Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Notes from Underground

(above: original cover art for Phill Musra's LP The Creator Spaces)

I got a phone call tonight from Philip Musra, a reedman and composer living in Los Angeles. He’s not a figure who’s well-known in the jazz (or even avant-garde) community, though his work in the 1970s with his brother, multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosmic, Turkish-born drummer Huseyin Ertunc, and bassist-composer John Jamyll Jones is the stuff of curiosity and possibly legend. Part of what has made their music – available on a small scattering of privately-pressed LPs – so interesting is that it does not sound like anything else. I recently characterized the trio music (without Jones) as something like a collision between the AACM and Alan Sondheim’s Ritual 770 or another, similar wild-and-woolly artists’ collective. The group was based in Boston at the time and also worked with pianist Gene Ashton (now known as Cooper-Moore) and poet-vocalist Ntozake Shange, among others. Apparently Musra and Cosmic also spent time in Chicago studying with AACM musicians. Until recently, not much was known about their concurrent and subsequent activities.

For me, the music of Musra, Cosmic and Ertunc was extraordinarily important and seemed so from nearly the moment I heard it. At that time, I was focusing more on collecting records and listening than I was writing about music. There was a wall I felt had been reached in both my hearing and what I was exposing myself to—and It seemed like in this music there might be a fixed way of doing things. That sounds laughably naïve to me now, but sometimes one needs a good shove to the other side in order to conceive of the possibilities. Seven or eight years ago when I found these records, they were that very push. Shimmering percussion dense but hanging in midair, maniacal insistence on mini-organ chords or frantic arpeggios on a glockenspiel, and intertwining flutes and saxophones are the linguistic building blocks, and the dialect is unlike anything I had previously experienced.

Jazz and improvised music is a very big field with room for a hell of a lot of approaches, but as with any field it’s guilty of narrowing itself. As a reviewer of new releases, one can hear a decent slice of the music being made now (I'd hazard a guess that it's impossible to hear all of what's "relevant"), and certain methods become discernibly popular. Sometimes those methods are really interesting and provide a lot of fruit for both the improviser/composer and the listener. But that’s just when one needs a shock – not necessarily of the NEW BIG THING, but of an inversion of what’s already been done. Sometimes those refinements can be just enough to turn one on one’s ear, whether it’s the work of Musra and company or a younger crew of artists. It’s just as often “throwing shit at the wall to see if it sticks” as it is a measured approach to reassembling prior experiences into a unique object.

Of course, it’s not anybody’s job to “shock the critic” or one’s peers, and that is not entirely what I’m getting at. Doing what one does resolutely and well makes one impervious to flak, and who is to argue with the artist who is doing exactly what THEY want to do? However, I do sometimes feel the need to have my ears rechecked, and for that I’m very glad that there is music out there that defies traditional categorization or law. Often working resolutely and finding a way to entirely obscure the boundaries of convention or history go hand in hand.

~ Clifford

While not currently in print on vinyl, the music of Philip Musra, Michael Cosmic and Huseyin Ertunc can be found on the CD reissue of Ertunc’s Musiki, available here and here. Their participation in John Jamyll Jones’ Worlds Experience Orchestra is documented here. There will be more of Musra's music available in the near future, and we can look forward to a filling-in of a few of this music's historical holes.

Monday, February 16, 2009

We Jam Econo

I grew up being very uninterested in jazz. I didn’t hate it, but it did absolutely nothing for me, even into my teen years when I was becoming a bit more musically inclined. In 1997 or so, my tastes changed—first, from noisy guitar-rock and post-punk of the Dischord Records variety to post-Viennese classical music of the Twentieth Century. Then, I became interested in the music of Coltrane, Coleman, Dolphy, Ayler, Taylor, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon et al. I didn’t grow up around that end of the jazz spectrum, so this was fairly unprecedented, though luckily I had a few friends who could at least provide me with some points of auditory reference.

I think what attracted me to this music was the fact that it had the rhythmic velocity and laidbare/immediate emotionality of the rock I was listening to, and the complexity, dissonance and counterpoint of musique contemporaine. I quickly sold my small collection of punk and indie-rock records – well, most of them anyway – and bought anything I could find from the Sixties catalogs of ESP-Disk’, Impulse, and Blue Note, setting off a journey that I’m still following and making sense of today. However, I didn’t give up on indie-rock completely and still kept a pulse on what I felt were the more interesting artists in that diverse field, new and not-so-new.

But there must be something beyond structure and emotionalism that attracts indie seekers like myself to the jazz milieu. I was listening earlier this evening to Pipedream, an album by English trumpeter Marc Charig from 1977, recorded exactly a week after my birth. It’s pretty avant-garde even by improvised standards, joining Charig with masses of sound from an organ or, alternately, plucked zither and bells, from the fingers of pianist Keith Tippett and occasional vocal peals courtesy of Ann Winter. Though acoustic, one might place the music in between the poles of ultra-spare electric Miles and post-Cageian classical work. The threesome recorded this LP in a church owned (or rented) by their friend, Neville Whitehead, a bassist. They set up and paid for the recording themselves and maybe got some grant money out of the Arts Council of Great Britain. It was released on another friend’s label, Ogun, run by bassist Harry Miller and his wife Hazel. Ogun got fairly decent distribution in the US through a few channels, about what you’d expect from Revolver today or Dutch East in the 1980s (distributors of Homestead, New Alliance, etc.). Though Harry Miller is deceased, Ogun is still active.

Now on deck is a current release from saxophonist Joe McPhee with his trio, Trio X: Live in Vilnius. It’s a small-edition LP, released in about 500 copies by an upstart Lithuanian label called No Business. No Business mostly puts out live and studio recordings made in their home base, of jazz musicians who are far from household names. Mats Gustafsson, a Swedish reedman who has released two records on No Business, recently appeared in Austin with The Thing, his trio with Norwegians Paal Nilssen-Love (drums) and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass). They played at Ruby’s Barbecue for the restaurant’s twentieth anniversary, high-octane energy music that occasionally includes covers of tunes from artists as diverse as South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza and Providence, Rhode Island punk band Lightning Bolt.

The Thing are lucky to have grants from their respective countries to tour the US, and their performances bring an audience that seems far from that which you’d expect from jazz musicians. Most of their fans are young to middle age and forty-something Gustafsson has plugs in his earlobes, sporting close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, black jeans and a black t-shirt. When asked what they were doing after the gig, the response was that they hoped to catch a local “house show.”

I was recently interviewing drummer Ravish Momin for All About Jazz. Momin is a New York-based percussionist whose work has explored “traditional” free jazz as well as Indian, East Asian and North African forms, and I spoke to him about his busy touring schedule. “We got a grant from the Asian Arts Agency of Bristol, UK and from the English Arts Council as well, and we did about six or eight gigs in England. Then we did Jazz Ao Centro, in Portugal – Pedro [Costa, of Clean Feed Records] brought us over there. Then we did a Canadian tour where we did the IronWorks in Vancouver and went through Alberta. Finally, we did a Midwest tour in October, and a tour in China that we came back from a couple of weeks ago. We actually made money on all of it, too…

"a lot of our work is in Europe, and they’re inherently open. They’ll have Fennesz another night and yet here in the States, it’s actually getting worse. There are some new venues opening up in New York doing good things, but a lot of stuff is closed to us. I don’t put a lot of energy into playing in New York because it’s so much work whereas in Europe, the audience is already there and excited to see you play. You don’t have to hustle so much. It makes you feel that people care about improvised music.”

But Momin explained to me that he has had to pay a publicist out of pocket to get his CDs reviewed and has set up each and every tour himself by emailing promoters and other musicians constantly. And for those who assume that promoters in the US (or even in Europe) are with bottomless wallets let it be known that the improvising musician is not unused to staying on a futon or sleeping on a floor in an unfamiliar city, either.

Another interviewee, saxophonist/flutist Carlos Ward, once spoke to me in 2004 (also for an interview in All About Jazz) of the time he spent with drummer Sunny Murray’s Acoustical Swing Unit, leading up to a gig at the Both/And Club in San Francisco in 1967: “Sunny says ‘yeah, I got us a gig in San Francisco and we’re gonna travel by car and take this music out there.’ The club owner apparently saw Sunny in New York and told him to call him if he was ever in town. Sunny took it to mean ‘oh, I can go to San Francisco and he’ll give me a gig,’ which means he didn’t have a gig. We’re on the road in this car, all five of us, and we stopped at one of these pancake houses one morning. We had a little storage closet on top of the car, and I had the key. Me and Alan [Silva, bassist] were washing up and nobody else wanted to – they wanted to eat. Sunny says ‘we already ate,’ I was just getting to the table and wanted to eat. Sunny says ‘gimme the key, we’re gonna leave you. We have to get to San Francisco ‘cause they’re waiting for us!’

“I ate something and I wasn’t gonna give up that key. Next thing you know, we move from inside to outside arguing, and I was amazed that nobody was trying to look out for me… this is the time of universal brotherhood, and there’s some strange shit going on! Everybody in the pancake house was getting angry, and so they called the sheriff to get us into the car and move on! Here I am in the car having to talk Sunny out of stranding me, and so I said ‘damn, how come nobody’s trying to tell him how wrong he is? Pharoah [Sanders, tenor saxophonist] says, ‘well, you’re not doing any good!’ Finally I talked him out of it, though.”
It’s a road story probably not unfamiliar to do-it-yourself bands ready to strangle one another after weeks on the road eating crappy diner food. Ward also related that, when playing Toronto, there wasn’t a hotel waiting for them, but rather mattresses on a cold loft floor.

I’ve often thought of jazz being comparable to “indie rock” and a reformation of these ideas recently followed from listening to and reviewing new music by guitarist Mary Halvorson’s trio (Dragon’s Head, Firehouse12, 2008). The bassist, Jon Hebert, played with late Blue Note pianist Andrew Hill and the drummer, Ches Smith, with Xiu Xiu. Halvorson, meanwhile, was a student of composer Anthony Braxton. The aesthetic is somewhere between Don Caballero and Storm&Stress and a Terje Rypdal power trio, and I’ll say it as elsewhere – it’s the best “indie rock” record I’ve heard in some time. I’ll be reviewing cellist-composer-improviser Peggy Lee’s new disc on Drip Audio, New Code, soon, and suffice it to say that though ensemble interaction is paramount, the group’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” is shot through with the Balkan brass of Beirut and the expansive twang of Pinetop Seven. It’s an honest cover that places her—and the group’s—aesthetic in a zone reaching out from the avant-garde and into journeyman music that is daresay hummable. Along the lines of Nels Cline’s Draw Breath (Cryptogramophone, 2007) and Marc Ribot, there are waiting in the wings at least a few more jazz-indie crossover artists.

But “indie-rock” has always meant “independent,” even with respect to bands seemingly well-known or canonized. And independent is a term applicable to both aesthetics and business. The latter point Momin drives home: “People assume that they’re going to get calls because of their merit and have tours, but by and large if you’re not one of the chosen ones, you have to be out there selling yourself. I was talking to a curator of a Brooklyn-based venue, and he was telling me that a lot of the jazz guys won’t even do any promo; they won’t send emails, nothing. How do they expect anybody to know about it? To be self-fulfilling and self-actualizing, it has to work from the angle of the labels and the musicians who have to realize that they need to be self-sufficient. Records don’t sell themselves and you have to get a publicist and an agent, or be your own.” As the situation dictates, whether for Carlos Ward and Sunny Murray in 1967 or Ravish Momin and many others today, the Minutemen credo “We Jam Econo” poignantly holds true.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

In Search Of... Marginal Titles

In this installment of Ni Kantu, I’m going to delve again into the world of collecting and archiving music. I won’t always be posting on this subject – believe it or not, there are other things that get me going – but in light of the current download-mania “everything’s free” climate, a little hard-won objectification seems like a reasonable antidote. So it’s on to the margins. And by margins, I don’t necessarily mean the uber-obscure nuggets that professional crate-diggers like to lord over the rest of the primarily uncaring world. I’m speaking more in terms of the pile of marginal titles that is resting against a speaker stand… and against the lower rung of my record shelves.

Marginal titles contain, for me, two types of records: decent but uncollectible records that are too good to let go, or those which, while great, are so ubiquitous as to be taken for granted quite easily. So I have a couple of stacks of records that don’t fit in with my “collecting” interests, but I really don’t have the inclination to sell them. If I consigned them at a local shop, nobody would even buy them. But despite my fairly democratic shelf space, they haven’t yet earned their keep to be filed away. Don’t get me wrong, I do unload things that serve no great interest or could stand a condition upgrade (my girlfriend will forever rib me for replacing an otherwise solid cover because of a promo sticker). However, a steadily increasing pile of records seems to be acting the proverbial stray kitten that I kept feeding until somehow it became mine. And before long, I loved that kitten – er, I mean, pile.

The marginal stack includes some things that might surprise another music fan – live bootlegs of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell that I admittedly rarely spin; saxophonist Dave Liebman’s Lookout Farm on ECM, the John McLaughlin sides on Douglas, and the Elvin Jones record pictured above. Jones’s Blue Notes were recorded at a time when fusion was just beginning to gain traction in the jazz world, and hard bop/mainstream jazz was no longer attracting a healthy audience (that in itself is a questionable construct dissectible another day). They have extraordinarily dated cover art and are lesser-quality pressings than Blue Notes of yore.

Sidemen like saxophonists Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman, bassist Gene Perla, and pianist Jan Hammer don’t elicit the response of a Hank Mobley or Sonny Clark from the hardboppers, yet the players here are extraordinarily strong in form as Jones’s cussing and spitting thrum pushes all comers to a higher plane. In other words, records like Mr. Jones, Genesis, Prime Element and Poly-Currents are fairly serious dates and none of them should cost more than $10 on vinyl. They were also conveniently available on a CD boxed set (now out of print). And they're on my floor.

Yes, collector snobbishness prevents Mr. Jones and its ilk from occupying that sweet spot between scarce sides by trumpeters Carmell Jones and Leo Jones in the racks, though they would be offset by a couple of rarer (and earlier) Elvin Jones albums. Similarly, saxophonist Gato Barbieri’s debut Impulse! recording, Chapter One: Latin America (a certifiably gonzo set joining the itinerant Argentine’s buzzsaw tenor with South American studio musicians), rests on the floor rather than with its overdriven ESP-Disk brethren, In Search of the Mystery (1967, with Calo Scott, cello; Sirone, bass; Bobby Kapp, drums) in the B’s. Sad to say, if it were on Trova and came with a heavy-stock sleeve, that Barbieri would be in the shelf.

Compact discs aren’t immune from similar sorting issues, though as a reviewer, I tend to make the cutoff at keeping those discs which I found the most stimulating and expect years of enjoyment from (or at least as long as we have CD players) and let everything else go. It has nothing to do with collectibility and everything to do with space, time, and interest. There is sentimentalism to records, even if they’re only “decent,” that lets them stay for as long as they want, provided they are in good condition. The only thing they have to do is keep the floor clean.