Thursday, October 25, 2012


Steve Lacy & Enrico Rava in Rome, 1966.
Copyright Lilian Terry
I remember reading a few years ago some remarks about reedman-composer Ken Vandermark and the problem someone had with his titles – that they were a codified and hip “reference system” to show that he was “in the know” about music, art, and literature. Lucky Thompson, Robert Rauschenberg, Stephen Shore, The Ex – all were fair game, and whether the music itself reflected the values of the dedicatees was anybody’s guess. I always found that argument kind of unfair, because whatever one thinks of Vandermark’s music, he chooses to pay homage to his peers and forebears. These are little “gifts” as I see it – offerings to those whom he respects, and they don’t have to sound or look like their recipient in order to give a proper nod. Also, one doesn’t necessarily have to have, say, Bob Weston or Steve Lacy in mind when listening to the entire nine minutes of a tune to enjoy it and feel that it’s within a sort of “sphere of interest.” 

Vandermark is certainly not the first to do this and certainly he should not be the last. Soprano saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy frequently referenced others in his titles, as has composer-reedman Anthony Braxton. These two figures are, not coincidentally, very important in the lineage of artists who have influenced Vandermark’s work. They made no bones about their forebears and those whom they held in high esteem, and to a degree this was important in drawing a connection between the New Thing and what came before. Considering how challenging their music could be, it was/is important for Lacy and Braxton to make links to the past (and probably too much has been made about the traditionalists’ and boppers’ disdain for the New Thing. It wasn’t always the case). That was especially true thirty or forty years ago, when their work had not become as highly regarded in the landscape of this music.

Monk, Sonny Clark, Sidney Bechet and Ellington (along with a host of visual artists and poets/writers) were part of Lacy’s bedrock. Braxton would add Warne Marsh, Paul Desmond, Lennie Tristano, Sun Ra, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to his playbook. One of my favorite Lacy pieces is the short “La Motte Picquet” on The Gap (America, 1972), which Lacy says was “dedicated to the memory of Sonny Clark, who would have liked this kind of tune.” It’s got a declamatory, odd-interval elision going on, singsong but a bit batty. I never really appreciated what Lacy meant about Sonny Clark until hearing the pianist’s “Minor Meeting,” which is extraordinarily crisp and stark in its A-section. It sounds like a Steve Lacy composition, in fact, and one can imagine it being played with unaccompanied clarion soprano twirls. “La Motte Picquet” is much freer but the connection isn’t as spurious as one might think, and for whatever reason it’s one of the least-talked-about in Lacy’s oeuvre.

Of course, nothing exists in a vacuum and honestly, to hear someone like Cooper-Moore recite “I want to give thanks” and invoke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Jaki Byard at a time while being crucially aligned with the post-loft environment of David S. Ware and William Parker is something special, indeed. This, from his 2001 Hopscotch CD Deep in the Neighborhood of History and Influence, which has been mentioned here before. Or, when I interviewed reedman Peter Brötzmann back in 2002, the heaviest thing he laid out was his deep, deep love for Hawkins. For that matter, Bill Dixon’s invocation of Miles, Chet Baker and Tony Fruscella places him, rightly, in a lineage of brass instrumentalists and composer/interpreters that are beyond category. Where some might see Vandermark’s titles as a political gambit, I see it as not forgetting where one comes from or what surrounds one’s work. After all, no person is truly an island, no matter how weird the output is.

In a time where there is so much information available, as well as a time when a whole generation (or two) of important artists are passing on, being aware of history and one’s own peers is crucial. Being able to tie one’s work together with a landscape larger than one’s immediate environment helps bolster things – of course, a dedication isn’t necessary to do that, because good art should be able to stand firmly on its own and its place within the continuum implicit. But gifting a nod is fairly uncommon, and it is important to network contributions between present and past. Far be it for me to be proscriptive; as Dixon would say, “tradition is all around you. Start from where you are – you’ll get to the rest in time.” Easy to forget, but not hard to acknowledge.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Into the Unknown: David S. Ware (1949-2012)

DSW by Peter Gannushkin
I’m trying to remember the exact context surrounding when I first heard the music of saxophonist/composer David S. Ware. I believe I picked up Cryptology (Homestead, 1994) at Kief’s, a stereo/CD store in Lawrence, Kansas, around 1997. It was around the same time that I was buying records by Ayler, Coltrane, Dolphy, Cecil and Ornette. If memory serves, Bells and Expression were the first two jazz records I bought, and appropriately enough, Cryptology would have come shortly after. It is a wonderful quartet date with bassist William Parker, pianist Matthew Shipp, and drummer Whit Dickey. As I got into the music, the historical foundations of free jazz and creative improvisation seemed more important, so more recent practice wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. Also, I was living in Kansas and there wasn’t exactly much live creative music to see – watching people work at their craft is a whole ‘nother sphere, and had I been in New York then I might have taken a different approach. The only time I ever saw Mr. Ware perform was in the early Aughts, in a duo with the late drummer Rashied Ali. Although today that sounds like a heavy pairing, what I witnessed then seemed unsuccessful. Ware was peeling the paint off the hall with low, resonant peals that were repeated over and over, while Ali was trying to get a swing thing going. Were I to hear it now, my ears would be different and I might be more into it than I was then, but it’s hard to say.

Over the past several years, I’ve come back to Ware’s music with greater interest and appreciation. His recordings with Shipp, Parker, and drummers Marc D. Edwards, Whit Dickey, Susie Ibarra and Guillermo E. Brown are treasured documents of contemporary music. His recent solo recordings and Planetary Unknown discs (with Parker, drummer Muhammad Ali and pianist Cooper-Moore) are absolutely incredible. There’s some really nice stuff with Joe Morris and Warren Smith that’s well worth hearing, too. And though the vinyl has been in rotation here at the offices of Ni Kantu for many years, it surprises me that the lone commercially released recording of Apogee (1979’s Birth of a Being, with Cooper-Moore and Edwards) has never made it to CD. It’s a motherfucker.

What strikes me now (and what didn’t always strike younger ears) is how consistently lyrical Ware’s music is. At times it certainly takes on the notion of the Abstract Sublime, in terms of confronting a vast solitude and rejoicing, confronting and accepting aloneness before the universe and giving a spiritual notion to being “Alone Together.” At other times, Ware’s music and that of his colleagues plays out as a contrast between whorls and stoic monoliths – perhaps that’s where the curious penchant for repeated phrases comes in. But lyric and swing, as well as a tremendous blues feeling, are endemic to this music as far-out as it might get.

It’s ironic that I didn’t appreciate those elements when they were presented to me in earlier listening sessions, because that was precisely what I took to in listening to Ware’s forebears. I suppose that with some people’s music it just takes time. Of course, the fact that age/experience/mortality brings out a certain kind of patient nuance as artists grow older is also worth noting – we hear something different in later Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Ornette, Bill Dixon, and Cecil than we do in their earlier music. Ware’s recent recordings are full of this, or at least one interprets them as such, made with the composer’s life in the balance. They are both feisty and reflective, which are pretty natural feelings when encountering one’s mortality. Ware made his first recording in 1968, as a sideman with Boston altoist Abdul-Hannan, and was active throughout the 1970s in the Northeast, playing with Cecil, drummer Andrew Cyrille, William Parker, and in his own groups, though it wasn’t until the 1990s that a broader audience came to his work. This was around the time that “free jazz” was entering the consciousness of independent music fans as an alternative to mainstream jazz, or even punk rock, and imbued with the latter’s values of high energy, political consciousness, and self-expression. The appeal of Ware and his Quartet in this climate seems now like a no-brainer.

Following years of dialysis and a kidney transplant, David S. Ware passed last night, October 18, 2012. He was 62. At the time I was taking in the music of altoist Jemeel Moondoc, another loft-jazz figure who has enjoyed a somewhat recent renaissance, at The Stone. His new quartet with trumpeter Matt Lavelle (out of the Woody Shaw/Charles Tolliver bag), bassist Henry Grimes and an elegantly swinging Newman Taylor Baker really brought it. With more rehearsal and gigs under their belt, this quartet could be the reprisal of Muntu that some of us have been hoping for. Afterwards on my way home I met and had a wonderful conversation with tenorman Kalaparusha, who often plays at the 14th St./Union Square 4/5/6 stop. It was a night of giants, and the music in the air was sublime. Whether we knew it at the time or not, we were celebrating (as Muhal Richard Abrams titled it) Things to Come from Those Now Gone.

Planetary Unknown Live at Jazzfestival Saalfelden 2011 (Aum Fidelity):

Precessional 3