Monday, December 20, 2010

Some Other Stuff - Recent Reissues Reviewed

All the Numbers

The early recordings of the Art Ensemble of Chicago are somewhat tough nuts to crack. Their first salvos were released in semi-succession by then-Chicago-based Nessa Records under the nominal leadership of principal hornmen Lester Bowie (trumpet; Numbers 1 & 2) and Roscoe Mitchell (saxophones; Congliptious and Old/Quartet). Beyond stalwarts in bassist Malachi Favors and reedman Joseph Jarman, the group (billed early on as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble) early on included drummers Robert Crowder and Philip Wilson.

When Wilson departed the group in summer 1967 to tour with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Art Ensemble soldiered on first as a drummer-less trio and then as a quartet with the addition of reedman Joseph Jarman (it would be a few years before Don Moye joined as the group's regular percussionist). All the Numbers consists of several takes of the group improvisations and compositions that made up Lester Bowie’s first LP, also the debut from the solidified AEC lineup, which would go to Paris in 1969. To produce the LP, takes were mildly edited and spliced; here, they’re presented in unadulterated form across two discs, which also made up part of Nessa’s Art Ensemble 1967/1968 boxed set from several years ago.

As the group’s approach developed into a unified sound, the ensemble integrated the languages of R&B, bop, free improvisation, modern composition, and African musics into an often-theatrical whole. Early on, the seams between such focal points were much more obvious, present in a raw, go-for-broke aesthetic. The intensity of the individual and collective statements wrapped into All the Numbers is quite startling. Bowie’s growling, sputtering drawl and cutting pre-bop brass tones, paired with Mitchell’s feral, piercing alto make a striking combination. Of course, also ever present are the little instruments, providing orchestral nuance from the beginning – you didn’t usually hear bells, tin cans and harmonicas in New York free jazz.

While the music is unbridled in its intensity and able to achieve extreme volume with minimal means, meditative passages of arresting detail conjure the most depth – a stately duo ballad for trumpet and bass midway through “Number 1” is augmented by twittering scrapes, vocal wails and bells. As Favors’ strums pick up steam, Mitchell engages him with a brief, lyrical flute solo (actually recalling Nicole Mitchell), before resuming percussive clatter and yelps. Piquant, nearly saccharine alto tones dovetail with Bowie’s long brass lines amid halting, wound pluck, Mitchell unraveling longer sounds into haranguing staccato collisions and serrated brays, obliterating pensiveness with garish violence. Favors’ meaty, taut pizzicato is the primary rhythmic guide for this music, echoes of Jimmy Garrison and Gary Peacock in both his unwaveringness and dexterity, while he maintains a healthy swing and beautiful tone. The mishmash of dirge and Rip/Rig/Panic in the theme of “Number 2” might not be so carefully plotted without his bowed, metronomic sensitivity.

The quartet tracks – three versions of “Number 2” (which also gets the trio treatment) bring an only slightly thicker palette to the proceedings – Jarman’s additional reeds and percussion are certainly crucial to an orchestration of contrasts and give the piece a little more flesh. There’s an anarchic streak to his playing; Jarman's clarinet leaps from woody tension to volatility in a few short moments, sharply divergent from Mitchell’s delicate breaths. Bowie and Mitchell surely have that same element of “dangerousness” in their playing, but it seems much more controlled and when, for example, Mitchell’s phrasing becomes seemingly unbound, it’s still within a clear phrase logic, developing from terse and often repeated statements into something broader than intervallic relationships. Jarman, on the other hand, provides nattering comment alongside crushed brass while Mitchell is crisply unhinged on the opening minutes of “Number 2 (Take 7)” before the threesome become inseparable, swirling wind against Favors’ unyielding thrum. This latter twenty-minute take is closer to a group improvisation than the others, heave-ho rhythm and bent march-like rhythms engaged very loosely as Jarman, Bowie and Mitchell blast through its signposts in oblique reference.

All the Numbers provides a window into the earliest iterations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which entered its 43rd year of existence in 2010 despite the absence of Bowie, Favors (who passed in 1999 and 2004, respectively) and Jarman’s now occasional participation. Great Black Music began with a small group of individuals seeking transcendence through, among other things, rebelliousness and wit. If this merger of contrasting expressions of a great tradition is not always rendered seamlessly, the music is completely honest and often startling, retaining uniqueness and prescience decades on. Chuck Nessa and his estimable label deserve kudos and more notice for keeping this music in circulation.

Nessa Records currently doesn't have a web presence, but CDs on the label are available in the US from the Jazz Loft, City Hall, and Squidco.

The Complete Recordings 1981/1983
(No Business)

There’s a curious blip in the early discography of bassist/composer/multi-instrumentalist William Parker, one which at first might not register as a crucial document of Afro-Asian improvised music, much less a need-to-have avant-garde rarity. Commitment was the name of a cooperative group based in New York which began performing out in 1978 and ceased working together in 1984; it consisted of Parker, violinist Jason Kao Hwang, drummer Takeshi “Zen” Matsuura and reedman Will Connell, Jr. Recording one self-titled LP in 1980 that was released on Hwang’s Flying Panda label, the group was a fixture in Lower Manhattan performance spaces like Verna Gillis’ Soundscape, also performing at the Sound Unity Festival, Kool Jazz Festival, and in Europe. But like many jazz records released in the early 1980s underground, its status as a self-produced document rendered it unheard by all but the most serious devotees of the music. This two-disc set on Lithuanian free-jazz devotee label No Business includes the complete Commitment LP as well as a recording from the Moers Festival in Germany, and constitutes the group’s only appearance in the digital realm.

The group initially came together via Hwang and Connell; as detailed in loft-jazz historian Ed Hazell’s liner notes (he also did the booklet for the wonderful Muntu boxed set also on No Business), the pair met at one of the jam sessions held on Sunday afternoons at the Basement Workshop, an Asian-American cultural center whose mission was to broadly serve communities of artists to enable visibility for Asian-Americans. It’s hard to quantify what exactly makes the music itself sound “Asian” though certainly Hwang’s violin work approaches tonalities quite far from those in Western music, a narrow, high and piercing sound that reminds one – perhaps – of some Chinese string music. When plucked, there’s an air of poise and the ears could hear zither or harp as well as violin. In improvised music, one is quite used to being able to parse certain African and European influences, even at the general level, while Chinese (Hwang’s heritage), Japanese/Korean (Matsuura’s), much less South and Southeast Asian influences, are harder to pinpoint. In some passages of Commitment’s music, it is rather a distinct “otherness” that prevails – tones and combinations not seemingly relatable to anything one has heard in Afro-American or European-American free jazz.

Compositionally, Commitment runs the gamut from a decidedly measured pace to frenetic free-bop. The high, lonesome whine and the scales that Hwang improvises on in “Grassy Hills, the Sun” for example, end up quite far from the prevailing Leroy Jenkins model. That particular piece’s spacious moving-through of thematic material, almost duet-like as Hwang, Parker and Connell occupy it at Moers, does have more than a twinge of AACM-music in it, specifically the early work of Anthony Braxton or Muhal Richard Abrams’ “My Thoughts are My Future – Now and Forever.” From the Moers set, Parker’s composition “Whole Grain” is a free-bop tune of the highest order; a jaunty series of cycles for alto and violin across a snappy, swinging rhythm erupt into Connell’s braying post-Ayler/post-Roscoe Mitchell worrying cells, needled by Matsuura’s dry chatter and eloquently placed bombs. Hwang’s solo is nothing short of astounding – ferocious ducking and diving, shrieks and hoe-downs paired with rusty honks and horsehair swirls. A Stuff Smith bounce edges in and Hwang doubles on a passage both strummed and bowed in a technical feat that serves expressive complexity. While traditional motifs are certainly part of this tune, its movement into spaces beyond that are nevertheless controlled marks a work of early maturity in Parker’s writing/organizing canon.

Two of Connell’s compositions open the original LP, “Mountain Song” and “The Web of Forces.” The former espouses pensive delicacy, flute and arco strings winding through a lilting theme outlined by malleted cymbals and toms. Narrow fiddle sawing and centered abstraction parallel and buoy Connell’s thin breaths on this brief, measured piece. Halting, chunky rhythm and bundled keen on the latter are a nod to composer-pianist Horace Tapscott, with whom Connell studied, though the quartet is quickly off to a run, heel-digging triple-stops leading into uncorked alto skronk, Matsuura’s floating amalgam of Klook, Elvin and Max providing a cooking anchor to front-line freedom. The drummer also gives a grounded energy to the precarious swirl of bowed violin, bass and alto clarinet on Parker’s unsettling tone poem “Famine.” When the foursome stretch out, as on the two Hwang tunes that make up side two of the original album (including the aforementioned “Grassy Hills, the Sun”) and especially on much of the Moers set, room to embrace spacious textures and concise energy is taken full advantage of.

Even at its sparsest, Commitment carries with it a foot-stomping energy, the push-pull of Parker and Matsuura a forward-moving presence even in Hwang’s delicate, AACM-inspired processional themes. “No Name” is imbued ever so slightly with Braxton/Jenkins alto and violin pacing, while also seemingly a nod to the pathos-laden pairing of Ayler and Michel Sampson. The solo order follows lines of lead voice and rhythm, though concentrated subdivisions of meter offer supportive activity to the similarly coiled instant compositions of Connell and Hwang. While barely heard in their half-decade lifespan, this peerless ensemble is once again available for investigation. Those interested in the work of William Parker will especially enjoy this set, as not only does it provide early strong examples of his work, but the germinating seeds of pan-cultural influence on his later career are also quite visible. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Things We Like - The Best of 2010

We critics are usually asked to pick a number of recordings, artists, labels and so forth to best exemplify both our preferences and our predictions for the year past/to come. In as much as a “best of” is kind of like the Nobel Peace Prize, one hopes it spurs on those who are doing well to continue doing their best at what THEY want to do (not what we critics might “like”), organize and share ideas ancient to the future. This year has also been heavy with losses – Bill Dixon, Marion Brown, Noah Howard and many others. Dixon’s loss was, for me personally, the most profound, though strangely his passing in July seems like eons ago because so much has happened since that time. That is a good thing – action is the best way to honor the passing of those whom we love and respect.

So, in short, here are the new releases and reissues that have interested me the most (in alphabetical order because I don’t play favorites). That’s not to say that there aren’t other awesome records that have been released or reissued since Thanksgiving 2009, but ten seems like a nice, round number. In fact, I’m still catching up on 2010 releases on Another Timbre, Clean Feed, Intakt, Kadima, No Business and Not Two, so stay tuned for more semi-belated reviews.


1. Joshua Abrams – Natural Information (Eremite)
2. Circulasione Totale Orchestra – Bandwidth (Rune Grammofon)
3. Bill Dixon/Aaron Siegel/Ben Hall – Weight/Counterweight (Broken Research)
4. Grex – Live at Home (SUA)
5. Mary Halvorson Quintet – Saturn Sings (Firehouse12)
6. Stephen Haynes – Parrhesia (Engine Studios)
7. No Mor Musik – No Mor Musik (ugExplode)
8. Cecil Taylor/Tony Oxley – Ailanthus/Altissima (bilateral dimensions of two root songs) (Triple Point)
9. David S. Ware – Saturnian (Aum Fidelity)
10. Katherine Young – Further Secret Origins (Porter)


1. Amalgam – Prayer for Peace (No Business)
2. John Carter/Bobby Bradford – Mosaic Select (Mosaic)
3. Alvin Curran – Solo Works: The ‘70s (New World)
4. Michael Gregory Jackson – Clarity (ESP-Disk)
5. Elodie Lauten – Piano Works Revisited (Unseen Worlds)
6. Jemeel Moondoc – The Muntu Recordings (No Business)
7. Paul Rutherford – Tetralogy (Emanem)
8. Wadada Leo Smith – Spirit Catcher (Nessa)
9. Soft Machine – Live at Henie Onstad Arts Centre 1971 (Reel Recordings)
10. Henry Threadgill – The Complete Novus and Columbia Recordings (Mosaic)


1. Chicago Underground Duo - Boca Negra (Thrill Jockey)
2. Decoy - Spirit/The Deep (Bo'Weavil)
3. Harris Eisenstadt - Woodblock Prints (No Business)
4. Nick Hennies - Lineal (SRA)
5. Joe Morris & Nate Wooley - Tooth and Nail (Clean Feed)
6. Phill Musra - The Creator is So Far Out (Sagittarius A-Star)
7. Tatsuya Nakatani & Forbes Graham - Essences (Blaq Lghtn)
8. Jesse Stacken & Kirk Knuffke - Mockingbird (Steeplechase)
9. Jozef Van Wissem - Ex Patris (Important)
10. Nate Wooley - Trumpet/Amplifier (Smeraldina-Rima)


Andrea and Ingebrigt

- CA, 12/10

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed: November/December 2010

It's time again for a monthly roundup; time being what it is, it seems like I get these done so close to the end of the month that they come out at the beginning of the next. But hey, at least it's something. You might also notice that "briefly reviewed" means very little, especially considering the length of the writeup on Mary Halvorson's new disc, which I think deserves all the accolades and gushing it's getting. Some great holiday stocking stuffers or Hanukkah trinkets here.

Natura Naturans

Though one wouldn’t know it from the minimal credits on this disc, Architeuthis Walks on Land is the chamber-improvisation duo of bassoonist Katherine Young and violist Amy Cimini, and is musically far less unruly than the concept of an actual giant squid displaced from its undersea home. Young has become known for her work in the various ensembles of Anthony Braxton as well as her own disc of solo bassoon and electronics released on Porter Records earlier this year, Further Secret Origins (in itself a doozy of a record). The duo is also half of the New York-based young chamber ensemble Till by Turning, and Natura Naturans is the pair's second disc. The fact that both musicians are as adept in the modern performance world as they are in creative improvisation and experimental music comes through in works that have the feel of preordained structure, splintering off into impulsive subforms and returning to droning markers on “Below the Thermocline,” devilish string fracture skittering around Young’s twisted foghorn. Crackling gurgle on “Inside/Outside I” sounds akin to electronic glitch, huffs and whinnies underpinning false-fingered sawing on a manic breath interlude. “Glitterbird” is, by turn, almost folksy in its clarion call, spikes of vocal arco eliding into bassoon harmonics before shifting into a manic dance for flying horsehairs. Whether secondary tracks are present within “The Fields” or not is hard to tell, as the track’s beginning is an extraordinarily dense passage of string and reedwork, though the meat of the music is in its filmic, almost immobilized waltz for strummed viola and a particularly moving, pinched bassoon line. Though the language of the duet is often conversational and frequently sparse, orchestral mass and thick, noisy impasto are a major component of the Architeuthis Walks on Land  aesthetic, which certainly hinges on Young’s bassoon work, though Cimini’s maddening fiddle  pyrotechnics more than hold their own.

Under the Roof

English saxophonist John Butcher and Swiss pianist Claudia Ulla Binder capture something quite rare in the small pantheon of expanded-palette duos – a sense of environmental space. Butcher’s language at first might have seemed derived from countrymen Evan Parker and Larry Stabbins, but the physics of his sound are far more macrocosmic than micro. That’s usually more evident in his solo work, which has found the saxophonist outdoors, in cisterns and caves as well as in raw studio space. Binder has studied with figures as diverse as multi-instrumentalist Karl Berger and pianist Walter Norris, performing in both new music and free improvisational contexts (though her work isn’t too well known on either side of the pond).  As the resources of breath, reed, and keys are stretched and disassembled to make up the saxophonist’s material, strings, wood and an assortment of objects give Binder her paint. The improvisations on this disc are mostly rather short, which only one over six minutes, and though spiraling intervals of reedy phraseology and chunky gymnopédies could easily be a template for rousing vignettes – witness the athleticism of “Raincoat,” for example. However, the pair explores harmonic relationships at a different end of the spectrum and with astounding range – low resonant hum from Butcher’s soprano sounds almost like feedback or electronics underneath Binder’s spiky gestures, quickly building into angled kisses at the close of “Troves.” Sharp tenor flutter and keening bends are a steely contrast to light, keyed motion on “Umbrella,” quickly shifting into a landscape of guttural harmonics to match the pianist’s wiry plucks and seasick wows. Among the most interesting pieces are the paired “Black Martin, Female” and “Black Martin, Male” that find Butcher’s concentrated sputter quite avian, agitated calls to Binder’s gravitational poise. Other pieces explore architectural imagery – “Truss Joint,” “Cantilever,” “Skylight” evoking the aural effects of action on relationships between resistant objects with acute strength and literate beauty.

Dialogues and Connections

Virginia-based pianist/soprano saxophonist Joel Futterman and Bay Area reedman Ike Levin have forged a fruitful musical relationship over a number of years and eight co-led discs, and Dialogues and Connections is their third recording as a duo. While naturally the expanse of flyover landmass between the two players makes frequent meetings difficult, a shared language of loquacious communication binds their work together. From a literary perspective, there’s also common ground – Futterman has written a novel, while Levin is a poet. Their interaction, forged over time and geography, is entirely immediate as well as historical, and as with much of their shared and independent music, the eleven duets represented here are totally improvised. Levin is a flinty-toned fire breather and, like Futterman, has a way with words though he’s a bit more declarative in style than the pianist, whose stories and improvisations unfurl in a gradual, drawling dialect with burbling pronouncements and warm reflections gaining equal footing. As much as the duo revels in excitable kinetics, the contrast between instruments and methods draws out interesting turns – Futterman eking out passages of roiling romanticism a la Jaki Byard, while Levin juts a burnished, long sigh or the two commingle in refracting volleys.

As the first conversation closes, the pianist explores spindly architecture, cascading into dense arpeggiated forms as the left hand marks intervals with winking jounce. It’s an unaccompanied, raw kaleidoscope that introduces some of the nakedest saxophone playing of the set, Levin working through smoky harbingers of late nights and frosty mornings. Barrelhouse rock and roll introduces the seventh dialogue, Futterman’s repetition somewhere between boogie and Sonny Clark while simultaneously coaxing ecstatic wails from his soprano as the two weave an entwined flight. Though volume is something that both players call to their sides, it’s not paramount. Futterman can paint a sparser parallel as Levin’s squawk reaches foot-stomping intensity, or the reedman gives a rhythmic chug to the right hand’s upward telescope. Though obviously sprung from a different bond, Dialogues and Connections makes an interesting comparison to Futterman’s recent juggernaut duo with tenorman and frequent partner Kidd Jordan, Interaction (self-released, 2010). Whether joined by compatriots or unaccompanied, Futterman’s art is both expansive and homespun.

Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival
(Pine Ear)

At this point in time, any recording featuring cornetist Bobby Bradford should be considered an event. An early sideman with Ornette Coleman (albeit not recorded with the saxophonist until 1971), the Texas-born Bradford was a crucial part of the West Coast avant-garde jazz community in the 1960s and ‘70s, mostly as a co-leader in groups with reedman and composer John Carter. He also worked in Europe with drummer John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Stevens-Frode Gjerstad group Detail. Bradford is an unassuming character despite his deep connection to the history of postwar jazz, and though his playing was certainly felt, for example, in recordings and appearances with Gjerstad’s Circulasione Totale Orchestra earlier this year, extra ovations for Bradford should have been de rigueur. This year has been good for Bradford-philes, as in addition to new recordings, his work with Carter for the Revelation label has been collected on a Mosaic Select 3-disc set. Bradford has collaborated with Portland-based tenor saxophonist Rich Halley for a number of years, and Halley is even less well-known (though he’s been part of the West Coast scene since the 1980s and has worked with Vinny Golia). This recording from the Penofin Jazz Festival in Potter Valley, California is the second release to capture their music together.

The group is rounded out by Halley’s son, drummer Carson Halley, and bassist Clyde Reed on four originals. Sandblasted tenor and fat, cutting brass make a good pairing, and the frontmen have a clear affinity for one another. There’s a dirge-like quality to “The Blue Rims,” which opens the set, its ominous call somewhere out of post-Albert Ayler New York, though it quickly shifts into a countryish bounce. Bradford is the first soloist, fleet fragments rushing together but remaining particular and referential as bass and drums keep to an open gallop. Following a brief bass solo, the tenorman lets out with a powerful evocation of Ayler’s pathos and humor, rare among contemporary American players, as percussion shimmers around him. Bar-walking isn’t out of the picture either, as tenor and rhythm stir up an easygoing walk, Bradford providing celebratory commentary. “Streets Below” finds the quartet inspired by a funkier muse, though the rhythm section is a bit didactic in their exploration of the form, especially considering the flinty unslickness embodied by cornet and tenor. Clunky beat or not, Bradford works through a striking and empathetic solo, linking brass-band cajones with airy pronouncements before Halley digs his heels for a series of earthy North Texas blasts. The set ends as it began, funereal and sneaky with a knotty turn in “The River’s Edge is Ice;” hopefully we can hear more from this brass and reed pairing, and certainly more epaulettes for Bradford are always welcome.

MHQ by Peter Gannushkin,
Saturn Sings

The world of creative improvisation ever so often gets a glimmer of crossover potential. It’s not too common, but it does happen – whether in the post-loft late 1970s with reedmen-composers Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill signing to Arista and its subsidiaries, or in the 1990s and early 2000s when the music of tenorman David S. Ware, bassist William Parker and pianist Matthew Shipp seemed poised to take over the world. With music as fragmented as it has become, it’s no surprise that “niche success” is what most can hope for, but the critical anti-establishment still gets rightly excited when an artist of excellent technical caliber, vision, historical understanding and “vibe” gets accolades from seemingly all sides. Not that guitarist and improvising composer Mary Halvorson is the “savior” of avant-garde jazz, but her music does have broad appeal. That’s certainly not a bad thing, even among the niche-happy – people generally want those who are “good” to do “well.” Halvorson’s guitar work is really quite unique; though it would be easy to name-check precedents in Derek Bailey (volume pedals and odd intervals) and Sonny Sharrock (bunched intensity) alongside the circularity of Joe Morris and Grant Green, she’s given equal ear time to Deerhoof’s Jon Dieterich or Don Caballero’s Ian Williams. In other words, there’s indie rock in her blood, and it shows both as an improviser and composer. Her quintet augments a working trio including bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith (ex-Xiu Xiu) with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and altoist Jon Irabagon, and Saturn Sings is the group’s first recording.

There’s an easy-seeming albeit oddly-moving lope that introduces the opener, “Leak Over Six Five (No. 14)” – like all of the tunes here it’s penned by the guitarist, and reads like a Threadgill word game. Irabagon’s querulous bebop phrasing is well-supported by hacking rhythmic piles, trumpet and guitar spreading out signs behind him before Halvorson counters with an interjection of crumpled chatter. Stretching out in crisp, hollow tones, her phrasing is immediately captivating and one anticipates what she’ll do as the horns work through a long chorus. Though the writing is clearly organized with horn arrangements in mind, the trio is often the real focus, Halvorson’s bent, pedal-doubled coagulations ricocheting off Smith’s floating rattle as Hébert provides a ghostly pizzicato anchor. The following “Sequential Tears In It (No. 20)” is for trio, and feels like Tal Farlow transplanted into a dusty, martial landscape (Hank Garland for a punky new age?), isolated and meaty single-note flecks augmented with barfing strums and microscopic agitation as the rhythm section surges and falls away. “Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17)” flirts with saccharine and poise, alto and trumpet reinforcing a lilt as guitar and percussion explode around them in a volcanic center, Halvorson stretching in puckered turns as Irabagon hews close to a brightly rakish postbop sensibility. Finlayson peels off fat, short rounds before Halvorson wanders with a dulcimer-like tone into an area demarked by unruly fuzz and the quintet closes in the sketchy theme.

“Sea Seizure (No. 19)” alternates between Seam-like exuberant discord and art-rock slink, stuttering around absent declamations before settling into wry swing. The band minus Halvorson’s guitar is a rare thing, but she lays out for the first part of Irabagon’s peppery solo on “Crack In Sky (No. 11),” returning with cottony comp that slowly distorts. It’s hard to say what inspires the freakish sense of anticipation as Halvorson builds her solo – sly, detailed and extremely pretty while retaining base simplicity, it’s the kind of playing that builds atmosphere and allows Hebert and Smith to redefine their improvising space. Saturn Sings is just about the most unequivocally perfect record from a young improviser-bandleader to come down the pike in a while. For once, it seems unfair to ask “what’s next” (though the psychedelia of her work on “Crescent White Singe (No. 13)” is enticing), and rather revel in what we presently have.


Matta Gawa describe themselves as “free rock,” which is partially fitting because among guitar-drum duos, the work of Edward Ricart and Sam Lohman is quite far from, say, Derek Bailey and Han Bennink or Joe Morris and Luther Gray. bA is the group’s first recording, though both members of the duo are active on the Northeast Corridor axis. Ricart augments his wiry flights with what is assumed to be fuzzed-out bass loops on the opening “Your bA Will Not Abandon Your Corpse,” giving the music a bottom that it might not otherwise have, while Lohman maintains a tom-heavy agitated pulse a la Chris Corsano at his finest. The first point of comparison – and there aren’t many to this DC-based unit – is to the Daily Dance of drummer Bob Thompson and guitarist Doug Snyder (New Frontiers, 1973), though Matta Gawa are probably more technically proficient and their energy is more punky. Though the Engine Studios production style can obscure some of the finer points of creative improvisation, which often depends on crucial tone and detail, the slight murk in the product of Matta Gawa’s work is welcome, giving it a hazy distance. Searing high-pitched wail erupts out of fuzzy loops and allover drum floes on “bAs of Re” on which upturned runs and echoed skitter might wink towards lofty prog-rock tropes, though the network of loops and pervasive grit levels the proceedings to an unruly but athletic stew. “Dialogue of a Man with his bA” is primordial in its foreboding energy, keyboard sludge, feedback-drenched and distorted wrangling, and simmering kitwork laying ground as Ricart’s six-string takes on an odd, twangy quality, erupting into maddening tremolo amid Lohman’s thrash. Matta Gawa are also at their jazziest here, fractured and scumbled guitar flecks becoming a muted language somewhere near the merger of Bern Nix and Wes Montgomery as Lohman parses time into self-reflective angularity. It’s almost straight, in fact, as Ricart introduces “Your bA is Within You,” even as the pair moves into harmolodic and dubbed-out territory. This is a deep, unruly recording devoid of New Weird-hipness, capturing the dangerous fragmentation of noise and psychedelic vibrations with a young, hungry energy and both musicians are individuals to keep an eye on.

In the Interval

In the Interval presents studio solo bass recordings by eminent Chicago avant-garde contrabassist Jason Roebke, captured literally in the downtime between touring engagements. Roebke is an incredibly versatile player, working in groups as diverse as trumpeter Nate Wooley’s vicious, noisy experimental trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer Mike Reed’s squirrely, historical repertory ensemble People, Places and Things. Certainly most bassists worth their salt seem to explore the solo medium – Peter Kowald, Barre Phillips, Joelle Leandre, Carlos Barretto – yet solo bass records aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Taken together, the two pieces on In the Interval clock in barely under a half hour (one is twenty-two minutes, the other a mere six), and seem more like snatches of a greater process. 

At first, the music might seem culled from practice tapes because of its brevity and worked-through quality. Roebke has a wonderful, woody tone and deep muscularity, building tensile taps and exploratory thwacks into a fleet, painterly evocation of movement and literary logic. Midway through the first piece, gestures built into song soon become scrabble, the bassist doubling on Waisvisz crackle-box as he plucks and whispers across guts and surface area. Rather than breaking up the program into a run-through of what he and the instrument can do both compositionally and technically, Roebke moves through a spare language of clear, related forms and audible space in a way that seems neither heady nor overly flashy. On the first piece, his phrasing and ideas appear quite simple and dryly questing, while the second conjures terse arco clatter and scrappy, prepared-string natter. Economical and somewhat narrow, the nakedness of these performances might not capture the recesses of the ear at first, for the connections between materials appear gradually and with concentrated dedication. Whatever one’s experience with solo playing or this Chicago mainstay’s work, In the Interval is worth time spent.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Breifly Reviewed: Phill Musra Group - The Creator is So Far Out

The Creator is So Far Out

Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist and his work/journey have graced the pages of Ni Kantu before, as we’ve dug up previously unreleased tracks provided by the man himself, as well as acquired windows into his life and recordings for the Intex and Cosmic labels with his brother, multi-instrumentalist Michael Cosmic (1950-2001). Though Musra has assembled CD-Rs of archival material to almost no distribution over the past few years, his visible output has generally remained known only to connoisseurs of rare records from a bygone era. That is until now, as what is officially his second LP as a leader in over 35 years has been released in a limited edition via the Sagittarius A-Star label. The Creator is So Far Out takes its title from a composition that also appeared on his 1974 Creator Spaces LP (Intex) as well as on the present album. Here, he’s joined by drummer Don Hooker, percussionist Steven McGill and pianist Walter Barrilleaux on two sidelong originals.

The core trio of Musra, Hooker and McGill has been together since last year, making live appearances on the West Coast (most often at the Heartbeat House in LA) and cutting some YouTube videos that have yet to go viral. As one would hope, there is a rather profound difference between this trio and what came before. Rather than the slightly-unhinged democracy of his 1970s free unit with Cosmic, Musra stretches out his husky and somewhat minimalist riff on Newk over dry, regular conga and trap set patterns on the lyrical, loving ode “Yvonne,” peppered with occasional throaty wails. The title track is taken in a bluesy direction, Barrilleaux laying down churchy chords around Hooker’s loose lope and Musra’s slightly wandering declarations. McGill’s brief, glassy vibraphone is used as a marker between tenor and soprano solos, on which the leader’s pinched tone contrasts curiously with the rhythm section’s chunky groove. Boxy electric piano and flute shortly make a strange pair, as Musra runs through his arsenal. There’s always been an outsider quality to Musra’s music, and thirty-odd years ago that unbridled and sometimes unfocused energy probably contributed to his and his compatriots’ “unknown” status. Now, of course, that naturalness is something many musicians “work” to achieve, and if Musra’s music is a little more reigned in today, it’s not without a folksy honesty that makes The Creator is So Far Out a charmingly humanist statement.

Though released in a very limited edition, some copies should be available in the US from Eclipse.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Inside-Outside Reflections (Ornette Coleman in Austin, 11/18/2010)

While Ornette Coleman was one of the first musicians I became interested in upon starting down the road of jazz and creative music fandom, I’d never actually seen him perform until last night. Admittedly, my soft spot was always for the Atlantic recordings of old, with the Blue Notes and other one-off 1960s dates coming in at a generalist second. While it still sounds incredibly fresh and timeless today, this is music that is forty to fifty years old and then some. His 1990s recordings for Gramavision really didn’t do anything for me at the time, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy the Sound Grammar date when it came out a few years ago (it’s been more recently that his Prime Time records of the 70s and 80s have really hit home). This was somewhat a return to previous ensemble form, the group consisting of Ornette, two bassists and his son Denardo on drums. It’s a tremendously lyrical, emotional and beautiful album – a friend of mine was very critical of it when it came out, saying that it “just sounds like an old Ornette record.” He was expecting a reinvention of the wheel, I guess, rather than a polishing and tweaking of an already well-established design. Albeit a design that runs perfectly on new roads and in new surroundings, which is exactly how it should be characterized. This recording set up the context for what would transpire in concert.

Firstly, the quartet (featuring Denardo and bassists Tony Falanga and Al McDowell) played at the huge, recently renovated Bass Concert Hall on the UT-Austin campus; I was on the floor about ten rows back, and the lower strata of seats were completely packed. It really is a good venue to see a concert, somehow preserving intimacy even in its cavernous size. The arena was set pretty early on; as the quartet was introduced from the stage (and the announcer rightly presented his lineage within a Fort Worth musicians’ coterie including Prince Lasha, Charles Moffett, Dewey Redman, James Jordan [Coleman’s cousin, also in attendance] and Julius Hemphill), the audience gave a long standing ovation. Without a word, they launched into “Jordan,” the first track off of the Sound Grammar disc. This was the only piece, other than the “Lonely Woman” encore, for which Ornette stood. Nevertheless, he was utterly in command of his instruments (alto saxophone, trumpet and violin) for the entire hour-and-a-half set. There were no breaks, song introductions, or anything on that level – it was all music and all action.

The Ornette of now is certainly not the Ornette of thirty, forty, or fifty years ago. His improvisations retain that R&B honk and the earthy cry as well as the loquacious self-dialogue and running commentary that they’ve always had. However, the storytelling is much more gradual, focusing on fewer words and phrases and a narrowing down of ideas. His lines used to be long and filled with detours and branches, giddy asides to a cutting focus. There is certainly less of that now; it’s more like listening to the same story over again that your grandfather has told, but each time you catch different nuances in his voice that help you understand more deeply the wealth, pain and joy of his experiences. That being said, the group of younger players that surrounded him was incredibly tight, which made one appreciate what might otherwise invite cognitive dissonance. Tony Falanga is a classical contrabassist, playing the David Izenzon role of high arco counterpoint to the leader’s front-porch musings. Al McDowell plays a six-string electric bass, and his pedigree in Prime Time, Jayne Cortez’ Firespitters and with James Chance certainly speak to his flitting funk. Denardo Coleman has a heavy-handed gallop, bombastic and country-ish at the same time, and often seemingly out of tempo with the whole thing. It’s a band of differences, a collision of blues, jazz, classical music and funky rock all being played at the same time by different individuals. What Coleman has assembled is a band that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t “work,” and yet the complete honesty and naturalness of the proceedings ensure that it works perfectly.

While drawing a program mostly from Sound Grammar (also including “Peace” and “Dancing in Your Head”), it was perhaps more dissonant than that date, if only because the record had the strong pizzicato of upright bassist Greg Cohen playing rock solid anchor to Falanga’s devilish bowing. McDowell, on the other hand, positively ricochets and the two bassists occupy a space previously reserved for oil and water – and yet they sound beautiful together. One composition introduced Japanese vocalist Mari Okubo, whose wailing made more than a few audience members head for the exits; however, her inclusion was not altogether that different from Ornette’s work with Yoko Ono in the early 1970s. Though she’s as yet not very well known, Coleman apparently has been working with Okubo since 2007 and produced her CD Cosmic Life. If nothing else, it certainly proved that his music can still defy expectations and create upset (though I found this particular piece riveting and wonderful, and I hope that they continue to work together). My thinking at the time was that Ornette has really opened up his canvas for other artists to step in and add something to it and in almost no other art form does this happen. It is as though he is inviting other painters to use what he’s given and put their stamp on it – akin to Franz Kline asking Jackson Pollock to “put a little something of your own on this part of the painting.” Yet it’s done with so much love and joy that failure and mistakes are either not an option, or just totally irrelevant as a concept.

The music is an utterly palpable and constant expression of love and joy. I’m sure my smile was absolutely beaming the whole time, and my legs rarely stopped moving in concert with Denardo’s triple-time swing. While at times the music was jovially raucous, there was a soothing, restive quality present throughout, which alternately had me in a meditative sleep-like state where, with my eyes closed, colors and shapes and phantom figures flashed before me. I felt like on stage with the quartet were ghosts of the music’s past and future spiraling in the rafters, apparitions of King Curtis, Prince Lasha, Ed Blackwell, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane somewhere in the hall. Ornette may not have ascended himself (someday it will happen), but he is clearly a conjurer of all things good in the universe, and he and his cohorts were channeling a place of wordless beauty and eternal happiness into a rather literal environment. I don’t know whether other people in attendance felt the pure transcendent quality of the music, but suffice it to say that everyone I spoke with had an incredible experience. Beyond performance, the Ornette Coleman quartet created a complete communion. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Hard Blues (for Cecil Taylor)

It’s been said to me a number of times that this music isn’t for everybody – it’s a special thing and far from “average tastes.” Even among jazz aficionados, contemporary improvisation isn’t the usual cup of tea, though with that being said there is certainly enough of a market to carry Mosaic Records reissues of material by Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, or for artists like guitarist Mary Halvorson and reedman Ken Vandermark to seemingly get a decent slice of the available pie. Part of what I’ve always dealt with as an individual – not just as a critic/writer, but as a human being – has been in nudging the “difficult” towards territory that makes it understandable or palatable. It’s wired into my psychology – rather than rebel because of being labeled a “weird kid,” I always tried to show other people that I wasn’t that weird and weirdness if it exists is quite a compelling virtue. Challenging art and music, maligned or marginalized by the greater culture, I always felt could be just as accepted or explained – it simply required context and connections. There’s a socializing bent to understanding art, hinging on confronting it on its own terms, and accepting what it has to offer, also perhaps the ideal way of approaching unfamiliar social situations, and similarly it seems to be the healthiest engagement for art.

I was reminded of these precepts as I found myself working on a review of the latest Cecil Taylor project, Ailanthus/Altissima (Triple Point Records, 2010), for Signal To Noise Magazine. Though Taylor’s music has long been thought of as extraordinarily difficult, often violent and overpowering from the get-go, now he’s something of an institution. While not nearly as beholden to the bop/post-bop tradition as someone like Ornette Coleman, Taylor’s music has been around long enough to be accepted – enthusiastically by some, grudgingly by others. It’s generally understood that in the post-Jimmy Lyons era, and really from the late 1970s onward, Taylor’s music was increasingly abstract and its concept owed much to the European avant-garde, ditching references to Tristano, Evans, Silver and Powell that were clear up through the 1960s. His perceived “European-ness” was really brought home in 1988, when he spent a period of time in Berlin performing and recording with the preeminent musicians of the European free improvisation circle(s) for FMP. Relationships such as the one with British drummer Tony Oxley (with whom Taylor first played 22 years ago) have lasted and been rather strong over the past two decades, so it seems like he’s been kind of adopted by the EFI musicians and their supporters.

Of course, jazzmen usually did better in Europe than America anyway, and Taylor is no exception – he first began his relationship with the Continent in 1962, in a Copenhagen residency that spawned two LPs and a litany of followers. As in American free-jazz, Taylor was extremely important to and influential on European free musicians from the get go. Furthermore, though his post-1986 recordings are cited as the ones in which poetry, dance, and untraditional piano sonorities (i.e., tropes of European experimental and art music) began to come to the fore, he recorded a piece for voice, movement and piano strings called “Amplitude” in 1966 (captured on unofficial European tour recordings from Stuttgart and Paris).

But, to me, Ailanthus/Altissima holds within it passages and markers of tradition – bluesiness, delicacy, and swing that point to the “Glass Enclosures” of his earlier work. Certainly a weighty and intricate set, and his first recording with Oxley in a number of years, I was struck by the feeling that this music wasn’t made to pummel one into submission via piano and percussion, which could have been a first impulse. Therefore, my tack in the review was to present the recording in line with a continuum of piano music and, while Taylor perhaps doesn’t need the padding of bebop as a reference point now, too much has been made about his distance from it rather than the inescapable connections. One can’t take the Miles and Tony Fruscella out of Bill Dixon (one of Taylor’s close aesthetic-cultural associates, though their work differs significantly), so doing the same with Horace Silver and Lennie Tristano with respect to Taylor incompletes the picture. This is all a little ironic, since the place of tradition in modern jazz and the mainstream/contemporary repertoire is something that I as a critic have had issues with. Perhaps one of the greatest struggles is, despite the presence of its own tradition since 1958, the fact that the music still isn’t seen by many as both having and being part of a larger continuum, and the tension that exists between validating that and questioning the over-reliance on tradition within the music’s mainstream. Can we give Taylor and Dixon theirs while at the same time dialing back the interest in icy clones of Bill Evans and Lee Morgan? As usual, I don’t propose an answer here, but this is just one of a number of things circulating in my typing-mind.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ardell Nelson's Jazz Prophets featuring Leroy Jenkins

I’ve probably told this story before, but one of the formative experiences which I like to think set me on the path to becoming a critic/historian of this music was a chance meeting with violinist and improvising composer Leroy Jenkins in the Spring of 2001. I suppose it wasn’t total chance – it was the evening of a solo concert he was giving at an art gallery in lower Manhattan, and I’d planned on going so I was in the neighborhood. 

He was walking towards me on the sidewalk, uptown a bit from where the gallery was, and being a naïve skinny white kid, I said “Leroy Jenkins??” He answered in the affirmative and very graciously allowed me to stroll along to the space and pepper him with questions about “the old days.” It was a short conversation but it was an encounter that showed me that, not only could I be a fan of this music, but I could learn something from its practitioners and share these ideas with others. At that time I was also playing cello, and talking with a string player was of course very important. I was lucky enough to see Mr. Jenkins perform on several occasions – twice solo, once with the reformed Revolutionary Ensemble, in a trio with Myra Melford and Joseph Jarman and another time with guitarist Brandon Ross. Though I’ve certainly gotten to know other musicians more personally, the formative quality of my interactions with Mr. Jenkins made it especially sad when he passed in 2007 at age 74. 

He was a special character who infused often very open, free music with the languages of both R&B and classicism, all applied to the somewhat surprising choice of the violin. Of course, the instrument has certainly appeared in jazz, despite being treated as a sort of gimmick in postwar Black music. Admittedly, it’s a sound that often requires a special context or mood to “hear right,” though it seemed like Jenkins was always able to either create or find that setting. His discography is rather large – in addition to the Revolutionary Ensemble and his own groups, he’s also worked in varying degrees of frequency with reedmen-composers Anthony Braxton (like Jenkins, a fellow Chicagoan) and Archie Shepp, string multi-instrumentalist and composer Alan Silva, cellist Abdul Wadud, drummer Rashied Ali and others.

On another encounter with Jenkins in 2002, I brought a relic of his past to share with him, something which I was always “going to get around to” copying for him (since he didn’t have one of his own), but never did. It was a 45 rpm single that contained his first recording from circa 1965, with the Jazz Prophets led by percussionist Ardell Nelson. This 45 was recorded before Jenkins had joined pianist-composer Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band or the subsequent Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) while an upstart in Chicago.

Joined by organist Mace “Something Else” Morgan (only slightly less obscure than Nelson, he made a couple of sides for the Ebony label around 1962), the Jazz Prophets were a very strange instrumental combo. Basically, the sound is somewhere in the left field of Sun Ra-like exoticism with a texture that’s just too clunky to slide around with club-ready grease. The A-side, “Swamp Chanting for Weedy,” is the real hit, with the flip “Eula” seeming like a foxtrot-ready bit of corn syrup gone only slightly “off” (though it has its place). The violin playing is brilliant throughout, and the threesome comes by wincing oddness quite honestly - Morgan and Nelson should not be discounted as they work a priceless vibe. 

I’ve only seen this single a couple of times; it was given to me by soul archivist Dante Carfagna. Queried about the label, Lola’s Recording Co., Carfagna claims to have never seen the imprint on any other title. So it’s likely a custom-pressed and extremely scarce South Chicago oddity.

Here, for your listening and downloading pleasure, is Ardell Nelson’s Jazz Prophets.

Thank you to Leroy Jenkins and Dante Carfagna.

Friday, October 29, 2010

From Ragtime to No Time - Remembering Beaver Harris (1936-1991)

There’s a perfect coining of post-Fire Music developments in African-American jazz in the 1970s and 1980s – “from ragtime to no time” – and it is courtesy of the drummer Beaver Harris. This was the name of the first LP issued by the cooperative 360 Degree Music Experience, on their own 360 Records label, and perfectly encapsulates (albeit broadly defined) the aesthetic of tradition-into-freedom and vice versa espoused by the second and third wave of avant-garde jazz musicians.

William Godvin “Beaver” Harris was born April 20, 1936 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and started out as a youth on clarinet and alto saxophone. His family encouraged athleticism as well as music, and his initial mark was made as a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, playing with the Pittsburgh Homestead Grays and the Kansas City Monarchs for five years as a teenager. He began playing drums more seriously in the Army while stationed in Europe, and at the encouragement of Max Roach, Harris moved to New York after his discharge in 1962. Shortly thereafter, Harris began working regularly in Sonny Rollins’ quartet (one of his early 1960s units that went sadly unrecorded), beginning an association with tenor players that remained strong until the end of his life.

In 1965-1966, Harris began one of his most fruitful and long-lasting associations, with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, which resulted in 17 albums spread out over the next decade for labels such as Impulse!, Enja, Horo, Freedom, Uniteledis, and Black Saint. The pairing of Shepp and Harris was, perhaps, helping to plant the seed of the “ragtime to no time” philosophy, because Shepp’s music heavily embraced the blues tradition alongside free, collective improvisation and cutting post-bop arrangements. It was in one of Shepp’s brass-heavy mid-1960s combos that onetime AACM drummer and percussion-historian Alvin Fielder saw Beaver Harris at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, what turned into a life-changing experience. “Sun Ra always told me to play loose, because I was trying to play all the bebop coordination-things, and he said ‘loosen up!’ I didn't know what he meant. Beaver Harris came to town with Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Howard Johnson. I heard what Beaver was playing with that group, and I went back the next night and that was what changed my way of thinking about the drums. Time/no-time, but the shit was swingin'! I heard that and I had to go home and think about it.”

Harris was also working as a sideman with Shepp’s mates in the mid-60s – figures like alto saxophonist Marion Brown and trombonists Roswell Rudd and Grachan Moncur III, lending his earthy, free swing to Brown’s Juba-Lee (Fontana, 1966) and Three for Shepp (Impulse!, 1966) as well as Rudd’s Everywhere (Impulse!, 1966). But it was Albert Ayler whom Harris became the most associated with aside from Shepp; he replaced Sunny Murray in 1966, adding a splashy allover groove to the Ayler brothers’ marching band music represented by In Greenwich Village and The Village Concerts (both Impulse, 1967) and Paris/Lörrach, 1966 (Hat Hut). He remained in New York for most of the 1970s, travelling to Europe to play with the Cecil Taylor Unit and as an early associate of tenorman David S. Ware. Harris was not only a sideman with free jazz heavyweights, however – he worked in an unrecorded Thelonious Monk quartet with Wilbur Ware and saxophonist Pat Patrick, as well as in a mid-70s Chet Baker/Lee Konitz band and with pianist Barry Harris (no relation).

In 1968, Harris formed the 360 Degree Music Experience with Moncur and pianist Dave Burrell, which performed at the 1969 Actuel Festival in Amougies, Belgium, but did not record until the 1974 self-produced album From Rag Time to No Time (360 Records). As Timothy Marquand wrote in the liner notes to that LP, “From Rag Time to No Time is not a chronological survey of jazz styles. It is about a circle of communication, and underlying sense of community that improvising musicians feel when they gather to express themselves. With honest and creative playing, communal ties are strengthened and the circle expands to welcome those who share by listening.” Musicians like Doc Cheatham, Maxine Sullivan, Marshall Brown, Cecil McBee, Ron Carter, Hamiet Bluiett, Makanda Ken McIntyre, Don Pullen, Titos Sampa and Francis Haynes are among the musicians that participated in the ensemble over the years, resulting in further recordings for Red Records and Cadence Jazz, as well as a tremendous 1977 double album on Black Saint entitled In:Sanity.

One of the most surprising collaborations in Harris’ career was with the guitarist and improviser Rudolph Grey, most regularly associated with the no wave scene in New York during the early 1980s. The group, the Blue Humans, also included reedman Arthur Doyle, and was one of the most unique, cross-stylistic bands of the period. Grey relates “I think Beaver saw this as an opportunity or outlet to use his “free jazz” skills without any formal constraints. I believe I first saw Beaver play live at Studio We in 1975 with Dave Burrell. The power, skill and intelligence of his playing is something I’ll never forget. In 1977 I caught him playing with the Cecil Taylor Unit in Amsterdam. When he played at the Tin Palace a few years later I spoke to him, mentioning that I had taped him at that gig. I met with him and played him a tape of what I was doing; we got into a studio and later did a duo at the Squat Theatre. As a trio with Arthur Doyle, we played at punk clubs like Hurrah's, TR3, CBGB's, and made some waves as this form of music was new to these clubs and audiences. He was world class, a heavyweight. The only thing he ever had any objection to was once when I suggested an arrangement. He loved the opportunity to play completely free, without any formal restrictions.” Though gigs became scarcer for Harris during the 1980s, he continued to work and record across boundaries until his death from prostate cancer on December 20, 1991 at the age of 55.

This article also appears in the November issue of All About Jazz New York.

The photo comes from Drummerworld, where you can also stream an unissued trio recording featuring bassist Jimmy Garrison and the obscure vibraphonist Warren Chiasson.

Thanks to Rudolph Grey and Alvin Fielder for their contributions.

Selected discography:

Archie Shepp - Live in San Francisco (Impulse!, 1966)
Archie Shepp - Mama Too Tight (Impulse!, 1966)
Albert Ayler - Paris/Lörrach 1966 (Hat Hut, 1966)
Archie Shepp - at the Donaueschingen Music Festival (Saba, 1967)
360 Degree Music Experience - From Rag Time to No Time (360 Records, 1974)
Steve Lacy - Trickles (Black Saint, 1976)
360 Degree Music Experience - In:Sanity (Black Saint, 1977)
Beaver Harris - African Drums (Owl, 1978)
The Blue Humans - Live in NY 1980 (Audible Hiss, 1980/1995)
360 Degree Music Experience - Well Kept Secret (Hannibal, 1984)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Briefly Reviewed: Two from Alexander Hawkins

Convergence Quartet

Vol. 1: Spirit

English pianist/organist and improvising composer Alexander Hawkins isn’t quite as well-known on these shores as he could be. His work tends to fall quite far from the European free improvisation mainstream, embracing bubbly lyricism, spiritual heft, and dedication to a diverse series of modern jazz threads (embracing Sun Ra, South Africa, and Charles Mingus equally). Though his discography is somewhat slim and includes only one official date as a leader, his youthful enthusiasm doesn’t get in the way of making work that is honest and mature.

One of his longstanding groups is the Convergence Quartet, which joins Hawkins and bassist Dominic Lash with American improvisers Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet and flugelhorn) and Harris Eisenstadt (percussion). Song/Dance is their second disc and first for the Portuguese Clean Feed label. Lash’s “Second” begins the disc, Hawkins in additive hunt and peck atop plastic rimshots and meaty pizzicato, anthemic and snaking as right hand repetition grabs hold of Bynum’s laconic, cottony pierce. Ultimately, it’s a funky and celebratory beginning, inverted backbeats shoving continual piano and brass reconstitution. Bynum’s phrases are lacy, short progressions that pay respect to Bill Dixon on “Baobabs,” set to an elegiac pace of drifting toms and Aeolian harp rustle. “Iris” starts life as a cornet cadenza, gulps and whines that become measured, Hawkins subsequently providing light deliberateness as Lash and Eisenstadt swirl and grab, the pianist closing with his own unaccompanied section along a Jaki Byard-Herman Blount axis. 

Leroy Jenkins’ “Albert Ayler: His Life was Too Short” is highly reminiscent of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” airy refraction mixed with a hushed, lilting theme. The title composition works through multiple parts: a punchy drum-and-bugle corps, piercing metal and arco lines against a duskily creeping piano-drum base that soon becomes fractured accents. A Kenny Drew-inspired blues walk is the apex of Hawkins’ solo on the lush Eisenstadt-penned “The Pitts,” pinched brass waver stitching across the trio’s wooly canvas. Bynum skitters across the kwela theme of “Kudala,” sputtering call and flinty rises buoyed by bright, earthy township rhythms and Brotherhood-like melody.

Decoy is Hawkins’ organ-trio, although it’s a far cry from anything Freddie Roach or John Patton might have conjured even at their most exploratory. Spirit is the first part of a two-volume set, with follow-up The Deep released only on vinyl. Decoy is not a saxophone or guitar-driven group either, instead relying on John Edwards’ contrabass and Steve Noble’s percussion as throaty, glinting foils to Hawkins’ Hammond C3. The closest analog (and there are few) in organ jazz might be the 70s work of Larry Young, dense superimposition inspired by John Coltrane and with an obscure remainder of the groove buried in electric pulse. That is, at least, how Hawkins interprets it on the opening group improvisation, “Outside In,” rumbling keyboard mass occasionally popping out funky fragments, which are gradually subsumed in an all-stops-pulled murk, cymbal wash and throaty arco contributing to a pockmarked tone field. “Who’s Who” moves at a broken clip, elements of Ra and Jimmy Smith peppering a rollicking solo as Noble and Edwards count out a mighty, monolithic beat. 

“Episode No. 69” ferrets out particulate rattle, upper-register key jabs in orbit with string harmonics and Noble’s heady rustle. Hawkins’ history with the church organ becomes clear in Gerhard Zacher-like long tones and tart plugged-in dissonance, falling away into hushed patter, cymbal floes and coiled strum before reemerging in density that falls just shy of power-play. The lengthy “Native Origins” deals with volumes in a tidal ebb and flow, heady masses that suddenly become a whisper, then returning in cubic plats and garish, upturned gesture almost entirely hinged upon Hawkins’ C3. Edwards and Noble trade support, fierce arco and Elvin-like triplet bash plugging at Hawkins’ greasy-wet shove and maddening, interwoven shouts. There isn’t any subtlety to the music on Spirit, tinny accents and gut projection on an equal footing with burbling, glitchy arpeggios and colorful swirls in a heaving but distinct coagulation. If you didn’t know music like this was possible from an organ-trio, Decoy will probably turn you on your ear.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Marion Brown (September 8, 1931-October 18, 2010) - Pieces of a Conversation

Photo from the LP Geechee Recollections (Impulse, 1973)
Today I (and many in the jazz community) learned the news that alto saxophonist and improvising composer Marion Brown died a little over a week ago (update: the official date of death has been released as yesterday, 10/18). He had been dealing with health issues for over a decade, and was in an assisted living situation in Hollywood, Florida. He was an early favorite of mine - a sweet ebullience and jovial, lyrical compositional style within freer forms separated his work from the pregnant emotional weight of Messrs. Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Cecil Taylor. Though early on he was associated with the "Fire Music" environment of the Lower East Side, through sideman appearances with Coltrane, Archie Shepp and pianist Burton Greene along with his own leader-dates, years in Europe and later in the Northeastern US performing and teaching lent a spare, wistful lyricism and warm pensiveness to even the most abstract improvisations. It was a great honor and pleasure to interview Marion Brown in 2005 for what became the liner notes to the reissue of his ESP-Disk' debut, The Marion Brown Quartet (ESP LP 1022 / CD 4011). What follows is the transcript of my conversation with Marion; he was a sweet fellow and though clearly the challenges of his later years had taken their toll, he was in bright spirits and very kind and funny. It was also one of the earliest interviews I did, and has never before been published in any form. Thank you to Bernard Stollman and the staff of ESP for allowing this interview to take place at the time, and most of all, to Marion Brown, whose music and personality will live on. One curiosity: he was emphatic to me later that his birthday was in 1931, and not 1935 as is usually noted.

I wanted to get started at the beginning, as you came up and got interested in music.

I was born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 8, 1931, and my mother loved music, so she used to go out to clubs dancing all the time. So when I was fifteen, she took me out to hear some music and I found what I wanted to do.

Who was it that solidified your calling?

It was James Brown.

When did you start playing the saxophone, and how did you decide on that instrument?

I was seventeen, and it was Sonny Rollins – he is a genius!

But this wasn’t in Atlanta – am I right in thinking you were in DC?

I moved from Atlanta to New York, and then to Washington, DC, where I attended Howard University. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but I hadn’t heard of Johnny Cochran – if I had, I would’ve stayed with it! You know that – he’s a genius!

How was Howard University?

I liked it very well; I met Stokeley Carmichael, and Claude Brown, who wrote a book called Man-Child in the Promised Land.

Were you involved with music at all while you attended Howard?

Yes, I was, and I used to go listen to [saxophonist] Andrew White all the time. He transcribed all of Coltrane’s solos until Coltrane went beyond the bar-lines. I’d go hear him every night; he had Joe Chambers on drums. One time, I went down to the club and he told me this – ‘Either you can play a whole lot or you can play nothing.’

Were you playing much yourself at this time?

Not too much, because I’d just gotten married, and I was going to school. I had a friend there, Maurice Robinson, who played the alto. He was a very good player, and I used to hang out with him every day. He had technique like Bird! But he never recorded, and he was also a junkie.

It sounds like you did have some good musical contacts, though, while you were in Washington. You also hung out with trumpeter Charles Tolliver quite a bit, am I right?

Yes I did; he was studying pharmacy.

Did you finish Howard, or did you leave before that?

I left.

What was the inspiration for leaving?

To go to New York, where everything was happening.

Could you describe a bit what happened when you went to New York?

Well, the first thing that happened was that I met Leroi Jones, and he heard me play and started to write about me in Downbeat. He told people to ‘watch out for this man, because he is very good!’

Was that before you got a band together?

Yes, it was.

How did you meet Leroi?

He lived in a building near a friend of mine, William White, who was a painter. This was at 27 Cooper Square. I hung out with him almost every day – he was the smartest and most brilliant black man I ever met in my life. He’s a genius!

You were writing at some level, too, right?

I was, and he was backing me. One day he read some of my prose, and he said ‘you have the new writer’s complex.’ He was saying I wasn’t writing as well as I could have, and he also had a way of saying things where you never knew what he meant.

Whether he was giving you a complement or not?


What kind of writing was it mostly? I knew you’d written some criticism, but what else were you writing?

I was trying to write poetry, but I didn’t have that ‘thing’.

How was that feeding into your music at that point?

Well, I really don’t know.

Then I met Rachel Wilcox, a beautiful woman from Philadelphia, who was a social worker – I mean, she was as beautiful as Miles Davis was handsome. This was in 1959. We didn’t have any children; I got disgusted. When I met Gayle Anderson [Palmore], we had Djindji.

But that was quite a bit later, right?


How was the music developing at this point?

I was just practicing and practicing with Archie Shepp, Rashied Ali and Alan Shorter.

How did you meet Archie?

I substituted on WBAI-FM for A.B. Spellman. I played a program of music that I liked, and people thought I was very good. I met Ornette Coleman the same way – I played some of his music, and he said ‘you like my music?’ and I said ‘you’re a genius!’ He said ‘I’m not a genius, but I know music!’

Ornette was very helpful to you in this period, too.

He lent me his white plastic alto; I went by his house one day and he was practicing violin, he gave me his saxophone and told me to play a part, and after we got through he said ‘man, you play as well as anybody I’ve heard. Why aren’t you playing?’ I told him I didn’t have a horn and he said, ‘well you’ve got one now. You keep that alto.’ After I started playing with Archie Shepp and making a little money, I bought myself a horn and gave him his back and he said ‘man, I know you’re going to make it because you're very kind!’

So you didn’t have a horn for the first part of your stay in New York, it sounds like. Was it pretty rough for you when you got started?

I was almost going crazy. I met Bernard Stollman, and he produced my first record, and that established me.

Could you describe the ESP session a bit?

It came together through Bernard, of course, and at that record date I met a friend who I’ve been friends with ever since named Mark Ferris, and he’s a Buddhist, and he and [bassist] Buster Williams got me into Buddhism.

How did you get that band together?

It was from going by Archie Shepp’s house to practice with Rashied Ali; then Alan Shorter started coming by, and my ideas started expanding. So when I got ready to record, that’s who I used.

Wayne Shorter is down here in Florida, too, and he’s a Buddhist. I’ve met him a few times, he really likes me, and he’s almost an inch behind Sonny Rollins. I told Wayne’s wife that he’s a genius, and she said ‘you know that? I’ve known that for years. You know what’s better than that? I’ve got him!’ [laughs]

Had you met Wayne before in New York?

Yes, he taught me how to get my mechanical rights for publishing, my royalties. I met him through [reedman] Bennie Maupin.

How did you meet Bennie Maupin? I know he first recorded with you.

When I lived in New York, I lived at 18 Alan Street on the Lower East Side, and James Earl Jones lived across the street. I used to wait at the window for him to come outside, because he’s got a voice like nobody else. Bennie would come over, too, and he would sit in with the band and I said ‘this guy’s got it!’ We became friends, and we still are. He’s like a brother.

You mentioned Sonny Rollins as being a huge influence, and I’ve been thinking about it – listening back to your recordings, and I guess it had never really struck me before how you were using a lot of West Indian and Calypso themes in your compositions. Was that a result of Sonny Rollins, or did you do that independently?

It was because of Sonny Rollins, yes, and also all the different places I’ve been, growing up in Atlanta, and all the music my mother listened to.

You know who was my neighbor [in Atlanta]? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a great man. He lived about four blocks away. I also met Malcolm X in the early ‘60s, in New York at 135th Street at a restaurant, him and Muhammad Ali. I couldn’t see Ali’s face because he was sitting in profile, but Malcolm said he kept looking at me, and he came over to me and said ‘who are you?’ I told him my name and he said ‘what do you do?’ I said I play the saxophone, and he said ‘are you any good?’ I said I’m very good, and he said ‘you better be, because these white boys are out here waiting to blow you down.’ He was paranoid because he knew people wanted to kill him. This was about 1962, at the height of his Muslim thing.

It sounds like you were running into all the right people. As far as getting in with Coltrane, when did you run into him?

I ran into him in the early ‘60s; he used to come and hear me play everyplace, and I thought he was interested in me, but he was into Rashied Ali. Coltrane had done everything he could with Elvin, and he wanted to play free, how he felt. I had him with me before Coltrane, and he made his first record with me.

But you did develop quite a relationship with Coltrane.

Oh yeah, because he liked the way I played. He did everything he could to help me; one day I met him on the street and he smiled and reached into his pocket and gave me a hundred dollar bill. He said, ‘don’t worry about that, I’ve got plenty of those.’ [laughs] He was a beautiful person.

How did Ascension come together?

Coltrane decided he wanted to take his music to the next level, up to God, to thank God for the gift he’s given. Ascension means rising from one level to the highest level.

And he felt he needed an orchestra, some help, in order to do that.

Yeah, right. It was wonderful, except for Elvin Jones, who was very unhappy with Coltrane playing free. I looked at him and smiled, and he looked at me and growled like a dog! I said ‘I don’t want to talk to this guy, he’s crazy!’ But he was a wonderful drummer and to that point, he knew just what to do with Coltrane.

Even in a session like that, he knew exactly what to do. Would you say that was a major break into the New York jazz world for you, as far as work?

It was a break, but we didn’t work much. We used to play concerts in people’s lofts, and they’d give us tips by passing a cigar box around. Rashied had to carry his drums on a push cart. He didn’t have a set of drum boxes, and every part of his drums was from a different kit. When he played them, though, he made them all the same – he taught me how to fly! He’d look up at the ceiling and just moan! I’d say ‘man you’re driving me crazy!’ [laughs]

Were you able to work or sit in with Coltrane, or was it just the record session?

Just the record session. When Rashied started playing with him, I went to their record session one night and Coltrane gave me a W-2 form. He said ‘sign your name on that and go down to the union in two weeks, and you’ll get some money.’ I said ‘but I didn’t play,’ and he said ‘I know what you can do, and I want you to have some money.’ He was a beautiful person.


But you know the drummer I played with that I liked the most? Philly Joe Jones.

When did you play with Philly Joe?

It was in 1978. I made a record with him and Kenny Barron on piano and Cecil McBee on bass. You know what he told me? He said ‘I know something about you that you don’t know about yourself.’ I said ‘what?’ He said ‘you’re a genius, but you don’t know how to get it out of yourself. Tonight, I’m gonna bring it out.’ And he did. It was on a record called Soul Eyes [Baystate Japan].

The Japanese pay more money than anybody, the Japanese and the Germans. There was a Japanese teacher at Amherst College. He started producing records, and he produced some of the best work I’ve ever done. They paid good money, too.

Were the Europeans more receptive to your music?

It was better, because [in the late 1960s] I was getting connected with Germany. The German people liked me and did more for me.

I was hoping to get to Germany, but first, in 1966-67, when you were getting ready to leave for Europe, what was the inspiration? What was happening (or not) in New York to get you to leave?

We couldn’t get enough work to feed ourselves or pay rent, but I thought I could in Europe. When the Europeans first came over to interview us and check out the new jazz scene, they wrote about me and I knew I could make it over there. I went to Paris and I met Djinji’s mother and started recording there, and I had gigs all over Europe.

Who were some of the first people you met? I know Gunter Hampel was a big figure.

Well yeah, him, and in Paris I met Alain Jean-Marie, the piano player from Guadalupe, and he’s a genius – he’s as good as Bud Powell. He could play!

How did Paris look to you? I know you didn’t stay all that long.

It was a very beautiful city, but the French people were strange. You know who else I met in Paris? Steve Lacy. I told him I needed a horn, and he gave me the name of the son of the owner of Selmer, so I went over there and told him what was happening. He took me to a room and brought out about ten altos, and he said ‘try one of these, and the one you like, we’ll give it to you.’ I said ‘but I can’t buy it,’ and he said ‘we’re giving it to you.’ The horn he gave me retailed for $6000.

Wow – they set you up! That was your entrée to Europe, getting a free $6000 saxophone.

Yeah it was, and I also made documentary movies.

And there was also the soundtrack, Le Temps Fou.

Marcel Camus loved black music, and he loved black people. He married a Brazilian woman, and let me tell you, she was gorgeous!

Who were some of the other people you ran with in Paris?

Mostly this guy Marc Albert, who was a Buddhist even then. He had a feeling for me and made me feel like I was his brother. He has a brother named Alain, who speaks 26 languages fluently and worked for Yassir Arafat. Wherever Arafat went, he took Alain because he knew all the different languages. This guy Marc told me he was going to write a book about me and Miles Davis – he used to be Miles’ assistant. He told me Miles was great, but he was crazy.

How did you meet Gunter Hampel?

When I first went to Europe, I had a gig in Brussels, and whoever booked the gig had him on it. So we kind of liked each other and kept playing together.

He got you the gigs in Germany, I assume.

Yes, he did.

It sounds like you started exploring a completely different side of your music when you went to Europe – a more spacious side. It seems like there was a real turning point there.

It was always in me. I tell you, when I first met Sonny Rollins, I talked to him for about fifteen minutes and I had to walk away from him because every question he asked, he had to answer right away as if he knew what I was asking. He kept looking me in the eyes with a smile on his face, and I said ‘this guy’s reading my mind. He’s an incredible person.’

I met him about ten years ago, in New York City at J&R music world. I knew this woman who was singing and I was playing with her. I went by her house on Friday before my birthday, and she gave me a shirt that she paid $75 for and said ‘what you doing Sunday at 12:00?’ I said nothing, so she took a piece of paper and wrote down an address and said ‘meet me here, and you’re going to meet somebody you’ll never forget. I don’t want to tell you, I want it to be a surprise.’ I got to the place about an hour before and saw a poster that said Sonny Rollins was going to be speaking there. I went inside and this white guy was setting up chairs and I said ‘I think Sonny Rollins is in the building’ and he said ‘he is, he’s upstairs and he’ll be down at twelve.’

The stage got crowded and people were talking, and suddenly it got so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Rollins walked in, he was wearing dark shades and sat on the stage and he was looking at me. They set up a table for autographs and my girlfriend put me in line, and she pinned a microphone to my lapel. When I got there, he said ‘hello, Marion.’ I said ‘you know me?’ and he said ‘man, everybody knows you!’ I said ‘I don’t have any questions, but I would like to make a statement.’ I said ‘Mr. Rollins, I’ve been listening to you all my adult life. I love you, you’re the best.’ He said ‘thanks, Marion!’ I said ‘one more thing, I want to tell you happy birthday because Monday’s your birthday.’ He said ‘I want to tell you happy birthday too, because I know Tuesday was your birthday. I know you’re a Virgo, like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and myself.’

My girlfriend said ‘Sonny, you’re like a bottle of fine wine. You get better with age.’ She said ‘show me how you do that and tell me what part your wife plays in it.’ He said ‘I’m a very focused person. I do my homework, but my wife is the perfect partner, because I am a very difficult and crazy person. Some days I practice fifteen hours a day – on days like that I don’t even speak to my wife.’ He is very deep and very smart. He and Leroi Jones are the smartest black men I ever met. If you ever met Amiri Baraka, you would meet a literary genius.

What made you come back to the United States, though, after Europe?

I didn’t like the French people. They’re very jealous – if you have something they don’t have, they won’t treat you well. The Germans treat you better.

When you came back to the US, though, would I be right in thinking you didn’t want to get back into the New York scene?

Right. I went back to Atlanta, and that’s where my son Djinji was born.

And you made some recordings related to Atlanta at that time. Had you been thinking long about doing music related to the South?

Yes, those albums on Impulse, Geechee Recollections and Sweet Earth Flying. I had been thinking a lot about [poet] Jean Toomer, and so I wrote “Corintha,” “November Cotton Flower,” and a few other things that were inspired by him. He was a Rosacrucian, and wrote all this poetry but he liked young women. He wrote “Corintha” about a fifteen-year-old girl and an older man who loved her. The way he wrote it was beautiful – and there are a lot of men like that character. He wrote in two ways, disguised and very open, and used a lot of metaphor. I was always interested in poetry and painting, because in Atlanta every year they have a show of the best black artists in the United States and the world.

How did you get into Toomer’s work?

Reading – I read a lot. My English teacher in Atlanta, M. Carl Holman introduced me to poetry. I used to be real lazy and I wouldn’t study, and we had a girl in class named Velma Fudge from Montgomery, Alabama. She was a straight-A student, and she said ‘Mr. Holman, how can Marion Brown get an A and I get a D? He doesn’t study!’ He said ‘sure he doesn’t study, but he’s my best listener, and he remembers everything I say. Like a rat trap!'

Could you describe some of what you know of the artistic community down there, as you experienced it?

Some of the first geniuses in jazz I met were from the South. There was a trombone player named Willie Wilson, and he could play like nobody else. One time Bennie Green came down there, and Silly Willie made him cry! He could slide that horn, swing his butt off! He was as good as J.J. Johnson. There was a piano player from Miami named James Harris; they called him Junior, and the things he could do on the piano were indescribable. One night after a gig, he looked at me and said ‘what you play is not the music of today – you’re playing the music of the future already!’

I know Wayne’s going to be happy when that record with his brother comes out – I’ll tell him ‘Alan is still living through his music.’ He’ll probably hug me and say ‘man, I love my brother!’ He’s a beautiful person.

I’ve always been intrigued by his brother.

He’s another kind of genius.

I read he wrote a book of philosophy that was never published.

They said the stuff in it was so crazy, the public wouldn’t understand it. That’s why I want to do my autobiography – I want to make Mingus’ book Beneath the Underdog look like kid’s stuff. And Mingus was a genius.

He was a very complicated, emotional person, but that book is really tough to read.

Well, he was far out.

Tell me more about Atlanta.

Well, the area I lived had all these colleges and rich black people who were educated, and the prettiest women in the world. I met people from Spellman College, and they saw me make music with children. They found me a job in New Haven at the Yale Child Studies Center.

That’s how you met Leo Smith [actually they met in Europe in 1969-70].

He came by my house one day and stopped for a visit, but in his car it was full of clothes. He said ‘I don’t have any place to stay’ and I said ‘Leo, you can stay with me.’ He said ‘but you’ve got a wife and a baby boy,’ and I said ‘that’s all right, we’ve got an extra room and you can have it.’ He said ‘thanks, man. You are beautiful, and you’re a real brother.’ That’s when we started playing together; in my basement I started making instruments and he had already made some. We got together and knew we had something in common.

How did you get into making instruments?

I was studying ethnomusicology.

You were making mostly percussion instruments like the tap-o-lin, right?


As far as the artistic climate in New Haven, how was that?

Well, they had a lot of intellectuals there but very few musicians. I only met one other musician there that I used on one of my records, this guy named Bill Greene.

But it was at least a place to think and cool your jets, and get things together.

Yes. Do you know how I started teaching college? Makanda Ken McIntyre. He told me they needed a teacher at Bowdoin and I told him I hadn’t finished college. He said ‘just send in your resume and see what happens.’ They had me come up there, interviewed me and gave me a job as an Assistant Professor of Music.

Other than the record you made there [Soundways, with composer Elliott Schwartz], I wasn’t too familiar with the college.

It’s in Brunswick, Maine. Elliott Schwartz was on the faculty and we were in the same department, and he’s the one that got me interested in electronic music. I hadn’t finished college, and I told the administration that I wanted to finish. They said okay, you’ve got enough hours in regular courses that you can take whatever you want. If you take 14 hours, you’ve got your BA. So I got it, and then I applied to Wesleyan for my Master’s, they accepted me on a full scholarship, and I taught part-time there.

When were you at Wesleyan?

From 1972 to 1974.

What did you think of the university teaching circuit?

I liked it. On the circuit I met the mother of my second child, my daughter Anais – she’s in New Orleans and she sings. She studied opera for twelve years and man, the things she can do with her voice will make you cry! She’s a genius!

Who was your wife at this time?

Djinji’s mother, but I was cheating on her. I thought I’d be punished, but instead God left me with a beautiful girl who’s a fantastic person.

So you have two kids, then?

I’ve got three – I’ve got a daughter in Paris, and her birthday is the same day as mine. She was supposed to be a Scorpio, but her mother used a lot of drugs, and she was born premature. When I went to visit her in Paris, she was in the hospital on oxygen. When she saw me, she looked up and in two weeks, she was out of that tent! She knew I was her father. You know, I have had a beautiful life and I love it very much.

What was after Wesleyan?

I was in Northampton, Massachusetts, and I started painting. I won an award for being an artistic treasure of New England.


MB: I’m the first person from Georgia to become internationally known as a jazz musician, except for my teacher at Clark College, Wayman Carver.

I’m a little less aware of what has happened since the early ‘80s. Could you fill me in some?

My left foot was amputated, which has caused me to not be able to do certain things, but it made me a multi-millionaire. My lawyer proved it was accidental, and malpractice. My lawyer can fight – she’s a Virgo and Jewish.

You were able to move to Florida, which I understand you like a lot better.

My son found this place. He was down here playing a gig and he came back to the Bronx, and he said ‘Dad, I’m gonna get you out of this nuthouse and take you down to Florida. I found a place so beautiful, when you see it you’re gonna cry.’

What does he play?

Synthesizers and drum machines. He puts beats on things that make James Brown sound like a little boy! He’s a genius! He boxes too – he’s had six fights, and he’s won every last one of them. He kickboxes, using his fists, elbows and feet. There’s nothing you can do. He’s down here – I’m looking forward to seeing him on Father’s Day.

Where exactly are you?

Hollywood, Florida, right next to Ft. Lauderdale, where Cannonball came from. They call Florida the Sunshine State, and right now the sun is shining bright and sunny. I’m getting ready to eat lunch right now – we’re going to have a good lunch, with fish chowder, chips and coleslaw. The cook is a genius – she’s a Scorpio from Jamaica.

Are you able to play?

I have my horn right here, and I practice guitar too – classical guitar. You know who one of my idols is? Andres Segovia. He’s a genius! That’s what Djinji’s mother liked to hear me play, the guitar, because she said it would bring out the sexy side of me. [laughs]

Before moving to Florida and before all these things happened to you in the hospital, what was going on?

I was in New York, and I used to play with this singer named Devorah Day. She’s beautiful, good, and rich. I played a concert at the Brooklyn Conservatory, and she had been listening to me on records and found out I was playing. We sat down and talked later, and she said ‘come upstairs, I want to give you something.’ I didn’t know what it was, but we went upstairs and she took off her shoes, her hat and coat and said ‘lover man’ and she messed my mind up! The next week, she came to visit me at my place in Brooklyn, and she wanted to sing again. I said ‘what do you want to sing?’ and she said ‘Dindi by Jobim.’ She’s a soprano, and she was at the top of her range screaming, looked at me and went three octaves down and hit a bass note. I said ‘get out of here, you’re crazy!’ Later I was walking her home and she said ‘Marion, you’re a beautiful man, I’m going to give you ten percent of my earnings every month.’ Every month, she gave me a hundred or two hundred dollars, and a big bag of smoke.

When was this?

In the 1990s.

What led up to your health declining?

I had high blood pressure and was snorting some coke. It felt good, but it was killing me, so I went by to visit my son one day and he said ‘dad, there’s something wrong with you.’ I said ‘there’s nothing wrong with me,’ and he said ‘I know my father when he’s okay, and that’s not how you look. We’re going to the doctor whether you want to or not.’ The doctors examined me and couldn’t find anything, but they knew something was wrong. They called in a Brazilian neurosurgeon; he took x-rays of my head and found an aneurysm. He said to my son ‘you see that thing? If it busts, your father’s gone. If you want me to operate, we’ve got to do it right away because we’re fighting against the clock.’ He said ‘Operate, because I want my father to live.’ You know what I think? God is really taking me through these things because what he wants for me is beyond my own comprehension.

You’ve faced a lot of challenges, that’s for sure.

And I’ve risen above them all.

So what are some of the things you’d like to do next?

I plan to buy my own home, play my music, and get back into painting, and write my autobiography. I would also like to have another son.

What kind of painting do you do?

I use Chinese calligraphy to paint people and bands in performance. I had a major exhibition about three years ago, and all my paintings sold. I earned a lot of bread!

Finally, I’d like to say thanks to Bernard Stollman for introducing me to the world, too. His records are everywhere, even in Asia!

Phone interview 2005

A comprehensive Marion Brown discography is available here. Among other places, Marion Brown's music can be heard on ESP-Disk releases Marion Brown Quartet, Why Not?, Burton Greene Quartet, and The East Village Other.