Friday, June 23, 2006

John Coltrane...Ascension...

My apologies for the lack of posts – but I have been whacked with a double whammy – health problems and domestic upheavals – my daughter is moving into a new house in town. Next week, things should fall back into place. Hopefully...

On y va...

John Coltrane's 'Ascension' was recorded in 1965, a few years after Ornette Coleman's 'Free Jazz,' and followed the altoist in several other ways: minimal ensemble composed linking sections, a two man bass team on board - and the presence of Freddie Hubbard, who never quite seems comfortable with his surroundings - but is prepared to try and follow the charismatic sax pied pipers where they lead. But Coleman's work was played by a doubled quartet which included two drummers. Here, there are two more musicians added - and only Elvin Jones in the boiler room. Only? What a performance – one of his greatest, driving the sprawling, wailing ensembles and soloists onwards with a relentless and fiery barrage of polyrythms that never lets up. The true star of the day? He roots the band in the way that Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell did – the beat never fractures completely into abstraction but has a definable pulse - however wayward it seems at times.

Another contrast? Unwind the words... Coleman's title was to define a style of improvisation within jazz (for better or for worse) at the head of the sixties and the phrase could be further explored by splitting it and considering the word 'free.' Adjective? Or verb? Describing this new music – or exhorting musicians to 'free' jazz – from what had been perceived by many as the fag end of bebop. Whatever... Ornette's freedoms had philosophical implications way beyond the music that imply new ways of living and coming together. Free jazz and free yourself and others at the same time. But in this world, maybe... Coltrane's epic has vivid overtones of that spirituality which flows from his own voyage of inner discovery. Yet this is a fiery uplifting – a questing, questioning movement. Whatever inner peace he found this side of the grave, so much of his later work has an urgent feel to it – as if Kierkegaard had come back as a tenor saxophonist. And behind that again – although far transcending its inherently sectarian significance - is the 'Ascension' that is at the centre of Christianity - victory over death by the risen Christ. I have always heard Coltrane's sound as hard-wired into the pentecostal fire music of the Afro-American churchs – even when he takes in the Oriental/Asian influences with their implications of more quiescent philosophies they have to battle with that wild searching voice that floods his timbral spaces. Maybe this tension where one would expect to find peace is precisely set up by the dynamics inherent in crossing east and west via a distant African heritage. Beyond these speculations... no listener can come idly to this music. You either reject it – or embrace the wild ride...


I intend in my usual perverse and elliptical fashion to post Ornette's early masterpiece out of historical sequence... hopefully very soon...

John Coltrane
(John Coltrane: tenor Saxophone;Freddie Hubbard:trumpet; Dewey Johnson:trumpet; Marion Brown: alto saxophone: John Tchicai:alto saxophone; Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone: Archie Shepp: tenor Saxophone; McCoy Tyner: piano; Art Davis: bass; Jimmy Garrison: bass; Elvin Jones: drums).


Ascension (take 1)


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

sporadic postings...chaos...

Due to a certain amount of domestic chaos and on-going fatigue, posting will be light this week... here's another long improvisation from the World of Whitedog...
and some morephotos from the New York trip...



Sunday, June 18, 2006

stopgap... recent improvisations...

I was planning a special post of three very long seminal tracks - but they will have to wait as fatigue has flattened me over the weekend... here's a stopgap from the Whitedog camp, a long spacey improvisation using audio mulch linked to FL studio. The photograph was taken last year in New York... where I intended to be this week - but health and a looming house move have put the kybosh on that. September, maybe...



Friday, June 16, 2006

Milt Jackson in company... with John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet... and Thelonious Monk...

Anthony's comments about Milt Jackson got me to thinking – here is a master who started out in the early days of bebop and who always held his ground in all company down the years while keeping his intrinsic style uncompromised. Flowing, leaping streams of notes that always remain inflected with and grounded in the blues. I've dug out a couple of tracks that see him in diverse situations and demonstrate the above remarks very well. Two with John Coltrane from the album 'Bags and Trane,' plus one from his time with the Modern Jazz Quartet and one with Thelonious Monk.

'Three little words' opens with a brisk intro from Hank Jones. Theme stated by vibes then Coltrane takes the first solo. Kay's cymbals drive the track along – a subtle drummer, no tub-thumper( who made his bones in the Modern Jazz Quartet alongside Jackson). Jackson matches the tenor for note density, unreeling effortless reams of sixteenth notes. Jones solos with an elegant single note, flowing line in the right hand with sparse left hand. A round of swapped eights between piano, drums, sax and vibes then Jackson returns to take it out. Classic swinging jazz.

Jones again introduces: 'Stairway to the Stars.' Jackson again states the theme of the ballad, taken at a slow, easy swing. Long ringing notes placed strategically. Coltrane, of course, was a master player of ballads. He solos with a brusque tenderness, that familiar slight keening edge in the higher register. Jackson again with Coltrane faintly behind him for a few bars – a miscued entrance? Short coda – Jackson vibes ringing into echo to end on a brief couple of notes from Coltrane. A snapshot of a track in its brevity that provides the epitome of a fifties blowing session.

Jackson was a co-founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet: John Lewis's most famous composition for the group – which became a jazz standard – is 'Django,' written after the death of the European gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. The MJQ recorded several versions over their long career. Here's one from their second album 'Pyramid'. Starting off slowly and stately before settling into a brisk mid tempo, swished along by Kay's brushes. Jackson solos, leads into a brief bridging arranged section before Lewis comes in on piano. Minimal almost to be begin with, his sparse yet swinging style slowly expands and builds. He executes a ritardando into the group theme repeat which is followed by a short coda ending on bowed bass, a shimmer of cymbals, a ringing of vibes. Note the subtle arrangement of this track: it's not just theme plus solos but is held together by the bass which alternates between four four walking, a bluesy riff and an eight bar pedal point. These recurring features help to provide an overall structure which reflects Lewis's desire in the fifties to escape the usual run of performance. Lewis also helped to raise the profile of jazz by taking his music to the concert halls and wearing evening dress. Some say he lost something in the process – I saw the MJQ a couple of times in the early sixties and thought they were brilliant – and swinging and bluesy despite the flirtations and collaborations with the Third Stream and the formal experiments that came from Lewis's deep knowledge of Bach and desire to expand the jazz repertoire. For all of which, he remained a great blues player... like Milt Jackson who sometimes seemed uncomfortable in the more grandiose settings Lewis concocted – but always gave of his best.

Jackson featured on some of Thelonious Monk's early recordings. In fact, his musicianship shines thoughout those old Blue Note sessions: not many of the sidemen were always comfortable with Monk's music. Here is 'Criss Cross,' from 1951, a typically jagged Monk theme with unexpected shifting accents. Jackson takes the first short solo, supported by Monk's clenched chording and some lively Blakey rim shots. Shihab up next – a shadow of Bird in his playing but he negotiates the changes succesfully enough. A sparkling solo from Monk. Two minutes 58 seconds of compressed brilliance.

There is a whole wedge of Monk solos transcribed for you here...

And here is a clip of the MJQ in action... a clip of the Coltrane Quartet playing 'Naima' here...

Milt Jackson and John Coltrane
(Milt Jackson:vibraphone; John Coltrane: tenor Saxophone; Hank Jones: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; Connie Kay: drums)


Stairway to the stars

Three Little Words



Modern Jazz Quartet
(Milt Jackson: vibraphone; John Lewis: piano; Percy Heath: bass; Connie Kay: drums).



Thelonious Monk
(Sahib Shihab: alto saxophone; Milt Jackson: vibraphone; Thelonious Monk: piano: Al Mckibbon: bass: Art Blakey: drums).


Criss Cross


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Monk, Miles, Ornette...

I'm getting a little tedious and predictable, maybe – but some more Monk, of whom I can never get enough. (And check out Anthony's musings on his dream band over here... Monk holds down the piano chair...). Plus the original side two of Ornette Coleman's 'Free Jazz' – one of the meisterworks of the art – and the wider culture...

Monk was part of a 'superstar' session in late 1954, the infamous date with Miles Davis, supported by Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Kenny Clarke – the first division. Stories about the tensions between Monk and the Prince of Darkness – the trumpeter didn't like his accompaniments when he was soloing - have reached legendary proportions – with an oft-repeated allegation that Miles hit Monk at some point. I refer the reader to Orrin Keepnews' sleevenotes to an album that collates a couple of takes from this session with another featuring the Davis Quintet plus John Coltrane)- here... Suffice to note that Monk was a big man with a formidable presence: 'When I asked Monk about the alleged fisticuffs that some inside hipster had confronted me with, he chuckled, "Miles'd got killed if he hit me".'

Whatever the truth, I think Gary Giddins has it right, concerning their conceptual differences: 'Monk liked the use of space and the unexpected. Miles wanted to know where he was and wanted the changes and wanted to be sure that when he left space, the rhythm section would fill it in.' (The complete piece is here, a good overview of Monk: ).

'Swing Spring' is a rather nondescript tune by Davis:'"It was meant to be just like an exercise almost. It was based on that scale there (demonstrating at the piano) and when you blow, you play in that scale and you get an altogether different sound. I got that from Bud Powell, he used to play it all the time."' (Taken from the Keepnews sleevenotes quoted above). On this track Monk does not play behind Miles as the trumpeter eases his way through an elegant, happy solo. Jackson swings in sublimely and bluesy, joined by Monk's treble peckings eight bars in. Miles returns with a quote from 'Surrey with the Fringe on Top' (that he was subsequently to record with the '55 quintet). He sounds fulsome – maybe Monk's absence in the comping duties relaxed him. Monk solos and offers sparse phrases he plays with like a cat poking a mouse. Sweeping up to clanged treble 'dissonances' ( does that word really mean anything here? This is timbral invention rather than playing games with conventional harmony). Jackson returns – spinning out another bouncing set of variations with Monk in tow (old studio buddies, remember - these two had played together on the first recordings Monk made under his own name for Blue Note – classics of the late forties). A unison of vibes and trumpet on the theme, Bags takes the bridge then trumpet/vibes unison again and finish.

'Bags Groove' is a Milt Jackson composition, a funky blues– sans Thelonious again – the vibes offer a harmonising line behind the trumpet on the theme. Davis goes into his solo - some crystal clear trumpet here, which displays his awareness of earlier styles coupled to his sense of space – not exactly wild bebop sixteenths cascading over the changes. Jackson plays funky as Monk comes in behind him. Jackson plays a lot of notes in contrast to Davis – stringing out long lines, the intrinsic malletted percussive edge of the vibes suiting Monk's conceptions of accompaniment perfectly – although he seems somewhat muted on these two tracks at times (maybe he had one eye on Davis's fist?).

Monk next, commencing with a repeated phrase which he worries out of shape in usual style. He delivers an exercise in space and time – he's not so far away from Davis in this desire to create enough room for himself outside the sometimes frantic jammed up spaces of bop. Miles returns for another two choruses, clipped phrases contrasting with more legato lines.

Overall, this was a classic session, almost a clearing of the ground for both Miles and Monk as fame was not too far away for both of them. Jackson never ever seemed to have a bad date, a superb bluesy melodist who could fire out chorus after chorus of invention. Percy Heath was one of the great bass players, not so flashy as some, but deeply knowledgeable and solid as a rock. As for Clarke, one of the founding fathers of bop along with Max Roach - there always seemed more of a savage edge to Max, a harder swing. Clarke is more contained, more urbane, almost. But there is a hidden steel to Klook's playing...

Ornette: the seminal 'Free Jazz.' The selection I have chosen is from the original record – side two, which is the last 17 minutes or so. The recording of this session is certainly a lot clearer than Coltrane's later 'Ascension,' with the two quartets separated across the stereo mix. This music has been called 'atonal' – it isn't, in the main. And: 'chaotic' – maybe – in parts - but in the sense of exhilaration. The rhythm is an expanded 4/4, cross-currented by the two drummers and the overlapping lines of the bass players. Formally, Coleman devised 6 brief thematic sections which he cued in (here – at the beginning, then after the bass duets to lead into the drum duets, again, in the middle of this section and finally to finish the track)– then the musicians were allotted solo space and others could join in where and when they felt the spirit move. One of the many intriguing aspects to 'Free Jazz' – apart from its immense historical value (but give it a listen with open ears and marvel at how fresh and joyful it seems) – is the mix of players and their different conceptions – marked here by the virtuoso bassist Scott LaFaro, who is more conventionally rooted harmonically, and Freddy Hubbard, who played in many 'freeish' ensembles (markedly on Dolphy's seminal 'Out to Lunch') but never really stepped over the line. By contrast, Haden, Higgins,Cherry and Blackwell were all Coleman alumni by 1960 and consequently much more at ease with his music. Dolphy is a pivotal figure, positioned somewhere in the middle between the avant garde and what had become the post-bop mainstream. In a sense, the more conventional players add a degree of ballast to ground the performance.

After the ensemble section and Cherry's solo (that expands briefly as the ensemble add interjections, drop out to leave him with the rhythm section, then swells again as they return with more comments), the bulk of this track is taken up with duets between the bass players and drummers – LaFaro and Haden, followed by Higgins and Blackwell. There is a satisfying spontaneous order that arose from these recordings – frequent listening brings this out. And a great deal of space where the lines overlap and blur, agree and argue, sometimes clashing, but overall the indulgences that 'freedom' offers are tempered as they all strain towards the higher level of the group, rather than showing off instrumental chops. Yet the individual voices and the freedoms they are offered are essential to the ultimate blend. A coiled spring tension between group need and individual yearning that requires a delicate balance. Ornette always saw his music as having a wider cultural significance – the extrapolations from the music outwards to society are obvious – if infrequently practised, they still stand as grand utopian gesture. There is a generosity in Coleman's work that, added to the excitement of spontaneous creation, is rarely found anywhere else...

The Modern Jazz Giants
(Miles Davis: trumpet; Milt Jackson: vibraphone; Thelonious Monk: piano; Percy Heath: bass; Kenny Clarke: drums).


Swing Spring

Bag's Groove


Ornette Coleman Double Quartet
(Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone; Eric Dolphy: bass clarinet; Don Cherry: pocket trumpet; Freddie Hubbard: trumpet; Scott La Faro, Charlie Haden: basses; Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins: drums).


Free Jazz Part 2


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Mulligan meets Monk... Old friends...

Thelonious Monk went into the recording studio with Gerry Mulligan in 1957. On the face of it – an odd pairing. Yet - there are connections. One can hear the swing roots in Monk more clearly with hindsight – which chime with those of Mulligan - they were both aware of earlier developments in jazz and these flowed into their playing. And despite his cool school West Coast breakout in the early fifties, the baritone saxist had participated in the New York scene in the forties – check out his involvement with the 'Birth of the Cool' sessions headed up by Miles. He was also an old friend of Monk, so recording together was not such a strange manoeuvre – maybe the partial neglect of this album has something to do with that rather facile identification of Mulligan with the 'Cool School.' Yet this pairing was clever, I feel – and there is a relaxed, good-natured feeling to the session. Mulligan adapts his playing to Monk pretty well...

'Round Midnight' is a Monk warhorse - with plenty of spring in its step on the evidence of this reading. They open together, Mulligan playing obbligato to Monk's introduction before Mulligan takes the theme – its dark brown hues suited to the baritone's timbre – while the piano is busy alternating between crisply struck chords and those off-kilter runs he was so fond of. Solo baritone – bluesy and coming off the melody in the manner that Monk always wanted from his musicians – rather than frantically running the changes. (Except those who could play fast and still keep to the spirit of the music: Johnny Griffin and, of course, John Coltrane). A thoughtful solo that reminded me of Charlie Rouse in places, Monk's long-time tenor man. Piano solo: Monk sounds sharp, pungent dissonances crushed into the line which, in places, is almost rhapsodic by his usual minimalist standards (Monk could play more fulsomely when he wanted to...). Mulligan comes back to see the track out...

'Straight no chaser' – a brief intro then the blues theme taken at a firm medium trot. Accents banged out in the lower register of the piano – one chorus then straight into the improvising. Mulligan opening out, backed by the the piano for a chorus before Monk falls away. Now the bass and drums can be heard more clearly – Ware is a firm-fingered veteran and Shadow Wilson an underrated drummer – mainly cymbals here to let the bass through. Mulligan plays solid blues – launching into some nice double time in places. Ware takes a solo over lightly swooshing cymbal until the drums stop to leave him double stopping and executing some fleet lines. Monk – entering percussive and trebly with a classic blues riff which is then disrupted, some gloriously gnarled, scampering phrases. He goes into the theme – Mulligan playing a little back, almost hesitantly until the final chorus when he steps up to take it out over a low register piano unison.

Here's some more Monk on video – shot in Paris in 1966

Thelonious Monk/Gerry Mulligan

(Thelonious Monk: piano; Gerry Mulligan: Baritone Saxophone; Wilbur Ware: bass; Shadow Wilson: drums).


Round Midnight

Straight no chaser


Friday, June 09, 2006

Dropping the piano... Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker... Sunny Murray... more videos

Pianoless bands... Gerry Mulligan started it (in modern jazz, anyway) in the early fifties by dropping the piano for his quartet recordings to produce a new, cool, light swinging jazz that hinted back at earlier polyphony in the interweavings of the baritone and trumpet. (And Bach... ?) Chet Baker was another of jazz's lost souls, becoming in later years a junkie bore (nothing hip about that, Chesney...). This is him, redeemed in his primal grace: the Oklahoma stud with the hoodlum good looks that anticipated Elvis in fine balance with Mulligan's gruff, cheery baritone. Mulligan had the sense to quit the junk life – and went on to a long and creative career. Chet Baker fell out with Mulligan after the sax player came out of jail (banged up on a drugs charge) although they did play together in later years – see this album and years later 'fell' out of a window in Amsterdam to his death... although my friend Wild Bill says that there is a strong rumour he is not dead but living in Nottingham, U.K. Plenty of drugs available, I suppose... (Send us a comment, Chet, if you're out there...). They pretty much made 'My Funny Valentine' their own – until Miles came along and claimed it – twice: once in the fifties and again in the sixties. There is some Miles in Chet's playing – but he had his own conception, a fragile beauty when he was on song...

For some insights into the formation of the quartet – and more information about Mulligan's career in general, go here... and check out the side panels – this is a fascinating site containing interviews with Mulligan and transcripts – some vivid snapshots of the jazz life... Mulligan says about Chet Baker that they evolved an almost instinctive improvisational partnership in the time they were together that he had rarely encountered ever again.

As an aside: Chet is responsible for this brilliant quote: 'If I could play like Wynton Marsalis... I wouldn't play like Wynton.' Almost Zen wisdom...

The Sunny Murray is an oddity from 1965 – a session under his own name, basically the Ayler front line with Henry Grimes and Lewis Worrel added as a mighty two bass engine room. Hee-hawing, stuttering horns open up then Cherry plays a short solo, unusually mournful by his cheery standards. Arco basses and drums in a teetering pulse. Joined by Ayler on tenor saxed trilled bugle calls bending into his usual vibratoed smears. A querulous, questioning solo – enlivened with some deep honking phrases. The basses subside into a doubled thrumming, one going high the other low or mingling and crossing. The drums erupt like waves and dissipate over a cymbal continuum – generating an unstable rolling gait. The sporadic eruptions actually sound at times like someone dropping a contemporary sampled loop into the mix. The two horns come together for a section at times almost hesitant and fading back in volume. Then: pointillistic spats of notes fired at each other by the horns,accelerating and dropping back before the track ends fairly abruptly. One reviewer (whose name I have unfortunately forgotten) thought this album reminded him of a Cecil Taylor group without Cecil's guiding piano. Not a bad definition... Although the personnel overlaps with some of Ayler's bands, there is a different feeling to the music here. It does not seem so straight ahead and wild, somehow more considered and communal...

Mulligan talked often about his quartet's improvised counterpoint harking back to New Orleans. What he meant was the front line instruments. Bass and drums in those days were still 'the rhythm section,' in this case with the bass carrying the main burden of marking out the harmonies in the absence of the piano. A sharp delineation. What has changed in the intervening years up to when Sunny Murray recorded this track? The basses are not holding a steady pulse and underpinning the harmonies, the chorus structure that contained the Mulligan/Baker improvisations has been dispensed with altogether. The rhythms are not straight four four but splayed out into pulses that overlap and combine. Ayler and Cherry use timbral, colouristic devices that are not exactly new but are heavily foregrounded – the 'sound' is much more integral to the improvised line. And on this recording at least, they are very much part of the overall group rather than playing from upfront as 'soloists.' The concept of 'the rhythm section' had been radically overhauled... Containing all these points, I suppose, is the ethic of 'freedom/free form' that arose in the late fifties, in my context here specifically Ornette Coleman's take on the pianoless quartet and improvisation, further developed by the musicians on this recording – who link back to Coleman via Cherry. A radical overhaul of jazz – yet the connections between Mulligan and Murray are not so tenuous, especially when you throw Coleman into the equation. I wonder to what extent Coleman had listened to those earlier recordings. After all, he started his own recording career out on the West Coast in 1958 – with a pianist in the band: Walter Norris, followed by Paul Bley (who, I think, was that session leader). By January 1959 – the quartet had dropped the piano... by the time he hit New York...

a video clip of Sunny Murray playing alongside Arty Blakey and Elvin Jones in 1968... three generations of modern jazz drummers going head to head... fascinating...

And here is Chet Baker at Ronnies playing 'Love for Sale' –

... and this... from the same gig: Van Morrison added for 'Send in the Clowns.'

...a film about his life...

Gerry Mulligan Quartet
(Gerry Mulligan: baritone saxophone;Chet Baker:trumpet; Carson Smith: bass; Larry Bunker: drums).

My Funny Valentine



Sunny Murray
(Sunny Murray: drums; Albert Ayler: Tenor Saxophone; Don Cherry: Cornet; Lewis Worrell, Henry Grimes: basses).



One final note... thanks to the late lamented site Jazz Pour Toi for a couple of tracks on recent posts...

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Joe Harriott - free soul on fire...

Joe Harriott... one of the lost souls. Came over to England in the 1950's, established a reputation as a fiery alto player in the bebop field. Then evolved his own brand of free improvisation in a radical turnabout, from sometime round 1958 onwards. Something in the zeitgeist... are we allowed to use that word these days by the po mo cops? Yet: his music evolved separately from Ornette Coleman's – which can be born out by a cursory listen, despite what some critics may have said at the time. For one thing, Coleman's music wasn't that well known over here at the end of the fifties... Also - the piano in Harriott's band provides harmonic cues and colourings that did not exist in Coleman's music, in the main. And... this group are not coming off the blues – an integral backbone to Coleman's work. The musicians on 'Abstract,' the second of his 'free form' albums, are Shake Keane – flugelhorn, Pat Smythe – piano and Coleridge Goode and the old junkie traps hero Phil Seamen. Regarding my comments about the role of the piano above, note that Smythe is an integral part of the overall sound, his shimmering impressionist piano embedded in the music – compare and contrast to the sometimes uncomfortable rattling up and down the scales of Mc Coy Tyner in the later, freer Coltrane band.

Harriott expressed a desire to 'paint with sound' and was, apparently an aficionado of abstract art:

"Early in the 1960s, jazz photographer and journalist Val Wilmer discussed with Joe his new concept, which he called abstract music or free form. 'He was quite intellectual. I remember when I went to see him he was talking about Paul Klee, the painter, and Picasso. In fact I had to go home and brush up on my Klee. At the time I couldn't understand why he was comparing his music to abstract painting. Of course, I can now. I did afterwards, but at the time I was too young to appreciate it, I think. He thought of himself as an artist.'" (p. 75) (Quoted in Bill Smith's article here... scroll down...)

He changed direction again later in the Sixties with the pioneering Indo Jazz fusions group – anticipating much of the 'world music' fusions to come. And did it better than most: that music – as neglected as his free form jazz - stands the test of time, despite the many put-downs, from the jazz world especially, by those baffled once already by his earlier experimentation. A prickly character, by all accounts, who did not fit smoothly into the overlapping boys' gangs that constituted much of the modern jazz scene in those times. He died in 1972 – in poverty and neglect.

So: a small celebration of a neglected corner of British Jazz – one that in the overall cultural history yet to be written will seem of much higher importance in later time. (Check out the recent rise in interest in Harriott – epitomised by the mighty Ken Vandemark and his Harriott Project...)

Here's track one and track two from 'Abstract.' 'Subject' is a bouncily jagged theme, with changes of time that settle to a medium/slow walk – emphasised by Seamen's bop hi-hat ticking away throughout.. Overlapping three part improvising from the two horns and piano until Harriott takes a solo, smearing, searing alto, pecking away at phrases until Keane returns to interweave his flugelhorn. Plenty of space when the horns drop out and let the 'rhythm section' carry the music. Smythe also plays some treble pecking notes before the horns re-enter. The drums up the ante, rising through the musical lines to briefly solo. Or does anyone really solo here? Is it rather that the space is defined for rise and fall, ebb and flow for the constituents and that this should be seen rather as a group effort where an individual voice will briefly surface and then subside. This builds subtly on identifiable bop rhythms to take the music to another place...

'Shadows' is different in conception. A succession of introductory phrases by horns and then piano in no fixed rhythm – that cymbal ching ka ching is not evident here. The pulse is closer to what you might here in the American avant garde – later in the sixties when Sunny Murray and co had evolved a new style that went beyond the old swing/four-four of bebop. Again, a group improvisation where individuals will drop in and out to create a shifting pattern that mirrors the overall rhythmic to and fro. A gently lurching...

There is a good overview of Harriott here... in a review of Alan Robertson's biography 'Fire in his Soul'
– (from which I have extracted the title for this piece...).

Joe Harriott Quintet
(Joe Harriott: alto saxophone; Shake Keane: flugelhorn; Pat Smythe: piano; Coleridge Goode: Bass; Phil Seamen: drums).





Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Ornette... Live at the Tivoli, 1965...

This Ornette Coleman track, 'Clergyman's Dream,' is taken from the 'Live at the Tivoli' session.

One of those jaunty, conversational themes of Ornette's, this vocal quality mirrored by the structure of call and response: the A section constructed from alternating slow phrases answered by in double time. Ornette weaves in and out of variations upon it, a crystal, airy, Ariel-like clarity to his playing as the rhythm settles into a firm medium tempo. A clear recording (originally a bootleg) from 1965, when free jazz was still relatively new – bouncing, spiralling as the bass and drums weave round him in an intricate dance. Unlike many records from this period (especially Coltrane's) the bass is very clear and really is the third angle on this group equilateral triangle. (The lack of piano may help...). Izenson takes an excellent bass solo, fast and strong-fingered picking, followed by Moffet. Some people hate drum solos – I've always liked them if they tell a reasonable story – from the free jazz era especially with the further loosening of pulses and rhythm, I find them intriguing. Moffett adds an extra timbre with a tambourine on his kit. A long solo – but rewarding – changes of dynamics and sonority add further interest. It demonstrates perfectly Ornette's overall conception: a freedom rooted in the blues and embedded more in the tradition than seemed to many at the time - the rhythm is not that far removed from the more conventional jazz of the sixties – less abstract, say, than Cecil Taylor's bands. By backing harmony down and upgrading melody and rhythm the opportunities for invention seem limitless. This is a long track – but I cannot see how this music could be reduced to short, sharp bursts. It needs the room to breathe, as if the old complex bebop line had been reinvented by stretching it out and focusing on its melodic potential, away from the recurring harmonic imperatives... which it had...

This clergyman was obviously some kind of ecclesiastical renegade in his dreams...

One for Anthony... who is a great fan of Ornette...

Ornette Coleman Trio
(Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone;David Izenson: bass; Charles Moffett: drums).

Clergyman's Dream



Xmas in June? DJ Whitedog slips off the space/time continuum (again...)...

The sun is shining – your deity (pick...) (or not) is in his/her/their heaven... all seems right with the world – at least in this corner of God's Little Acre. I found a DJ Whitedog mix while I was searching for something special – Joe Harriot - that I wanted to post and comment on – in lieu of any other inspiration and until I find the missing tracks – I present:

The DJ Whitedog Xmas Mix!

Somewhat out of phase with the turning of the year – but working on the no-doubt sentimental principle that every day should be Xmas Day... it was created very late one night on an overdose of Jack Daniels and Bud chasers apparently... the Blessed Whitedog not always forthcoming about his muse's operational strategies... for a Xmas party that never happened... so here is a mix for a Xmas party that you can create for yourselves in the approach of Mid-Summer. Or, as Whitedog no doubt intends, being a thrifty soul, unlike myself, to recycle for next Xmas. The music is a strange melding of old and new and obscure... and it's a long continuous file so be warned...

Ho ho ho... etc...

The DJ Whitedog Xmas Mix

Monday, June 05, 2006

Review of the Club Sporadic Festival, Saturday, 27 May, 2006...

A grey, wet misery of a day to start with... not very welcoming. But the musicians and artists proceeded to gather in the performance space and set up – not too many wry glances (that I noticed) when the projection screen was put into place – the (in)famous Club Sporadic white sheet. First up, bravely, was Tristan Burfield, a young composer/performer of electronic music who offered a fascinating score to the silent film classic 'Blood of the poet' by Jean Cocteau. Almost a punk film in its day (to match the screening) – the combination of flickering black and white images and a variety of electronic styles from folky techno through looping synths and loud metal to more abstract granular glitch offering a fascinating new perspective on Cocteau's surreal movie... although I use the adjective advisedly – Cocteau tried to put some distance between himself and the Surrealists – read his fascinating article here...

A welcome return for Liquidiser, based in Northampton: Richard Powell on sax and percussion, Nick Hamlyn, guitar and midi guitar, James Smith, laptop and Lee Mapley on laptop . A different feel to their performance from the last time I saw them on their home ground – the five films projected and commented on in real time improvisations seemed to focus them in a different way – aware of the relatively long time frame involved – over an hour – maybe? A controlled performance where much was held back – to provide a flowing narrative. Commencing appropriately enough with a film of a car journey through a foreign city, the music embarked on a long arcing complementary journey that would comment on and interweave with the images as they mutated into more abstract colours and shapes, a black and white film of a jazz band, night scenes from a city, flashing numbers and co-ordinates (faint at times when the sun at last and perversely decided to shine – through the sheet/screen). The last film: fast flashing streams of numbers and words, sporadic narratives, secret algorithms that brought the performance to a satisfactory conclusion. The music: electronic screel and squark, foot-pedalled looping guitar delays, elegaic and mournful, abrupt and longer fluttering saxophone lines, defined rhythms and more free looping time. The spatial lay out of the musicians was interesting – with Richard on sax and electronic percussion sitting away from the main group to the side – it spread the sound out in a fascinating way - when he interjected sudden bursts of rhythm or abrupt drum/cymbals and sax, for example.

The Plexus Trio came on after... yet another new journey. As one of the performers, I can't really review our music – just to say that it was visceral and abrasive and loud as Murray and Dave essayed a two guitar assault that used mallets and bows to take us in a different direction from the laptop loops we've been exploring so much – at the laptop myself I reigned back a distance, dropping in more minimal comments than usual - the guitars were doing the talking...

The acoustic section of the day brought back two more favourites – Stephen Linehan, who debuted for us a few months ago in the company of free-noise scronk from The Good Anna and ourselves – a brave move for an acoustic musician. Stephen has an assurance to his presence – backed up with a wonderful, emotionally pressing voice that soars and sears. His set – as before - went down extremely well. Saeta...

Jake Manning
played on the first Club Sporadic all day-er last summer. He crafts quirkily brilliant and cleverly understated songs, staged with a gentleness that doesn't totally obscure the firm steel beneath, firmly bolstered with accurate, strong picking on twelve string guitar. The harmonica rack came into play on the last song – an iconic artefact whose usual resonances of acoustic Dylan past were bent towards Jake's own freewheeling vision and used with great skill here as extra colouring. Two very different acoustic performances: performed with elegance and soul.

DJ Whitedog contributed sporadic ambiance throughout the day... after the acoustic set laptopping an extended mix that flashed up on the VA's 'Heroin' leading into...

The surprise of the evening? The Failed Nasa Experiment Mega Band have never played live before – born out of a couple of late night rehearsals apparently, Stephen Linehan came back onstage to join Murray Ward (of Plexus/Club Sporadic fame) on guitar and laptop and Dave Whyman on bass. A long howling, reverberating, feedback-encrusted set of glitchy chaotic brilliance. More please...

The Murmurists are Roger Bullen – drums & bent drums, electronics; Anthony Donovan – 6 string bass, keyboard, laptronics, contact mic, electronics; Lee Mapley – guitarsynth, bent drums, electronics and have also played for us before – see my review here... Tonight they came equipped with visuals to further expand their broad vistas of sound. I have previously described them as 'cinematic' - widescreen performance with densely packed detail – the washes of mainly abstract film open yet another window of expansion. They offer a fascinating mix of straight(ish...) intrumental technique and the warped-out electronics/circuit bending. Probably demonstrated by the sonic distance between Roger Bullen's stripped-down acoustic drum kit: two cymbals, a tom and snaredrum and a new instrument that Lee was manipulating: what looked like an electronic washboard – the skiffle revival starts here?... (or the world of 'found' objects meets electronics/improv... given the earlier Cocteau film and distant echoes of the old French avant garde, maybe we should go out and get a urinal to mike up and abuse... just a thought...)

Another facet of their performance that I find intriguing and something they have in common with a lot of contemporary bands (especially those grouped under the broad banners of 'free noise') is the way they will sit or squat on the floor to play/manipulate instruments and gadgets. This has the effect of breaking up the old visual patterns and hierarchies of group performance – due to the sheer amount of instrument switching that they and those other bands (us included) engage in – and gives an easy-going informality that contrasts with the seriousness of the music. And also provides a further spatial/architectural metaphor, the musicians wandering through their on-going creation. The introduction of visuals lays another parameter on the performance: although totally improvised the duration is strictly dictated by the time-line of the film. To match to this, the musicians must be more aware of the arc of improvisational time than in a usual set where, given an approximate period of performance, you can stop earlier than planned– or overrun if the muses have driven you that further distance. Yet no matter how abstract their music may become, it is always rooted in rhythm – and melodies, however fragmented... which provide entries into the often dense maze of sound. A very distinct presence.

They topped off the day in fine style.

A final vote of thanks to all who gave so generously of their time and inspiration.

The Club Sporadic Roll of Honour:

Tristan Burfield

The Liquidisers: Richard Powell, Nick Hamlyn, James Smith, Lee Mapley

Plexus (Rod Warner, David Teledu, Murray Ward)

Steven Linehan

Jake Manning

The Failed Nasa Experiment Mega Band (Steven Linehan, Murray Ward, Dave Whyman)

The Murmurists: Roger Bullen, Lee Apsley, Anthony Donovan

DJ Whitedog

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Peter Brotzmann... Balls...

Peter Brotzmann recorded the album 'Balls' with the Belgian pianist Fred van Hove and the Dutch drummer Han Bennink in 1970. Long regarded as a seminal document of the European improvisational schools – it blazes with a ferocity that these players had brought to 'Machine Gun' in 1968. Yet this is often a slow burn rather than a conflagration - there is also plenty of space to let the music breathe here. 'Machine Gun' fires from the hip all the way through (sort of a pun, but unintended...), a relentless saxophone led stream of fire fuelled by armageddon-like drums from beginning to end that batters against the edges of the recording in a sometimes desperate claustrophobia. 'Balls' is just as aggressive in titles – macho stuff... But the stripped-down to a trio line up gives periods of rest and relative restraint. Opening on a few piano ripples and odd rustles (Bennink?) the drums send out sporadic rolls, fast cymbal riffs, in a mix that has plenty of depth – as if Bennink is stretched out across the studio with his percussion. Brotzmann arrives with brusque, hoarsely pleading saxophone, a muted gruffness, however, compared to some of his more over-the-top splenetic blow-outs. His lines start to lengthen, the piano prompting, the drums continuing their multi-pulsing rhythms – Bennink is a busy drummer. But occasionally the piano and drums drop out to leave Brotzmann solo – joined about 6 minutes in by some other blown instrument (sounds like an abused trombone or low register trumpet even) with barely audible stuttering piano fragments. A brief pause, some rattles across woodblocks and cymbals and drums as Van Hove gets inside his piano to produce clipped 'Cageian' notes and abrupt phrases. What sounds like a steel drum enters in counterpoint. Cymbals and drum kit back as Brotzmann returns – now the temperature starts to build – fast three way improvising, piano essaying rapid dissonant runs and banged chords leading to a multi-octave glissando that echoes across the space the others leave as they drop out, the piano briefly surging to then be re-joined by Bennink in a splendidly noisy duet section that abruptly ends – slow piano, scattered percussion, odd vocal grunts (shades of the old Lennie Hastings doing his 'Oojah Oojah' routine for the older listener's remembrance...). Isolated drum strokes that slowly accelerate – then stop suddenly.

At the top of the seventies, many European free improvisers had been attempting to build their own paths away from the American shadow. Probably the finest of these was Evan Parker – you can hear 'jazz' still in the back of his style – and his always-acknowledged debt to John Coltrane, yet he was a true pioneer in technique and conception. He played alongside Brotzmann on 'Machine Gun,' recorded in the heady days of 1968 and which was a revolutionary call to arms and a benchmark for future group improvising. Coming off 'Free Jazz' and 'Ascension,' it has to be said – there are detractors of Brotzmann who allege he just ripped off Ayler and company. I think 'Machine Gun' is important for the fact that given its antecedents, it still carved a new space for European musicians to flow into. There is not the blues and gospel at the back of this fire power but a genuine move towards a new and specifically European aesthetic (alongside the work of Derke Bailey and others in the UK - and elsewhere). I may not place Brotzmann quite as high as Parker. But comparisons are cheap - and personal. He is a genuine innovator, with a great knowledge of jazz history and an awareness of where his own position needs to be, I figure. His love of earlier forms of jazz is interestingly counterbalanced by his being an art student and his involement with Fluxus - a direction that channels in another important facet of the European improvising equation – the line coming out of John Cage. Coupled to the other European avant garde tradition - the Dada lineage – demonstrated more by Bennink (and many of his Dutch comrades), perhaps – there is a seriousness to Brotzmann that is a direct contrast to the madcap Dutch drummer (and anyone who has even seen Bennink will know what I am talking about). Fred Van Hove, the Antwerp-born pianist, holds the ground between these two elemental forces, balancing and colouring, using the Cageian prepared piano techniques to good effect on this track. The drummer and pianist were, of course, part of the rhythm section (if that rather old-fashioned concept still applied) on 'Machine Gun' and the three played together for several years. Compared to 'Machine Gun', 'Balls', despite its title, is – more considered, in a way, allowed more space because of the smaller unit. A genuine three-way performance – Brotzmann lays back to allow the others through – this is not tenor backed by piano and drums but equals in the area they proceed to define. Between the ferocity of 'Machine Gun' and the shaggy lyricism that surfaces in places on 'Balls' – you can delineate the wide range of Brotzmann's best work and find paradigms for his future career – luckily still ongoing.

As a taster for the Club Sporadic festival review which I have not quite finished, due to exhaustion and other factors... here is a recording - Barkis-like rough and ready, of the complete Plexus trio set: Rod Warner, David Teledu and Murray Ward. A long track...

Peter Brotzmann

(Brotzmann: tenor saxophone; Fred Van Hove: piano; Han Bennink: drums, percussion, horns, shells).



Rod Warner/David Teledu/Murray Ward: Live from the Club Sporadic, May 27, 2006
(Rod Warner: laptop; Murray Ward: guitar, effects; David Teledu: guitar, effects).


Friday, June 02, 2006

Festival photos... more videos: Thelonious Monk... Last Exit... Max Roach...

I haven't got round to finishing my review of last week's festival but here are some more photos – the top one showing a rather appropriately ghostly image on the famous Club Sporadic screen from Tristan Burfield's re-score of Cocteau's 'Blood of a Poet'...and three links to more videos...

Here is Thelonious Monk with his long term running mate Charlie Rouse and Larry Gales and Ben Riley- recorded in Norway in 1966. Quite a long clip this... the old war-horse (by then) 'Blue Monk' taken at a fair trot. This tune was my entry into Monk's world so I never tire of hearing it. Nice solo from Rouse who is rather critically underrated -he's not a barnstomer tenor player yet he fits into Monk's sound world so well. Actually watching Monk play is fascinating – probing the keyboard for timbral combinations, his foot steadily banging out the time. Bass is solid – the nice surprise is the drumming on a ridiculously small kit by today's standards. Crisp and swinging, following every move and prodding where necessary. Heaven...

Thelonious Monk Quartet

Last Exit seemed to have vanished of the radar fairly quickly but for a while in the 80's and early 90's they displayed a fascinating collision between the different yet overlapping NY downtown scenes represented by Laswell and Sharrock/RS Jackson and Peter Brotzmann's Euro improv. There is a wild and brusque swagger to the German's tenor playing – expressionistic to the extreme (and Brotzmann is another who started out as an artist before switching to music). Matched in this performance by Sonny Sharrock's post-Hendrix fire and underpinned by the storming drums of Jackson. You can't really hear Laswell – but this video gives a taste of a truly ground-breaking act who anticipated much of the current 'free-noise' scene that similarly cuts across the genres, rooted in improvisation strategies that come from jazz. This clip is taken from a 1994 concert recording in Germany.

Last Exit

The trumpeter Booker Little was another of jazz's tragic casualties, a player and composer of immense promise and freshness, cut down far too young. Here is a fascinating glimpse of his tenure with Max Roach in an unusual line-up – Roach had dispensed with piano but had added Ray Draper on tuba (who featured on an early John Coltrane album they co-shared, recorded in 1957). George Coleman is on tenor and Art Davis on bass. The mighty Roach spurs it along with his usual percussive authority. I think this was recorded in 1958 for ABC's 'Sounds of Jazz' - there is no information given about the clip. 'Minor mode blues' is a Little composition: the flickering black and white images and ropy sound add an extra poignancy, a faded snapshot of a young player just starting to display his considerable talents. Booker Little died of uraemic poisoning in 1961 – at the age of 23.

Max Roach Quintet

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bill Dixon... Albert Ayler... Cecil Taylor on video...

So: another quick go round for Albert Ayler and Bill Dixon , I think.

In reverse temporal order of creation – the Dixon is 'Vade Mecum' from the album of the same name that I extracted a track from last week.

The title of this double cd from 1993 – 'Vade Mecum' is interesting. A straight dictionary definition of the latin phrase would give something like: a book for easy reference, or more formally, some kind of manual or handbook – a text of authority. The secondary definition is: something useful that one keeps close at all times – which is an extension of the first definition. Literally, it means: go with me. So – is this album laying down a claim for authority and also asking the listener, literally, to follow the music? Well, it is arguably one of the great releases of the 90's...

To unravel the fascinating musical strands that make up this group in a rather clumsy delineation: Guy and the drummer Tony Oxley are stalwarts of the European free improvising scene – which represents probably the most coherent broad church of jazz-influenced music to creat its own idioms rather than just be regarded as a second rate copy of American/Afro-American jazz. Dixon and Parker are leaders of the Afro-American jazz/improv scene – Dixon the elder statesman but still regarded as a maverick and unadopted into the more mainstream aspects of 'jazz.' Parker, a formidable bass player and also a well-respected wheel on that scene from a slightly younger generation. The two bass combo resembles a dark, boiling sea of sound, flecked by Oxley's interventions – on this track he drops out sporadically. Arco and pizzicato in places demonstrate the more 'jazzy' take of Parker compared to Guy's bowing. (Although Parker is also a formidable arco player). Compare Oxley's drumming here to Sunny Murray's on the Ayler selection below for a good demonstration of the differences and overlaps between the continents.

It's not all improvised – Dixon starts from composed material and certain parameters that he lays out for his musicians – but the general feel is loose - and exploratory, as all his music is. Not a man who desires easy answers. There is a purity to Dixon's music – and his trumpet/flugelhorn playing – that is poetic, mysterious and profound and coloured also by the spatial elements he investigates. Not surprisingly – Dixon is also a visual artist and something about his musical conception reflects this and also reminds me of a neglected British musician who early on in the Sixties came up with his own take on free improvisation that referenced 'painting in sound' – Joe Harriott. A magisterial authority - 'Come with me' - Dixon has been around, faced neglect defiantly by refusal to compromise or sell out. There is a plangency to his playing, a wistful quality. Almost an echo of Miles both sonically at times and in his 'less-is more' approach. And more strident elements, which he keeps in reserve - and are the more effective for suddenly being unleashed. Listen to his raw sonorities towards the end of the piece I have selected – and the surprisingly low notes he can extort from his instrument. This is where the avant-garde meets the blues, where 'noise' meets vocal timbre in the interface of brass and breath and lip. Also, in this context, it is where a more 'European' avant-garde sensibility is simultaneously engaging with that vocalised Afro-American tradition – almost as if Dixon is bridging the two spheres represented here in a unifying gesture.

If the avant garde use of 'noise' is to wrench unexpectedly new meanings from more orthodox textures, listen to the joyful noise that Ayler and company rip out of 'Vibrations,' a live recording from the famous Cafe Montmarte in Copenhagen, 1964. Ayler used folk materials, hymns and marches that reference back to New Orleans, Dixon is more apparently 'intellectual.' Yet their articulate positioning inside their own broader musical culture (and that culture's interactions with the Western musical tradition) allows Ayler to move up and down the years at will without pastiche – or moldy figge revivalism. And Dixon to reference the broad trumpet vocabulary available to him – from Buddy Bolden to the present, say... This is where 'folk' art overlaps with the avant-garde... I remember the late John Peel once describing an old recording of John Lee Hooker's as 'the Jesus and Mary Chain of 1947.' A lot of so-called 'primitive' musical techniques, when re-contextualised into the dodgy defined area of 'art' – or 'ART' – suddenly become redefined as 'extended technique' -as if the older sources were unaware of what they were doing. A debatable point – and one unable to be proved, really, one way or the other. But it is fascinating to speculate on these cross-currents... Ayler, of course, brings spiritual values into the equation which Dixon does not explicitly do (obviously, anyway – I would not like to hazard guesses at his internal value systems) – crossing the blues fires that the tenor can channel so dramatically with the gospel calls that are the other rock of African-American music. Add the vocalised textures that jazz brought to instrumental technique in general – here, the Ayler howls and squeals and hollers and honks (that back reference R and B) added to his instrumental facility produce a music that is joyfully breaking across the listener's aural perceptions as dramatically today as it did in 1964. The sea metaphor is apt: this music rises and falls as Peacock alternates between arco and pizzicato bass and Murray ebbs and flows – sparse cymbal followed by crashing rolls then subsiding. A strangely rocking to and fro rhythm throughout... A clarion opening, theme, a little collective blowing then Ayler solos, flowing out of the sparse theme's melody. Cherry joins him briefly until the sax falls out and he takes a brief pass – as happily unfettered as ever. Then Peacock steps up, fleet plucked runs alternated with thrummed stops as Murray hangs back apart from punctuating cymbals and the odd parade ground snare crashing through. Four players on the cusp of new sound worlds...

To end with – a new departure for this blog: a video of Cecil Taylor playing solo from a tv show in 1980 – starting slowly, melodically with a very 'jazz' feel in some of the phrasing. Lifting his hands to let the sonorities ring... Slowly building into a denser line – yet I find this clip remarkably accessible – you can hear jazz piano being referenced – almost like a bizarre marriage of Monk and Art Tatum(which probably isn't so bizarre: Monk almost plays a pared-down, abstracted minimal take on Tatum and earlier stride pianist and is also concerned with timbre and sonority.). The thunder comes soon enough – those crashing chords and percussive runs that encompass the whole keyboard, rising and falling. Then easing back into silence... 6 minutes of gritty bliss...

Cecil Taylor

Bill Dixon

(Bill Dixon: trumpet; Barry Guy, William Parker: basses; Tony Oxley: drums).

Vade Mecum



Albert Ayler

(Albert Ayler: tenor saxophone; Don Cherry: cornet; Gary Peacock: bass; Sonny Murray: drums).