Wadada Leo Smith — America’s Natural Parks (Cuneiform, 2016)
On KPFA radio yesterday afternoon, jazz/world DJ Art Sato started his show with a track from Fred Ho, that badass of the baritone saxophone. Ho was a political badass as well, and he would have been out in force this weekend, helping remind the world that the regime taking power in Washington D.C. is not supported by a majority of voters.
In that spirit, Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012) would seem like an appropriate CD to spin right now. It’s not a barn-burner like Ho’s big-band albums. But its scope, sometimes augmenting Smith’s Golden Quartet with a second drummer and the nine-member Southwest Chamber Music ensemble, reflects the unbounded ambitions and determination of the (still incomplete) civil rights movement. As I wrote previously, it makes you feel the weight of history.
Smith’s more recent album, America’s National Parks, would seem to pale in comparison. (It would be hard to reach farther than Ten Freedom Summers did.) But coincidentally, this was the weekend I was hoping to finish a writeup about the album, and hearing Fred Ho on the radio shifted my perspective.
The album is still a political statement, after all, and it could be seen as a voice of protest. As Smith writes, “My focus is on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of the idea of setting aside reserves for common property of the American citizens.” Not everybody likes that idea, including, as of now, much of the executive branch of our own government.
Perhaps to emphasize what “common property” ought to mean, three of the six subjects on America’s National Parks aren’t literally national parks. The album opens with “New Orleans: The National Culture Park USA 1718” and “Eileen Jackson Southern, 1920-2002: A Literary National Park.” The first is the birthplace of jazz, a place that should stand out in the American consciousness just as Yosemite does. Southern is a Harvard professor and musicologist who convinced the academic world that black music was a subject worthy of serious study.
America’s National Parks is not a quick listen. The pieces, written for Smith’s quartet (John Lindberg on bass, Anthony Davis on piano, and Pheeroan akLaff on drums) plus cellist Ashley Walters, are expansive and gradual. I have to admit my attention wanders during some of the slowly unfolding themes.
The first half of “New Orleans,” for instance, consists of an odd-time bass riff covered by tickles of piano and cello and the cutting blare of Smith’s muted trumpet — a jam in slow motion. It’s only when Davis’ splashy piano enters, and the band kicks into a more jazz-oriented take on the same theme, that my ears perk up.
The tracks devoted to Yosemite and Yellowstone have the grand entrances you’d expect. “Yosemite: The Glaciers, the Falls, the Wells and the Valley of Goodwill 1890” opens with a group improvisation full of big drama, evoking the glaciers in the title.
“Yellowstone: The First National Park and the Spirit of America – The Mountains, Super-Volcano Caldera and Its Ecosystem 1872” opens with an ominous bass-piano octave and a slow, reverent trumpet line. When the pace picks up, Davis gets showcased again, dabbling against an easygoing bass line and some distant shooting-star squeaks from either cello or trumpet
The longest track, appropriately, is “The Mississippi River: Dark and Deep Dreams Flow the River – a National Memorial Park c. 5000 BC.” (The titles related to formal national parks include the year the park was inducted. For the Mississippi, we’re reminded that the land doesn’t really belong to us that way.) Like the river, the piece takes its time, wandering around each bend and occasionally hitting a tumultuous span. At one point there’s a slow funk riff backing some exciting drumming by akLaff, followed by a forceful whirlpool of free improvisation.
Anna Webber’s Simple Trio — Binary (Skirl, 2016)
I’m partial to the art of surrealist Yves Tanguy, a contemporary of Salvador Dali’s. Whereas Dali used familiar objects contorted into dreamlike shapes, Tanguy’s worlds were entirely alien. His sense of shape and color pointed to other planes of existence: blobby figures that suggested living beings in sparse landscapes under grimly discolored skies.
You could think of Binary‘s cover art as a hypermodern take on Tanguy. But what really brought the painter to my mind was the track “Tug o’ War,” with the piping register of Anna Webber’s flute and the tick-tock percussion from John Hollenbeck. I think it’s supposed to conjure images of a malevolent toy shop, but what sprang to my mind were the puzzling, misshapen objects of Tanguy’s landscapes.
Strange, unexpected logic blossoms all around Binary, with Webber’s flute and saxophone tracing fluid curves and squiggles. Matt Mitchell’s piano sometimes matches the flow, as on the brief, dancing “Meme,” but in other cases, he goes for a blocky, stormy attack.
The latter strategy turns Mitchell into an accomplice to John Hollenbeck’s pounding drums, creating some highlight-reel moments during the 14-minute “Impulse Purchase.” Hollenbeck also uses his teletype Claudia Quintet style to lend a crisp, modern air to tracks like “Underhelmed.”
The title track is a particularly nice piece of work, patiently building into waves of soulful saxophone against stormy piano chording. It’s an emotional and severe piece, but also downright pretty.
Then there are the “Rectangle” series of miniatures, each packed into a couple of minutes “Rectangles 3b” is all rigid geometry and stiff lines. “Rectangles 3c” is a strident hurry-up beat, minimalism on caffeine with a skip in its step. “Rectangles 1a,” by contrast, starts slowly and builds into an abrasive climax, a complete short story in its own right. Little windows peeking into different worlds, much like paintings in a gallery.
All day on Saturday, Feb. 4, from midnight to midnight (or 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m., if you want a little less ambiguity), radio station KZSU-FM at Stanford University will present Day of Noise, 24 hours of live, on-air performances of improvisation, electronics, way-out jazz, and just plain noise.
It’s a ritual that’s been kept alive by Abra (who goes by Dr. Information when on-air) for the past several years. She’ll be hosting all 24 hours, as she has for other recent Days of Noise.
We at KZSU take Day of Noise seriously. There’s a green room in another part of the building, isolated from the bustle, where musicians can chill before and after their sets. We provide food. We run two separate performance spaces, so that one can set up while the other is in use — this makes for seamless transitions between acts. And musicians and volunteers get cool T-shirts.
The level of interest from musicians has been off the charts. In past years, we struggled to fill 24 hours; now we struggle to pack everyone in. Most artists will perform in 30-minute shifts, with the exception of a few 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. types who’ll get a full hour. (So will Karl Evangelista, at 8:00 p.m., according to the schedule I’ve seen.)
If any of this sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve blogged Day of Noise since 2012, including some photos. Check it all out here.
And if you want a sample of the noise to come, KZSU has posted all 24 hours of audio from last year’s Day of Noise. Enjoy.
It was a passing mention on Avant Jazz News that got me to seek out François Tusques’ 1965 album, Free Jazz:
I had not previously heard of Tusques, a pianist, but he was clearly part of the “new thing” going on in the sixties, and he’d carved out something particularly engaging here.
“Description Automatique D’un Paysage Désolé” has sturdy jazzy chords, calming flute, and mysterious bass clarinet. But it’s played in a loose, wandering structure — nothing so abrupt as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, but certainly something being built in the name of the new freedom. I was hooked.
Since that discovery, catching up on Tusques’ history has been quite an adventure. He is still active, it turns out, although he veered away from the wildly improvised stuff not long after Free Jazz, as noted in an All About Jazz profile.
He did release another album of the “new thing,” in 1967. Titled Le Nouveau Jazz, its improvising is more fierce than that of Free Jazz, and the compositions play a stronger role — but it lacks its predecessor’s magic. I think the more cautious approach on Free Jazz yielded more rewarding results; it had a shape, a coherent non-structure, that didn’t fully translate into a second album.
That said, Le Nouveau Jazz is still a keeper. It’s been rereleased on vinyl by a UK label called Cacophonic. Check Finders Keepers Records in the UK for information (and downloads).
A 1971 album called Intercommunal Music, released on the Shandar label, is less successful. As Clifford Allen writes in that All About Jazz article, the album was planned as a quartet session including Sunny Murray on drums. But Murray showed up late, and with a crew of friends. With rental time running out on the studio, they blasted out whatever unrehearsed sound they could. The results are fun, as you can hear on YouTube, but not particularly coherent. You can hear Tusques falling into patterns occasionally, as if trying to carve a direction for the music, but he goes unheeded.
Even as Tusques veered away from free jazz, he stuck to the revolutionary spirit. Check out this 1971 track, “Nous Allons Vous Conter,” which is soulful and rhythmic but still rings with a spirit of ’60s protests, down to the spoken rhetoric being barked out. (You’ll find it on a compilation called Mobilisation Generale.)
There’s also “Le Musichien,” probably a play on words involving chien, or “dog.” It’s a lovely, straightforward tune with piano chording drenched in that ’70s peace-and-love spirit. For me, having grown up in that era, it’s wonderfully nostalgic — although the vocals get a little questionable, and much as I love the simple chord cycle, it can be wearing over nearly 20 minutes. (This one’s available on another compilation, Freedom Jazz France.)
So, Tusques’ catalogue spans the spectrum of music inspired by the revolutionary ’60s, from outright chaos to soothing, optimistic tunefulness.
Tusques performed at Vision Festival 18 in 2013, and, as Avant Music News was noting, he’s got a new album, Le Chant du Jubjub (Improvising Beings, 2015), an experimental-leaning project with accordion, trumpet, spoken word, and song. He’s still around, and he’s still seeking.
Andrew Cyrille Quartet — The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM, 2016)
This orbit reaches apogee in “Dazzling (Perchordially Yours),” an homage to silences. Most of the track features small scribbles of improvising bordered by bubbles of emptiness. Even the crashing segments, where the entire quartet gears up to make some noise, carries a meditative quality.
It’s the kind of track where the musicians will insist there’s no “lead” player, but I think of Cyrille having the floor. He shapes the piece with slow gong strikes or the sparse clacking of wood blocks, declaring authority inside the field of silence. His patient approach reminds me of his playing on Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997), the jazz trio album by koto player Miya Masaoka.
The album does include tunes that are more directly jazzy, written by the other players: Bill Frisell (guitar), Richard Teitelbaum (piano/synths), and Ben Street (bass). Teitelbaum’s “Herky Jerky,” for instance, is a busy track featuring knotty, active improvisation — you’d hear it and point directly to “free jazz.”
Much of the album, though, carries that sense of time stretched apart. “Say…” written by Street, has the four players following their own slow, unspoken rhythms. The tangible melody of Frisell’s guitar sort of sets a tempo, but it’s not certain that the others are in step; the magic is in letting the music drift past, absorbing the “whole” that the four are individually creating.
“Coltrane Time” is the track that’s drawn the most attention. Written but never recorded by Coltrane, and down through Rashied Ali to Cyrille and Milford Graves, the composition appears to be a long snare-drum line. Cyrille, according to the liner notes, repeats it while playing with the tempo and adding accents on the rest of the drum kit.
What I said about stretched time goes for “Coltrane Time” too, but it might be harder to notice, because it’s the noisiest track on the album. I think it’s Teitelbaum on synthesizer who’s doing the screechy, guitar-hero-sounding solo, with Frisell calmly arpeggiating and sprinkling crystal harmonic notes. But despite the central role of the snare, there’s no clear “center” to the rhythm.
Frisell’s presence on the album took some getting used to. That makes me a bad jazz fan, I know, but while his toneful Americana guitar adds a beautiful shimmer, it’s sometimes a distraction.
He’s still got a touch for the abstract, as you can hear in his squiggles and blips on “Manfred” and the deliciously disconnected improv, “Sanctuary.” (He did come from the ’80s downtown NYC scene, after all.) But I found myself longing for a less chummy sound. I also don’t agree with the inclusion of his composition “Kaddish,” a straight-up sad tune with solid melody; it’s played with a mood befitting the album but is still quite the anomaly, like a beginner’s guide to the rest of the album.
Cyrille remains active, which is good to see. Proximity (Sunnyside, 2016), a duo album with Bill McHenry came out concurrently with Declaration and is getting a lot of press. His Route de Frères (Tum, 2011), recorded with a quintet called Haitian Fascination, is a quintet date with some Caribbean influence. (Side note: It features saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, who’s now facing retirement due to health problems.) And of course, Trio 3, with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman, is still going.
I’ve recently delved into Cyrille’s past with Metamusicians Stomp (Black Saint, 1978) by the band Maono, which included Ted Daniel on trumpet and a young David S. Ware. And I’m not done; I think my next Cyrille exploration might be the piano trio led by Søren Kjærgaard, who’s employed Cyrille and Street for a series of albums on Danish label Ilk Music.
Written by Pierre Crépon, the article, titled “Contrary Motion,” draws upon a wealth of sources, including interviews (some unpublished) and magazine articles. He also taps a few postgraduate theses, including Eneidi’s own Mills College master’s thesis, “Aeneidio Phonics.” And a couple of films are listed as well — one of them being Stanley J. Zappa’s “Get Out,” footage for which can be seen on YouTube.
In Crépon’s words, the article is “an attempt, by no means exhaustive, to retrieve something of the forward motion which seemed to propel Eneidi’s creative work.” It’s a fine remembrance for an artist who was so often overlooked by the music world. Thanks, Pierre.
This calls for another shot of Marco’s more recent work. Here he is in a 2012 trio with William Parker (bass), and Joe Morris (guitar).
On the docket at Studio Grand in Oakland last Monday night: a yet-unrecorded saxophone quartet and the latest installment of a graphical-scores project. And it happened between storms, so I didn’t even have to get that wet to see it.
Social Stutter was the saxophone quartet, playing the compositions of Beth Schenck. I’m accustomed to the quartet format of one-of-each-type-of-saxophone, but Schenck doubled up on altos (herself and Kasey Knudsen). They often joined forces on lead themes — pleasant melodic lines poking at one another in counterpoint. It was a compelling effect of overlapping, similar sounds.
Phillip Greenlief held down the tenor sax and Cory Wright the baritone — although Wright occasionally switched to tenor, doubling up on that overlap effect. In Schenck’s own words: “Some of the pieces are composed for two altos and two tenors, which leads itself to denser harmonic territory and a uniquely homogenous sound.”
During a break, Schenck had a good quip related to that sound: “You know those couples who look like each other, people that date other people who look like themselves? Playing in a saxophone quartet is like that.”
The first three pieces focused mostly on hopping rhythms and cross-cut melodies, less so on the thick jazz chords that a quartet of saxophones can bring out. That made the fourth and final piece extra dramatic, with the sudden appearance of big, sweeping low chords (baritone sax came in handy here).
Good stuff that certainly had a sound and color all its own.
Phillip Greenlief’s Barbedwire was next, in the format of two vibraphones accompanying Greenlief on reeds. Barbedwire is a set of 37 graphical scores that Greenlief created in 2015, and he’s been performing the pieces with varying combinations of instruments. Each page is written for a trio, with each musician’s trajectory represented by a free-drawn line pocked with semi-regular scribbles that represent barbs.
The improvisations are timed, with each barb representing one minute and the “shape”of the line between barbs serving as the player’s instructions. Some of the scores have a linear look or suggest a minimalist approach (tiny crooked lines), while others are outright nuts, with lines twisting and intersecting. In the end, the pieces are improvised, but there’s a planned trajectory of sorts, and the combination of the score, the timekeeping, and the act of listening all factor into the performer’s decisions.
I would imagine that for some graphical scores, it’s fun for the performer to dive in cold. Barbedwire is not such a piece. I asked Tim DeCillis about that after the set, and he said that he went into these pieces with at least an inkling of a strategy.
The trio played three pieces, each combining one or two of the Barbedwire sheets with pre-assigned solo improvisation segments. Greenlief, on saxophone, used a lot of extended techniques, devoting his solo to air-through-horn sounds and a long, ragged siren blare.
As for the vibes, they filled the air — sometimes literally, with those dissonant vibrations piling up enough to rattle your skull. Mark Clifford, standing to our right, spent a lot of time creating gorgeous strings of tones. DeCillis, on the left, did a lot of work with bowing, particularly during the solo that opened the final piece, filled with lingering, shimmering tones.