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George Lewis’s 676-page magnum opus A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Musichas, after ten years of intensive labor, finally come out. It was unveiled at the Community Church of New York last month with much fanfare, including a panel discussion, a book signing, and a fantastic concert by Lewis, AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams, and Wadada Leo Smith.

I admit that I have not yet gotten through the entire book, but I can assure you that it tackles its subject from all directions, giving personal histories and scholarly points of view and a wonderful overview of the experimental American music scene from Louis Armstrong to Henry Cowell, Bird to Varèse. A great and informative read, and highly recommended.

As for the concert and discussion, I can say that both were brilliant and insightful. The panel, moderated by Greg Tate, was made up of a group that consisted equally of men and women, members of the AACM both old and new (including Douglas Ewart, Henry Threadgill, Iqua Colson, Matana Roberts, Wadada Leo Smith, and Amina Claudine Myers). The speakers emphasized that the AACM has always respected individual leadership and fostered the idea of creating one’s own thing, while always being supportive of each other even as far as learning how to deal with the business end of art. Among the other points made by the panel members were that the AACM should be considered a full partner in the expansion, innovation, and compositional diversity of experimental music; that it can shape how the future is going to be when looking at the present decay; and that it helps define where the origin of a black aesthetic comes from versus a white aesthetic, and how these are filtered through the individual’s sound and personal language.

Now on to the concert. The trio played magnificently, freely, showing all the qualities inherent in all the histories the AACM encompasses, and all the voices they wish to nurture. It contained slow rumblings, sustained notes, flutters, elongated articulations, and intense trio, duo, and solo passages by all. Above all, each player exhibited the ability to listen at the highest level and to fulfill that promise of uniqueness and support.

Sunny Murray at another church: On a stormy night in the Lower East Side, in a church carpeted with plush holly and with an alter decorated by creeping grape vines, Sunny Murray launched into his sermon with lines like “Thank you, Jesus,” and proceeded to preach a litany of stories about this, his old neighborhood. At least twice in the evening he chanted “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” rather badly—his point, I suspect, was that great music is hard to come by, that Unity in a group, as he pointed out, invoking Albert Ayler’s name, is hard to achieve, and alas that monetary gain is still elusive in this greedy world when it comes to playing free music. But the moment he put his foot on the high-hat you remembered that he is a master no matter how crazy he may be. And when his sticks touch the kit there’s no one who can compare with or come close to his oddly “pure” sound. For me he is one of those rare players where, despite what else is going on around him (in this case a trio consisting of tenor saxist Louis Belogenis and bassist Michael Bisio), it’s Sunny’s unique sound my ears seek out even with his sloppiness, his constant interruption of himself and the music, and his often naïve use of language both verbal and technical.

The two short sets were uneven, with Bisio going off into his own space most of the time and Belogenis playing too many Trane-isms while trying his best to hold the trio together. But it was Sunny we sought on this dark and stormy eve, and it was Sunny we found.

No Fun Fest at the Knitting Factory: After Sunny I got a lift across town to the No Fun Fest, of which all I can say is that it was no fun for me. I hate noise.

Of the handful of sets I attended over this three-day event, the standouts were White Out (Tom Surgal and Lyn Colbertson with guests, No Fun founder Carlos Giffone and the ear-opening violinist C. Spencer Yeh) and a new trio fronted by Lee Ranaldo. Ranaldo’s group consisted of Lee on vocals (or monosyllabic spoken word) and two drummers, Surgal and Pete Nolan of the Magic Markers. What made it fun amidst all this audio torture was that the players performed blindfolded and had to be led on and off the smoky stage. After his rant, Lee played a fistful of crashing guitar sounds and then smashed his guitar to bits á la Pete Townshend. If not for the dadaist way this was executed it might have been just another set, but the element of theatre—albeit somewhat clumsy theatre—made it work. Earplugs were in high demand throughout the weekend.

Tomas Stanko Quartet with guest Billy Harper at MoMA: As part of moma’s Jazz Score series (featuring screenings of films that include jazz soundtracks), which runs through September, at least two live concerts have been planned. The first was Stanko, the great Polish trumpeter from the sixties and seventies who, along with a handful of other Eastern European pioneers, helped forge the way for the Soviet Bloc underground jazz scene. Later Stanko ended up on ecm, where his sound has mellowed quite a bit to conform to the ecm “touch.”

Stanko and Harper, backed by a young Polish trio, performed originals as well as the music of the great film composer Krzystof Komeda. They played to a sold-out room: mellow music to a mellow audience. For me the music was a bit sedate except for one long piece, which had moments reminiscent of Freddie Hubbard’s Breaking Point. It was a long suite-like piece with many sections in various tempos and solos by all. One of the best of those was provided by the group’s pianist, Marcin Wasilewski, whose new trio cd January on ecm exudes a gentle warmth recalling Bill Evans. Another standout solo was provided by Harper, and Stanko occasionally threw in an interesting lick of his own.

The Sun Ra Arkestra at Sullivan Hall: In celebration of Marshall Allen’s eighty-fourth “arrival day,” the Arkestra played two intense sets covering many Sun Ra classics and such standards as East of the Sun. Though in the years since Ra’s and John Gilmore’s deaths I have felt all the ups and downs and inconsistencies of the group—now led by Allen, who remains one of the strongest and most unique alto sax players around—these two sets showed me why they are still part of a handful of truly great big bands to have come along and survived in this greedy world. Their vitality, spirit, and otherworldliness are incomparable, and their ability, as when Ra ruled the earth, to create controlled chaos in an electroacoustic setting cannot be matched.

An example of this chaos arrived in the middle of the first set, as the band played a long abstract piece that magically settled into a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.” After Marshall blew some great solos he blew out the candles and cake, and Moon Pies were served to the packed house between sets.

One final issue: On a warm night in a very hot, standing-room-only space known as Issue Project Room—housed in the building known as the Can Factory near the Gowanus Canal, and one of the best presenters of musical and non-musical experimentation around—the quartet Spiritual Unity, which exclusively plays the music of Albert Ayler, provided over an hour of heat. The group, consisting of Marc Ribot, Roy Campbell, Henry Grimes, and Chad Taylor, was backed by the projections of the famous Joshua Light Show of sixties psychedelia fame, who were serving a one-week residency projecting their magic behind different musicians every night. The group and images were beyond intense, with Campbell and Ribot smoking the place and Grimes tearing up the bass, while Taylor held down the fort with intense in-and-out-of-time rat-a-tat-ing.

To sum things up, in this era where gas prices are at a record high and we now have a robot on Mars, we can all use a dose of Spiritual Unity, and I can only suggest that Space is the Place and we’d be better off hitching a ride on Rocket #9 and travelling those Spaceways from Planet to Planet rather than waiting around for the next crane to collapse. And as the Ra gang so sweetly and aptly put it near the end of their second set: Free Yourself /Free Your Mind/And Watch the Sun Shine.

So clean the wax out of your ears, mold it, spin it, and watch how the needle digs into the grooves creating sound. Then, most important—listen.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2008

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