The new year has started off with a bang. We’ve got a new administration that rode in on a tide of new promises and old music by the likes of Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Aretha. And we have what has begun as a promising season of new releases from independent labels, new operas by independent composers, new performances by independent musicians, and one great revival by the mother of all independent theater groups.
In late January I did a two-week stint in England, where I gigged at Warwick University, eating bad kosher food for six days and failing dismally in my attempt to explain to a couple of thousand Jews why I was the “Wrong Jew.” Then I moved on to Cheltenham, where I gigged with a brilliant sextet led by British composer Pete Wyer. This led us to the famous Pinewood Studios to record with Wyer for the BBC, and finally to London, where I gigged on a boat with a fantastic South African drummer, opposite such luminaries as Lol Coxhill. Then I returned home, rested up for two days, and had the great pleasure of seeing one of my favorite groups, By Any Means (Rashied Ali, William Parker, and Charles Gayle), twice on the same snowy evening at two entirely different venues playing two aesthetically different sets. The first show was at Kenny’s Castaways as part of the Winter Jazzfest (which used to occur in the Knitting Factory until KF’s recent move to Williamsburg) to an audience of at least two hundred; the second was a private concert for fewer than twenty people in the Film Building on Ninth Ave. and 45th Street as part of the Company of Heaven Jazz Festival.
As for the operas, first I devoured Robert Ashley’s trio, Dust, Celestial Excursions, and Made out of Concrete, at La Mama. [See the review of Dust elsewhere in this issue.] Concrete is comprised of six seemingly unrelated stories as seen through the mind of an old man suffering from a stroke, and explores, among other things, golf and the fact that a “pyramid was designed to make us ask questions” such as “Who did it?” and “Why can’t we do it now?”
Though I am not a devout Ashley fan, his importance as a composer, poet, and performer is evident to me. He is an artist who lives in and thrives on the present, particularly the simple complexities of everyday lives, while in turn making these lives transcendent by their very lack of operatic emoting. This is accomplished by having every nuance of text interpreted in such a plainspoken, rhythmic way as to reveal its varied emotional textures. This style, so capably delivered by his “band” (four vocalists and himself), makes the dialogues timeless.
Though Ashley’s messages are universal, he is a uniquely American artist who guides us through the maze of language by using the simplest words to describe the most troubling feelings. His librettos don’t create puzzles, but allow them to create themselves as they emerge out of these myriad overlapping stories and images. Not unlike Kantor’s use of the bio-object in theater, Ashley creates bio-language, wherein the actor/singer and his/her dialogue seem to merge to create a third organism which can best be described as a kind of breathing instantaneous life-force. In Celestial Excursions, there is a constant tug-of-war between the mechanical and the electronic without the adherence to spectacle.
On some levels, however down-to-earth the scenarios might appear to be, Ashley’s works, euphemistically deemed “television-operas,” will always stay beyond the grasp of the proletarians he so fervently concentrates on and probably remain always confined to an audience of primarily white, downtown intellectuals.
The next new opera to open this season is a long-awaited John Zorn–Richard Foreman piece, Astronome: A Night at the Opera, presented by Foreman’s Ontological Theater at St. Marks Church and running through April. It is all you would expect from these great geniuses of post-post-twentieth-century mixologies.
The final opera, aka a musical-theater piece, was a one-day revival of Marc Blitzstein’s 1937 The Cradle Will Rock, which, like Ashley’s work, is mostly sung. Its indictments of big business, media, and religion are still relevant today; the sad part is that its fight for unionizing, which it helped foster, has also ended up being a fight for another corrupt arm of the populace it tried so hard to help.
As for the revival, that was the Living Theatre’s fiftieth-anniversary version of Jack Gelber’s great pre-fix/post-fix play The Connection, which, though a bit dated, still has the strong impact of intense scripting and music. The play was written when Gelber was twenty-seven, premiered in 1959, filmed shortly after that by Shirley Clarke, and subsequently revived several times over the years. It has always contained great music and great musicians performing it, from the original Freddie Redd tracks with Jackie McLean in the driver’s seat to such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Cecil Payne, Gary Bartz, and in this recent production René McLean (Jackie’s son) and his quartet. The Connection is a play within a play, filled with improvisation, audience plants, and “real-life” junkies asking for money for dope in between its two longish acts. It was so real at times that it almost made me itch for a bag of dope myself.
After a successful run at BAM late last year, the work of Finnish filmmaker Teuvo Tulio was again dusted off and displayed recently, this time at Anthology Film Archives. The musical moment of the new year came in his 1944 film The Way You Wanted Me. Maija, an innocent country girl turned high-priced hooker, starts revealing secrets of the other hookers (who in the past had spurned and abused her) to their rich johns, while all the while in the background a lone piano is plaintively crooning “Go Down Moses.” A few moments later, with the music still playing, Maija’s daughter—who has coincidently shown up at the restaurant to sell the Finnish equivalent of Girl Scout cookies—opens the door to a back room only to discover her mom making it with one of the johns, hence finally realizing how Mom has been spending her evenings. The use of this song to show one’s slavery to oneself and a system that can treat impoverished women so harshly was for me a brillant stroke.
Some musical moments that transcended all boundaries in recent months include a Joey Baron solo gig at The Stone and the intense duo of Mat Maneri and Randy Peterson, also at The Stone. Randy is one of the most under-appreciated, under-heard drummers around. For the “noise” crowd, the season started with the trio of Thurston and Gene Moore with Matts Gustafsson on baritone and electronics. (Check out the Sonic Youth/Gustafsson/Merzbow LP on SYR records.)
The oddest gig I’ve encountered so far this year was Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky’s exhibit at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea. The show included remixes of everything from Rodchenko to John Cage, including canvases that were barcoded with a remix of a Cage piece and that could actually be played when activated.
Finally, quick mentions of some excellent new CDs from four enduring independent labels, one old, two new, and one blue. First, from Aum Fidelity, there’s Farmers by Nature, featuring the trio of Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn, and William Parker, who also did a beyond-the-call-of-duty CD-release set at The Stone. Next, there’s Harmonic Disorder, the new one by the Matthew Shipp trio on Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series. The trio also gave an outstanding performance at the Jazz Standard to accompany the disc’s release. And, from the fledgling French label RogueArt, Maison Hantée, a new concept in spoken word and music featuring both French and English texts by Alexandre Pierrepont and Mike Ladd, accompanied by such luminaries as William Parker, Hamid Drake, Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, and Thurston Moore. Last but not least, from ECM we’re given The Dowland Project, featuring songs from the 12th century to the present sung by tenor John Potter with John Surman on reeds, plus a violinist and guitarist.
And remember, my fellow Oxen, that if for any reason you should have trouble seeing the changes we’ve been promised, keep your ears wide open, LISTEN hard, and maybe you’ll get to hear them.