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 na├»ve 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.