Sleeping Where I Fall

I don’t read quickly, so it’s with some trepidation that I admit I spent the past year reading Peter Coyote‘s autobiography.

It’s not that it’s a long or difficult book. It’s a wonderful book. But music tends to take precedence in my free time. My daughter’s insistence on sharing the (thick, numerous) Percy Jackson books with me didn’t help. (They’re fun, btw.)

So, on successive summer vacations, I read the first and second halves of Sleeping Where I Fall. Published in 1998, it’s a chronicle of the ’60s counterculture — not the war protesting and love beads you’ve seen on TV, but the earnest, dogged attempt to carve a societal alternative into the side of capitalism and commercialism. It’s at once realistic and sentimental, told with love and grace and some strong but necessary honesty.

I’ll give away the ending: Coyote doesn’t regret the ’60s and in fact does an excellent job defending the work — I do mean work — that he and the more responsible and idealistic of his compatriots undertook. He believes the counterculture brought concrete benefits to larger society, and I agree. That any smattering of environmental awareness has become the American norm can be traced back to the counterculture, I think. And the fingerprints on Occupy Wall Street are unmistakable.

(I am avoiding the term “hippie,” because it was crafted by Time magazine in a rather demeaning way — and because, yes, there were people who came to the Haight in 1967 and beyond just to party, get stoned, and mooch off of each other, and they are not what this book is about. While I’m at it: Yes, I know that “the ’60s” really refers to a period from about 1966 to 1976, and in fact, that’s the decade Coyote mostly focuses on.)

Coyote’s epilogue is a touching essay in defense of the philosophy of the times. But where the counterculture’s contributions really shine, I think, is just before that, in the chapters where Coyote starts integrating back into society as a board member of the California Arts Council. The lessons he learned from more than a decade of communal life — about defusing conflict, having to share benefits and burden, having to manage a group dynamic — all come into play. Not everybody learned those lessons, but those who did became strong and good-hearted leaders in their communities.

Adding to the book’s emotional gravity are the current-day interviews with, and updates about, Coyote’s old friends. Not all of them made it out of the ’70s, but those who did are able to reflect on their lives with honest criticism and well-earned pride, and many of them seem very, very happy.

Coyote’s trail starts in San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and The Diggers, two influential groups. (Check out the Diggers Archives.) That’s followed by the rural, communal life of the Free Family. I wasn’t aware of just how deeply below the surface some of these people lived — existing without money, carving out a rural existence that required many sturdy frontier skills that would surprise and even impress the average redneck hippie-hater. Guns, motorcycles, hunting, and makeshift car and home repairs were all facts of day-to-day life.

The connection to my music blog is tenuous, but I’ve always felt shaped by the ’60s. I was a kindergartener in 1972, when the teenage girls across the street were hired to babysit us. They were east-coast hippie wannabes, and I remember them encouraging me to grow my hair long. Who knows. Maybe they planted in me a sympathetic seed that grew into a love for The Beatles, an open mind for the counterculture, and an open ear for the free jazz I listen to today.

I’ll have to dust off is It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, a book by Derek Taylor, who was publicist and much more for The Beatles late in their career. It’s another honest look back, but with less emotional gravity, more specificity, a lot more celebrity, and a quirky British wit. I’ll wait a while before getting to that, though. I want the ghosts of Coyote’s ’60s — the grand experiment he participated in, the people he loved — to resonate in my head for a while.

The Read: June 25, 2012

Some things from recent weeks that are worth your attention, if you haven’t found them already:

1. The recent SF Offside festival got a shout-out from NPR, in a story about grass-roots jazz efforts. An L.A. festival and record label also get listed, as does NYC’s club Small’s (highlighted here), which videocasts and archives its nightly concerts. (h/t: Alex Pinto, @pintobeans2885)

2. The AUM Fidelity label is turning 15 — congratulations to Steven Jeorg, who’s steadily serviced college radio with his releases. The Village Voice interviewed musicians for a nice oral history of the label. (h/t: Avant Music News and Improvised Communications)

3. Remember the thing about Vijay Anderson going to the Novaro Jazz Festival? It happened. I can’t read Italian, but here’s one report with a nice picture (stolen for use here).

A Tonic in Florida

I am in the belly of the beast, in Orlando, Fla., paying tithe to Disney. By day, I’m herding kids around under steamy, overcast skies and/or trying to avoid torrential rain. At night, I’m unwinding with a beer and my trusty MP3 player, my portable radio station away from home. I should probably try tuning in to college radio as well, since I’ve got free, decent Wi-Fi at my disposal.

Here’s a taste of random things that popped up on MP3 shuffle play, balms against a day’s worth of Disney overstimulation.

Jenny Scheinman — “The Audit” — Mischief and Mayhem (Tunecore, 2012) ….. First song that comes up on the first night. A touch of slow, sad Americana, with Scheinman’s violin and Nels Cline’s patient electric guitar winding their way through the colors of sunset across open fields. Don’t miss the eMusic interview with them about this album.

Julie Doiron with Radiogram — “Some Blues” — V/A: Endearing Vol. 11 (Endearing) ….. Introduced to me by KZSU DJ Escher around the turn of the century, Doiron sings folk songs with an airy voice that’s like a subtle breeze blowing across the prairie for miles and miles — her voice is quiet, but towering in its emotional scope. This soft, sad track came to me through a promo compilation by the Endearing label, folks who promote a lot of good pop from the middle regions of Canada. (Their website is currently under reconstruction.) Paper Moon and the defunct B’ehl come to mind, two bands with female vocalists, good pop energy, and a touch of sophistication.

Sonny Simmons — “New Newk” — Burning Spirits (ESP, 1970) ….. Something about bebop, brisk and bright, makes for great late-night listening. It’s even better when the soloist is someone like Sonny Simmons, taking his sax through tangled and turbulent soloing adventures. Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano and the firm, fluid drumming by Clifford Jarvis push the experience even further. Twelve minutes of rejuvenation.

Lisa Mezzacappa and Nightshade — “Delphinus” — Cosmic Rift (Leo, 2011)….. Opens with the comforting clatter of a bass bow’s wooden side being tapped against the strings. Little things like that, you take for granted until you’re drowned in flashy “family fun” atmosphere. A patient composition and some open-ended group soloing, the band members drifting together with a definite direction in mind. More about this album here.

Art Pepper — “Come Rain or Come Shine” — Intensity (Contemporary, 1963) ….. What was that I was saying about bebop? This track is slow but not too slow, not too ballad-like and even comes with a touch of blues attitude in Pepper’s sax solo. Soothing without being cheesy.

Yuka Honda — “How Many Times Can We Burn This Bridge?” — Eucademix (Tzadik, 2004) ….. Kind of a midtempo rocker of an instrumental, but I find myself really rocking out, head-bobbing to the crunchy beat and the repetitive, spiraling guitar line that serves as the song’s backbone.

Brahms — “Hungarian Dance No. X” ….. My MP3 player from Creative came with a handful of classical recordings by the Beijing Central Philharmonic Orchestra, and it won’t let me delete them. So, shuffle mode sometimes comes with a taste of classical, sometimes rather overplayed and trite classical. They didn’t choose track titles well; many, such as this one, get cut off before the end. So I don’t know which Hungarian Dance this was. Probably the most famous one.

Brains — “Spilth” — Gristle and Skins (Edgetone, 2011) ….. RRRrrrrrHHHH. GKGKGKGK. QeeeaaaaAAAAaaa.

Cheer-Accident — “The Autumn Wind Is a Pirate” — Introducing Lemon (Skin Graft, 2007) ….. One great service of Signal To Noise magazine was to introduce some of us to prog iconoclasts Cheer-Accident. I’d never heard of them, but they did two soaring, longer-than-20-minute suites on this album, “Autumn Wind” being one. Great episodic stuff that takes you on a little journey. I love the pretty acoustic guitar pattern that dominates the first half. Later phases include a Crimson-like tangle of guitars, and some unexpected horns over a ’70s-sounding jam. The same album includes the absurd “Camp O’ Physique,” which, as StN pointed out, might have caused many a critic to toss the CD, but I like it.

(“Camp O’ Physique” came up three songs later. 100% true. “Then they make you run through the bushes and throw glow-in-the-dark frisbees at your neck.” I love it.)

Friendly Faces in New York

Seeing Cecil Taylor was great fun on my New York trip in May, but I was also glad to finally meet Jeff Arnal.

He’s a formerly Brooklyn-based drummer who relocated to Philadelphia sometime in the last couple of weeks to start a new job. I’d gotten acquainted with him through KZSU, which has been on the correspondance list for his Generate Records label. He’s put out some good stuff, and I’ve been glad to play it.

Arnal also played in an improvising quartet called Transit, which has two albums on Clean Feed. Good stuff.

So, I finally got to see him in person and chat for a bit. We talked a little about college radio, and about his pending move to Philadelphia (he’s working with a Pew Center program there). It was good. There are a few people whose names and music became familiar, in a good way, during my KZSU jazz-director tenure, and it’s nice to have finally met a couple of them, even if only briefly.

The occasion was a show at IBeam in Brooklyn. Arnal and longtime piano partner Gordon Beeferman played in a trio improv setting with Evan Rapport on sax, and trumpeter Nate Wooley took up the second set with his quintet, playing new tunes.

Arnal and Beeferman have played together for more than a decade, I think, and it shows. Their set with Rapport consisted of a few long improvisations, with Arnal and Beeferman showing great intuition for pushing the flow of the music, more than once picking a stopping point or transition point simultaneously. Beeferman’s piano playing was a joy to watch, with his spidery fingers applying  an invisibly light touch to produce runs and chords. Rapport put up some good, aggressive sax, often favoring long wails and squeals.

As for Arnal, his drumming is wonderful when it’s aggressive and loud, but what really caught my ear in this particular session were the quieter moments, the airy breaks showing off moments of delicacy and a sensitivity to the way sounds can communicate.

The Nate Wooley Quintet followed, furthering the bebop tradition with adventurous composing and some terrific soloing. Matt Moran on vibraphone was an unmissable voice in the band, but the whole ensemble was great, from solos to group passages. The new songs seemed to be inspired mostly from Wooley’s time in California, and they were all pleasant jazz tunes with some off-kilter touches in the writing. This stuff wouldn’t be out of place in a jazz club, although the music’s departures from tradition and free-soloing tendencies might distract some audiences. After my trip, I went and bought their first album , (Put Your) Hands Together, on eMusic and I’ll be in line to get the second, I’m sure.

The photo below is a random shot of the neighborhood around iBeam, right around sunset. I think it captures the quiet of the area.

Faruq Z. Bey

During the 2000s, KZSU received a few CDs by Faruq Z. Bey with the Northwoods Improvisers and/or his Griot Galaxy band. Bey dated back to the ’60s, but he was still putting out music in the 2000s, and I was happy to showcase it on KZSU.

He played free jazz with that earthly touch of the old days, rooted in the jazz tradition but in ways that didn’t sound “retro.” I liked the stuff but didn’t know any of the background.

That changed sometime last year when someone on Twitter — I think it was Jazz Session host Jason Crane (@JasonDCrane) pointed to this fascinating article about Bey, from 2003: “Musician Interrupted.” (The photo, by Barbara Barefield, is taken from that article.)

It tells the story of Bey’s Griot Galaxy in their glory days, before Bey’s motorcycle crash in the ’80s cut their time short. Bey survived, but the band didn’t. (The CD we got consisted of recordings of old concerts, IIRC).

Now there’s word Faruq Z. Bey has died at the age of 70. The Metro Times, which ran that other article, did a nice obituary on June 6.

Those Bey CDs had come to us courtesy of Mike Khoury’s terrific little label, Entropy Stereo, operating out of Detroit. Now would be a good time to check in with them and discover a little of the music that Faruq Z. Bey left behind.

It does feel good knowing that in some tiny, tiny way, I helped his music reach a few more ears. Even if not every listener remembered or even heard the name, the music was present; it was part of their lives for some small time. That’s the magic that radio can weave.

Cecil Taylor in New York

Old image of Cecil, used for promoting the festival.

So, I got to see Cecil Taylor again.

It took a bit of doing, schedule-wise, but I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to see a rare Cecil concert last month during one of my infrequent trips to New York. Missing it would have bothered me for years, even though I’d seen him once already — at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

That concert predates this blog. The gist was: Big, big church, but the resonating of the notes didn’t play into the sound as much as you’d think. Cecil was so busy that he’d overrun the reverberations quickly.

The Harlem Stage Gatehouse is a smaller venue, a  little more intimate (and I left town before his show at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room, an even smaller venue). It was packed, although there were enough no-shows for at least two people on the waiting list to get in. (Those two were my parents, who were coincidentally in New York and figured they’d try something different.)

Plenty of musicians were there. I sat next to Vijay Iyer, in the rearmost of three folding-chair rows arranged behind Cecil. I can’t believe those seats didn’t fill immediately. Elsewhere in the crowd, Craig Taborn was around; Butch Morris had a reserved seat. Nate Chinen of The New York Times had a reserved seat as well; he didn’t show up until the last minute and disappeared right after the final note. (Given the detail in his writeup, he must have been backstage with the organizers either before or after the show, fleshing out the finer points of the show.)

The crowd, gathering.

The show started with an audio collection of musicians explaining Cecil’s influence on them, on jazz, on music. It was a very nice tribute. (And Iyer was in it.)

Then, as he did at Grace Cathedral, Cecil opened by reciting poetry from backstage into a microphone. His words, like his music, tumble from seemingly everywhere, threading together nonsensically. There may be a theme, a path, but it’s incomprehensible to me. And yet, like his music, his poetry can’t be replicated by just doing things randomly. Grabbing fistfuls of scientific and astronomical terms and stringing them together like popcorn will not produce the sound, rhythms, and music of a Cecil Taylor poem.

Being 83, Cecil looks and sounds old. His voice is gruff and short-breathed, and his gait is hobbled, just the usual effect of being 83. So, he approached the piano slowly and took his time shuffling through his scores. I couldn’t see clearly enough, but it wasn’t sheet music — it looked like vertical columns of symbols, like Asian writing or sloppy note designations. I could be wrong, but that’s the shape I kind of made out from my seat.

By Karsten Moran for The New York Times. Removable upon request. Click for the corresponding NYT article.

There were four or five pieces, I think, each ending with a long pause as Cecil thumbed through the scores again to pick the next target. No one applauded between pieces — we should have, but pieces ended abruptly, and it was hard to tell if Cecil was done or simply transitioning between movements.

After two pieces, in fact, he seemed to feel the awkward weight of the air. So, he stood up and read a second poem, recited with punch and even some humor. This was the one Chinen cites that included the line “effluvium and effluvium” followed by six or seven more “effluviums” — and we laughed, as I’m quite sure Cecil had hoped we would. That finally broke the ice. Cecil went back to work in the keyboard with a renewed vigor.

He took two encores, the second almost at the insistence of the festival organizers (this was his festival, after all!)  Both encores were short — Cecil does know how to work with an audience’s patience — and the second was in a head/solo/head format! Yes, Cecil overtly played something twice! The head was a sneaky chromatic left-hand line with right-hand splashes, very melodic and a litle bit sassy, with a touch of (oh no) tonal resolution. It was still “out there” but not like anything he’d played so far in the concert. He ended it tonally too (i.e., it sounded like a quiet, graceful ending). A real treat.

Cecil got rousing ovations for his work that night, and why not. Aside from being masterful in the first place — my parents aren’t free-jazz fans, but they found his piano abilities stunning — this was a chance to openly thank a man who created entire new generations of music. You could argue that with these solo concerts, Cecil is coasting — but if he is, 1) he’s earned it and 2) there are still plenty of us around who didn’t see him dozens of times over the decades. There’s an audience.

As for the bulk of the music itself, the specifics are mostly worn away in memory. It was Cecil. Lots of tumbling runs; flickering chords that felt like they were creating new harmonies never before discovered, but only for a second before being erased by the next event; the occasional forearm slap to the keyboard. He still tells the tales in a way that only Cecil Taylor can.

Other resources: