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
Song/Dance

Decoy
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?

Right.

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?

Yes.

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.

Wow.

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?

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.

Wow.

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.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Local Space and a Firm Cloud: Bill Dixon, Oct. 5, 2010

Dixon at FIMAV 2010, courtesy Stephen Haynes
Right now I’m listening to Berlin Abbozzi, a disc recorded in 1999 for FMP by Bill Dixon, who would have turned 85 today (or yesterday, depending on what time zone you’re in). Here he plays trumpet and flugelhorn along with utilizing electronic delay, and he’s joined by then-regular collaborator, English percussionist Tony Oxley, and the German bassists Klaus Koch and Matthias Bauer. In the pantheon of Dixon recordings, it’s not one I listen to often, and I’m not exactly sure why. It has the elements structurally and conceptually of discs I turn to more often, like Vade Mecum I and II (Soul Note, 1994-1996) and November 1981 (Soul Note, 1982). But Berlin Abbozzi either hadn't immediately struck, or more likely I didn’t do the work necessary to open up to this particular document. So, I’m acquainting myself anew with this disc and its three compositions. There certainly won’t be another performance like this, and whether one prefers it over something else isn’t important. Bill Dixon is quite the opposite of Eric Dolphy – once the music has been made (recorded or not), it’s there to be judged or not, dealt with or ignored, but whatever the reaction, its literal and ethereal presence can’t be denied. The hopeful choice is continued and refined engagement as an open listener.

There is one more new Bill Dixon record slated to come out on Victo by the end of the year, documenting the May 2010 performance of Tapestries for Small Orchestra at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, less than one month before his passing. There will likely be a number of archival releases in the future, though how that exactly manifests itself remains to be seen. Eagerly awaiting another of his releases (as much as they were timed documents of constant work) isn't an impulse that can be stopped, but its parameters have changed. To a related end, Dixon was more than a musician-composer and instrumentalist; he was among other things a painter, writer, organizer, producer, tenured professor/educator, and photographer (the order can be shuffled as one sees fit). There is, in other words, a lot to celebrate and be mindful of when both studying his music and this music, as well as going about one’s day as a responsible and creative individual.

Ben Young’s annual WKCR broadcast celebrating Dixon’s birthday was the first to take place without the master’s literal presence on Earth. Young deftly took a small slice of Dixon’s work occurring in the early to middle 1980s, mostly in trio formation with bassist Mario Pavone and drummer Laurence Cook, as well as slightly larger lineups with bassists Jon Voigt, William Parker and Peter Kowald, and alto saxophonist Marco Eneidi. The subtle thing about this program was that Young centered the performances not only in a certain time period, but also spatially. They were mostly recorded in the Northeast – Vermont, upstate New York, Connecticut, basically not particularly far from his Bennington home or, for that matter, the university environment.

With creative music a localized struggle, it’s often placed on an international scale, showing the breadth of global connections between individual practitioners. It helps that struggle seem less painful through its universality, which builds upon connection and community. (One also sees it in Facebook and Twitter, finding the words and music of Dixon and other artists carried across the globe in a space that transcends virtual and concrete space.) But spending so much time on the idea of this music as “world music” can shirk the locality of one’s life and work – ultimately, one is dealing with a tangibly micro space well within the global space. Stephen Haynes has written about this quite extensively on his blog; we spoke tonight and I was again reminded of his fellow brass instrumentalist and improvising composer Taylor Ho Bynum’s bike tour through the Northeast recently, where gigs were set up within cycling distance of one another.

Local music and local thought is interesting, because it STILL depends on where you are. On a related but slightly separate note, I often find myself lamenting what I can do as part of the community I feel most connected with, which is quite far from where I call home (central Texas). Would I feel more local becoming an ironically non-local in the Northeast, Chicago, the Bay Area or Berlin? Austin has a vibrant music scene, though creative music gets an extremely small piece of the pie (no surprise) and sometimes seems as barren as a parking lot in Texas heat. It's a community I'm part of, but the resulting local experience is decidedly off the beaten track. A true engagement of space and the feeling of that space is a heady challenge.

The global versus local structure of experience has a direct parallel in accessing an oeuvre as large and diverse as Bill Dixon’s. One can’t take it all in with a single recording, expecting to divine some sort of universal knowledge by listening to all of his records. Even if you have, at your fingertips, the entire archive of his work (recorded, written, painted, etc.) the waters will still be difficult to navigate. One has to take a piece of it and deal with it in the moment (or as close to the narrow-immediate as possible), as I’m doing with Berlin Abbozzi. As Dixon would say, “you start from where you are. You’ll get to the rest in time.”

Happy Birthday, Bill.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Music Briefly Reviewed, September/October 2010

MIGUEL FRASCONI / DENMAN MARONEY
Gleam

If you haven’t heard the Glass Orchestra, seek out their Music Gallery Editions and private-press LPs from the late 1970s and the fantastic Tales of Siliconesia seven-inch. You’ll be rewarded handsomely by their expressions of whimsy, humanity, and compelling interplay through improvisations utilizing glass, water and voice. Their discography has been digitized and made available through the blogosphere (I’ll leave that up to you), and one would assume that this new disc on Porter Records from GO participant Miguel Frasconi is the harbinger of more commercially-available glass music down the pipeline. Gleam is a fascinating series of free duets between Frasconi and prepared pianist Denman Maroney, with the former on various glass objects, water, and glass harp. The expansion of the piano’s resources through preparation and use of the strings (bowed, plucked, etc.) are an acoustic parallel to electronics, namely that both offered new sound-worlds at a certain point, though one required no tape to enter that space. Bowed and rhythmically knocked glass offers a similar bevy of extended acoustic resources, to the point that if one were not made aware, one might think that Frasconi’s music is electronic. From agitated haranguing and scraping to ghostly arcs, ethereal rhythmic tap and dissociated clink, the glass landscape wavers in and out of tonality and deliberateness, abetted by metallic counterpoint. Blown glass and miniscule knocks couple with seasick piano scrape on “Gliss,” occasional keyboard gestures adding smirking definition to vicious upward and downward slides. The twenty-four minute “Glass” allows Maroney’s piano to stretch both outside and in, building tension through detail with obsessive plucks and easing with bluish clusters. It’s not massive music, but it is dense, a constant array of small and unfamiliar noises encouraging and counteracting one another with extraordinary dynamic range. Hopefully, more from Frasconi’s glass inventory will be forthcoming.

ANDREW LAMB TRIO
New Orleans Suite

New Orleans Suite was recorded in 2005, right after Katrina hit the Crescent City, but this 2010 release is its first appearance on disc, bringing together longtime collaborators reedman Andrew Lamb, percussionist Warren Smith, and bassist/multi-instrumentalist Tom Abbs, on six original compositions. Though Lamb is based in New York, he came up in Chicago and, upon moving east in the 1970s, began studying with former AACM saxophonist Kalaparusha Ahra Difda. Smith, too, is an expat Chicagoan, though he left the city before the AACM was formed. Nevertheless, this trio sonically occupies an area akin to the Chicagoans’ music, making heavy use of space and little instruments alongside evocations of a deep Gulf coast blues feeling.

Certainly a big part of that is Lamb’s playing – a throaty and gruff, heel-digging tenor sound with sad-eyed soul and a drawling cadence. That Lamb is an heir apparent to Kalaparusha, Sam Rivers, and other loft-jazz tenor heavies is made clear on “Rescue Me,” a furious-yet-clean power trio of chord particulates, cymbal slush and callus dust. It’s the third piece in, following Smith’s poem “Dyes and Lyes,” which is set to weary swing and free punctuation, and the colorful Rollins-trio roll that begins “Katrina’s Path.” The latter shifts from athletic, loose rumble and cottony leaps to explorations of lazy-Sunday traipse and tonal singularity. Tuned toms provide an interesting counterpoint to Abbs’ eliding pluck in a lengthy mid-piece walkabout before the trio’s wave crests in the final minutes. “Back Water” begins a section that owes much to the AACM and early Art Ensemble aesthetics – it’s a lolling walk through a field of bells, shakers, orchestra vibes and voice, cello adding punch and commentary (think Lester Lashley in Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound group) along with digeridoo and clarinet warble. Tenor, bass, digeridoo and percussion signal “Song of the Miracle Lives,” a burnished upward march flanked by rattling auxiliary percussion. If there was ever any doubt whether the tradition of Great Black Music and its rural/South (side) sparse jubilance has relevance within contemporary free music, Lamb’s New Orleans Suite would quell it.

LAWNMOWER
West

Lawnmower is a semi-recent quartet based in the Northeast and comprised of drummer Luther Gray, guitarists Geoff Farina and Dan Littleton, and alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs. Minus Hobbs, the twined-guitar and drums trio went under the moniker of New Salt for a 2006 release on Kimchee. There’s a fair amount of history to Lawnmower, though one wouldn’t necessarily pick up on it at first – in addition to working as part of the Fully Celebrated Orchestra and in guitarist Joe Morris’ various small groups, Gray was a latter-day member of the DC indie-rock band Tsunami, while Farina and Littleton came up in deliberately-paced groups Karate and Ida, respectively. It’s not quite the pedigree one would expect in an improvising quartet, but at the same time the lack of clearly defined jazz or rock structure probably does this group well. There’s a stark, dusty twang and gritty electricity to the opening “One,” ringing downward strokes wrapping rapid, tremolo attack and muted shorts as Hobbs’s alto bounces and ricochets off of Gray’s surging chatter. Building from spare accent to brassy waves, the subtle rise and fall of limber, repeating planes are significant in setting off thorny counterpoint. Dry, acrid alto peals reach an earthy cadence on “Glass,” supported by gentle plugged-in harmonics, wisps of feedback and a malleted march. The metaphor of a competing tangle is apparent in “Giant Squid,” Gray’s rhythms chunky against seasick dives of wow and feedback, though the breath of a spry water bird comes through in Hobbs’s loquacious alto. West is a mostly quite spare set, but hinges on wiry comment and, at times, heated dialogue. There’s a spectral, field-like cast lent by the guitarists’ tonal gradations, shunting alto and percussion into uncharted areas and making this quartet date a welcome listen.

MIKE PRIDE’S FROM BACTERIA TO BOYS
Betweenwhile

If you know the work of percussionist Mike Pride from his flailing, sometimes kitchen-sink approach to free improvisation with the likes of bass clarinetist Jason Stein, guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Nate Wooley, Betweenwhile might come as somewhat of a surprise. Even though it’s the second record of From Bacteria to Boys (named for a line from R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet), it is their first for a well-distributed label, while also moving from a three- to a four-piece. On the surface, the group is a somewhat twisted and knotty riff on contemporary (straight ahead) jazz vis-à-vis what Pride calls “statement musics” (purging through repetition and elaboration) comprising altoist Darius Jones, bassist Peter Bitenc and pianist Alexis Marcelo. Pride’s reputation seems to parallel that of improvisers like bassist-composer Moppa Elliott and percussionist-catalyst Kevin Shea (indeed, he’s guested on Talibam! recordings), but even if his tongue might wind up in his cheek, it’s clear once the proceedings on Betweenwhile get underway that this foursome is entirely serious about the music.

There are two not-so-secret weapons in the arsenal of From Bacteria to Boys: Marcelo and Jones. Pride’s compositions and the ensuing group improvisations fall into place around these two central poles, which outline both rhythmic and melodic outpourings – the momentum and elaboration so endemic to this group. Heavy backbeat turns and pan-rhythmic flutter are Pride’s own fulcrums; they guide Marcelo’s Hasaan-like chug and wincing dissonances, while Jones unleashes saccharine torrents. “Surcharge” brings the music into free jazz territory, volcanic right-hand arpeggios and foamy, bent tones stratospherically in relief to the muscular lobs of bass and drums. Often, however, the quartet is romantic and nearly fauvist, with boppish ebullience on tunes like “Emo [sic] Hope,” or with a garishly fronting blues in “12 Lines for Build.” Mike Pride’s attention to rock, punk, and the idea of having a band has taught him some things, one of which is programming an album (or a series of compositions, for that matter) – there’s never a flag in this hour of music, building and relaxing tension within pieces that remain shy of the ten minute mark. One has only to hear the pyrotechnics in the curiously-titled “Reese Witherspoon” and its blend of trance-like states, hip-hop, and spindly classicism to appreciate the cohesion and daring within this group.

ARAM SHELTON
These Times

While one is still digesting the latest Fast Citizens disc, alto saxophonist/clarinetist and improvising composer Aram Shelton presents us with a disc to nestle in between Two Cities (Delmark, 2009) and the next installment. These Times joins Shelton and fellow Citizens Keefe Jackson (tenor) and Anton Hatwich (bass) with drummer Marc Riordan on six originals, four of which are Shelton’s. Though it’s not completely fair to compare this group with the sextet iteration of the Citizens and the latter ensemble’s frequently more formal and multipart approach to written material, the quartet is lean and limber within a similarly knotty book.

Alto and tenor work their way through a gentle, bright theme at the outset, giving way to Riordan’s melodic patter, brushy accents for quiet pizzicato strum and the soft carvings of the leader’s horn. That whittling quickly builds into an uptempo section, albeit pliant and unhurried, as Jackson wrangles scales into earthy, laconic asides, bass and drums keeping a dry, shifty sensibility as the foursome close with a measured lilt. “Dusk” begins with a small, sashaying figure, tenor and clarinet pecking in a way slightly reminiscent of something Steve Lacy or Jimmy Giuffre might have come up with – probably the latter moreso as Shelton and Jackson pry a lean force out of tiptoeing repetition. The tenorman chooses heel-digging curlicues as a motif, bluesy clambering supported by multi-directional chatter. Heaving pizzicato and press rolls occupy the middle section while Shelton’s spry insularity is a mobile of compositional referents. “An Interrupted Stroll” is built on a curious slink, and another fine example of the inherent differences in phrase construction and attack between Shelton and Jackson – burbles and microscopic barbs enter into the leader’s detailing of effect and space in what’s more a clarinet miniature than a typical “solo,” while Jackson interprets those phrases in a gruff and tenor-true manner, reshaping burrs into smooth, front-porch storytelling. This is a woodwind pairing that one hopes will maintain the staying power of Tchicai and Shepp, or Hodges and Gonsalves, in contemporary improvisation.

JOSEF VAN WISSEM
Ex Patris
(Important)

Dutch-born and Brooklyn-based composer and lute player Josef van Wissem has had an extraordinarily fruitful decade, one which has resulted in nearly twenty albums of composed and improvised music for Renaissance and Baroque lute. While in a sense his work is based in minimalism, it is also in part a reimagining and restructuring of seventeenth century songs into a decidedly current fold. Of course, it’s not much of a stretch to place earlier music and contemporary minimalism on a level playing field (spiritually and structurally), though when minimal composers have drawn from western sources, they’ve often harmonically predated the music van Wissem uses for his compositions. The lute – or any guitar-like instrument – isn’t the first axe of choice in the pantheon of minimal music, though an analog can be found in the incredible Guitares Dérive LP recorded by French guitarists Vincent Le Masne and Bertrand Porquet (Shandar, 1974). Van Wissem’s compositions stem from simple phrases inverted and overlaid, but exploring their nakedness further would diminish the impact of the music, which is shockingly great. A folksy processional begins the set, entitled “The Day is Coming,” dusky and evenly-paced piano-like chords outlining ornate middle and upper-range threads, like blocks and glass in cyclical interplay. The tours de force are “Amor Fati” and “After the Fire has Devoured All, It Will Consume Itself” – the former merging wincing ascension with a brooding parallel lilt, strands of subtly varying thickness and impulse intertwining as a self-canceling dirge, eventually adding jaunty filigree and short eddies of reflection. “After the Fire” is brighter, beginning in an unadorned singsong melody wrapped in shimmering strum that is at turns translucent, gauzy, and raveled. Melodies alternate current, becoming foreground or drone in push-pull, stabilized by third and fourth shades between them. Ex Patris an incredibly beautiful record, the kind of accessible minimalism that we’ve been missing of late.

NATE WOOLEY / PAUL LYTTON
Creak above 33
(Psi)

Creak above 33 is the third disc (counting a set with David Grubbs on Important, The Seven Storey Mountain) to feature the duo of trumpeter Nate Wooley and percussionist Paul Lytton; as with the others, this material is completely improvised. One might, looking at the pairing of an English sound-sculptor with an American explorer of expanded brass technique (albeit within the realms of heavy tradition and structure), compare this music to the work of Tony Oxley and Bill Dixon of a decade ago, and that wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But it wouldn’t be entirely right, either – Wooley has a certain bravura and youthful classicism to his playing and, in between the growls, hiccups, guffaws and brass splatter, one can detect how he would have “fit in” to a contemporary jazz orchestra or new jack hardbop unit. Working this expressive range into a duo with electronically-aided glitch and rattle, contact-miked crunch, bullroarer and feedback makes for an intriguing, alien proposition.

Lytton employs a (seemingly) distracted field of micro-sounds that results in garish gestures which retain a sheen of utter randomness, like an animal rooting through litter. That’s probably why the duo works so well. On paper, Wooley’s crisp, measured approach and cutting swing might seem at odds with the percussionist’s disheveled canvas. That’s not to say that Lytton doesn’t “swing” or have rhythm, as he delicately taps into the trumpeter’s broad-interval assemblages on “Filtering the Fogweed” with at least quadruple-time, then lets him hang with only the occasional steely accent. Wooley uses an amplifier and is sometimes closely miked, allowing needled valves, breathy whispers and spit to mingle with electronic resistance, but even when his resources parallel electro-acoustic impulses, there’s a tautly controlled aspect far different from what Lytton espouses. The pair moves from terse exploration into athletic charge on “The Lonely Fisherman,” small-sound chug and scraped mimicry part of Lytton’s arsenal equal to Wooley’s percussive fluffs and gulps. Through contrast and comment, the duo becomes one organism, the sources of merging incidents becoming only partially clear – such as the wigged amplifier whoosh (Wooley) and rattling chains and bow-and-spring (Lytton) in seeming homage to cracked live electronic music on the closing piece. Of course, make no mistake, Creak above 33 is utterly contemporary and like many Emanem/Psi releases, will reveal itself over years of listening.