“Rhythm is the space of time danced through… Logic is the lowest form of Magic”
“God is under the porch where the dog died”
—Sam Neill, in the film Possession
So I’m walking down Spring Street on a blustery winter day, when I’m greeted by the somewhat out-of-tune sound of an alto sax playing Bird. Suddenly I hear hysterical screaming coming from somewhere above, “Shut up. Go home. You can’t play. SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” I and others look around for the source. Finally I see the guy at his fifth-floor window on the corner of Mercer Street. He notices me too, or so I think, quickly pulls away, and pulls the window shut. “I know that face,” I tell one of the onlookers, “he’s a famous music critic for the New York Times.”
And speaking of critics: At a recent lecture another critic of renown went on and on about how he was an “outsider” because he had no education, despite the fact that he works for a major periodical, earning much credibility and a good salary. He went on to quote the French poets and other sources of import, always referring back to the term “outsider.” During the Q. and A., when I asked him if he really thought he was an outsider, he shyly replied that, in the heart of everyone, even great, famous artists, we are all outsiders, then went on to say he wouldn’t give up his job for anything in the world. Afterward I ran into a colleague and explained that I had a dilemma. “I want to write a scathing review of someone I recently saw but am afraid to mention his name since I know him fairly well.” Whereupon he replied that if I were going to criticize someone I should be nice about it. So here goes.
I saw two Composer Portraits at Columbia University this winter. One of the composers left me wondering; the other, ecstatic. Both managed to compose and present “classical music” that, for the most part, came out of and absorbed almost every pre-existing genre from Bach to jazz to Varèse. Both are excellent musicians at the top of their craft and the best at what they do—innovative, creative. But whereas one fell flat on most accounts, the other was bold and tight. Both at times used jazz and poetry as their jumping-off points, the former with text, the latter as inspiration only. The former composed a percussion piece that utilized jazz and new music with text. It came off totally awkward. The latter pulled off a trio piece that had a densely written piano part countered by controlled yet improvised drums and bass. What it amounted to was a sort of Cecil Taylor-meets-Boulez-or-Ives. Incredible. A first. And in his piece for three brass instruments we got every trick that one could manage on a horn. Both composers had pieces that sounded somewhat like Varèse sans sirens, both in this case missing something—perhaps tension. True postmodern magic versus postmodern tragic.
Xmas eve gave us an eclectic benefit concert for the Sixth Street Community Synagogue, where saxist Greg Wall (Hasidic New Wave) presides as rabbi. Wall has introduced many great art, poetry, and music programs to the synagogue, including a festival of performers who have recorded for John Zorn’s Tzadik label (one of the foremost independent labels). On this night the artists, most of whom have recorded for that label, were Cyro Baptista, Shanir Blumenkranz, Wall, Frank London, and the Ayn Sof Arkestra, which included young poet Jake Marmer, whose new book, Jazz Talmud, I will review in an upcoming issue. Among the highlights of the evening was an inside-out rendition of “Winter Wonderland” performed by Zorn and some of the aforementioned musicians. Zorn recently released a Christmas album on Tzadik, and the buzz is that it has become the best-selling CD on the downtown scene.
The new New York–based Relative Pitch Records recently released their first two CDs. That Overt Desire of Object features the duo of Joelle Leandre on contrabass and voice and CalifornianPhillip Greenlief, a new name for me, on woodwinds and voice. Encountering Greenlief for the first time was a pleasant revelation. Combined and separate on a series of pieces simply called 11 variations for contrabass & woodwinds, the duo make for a powerful, mind-altering sonic as well as technical foray into improvised music. Their sounds blend, clash, and bend as they expand the limits of their respective instruments and prove what is rarely seen these days, that there is still room as well as hope for the New Thing. Leandre, as always, is all over her bass, caressing, beating, bowing, imprisoning, but never smothering or killing the music. Greenlief likewise proves he is a master of spatial containment as he both expands and contracts his notes and tones, always maintaining an elusive edginess yet never spilling over the top of the glass.
The second Relative Pitch release, Take Your Time, comes from a California-based quartet led by reed man Vinny Golia, including the legendary Bobby Bradford on trumpet, Ken Filiano (who now lives in New York) on bass, and Alex Cline on drums. It reminded me a bit of Dolphy/Little or Roach/Brown sans piano or even, at times, a touch of Alan Shorter’s Orgasm. Though not always as inventive or “modern” as any of those, it is well played and a product of its time and the history of musical language that all have accumulated and consumed, with fine compositions by Golia as well as intense solos by everyone. This music gets stronger, more daring, and more inventive with each listening.
Also in store in the near future on Relative Pitch are a trio—with alto-saxist Jim Hobbs, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and cornetist/trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum—called Aych; a DVD of Joey Baron and Bill Frisell; and a duo recording of Jemeel Moondoc and Connie Crothers. All due for release in 2012. As one of the label’s founders explained, “We want to support the music we love, which is everything from noisy free jazz to lowercase improv … We are open to any good music.” I concur, and though good music is in “the ear of the behearer,” so far these guys score large in my ears. I strongly suggest you support the independents, of which there are now an ever-growing number, and from which, as always, most of the best music comes.
I recently experienced two new projects by Tony Malaby. The first was a quartet with drummers Ches Smith and Gerald Cleaver and bassist John Hébert. The group went through an almost non-stop Trane-esque set, with Malaby in top form and as always displaying his versatility and expansiveness. The set, which took place at Clemente Soto Vélez as part of the ongoing Arts for Arts series, lasted almost an hour and a half. The second Malaby project was a CD release party for his Novela at the Jazz Gallery. This time he led a nonet, which consisted of trombone, alto, bass clarinet, drums, piano, trumpet, piano, tuba, and Malaby on tenor and soprano. The tunes were arranged by classically trained pianist Kris Davis, whose virtuosity ranges from free to new music. As Malaby pointed out, she took tunes he had written almost 20 years ago and considered dead and made them live again. Though dull in spots, the group, with its incidental, accidental, or possibly planned awkwardness, maintained a controlled mayhem, flinging sound all about the room, together or in anti-unison when soloing or as a whole. Some arrangements were very post-Mingus, filled with low rumblings, the tuba at one point scaring the hell out of me, interlocking voicings both on and off beat, building and bridging different intensities, highs, lows, thicknesses, and sparseness. The structures went from deceivingly simple to layered and complex, with Davis conducting the group from time to time. Drummer John Hollenbeck, who I am not a fan of, turned in a great, albeit monochromatic, solo near the end of the set. My major complaints would be that most of the time Davis’s piano was lost in the mix and, as I told Malaby at the end of another exhaustive hour-and-a-half set, maybe there was too much good music. I have not heard the CD, but if this gig was any indication I would say go out and buy it and support another independent label, in this case the Portuguese giant Clean Feed. Davis also premiered her new group (consisting of Tim Berne, Mat Maneri, and Chess Smith) and compositions at the Cornelia Street Cafe. She is also part of the Paradoxical Frog Trio on Clean Feed, a group I strongly endorse.
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith celebrated his 70th with two nights at Roulette, which featured trios; quartets; a string quartet with voice and trumpet; a sextet; an electric ensemble of five guitars, cello, and trumpet; and a 28-piece orchestra. Though flawed in spots, for the most part the two evenings went very well.
An addendum to David Shirley’s piece on the Fugs in the November Rail: A reissue of the group’s Broadside LP and many of their subsequent and most important LPs were on the infamous ESP label (another independent). According to Ed Sanders, the Fugs never received royalties, and he fought for and eventually won the rights back for all the albums. To my knowledge, the only other artist on ESP to ever do this was Ran Blake, whose solo album appeared and then disappeared as Blake rather quickly sued for and won his rights back. Sadly, as far as I am aware, this great record has never been reissued.
And speaking of ESP, look for a book coming out next year by Jason Weiss that will deal with the label’s entire history. (Weiss gave us the 2006 definitive oral biography of Steve Lacy, Steve Lacy: Conversations, published by Duke University Press.)
I ended 2011 by catching the last hurrah of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s Eve, performing on three stages to a sold-out crowd with music composed by John King, David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, and the brilliant Christian Wolff. Both music and dance moved seamlessly, tirelessly, beautifully, gracefully, and magically from one piece to another. I started 2012 with a sweet performance of the John Tchicai sextet and a more-than-satisfying duo gig by Charles Gayle and William Parker in an evening dedicated to Rashied Ali. The duo brought me back 22 years, to a time when the two would perform regularly in a Lower East Side squat called Ray Taylor’s Living Room (chronicled in my poetic bio of Gayle, The Final Nite and Other Poems: The Complete Notes from a Charles Gayle Notebook 1987-2006).
Finally, I’d like to bid farewell to two giants who passed on at the end of the year, the ever-present steadier Paul Motian and the ever-vibrant innovator Sam Rivers. May they join forces wherever they may be.
As Emerson said: “For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” And Robert Ashley stated in Vida Perfecta that “sound is a part of understanding.” So stay alert, listen for the footsteps in the fog, always keep yourself occupied, and never let one hand know what the other is doing.