I was frustrated by the David Virelles/Ravi Coltrane duo. The two never seemed to mesh completely, couldn’t find a logical pace. Coltrane’s playing was strong, especially on sopranino, but Virelles, who is incredibly inventive and agile, deferred too much. This was a duo that played more like a soloist with accompaniment.
The last set came from Nik Bärtsch and his acoustic band, Mobile. Bärtsch makes intricately patterned groove music, with minimal use of even basic pitch. It’s all about patterns that lock together and move, and is ridiculously complex for the musicians; Bärtsch often played two independent, syncopated rhythms at the piano, while his two percussionists handled three each. In the bubbling surface of polyrhythms, tiny changes and unique details took on explosive meaning. After about fifty minutes of rhythms, the harmonies that appeared in the last ten minutes were a revelation. The overall shape and sequencing of the set kept everything pointed to the final moment. This was one of the finest performances of any kind I’ve seen in many years.
The Sunday night tribute to Thelonious Monk on his 100th birthday at Littlefield was the last of the festival for me. And like Saturday, there was the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Plus there was another dipshit, loudly demanding that the musicians introduce themselves, without so much as a “please.”
This was a concept concert: a group of musicians rotating in various configurations through music from Monk’s album Solo Monk; the tribute concert as ancestor worship. But do the gods still punish men?
Monk is understood in direct inverse proportion to how much he is admired. There is a fetish for his public eccentricity that, like with Satie, blinds many to his essence. Monk was, and still is, the great rationalist of jazz, the most advanced and outstanding advocate for the basic, even conservative, value of good, old-fashioned song form. Monk’s tunes, and the way Monk applied his stamp on standards, created an absolute structure inside which he found endless ways to play with harmonic and melodic rhythm, dissonance, time, and space, in the service of bringing it all back home.
You play Monk straight, with or without a chaser, because if you play around with Monk, he plays you. Take him outside the changes, like Erik Friedlander tried to do, and he leaves you nothing but your own bad judgment. Imitate him, like Virelles did at times, and you sound foolish. But work with what he gives you, all the Jenga-like pieces of the puzzle that you can—thoughtfully—rearrange, and it comes out wonderful.
And Virelles did sound wonderful when he played inside the tunes, as did Kris Davis and Marc Ribot. They each found something that interested them—an interval, a phrase, a rhythm—and turned it inside-out, back and forth, upside-down. The basics, in short, and nothing honors Monk more than showing the brilliance of the basics. Back to basics: maybe that should be the first rule of the resistance.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.