The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

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JUNE 2010 Issue


“Jane painted a radio so real it played.”

—James Schuyler

You are born to live, but you die instead…Nothing comes without risk…
There’s nothing that doesn’t backfire, not even painting stupid pictures.”

—Philip Roth, from the novel Everyman

“After generations of mediocrity and vipers…
a real poem kicks the poetry politicians in the balls…”

—Jack Micheline

One recent cold, full-moon spring night I was just about to give a second spin to Identical Sunsets, the new Dunmall-Corsano LP on ESP (the record is a killer), but instead the dial fell onto WKCR. I was presented with an array of all my favorite bluesmen from Blind Willie McTell to Blind Willie Johnson, and I thought, Wow, when’s the last time you or I listened to Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee? Two guys I actually got to see way back when.

Bunky Green; photo by D. Vass
Bunky Green; photo by D. Vass

Before I begin to speak on what I’ve seen these past few weeks I want to talk about labels. Two not-so-new terms that have been bandied about a lot of late are “outsider” and “jazz poet.” But here’s the thing: Whenever I ask people, particularly those in academia, what they mean by these terms I get smart answers like, “As Gertrude Stein said on her death bed, ‘It’s the question that’s important, not the answer.’” So if we can’t define these labels, why bother to have them? Now that the terms themselves have reached into academia, as did the Beats, there seems little hope left for the real McCoys.

The term “outsider” for me used to refer to something unique, before it became a selling point in the art world. But then again there were always outsiders like Patti Smith, who strove her entire career to become a household word. And why not? With fame comes dollars. I remember Patti once saying at a concert, after her characteristic spit on the floor, “When I was poor and happy…” Right, Patti! People have the power!

I once heard Yoko Ono tell a woman whom she had inspired to write, and who did so every day on the subway due to her living conditions, not to give up. Sure, Yoko, why don’t ya just splurge a little, and give the woman some of your millions? Am I bitter? Am I jealous? You betcha. A well-known poet with many accolades was recently called an outsider by a New York Times reviewer because he had never until his latest book been published by anything but university and small independent presses and now had his first book out by the prestigious publisher FSG. The critic then went on to say that this is what happens to the very best of the outsiders. Geez, if an armful of awards and 50 books published by university presses aren’t enough to make one an insider, then what does that make me?

I recently saw two of the most pretentious, flat, and boring shows that dealt with both outsider and jazz-poet genres, one in a theater setting and one at the School of Visual Arts, both with bebop and the Beats as backdrops. The one at Visual Arts was about poet Bob Kaufman, who was given the gamut of labels, and was so dry I wanted to shoot up right there in the amphitheater. The other show, called the Beatnik Café, incorporated everything from Bird to Lord Buckley to Sam Cooke to Elvis to Kerouac, who was portrayed by Jake Lewis. Lewis did a fine job typing away the overly long evening and intermittently reading what he had written, in this case passages from (what else?) On the Road. The playwright and self-proclaimed jazz poet Namaya actually pretended to shoot up on stage, in a weak attempt to sensationalize the despondent mood caused by the transitional 50s. Even the high quality of musicianship, from the likes of Chris Sullivan, Michael T.A. Thompson, Lillie Bryant Howard, and the legendary Sheila Jordan, lyrics by the under-heralded master Oscar Brown Jr., and two vocalist “chicks” dressed in black tights and berets could not save this production, which most of the sold-out crowd (including the legendary Joe Franklin, who must be 200 years old by now) seemed to love.

One outstanding recent evening was the return of 75-year-old Chicago altoist Bunky Green, now living in Florida, at the Jazz Standard (the only high-end jazz club where one doesn’t have to pay a minimum). Green co-led the tremendous group Apex with Rudresh Mahanthappa. When I brought Green a copy of the paint-stained LP he did with Sonny Stitt, Soul in the Night, to autograph, he was sitting and seemed tall, but later standing beside him backstage I saw that he was actually shorter than me. On stage and off Green’s demeanor was gentle, but when he let go on his horn he sounded as close as one could get to the best of Jackie McLean, fierce and dramatic. A sweet man.

In the solo department, I caught a powerful feat in multiphonics by Evan Parker on soprano at the Weill Auditorium, a lovely solo set by accordionist Guy Klucevsek, a rare solo outing by drummer Bobby Previte, and the wizardry of Henry Kaiser, who also played in settings with Zorn, Ribot, and Robert Dick, among others. Two of the best sets in recent memory were by the Michael Bisio Quartet with guest Joe McPhee doing an extended Bisio composition “Blue State,” and the trio Konk Pack featuring British drummer Roger Turner, who in my humble opinion is one of the best drummers alive. (I sat in on two workshops by two outstanding Parkers, Evan and William, with their completely different and unique approaches to music.) These all took place at the Stone.

And speaking of Joe McPhee, there are two exquisite LPs of his solo saxophone music out in limited editions on Roaratorio.

There was the Brotzmann-Drake duo at Clemente Soto Vélez, where Brotzmann’s shadow was as provocative as the music. John Sinclair and company rocked Zebulon. At Local 269, Test did their usual superb job. And at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center Sam Rivers, now 86 years old, turned in a fine performance filled with gusto and good humor.

On April 30 Penderecki conducted Penderecki at Carnegie. The first two pieces, from 1960 and 1969 (“Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima”, with slight variations on one tightly stretched thread, and “Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra”) were signature adventures in forward thrust, tension, dissonance, and controlled chaos. But I found Penderecki’s later pieces from 1989 and 2008 rather average if well-written exercises in classical music, filled with every post-romantic notion imaginable.

Louis Andriessen’s Dante-based opera La Commedia was disappointing, perhaps because Carnegie Hall is not the right stage for a concert version of any opera, or maybe because I didn’t read the libretto, which was in four languages, or maybe because Andriessen’s pastiche of so many musical genres became too obvious too soon.

I’m not a big fan of vocalists, and most of the ones with extended techniques who also combine their styles with wit drive me mad. So all the “girls” in Andreissen’s series at Weill, Three Naughty Boys and Three Crazy Girls, featuring the voices of Iva Bittová, Greetje Bijma, and Cristina Zavalloni, left me squirming. But I must add that Joan La Barbara’s multi-directional stereo piece at Roulette using strings, piano, trombone, glasses, electronics, and La Barbara on all manner of noisemakers, plus her expert vocalise, left me spellbound.

Coming up June 18 and 19 at Le Poisson Rouge and ISSUE Project Room, respectively, are two benefit concerts for Anthony Braxton’s Tri-Centric Foundation honoring Braxton on his 65th birthday with a stellar cast of musicians.

And finally, this year’s edition of the Vision Festival will run from June 20 to June 30, with the bulk of it taking place at the Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement. The festival will be honoring Muhal Richard Abrams for lifetime achievements. Many familiar faces like Matthew Shipp, Hamid Drake, Fred Anderson, Kidd Jordan, Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Charles Gayle, and Sabir Mateen will perform, plus “surprise” appearances by Joëlle Léandre and the duo of Leo Smith and Günter Baby Sommer. There will be a tribute to the late Rashied Ali, and Gayle will lead a bass choir in honor of the late bassist Sirone. I’m looking forward to Billy Bang’s set—Billy has been having health problems recently and we’re all pulling for him.

“Music,” as Evan Parker stated, “is the thing that describes itself.”

It’s 2:17 a.m. and I just put on the Dunmall-Corsano vinyl I mentioned earlier. Bagpipes, tenor sax, and drums—what more could one ask for? It’s not what you assume you hear but what you do hear. Sometimes we must stop time so that we may be able to LISTEN better, closer, clearer.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2010

All Issues