Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Phill Musra - The Creator Spaces (Intex, 1974)

Rarely do I offer downloaded music at Ni Kantu, but in the spirit of a previous offering of the music of Michael Cosmic’s Peace in the World (Intex/Cosmic), here is another volume of the Phill Musra/Michael Cosmic trilogy. Though picking favorites isn’t really my thing, I would have to say that The Creator Spaces has gotten the most spins in my household over the years, probably because the program sort of “eases you in” to the far out stuff, starting with a beautiful flute melody set to the shifting sands of hand percussion and Huseyin Ertunc’s steady, pulsing cymbal waves on “Egypt.” Certainly the music gets quite free, but there’s a homemade fragility to it that puts it in a different class from that of, say, the AACM (which Musra and Cosmic were a part of early on). Like Ertunc’s Musiki (probably recorded at the same session), the band is a stripped-down trio with Musra on reeds and percussion; Cosmic on reeds, organ and percussion; and Ertunc on drums. There is also some track overlap with Musiki, as that album features an alternate of “The Creator Spaces.” Musra has said he hopes to reissue this album someday but in the meantime has asked me to make it available as a download.

  1. Egypt
  2. Arabia
  3. The Creator is So Far Out
  4. The Creator Spaces

Phill Musra – flute, tenor, soprano saxophone, zurna (oboe), percussion
Michael Cosmic – flute, alto, sopranino saxophone, clarinet, zurna, organ, percussion
Huseyin Ertunc – drums and cymbals

Recorded 1974 in Cambridge, MA and engineered by Larrymar Richards, released as Intex 84.

Get the FLAC files here (from about as clean a copy as you could get).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reviewed: Bill Dixon's "Envoi"

The artist at work in Victoriaville

Note: this review has been repurposed from a project that was ultimately shelved for the time being. Here it is in its entirety. Thanks to Stephen Haynes and Jeff Golick for their thoughts.

(Victo CD 120)

There is certainly a lot of significance that can be attached to an artist’s final recording before passing on – one thinks of the delicate, free beauty of Coltrane’s late work as exemplified on Stellar Regions (Impulse, 1967/1997) or the promise of new directions on Lee Morgan’s eponymous final Blue Note date, recorded in 1971. These were, however, artists cut down unexpectedly in their youth. It’s a little different when death is an expected eventuality in the autumn of an artist’s career, and we’re able to listen to their music with the understanding that age has brought them both experience and physical changes that require an instrument to be played differently. Composer, improviser and trumpeter Bill Dixon (1925-2010) seemed to experience a great deal of interest in his work in the last years of his life – opportunities to lead orchestras at festivals in Chicago and New York, highly-regarded recordings on labels like Thrill Jockey, Aum Fidelity, and Firehouse 12 – yet there wasn’t any more work being done than over the previous fifty-odd years. A significantly influential figure on the way the trumpet is played and thought of among creative musicians, recent years saw him able to convene a core group that reflected broader structural concerns as well as the individual instrumental languages that his work has helped shape.

The Small Orchestra has proved to be one of the most interesting of Dixon’s ensembles on the whole; convened first to record in 2008 for Firehouse 12 the excellent two-disc and one DVD set Tapestries for Small Orchestra, the group harks back to the brass-heavy units he led in the late 1970s, also mirrored by unrecorded units in late ‘60s New York. The group joined Dixon with brass multi-instrumentalists Stephen Haynes, Graham Haynes (no relation), Rob Mazurek and Taylor Ho Bynum, low reeds player Michel Côté, cellist Glynis Lomon, bassist Ken Filiano and percussionist Warren Smith. This is the ensemble that recorded Envoi in May 2010 at the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville, weeks before Dixon’s passing. The combination of low reeds, brass, strings and percussion might be seen as hallmarks within Dixon’s music from 1967’s “Voices” to the present, not because he has a “style,” but because these instrumental combinations have allowed him to get an absolutely huge range of colors from a relatively small ensemble. Dixon found ways to expand what eight people can sound like, through physical placement and textural instructions that encourage depicted sounds to overstep their literal dimensions (cf. the optical qualities of painters like Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Frank Stella). In other words, the music often sounds positively huge, but in a way that spreads out instead of singularly overpowering.

The word “Envoi” is defined literally as a look back over what has come before – in poetry, the reflective and often short final stanza that comments on the whole. It would be easy to think of Dixon’s Envoi as a similar summing up of a fifty-odd year recording and performing career, because we know it’s the last thing he did (and that it took a hell of a lot of work in his final months to assemble the piece). We want to say “this is it,” but as significant as any one of his recordings might be, attaching anything extra is the onus of the listener rather than the composer. Dixon has famously quipped that he just “likes the ring” of certain words, and that he likes his pieces to have a nice-sounding name attached. In that sense, “Envoi” is just a word used to title this work, which just happens to be the final piece he recorded. The only thing different about Envoi from other pieces, insofar as one might use the “jazz” perspective, is that he does not perform in the traditional sense. His music increasingly surpassed the notion that he had to “play” to make the work live – composition, conducting, instructing and assembling the group clarified the artist’s signature. One could easily say that his instrument became the ensemble as well as the trumpet, singularly masterful at both. Bisecting the two movements is a pre-recorded trumpet solo, 1972’s “Shrike,” which is a brief and extremely hot slice of sound turning the instrument and the experiencer’s body “inside out” (to quote Stephen Haynes), in this setting both hinting at musique concréte and a shocking declaration of physicality.

In this music, composition and conducting are two very fraught terms. We know that a musician uses resources accumulated over time to assemble something meaningful on the spot, but under the direction of a singular vision, being unfettered comes with a responsibility to do what’s right. Dixon has said that his music – especially the later work – is less didactic in its scoring, because trusting the musicians to do what they do is necessary to give the compositions life. That said the responsibility bred through suggestion results in an ensemble subsuming itself to the broad whole, and while extremely intense, it is some of the most patient music one is liable to hear. One is brought into a state of concentrated calm, sounds emerging in lengthy passages where nothing appears to be hurried and there is no ego. Rather, players emerge when it’s necessary, when another musician has cycled through the process of whatever line or area needed to be completed. 

The music of Envoi is, in effect, democratic and responsible. It’s a state as natural as breathing, the ears of performers and listeners able to latch onto accents but never forced into a position. Sure, there are anchoring themes, brass coagulants that call to mind the testy chords of Takemitsu and Ligeti, but with the pacing of Feldman – none of these figures are “improvisers,” but Dixon’s music at this stage has transcended such boundaries. When Dixon was alive and could give the music an extra nudge, the kaleidoscope of emotions was shored up with implicit (and perhaps explicit) pronouncements of “don’t hurry” or “just wait.” That gradual rightness makes the realization of this work extraordinary. When we think of the tone or phrasing of musicians like Ben Webster or Dexter Gordon late in their lives, we think of similar softness and burnished delicacy, arrived at through lived experience. Though Envoi is an ensemble composition, it can be said that Dixon’s late music has a similar quality to the fragile but lived-in sound of those musicians, even as it can be just as strikingly aggressive.

Envoi was revisited after his death (though his trumpet was on a stool in the conductor’s place) at the 2010 memorial at St. Mark’s Church in New York. The ensemble worked through the piece with the addition of Joe Morris on second contrabass, and that was my first hearing of it. While an excellent performance in its own right, it was more hurried, more agitated in its execution compared to what transpired at Victoriaville. It begged the question whether Dixon’s music is possible to perform without his presence, and if so, how to manage it. The idea of a repertory group, as much as Dixon’s works – both heard and unheard – are loved, is hard to conceive. Yet his legacy can and should live on, beyond what’s been recorded. In the face of that, there is no finality to the music of Envoi – it’s too open-ended, too declarative in its necessity to bother with such a concept. The set closes with Dixon’s voice, reflecting and instructing on the fact that, whether an audience (including critics, listeners, and other musicians) grasps the magnitude or not, giving it one’s all is the only valid response. With that in mind, the implicit understanding from this moment forward is that the body of Dixon’s work is only a hint at what’s possible. 

Photo copyright 2010 by Stephen Haynes

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Continuum Passes - Graham Collier, Michael Garrick, Gordon Beck

Every year followers of jazz and creative music must say to themselves that, despite the wide array of fascinating new music becoming available, history slips further into the past with the deaths of musicians both prominent and obscure. It’s always a challenge when our heroes pass on, leaving us with their art and lasting influence but no corporeal presence remaining. There is no denying that as the architects of modern jazz of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s age, death becomes a more frequent part of that reality, and sometimes we're just catching up now to what they were doing years ago. 2011 was hard for fans of British jazz as three of the Brit-jazz scene's leading lights passed away – two within just days of one another. The pianist-composer Michael Garrick died November 11 at age 78, while pianist Gordon Beck died November 6 at 75. Composer, thinker and bandleader Graham Collier passed away September 10 age 74.

All three of these musicians had seen a renaissance of interest in their work in recent years – Garrick mostly in the form of reissues of his catalog of rarities via Dutton-Vocalion and Trunk Records, while Collier continued to write and was working on important new works this year [a footnote to that is that my interview with Mr. Collier from January 2011, which was condensed for the New York City Jazz Record, will run in full at the Paris Transatlantic website next month]. Gordon Beck’s more recent work, recorded for the Art Of Life label, didn’t garner quite as much notice as the reissues of his scarce back catalog either, but in terms of the jazz mainstream he might have been the most visible, recording with saxophonist Phil Woods, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and guitarist Allan Holdsworth.

Of these artists, Collier is the one who I was most familiar with; his small groups of the late 1960s and early 1970s are fascinating studies in the interchangeability of improvisation and notated structure, carried to an equally intriguing fruition in later orchestral works. Much of Collier’s music, as well as his writings, has been made available through the Jazz Continuum website. Garrick is a figure that has always been on the periphery of my research and interests, though his work with saxophonists Joe Harriott and Don Rendell and vocalist Norma Winstone has always struck me as far outside the expected modern-jazz lexicon, introducing poetry and non-Western sound forms in some very unique ways. Beck was (and is) an extraordinary pianist in the post-Bill Evans school, applying athleticism to a melodic-harmonic openness that allowed him to work equally well alongside a bebopper like Woods or the free improvising drummer John Stevens.

Here's a film of Graham Collier being interviewed about his work with young musicians in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Derby Jazz Festival in 2007. The piece is quite fine and features some incredible playing by guest trumpeter Harry Beckett (1923-2010), a veteran of Collier's groups of the early years. I don't think I've ever heard a youth orchestra rip like this. Like all new and up-and-coming musicians, knowing the work of the masters will help them project into the next sphere.