Thursday, June 25, 2009

Recent Listening

A couple of more well-developed posts are waiting in the wings, but in the meantime, here are some ramblings about some of the music that has particularly gotten under my skin in the past few days. Some of this stuff is new to me; some I’m known for awhile.

Tony Parenti – Tony Parenti’s New Orleans Shufflers (Jazzology). Parenti was one of the good, not great, New Orleans clarinetists, but this 1954 album is more than the sum of its parts. I love the band he put together; it’s half young musicians, half older veterans; half black, half white; half New Orleanians, half Northerners. Well, it’s a seven-piece band, so each split is not exactly half and half, but it’s a four/three (or vice versa) on each. The music is relaxed, sounding more like New Orleans than New York dixieland. My man Danny Barker is on hand – he sure had a springy beat on rhythm banjo. The young cornetist Jack Fine made his recording debut here; 54 years later I was in Donna’s on Rampart Street in New Orleans when he came in, set his horn on the bar, and ordered a drink. For the rest of the evening, whenever he felt like playing along with the band (Tom McDermott and Loose Marbles), he’d pick up his horn and start blowing from his barstool, much to the delight of the musicians on the bandstand.

Cecil Taylor – Algonquin (Bridge). This music, a duet between Taylor and violinist Mat Maneri, was recorded in concert at the Library of Congress about 10 years ago and issued on a classical label a few years later. It’s a lovely concert; the music belies the perception of Taylor’s music as unremittingly thunderous and intense. (Of course, that perception doesn’t hold up to much actual contact with Taylor’s music.) Maneri seems to totally inhabit Taylor’s world, while, at the same time, Taylor bends his music to Maneri’s sound and style. This beautiful performance further deepens the mystery of how Taylor’s music is put together: what’s composed, what’s improvised, and what’s the difference in Taylor’s world, anyway?

John Patton – That Certain Feeling (Blue Note). I’m using this wonderful record to represent Patton’s Blue Note recordings in general. I’ve had a couple of them for years, but my recent exploration of the Blue Note organ scene of the 1960’s has led me to realize what an interesting musician Patton is. I’ve been tracking down more of his Blue Notes, and find myself going back to them often. Big John could play standard organ funk with the best of them, but was not content to stay in that bag for very long. While perhaps not a great improviser, Patton composed or chose settings that would allow him and the other soloists to stretch quite a bit further than was typical on an "organ grinder" date. “I Want to Go Home," from That Certain Feeling, is an interesting tune in 5/4. It doesn’t have an obvious groove like “Take Five” – it took a little while to reveal itself to me.

Roscoe Mitchell – Nonaah (Nessa). Specifically, the 1977 solo alto saxophone set from Willisau, which is the only part of the double CD I’ve had the stones to listen to so far. This music knocked me on my ass. The first several minutes consist of the same short, jagged phrase played over and over, while the audience gets increasingly (and vocally) more restless. To quote Mitchell from the liner notes: “It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn’t move till they respected me, until they realized that I wasn’t going anywhere, and if someone was going it would have to be them.” When the tension is almost unbearable, Mitchell finally begins to develop the piece, and does so in amazing ways. Several more minutes in, and he has the audience with him; the catcalls have subsided, and there is total, mesmerized silence behind Mitchell’s softest passages. At the end of the 30-plus minute set, the crowd erupts. This is some of the most intense, stunning music I’ve heard for quite a while, and I regret waiting 32 years after it was first issued to experience it.

I should be ready to tackle the rest of Nonaah tomorrow….

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Magic Slim

I don't often read music magazines anymore. At one time I had subscriptions to several, including Downbeat, Cadence, and Living Blues. I'm not sure why they don't interest me anymore; I know that I no longer try to keep up with up with the latest news and latest new names in the kinds of music I like. (Sometimes this is to my detriment - I'm a year or two behind the curve concerning saxophonist Steve Lehman, whom I heard about just a few days ago. I've got some catching up to do there.) But I was in a bookstore yesterday and took a look at the music magazines; there, smiling up at me from the new Living Blues, was my favorite living bluesman, Magic Slim.

Well, you know how it is. In a couple of days, I might name someone else as my favorite living blues musician - Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, or even Corey Harris. But Morris Holt, aka Magic Slim, is certainly up at the top of the list. Magic Slim and the Teardrops play straight, unadorned Chicago blues - the kind of Mississippi blues overlaid with big city energy that you might have heard in the Windy City back in the fifties or sixties. But I hope that doesn't give the wrong impression - there is nothing "retro" or nostalgic about the Slim and the Teardrops. Even if they are playing a 50-year-old variant of a 110-year-old style, they play it with a strictly contemporary energy. This is music for tonight!

Slim is 72 now, but is still hitting it as hard as ever. He was born in Grenada, Mississippi, at the edge of the Delta, and took up guitar when he lost a finger on his right hand in a cotton gin accident, putting an end to his budding piano career. After playing local juke joints and house parties, he moved to Chicago when he was in his early twenties and apprenticed with Magic Sam Maghett, who gave him his nickname. About 15 years ago, tired of the crime in his Chicago neighborhood, Slim settled his family into the least bluesy spot on earth - Lincoln, Nebraska. Except that in Lincoln you can find more than just rabid Nebraska Cornhusker fans and the Penis on the Prairie (as the irreverent call the Nebraska Capitol building); you can find the Zoo Bar, one of the country's great blues bars.

I've been lucky enough to hear Magic Slim and the Teardrops at the Zoo Bar and another one of America's great blues bars, Blind Willie's in Atlanta. Slim (who hasn't lived up to the second half of his nickname in years) is pretty unprepossessing until he climbs onto the bandstand and plugs his Fender Jazzmaster directly into the amp - no pedals or effects for him, thank you. His guitar sound is as raw as you might expect, his vocals are strong and basic, and the Teardrops rock the Chicago shuffle like no other band around. The resulting sound isn't fancy, but it sure is strong. Slim's music has a directness and purity that make "revivalist" blues bands sound phony.

There are quite a few recordings by Slim and the Teardrops out there. I can't claim to have heard them all, but my favorite out of the ones I am familiar with is Black Tornado, on Blind Pig. Two tracks, "Wake Me Up Early" and "She's Got Bad Intentions," could serve as a two-part primer in Chicago blues grooves. "Early" is a perfect Chicago shuffle - intense, yet relaxed, while "Intentions" has a groove that the blues guys call a "flat tire shuffle" - the last triplet of every beat is accented. The result is a loping groove that is incredibly laid-back, yet at the same times moves forward like a freight train.

Magic Slim is a treasure. I hope he stays around for a long time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Holy Ghost

"Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I was the Holy Ghost."
-saxophonist Albert Ayler

The first time I heard Albert Ayler I was horrified. I was 17; my mom used to frequent junk stores, looking for bargains, and she would bring home any records that looked like they might be jazz. I've mentioned the Arista/Freedom Sampler album that she picked up for me in a previous post. As I said before, the Anthony Braxton and Oliver Lake tracks got to me right away, but the Ayler track, "Saints," was just repellent. I couldn't believe anyone would want to play like that. But, being a curious guy, I also wondered why anyone would play like that - what was Ayler getting at? So I listened again, and then again. On the third listen, a light bulb went off - the piece was a rondo. Ayler kept coming back to the same melodic material. And there was a melody - I could hear it. I was fascinated. Once I knew that the piece made "sense" - it had form and logic - I wanted to hear more Albert Ayler and understand his message.

Thirty-something years later, I sometimes feel that I'm not much closer to "understanding" Ayler, but I love his music - the best of it, anyway. Albert Ayler represents the furthest extreme of jazz; the most "advanced" music (in terms of language) created in the name of jazz. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could take the musical language of jazz further than Ayler did, and almost 40 years after his death, no one has. At its most extreme, Ayler's music was harsh, atonal, and devoid of regular pulse. It makes for very intense and demanding listening.

If you have access to the Revenant Holy Ghost box set of Ayler's work, listen to his first small-group recordings, with Herbert Katz's Finnish group. He plays the written melodies of these conventional tunes with assurance, but once his solos start, he is in another place than the rest of the group. It's easy to understand why some of the group thought he didn't know what he was doing, since his improvisations have little relationship to the harmonies of the pieces. But it's also apparent, at least in hindsight, that they were wrong. As odd and unexpected as some of Ayler's note choices were, it's obvious that he knew exactly where he was in the structure of the tunes all the time. And it's equally obvious that Ayler needed a less conventional setting in order to get his message across.

In practice, Ayler's mature music was not unrelentingly harsh or demanding. Many of his improvisations, no matter how intense and abstract they were, were launched by simple, singable "heads," often marchlike. And as his career went on, the tonal, folkish melodies became longer, while the atonal solos got shorter. And pieces like the beautiful "For John Coltrane" had an identifiable key center throughout.

But in my opinion, the music he recorded in 1964 represents Ayler at his purest. The heads are short and the improvisations are frightening, accomplished, and utterly unlike anything heard up that time in jazz or any other music. His colleagues (usually Gary Peacock on bass, Sunny Murray on drums, and sometimes Don Cherry on trumpet) are totally in tune with Ayler's aims. He created some wonderful music after that, but for a taste of the "real" Ayler, hear Spiritual Unity, Prophecy, Vibrations (also known as Ghosts), or The Hilversum Session.

Although Cherry came from a somewhat different place than Ayler, musically speaking, his work with Ayler showed how adaptable he was - he adjusted his playing so that it fit perfectly with Ayler's. Later, Albert tried to create a trumpet player in his own image by bringing his brother Donald into his band. This was valuable as a negative example; Donald's one-dimensional playing showed that Albert, in contrast, was really onto something. On any record on which they play together, compare Donald's blaring, monochromatic playing to the range, variety of phrase shapes, and dynamics of Albert's improvisations.

Ayler's intense music came from a pretty intense individual. As might be deduced from the titles of his pieces ("Holy Holy," "Spirits Rejoice," "Zion Hill"), Ayler's music was largely inspired by his strong religious feelings. The Holy Ghost box set contains a 1966 interview in which Ayler frankly sounds a little crazy; he is so full of pseudo-biblical sayings that's it's a little scary. He sounds somewhat more in control in the 1970 interviews; he is still pretty intense, but also amiable. But in November of that year, his body was found in the East River; the circumstances of his death have never been completely explained.

This post has been difficult to write, and I'm still not satisfied with it. Ayler's music is so complex and demanding that's it's difficult to talk about. So I'm going to end with a copout. Here is perhaps the best paragraph ever written about Albert Ayler, by Max Harrison. Reading the first sentence here always gives me a chill.

Even decades later, on listening to Ayler's courageous, bewitched, desperate music, we are haunted by the strange and disquieting impression that we are out on the very limits of the expressible, out on the last dangerous fringes where the ice of what we normally call art is so thin that we can almost see through into the depths below, into the mysterious thing-in-itself from which we abstract the all-too-human conventions of music. What he did in his best moments seemed like a further attempt at exploding the language of music so that it might eventually approximate to the mind's complexity. To those who say that language, even musical language, is a social contract which cannot be broken without loss of communication, Ayler would maybe have replied that his aim was less communication that communion in the appreciation of mystery.

from The Essential Jazz Records, Volume 2; p. 502.