Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Only Music Worth Playing

I've been part of several tribute/homage/songbook projects, notably with Zimbabwe Nkenya, doing an Ornette Coleman project, a mid-'60s Miles quintet project, part of a Monk tribute; now the main thing happening musically for me is the Miles Davis electric project. So I've been involved with this experience where someone (maybe even me) loves the music of so and so enough to get a group together, try it out, do some of the favorite pieces. With some of Zim's projects it was a drag, ultimately, because he wanted to do OC's songs, he wanted to do the tougher material too from the MD quintet, some very nuanced Monk tunes too, and where were the musicians? Myself included! I always felt completely behind the curve there, exposed, unable to develop a statement of my own and left either poorly imitating Higgins, Blackwell, Roach, Jones (man, Broadway Blues is a bitch!) Williams or, well, generally, lost. With the Miles electric project it's different, because that grew out of players I had already heard here: DJ's, live and pre-produced samples, guitarists, keyboard, bass. It happened more organically, the sounds and approaches already fit before we started to shape pieces like Honky Tonk, Yesternow, Black Satin, etc. The end result is sometimes our versions are flat out imitative...how close can we get to some of the suspense of Yesternow, for example...sometimes the versions, even of the same tune, are unrecognizable. It's filtered through a kind of freedom that was not available on the OC or Miles quintet projects, because the mastery and the understanding was not in the ensemble, was not in the sound. The tunes there were out of reach, some kind of Platonic eidos that we could only genuflect at the base of or stumble around within, offering our pale stabs, no matter how much we loved the originals.

The Vandermark 5's "Free Jazz Classics Vol. 3: Six for Rollins" sounds like this to me. Both forced and lost. The format is head-solo-solo-solo-head, the arrangements seem desultory, and the overall effect lacks so many of the qualities of Sonny Rollins' music: daring, humor, space, fluidity, elan. The playing is superb, yet another example of unequivocally fine musicianship standing still, running in place, sounding contained and distant, even when the bar lines drop. It's as if the music is a museum piece, a simulacrum, with the homage not reverent enough or all too reverent, I can't decide which. There's a spirit joyless and formulaic in it. I love hearing Vandermark's bari, Jeb Bishop's bone, Kent Kessler's bass and Dave Rempis in particular (shades of Dolphy, Roscoe Mitchell...he is in my opinion the best soloist on the date), but Tim Daisy's drums are so literal. It's jazz drumming on music that I can't help but hear with Roach, Jones, etc. The elasticity of the tempos on The Bridge make me wonder-- are we hearing people play or think about playing while they play? The device itself is not at fault, it's the way it clobbers me over the head.

But for me the signature problem piece is East Broadway Rundown. The original of this recording has long been one of my all time favorite recorded performances in all of jazz, period. It somehow manages to be hilarious, ominous, introspective, playful, pandimensional, inside, outside, abstract, gutbucket, splatteringly free yet stompingly funky, all at once. The line itself is a deceptively simple, seemingly throwaway bit of classic Rollins-- conversational, arch, inscrutable, with a recursive jumpiness that doesn't take itself too seriously and with a hilarious switch to the major in its raggy tag. The best thing about the Vandermark 5 version is hearing Rollins' line. The rest of it just misses me.

I don't know any of the other work of the Vandermark 5 and I'm not qualified to say much about Vol. 4, Free Kings, based on Rashaan Roland Kirk's compositions, as I am way behind on my Kirk.

But the larger questions for me: why bring the repertory idea to so-called free jazz? And why Rollins? Rollins as sound innovator, structural innovator, one of a kind and absolutely original-- no contest. But free jazz? I'm not opposed, I just need more of a conversation around that. Why the self-consciousness in the packaging, the marketing, the use of the questionable phrase "Free Jazz Classics?" I wonder-- who is the audience for this music? Not that there is necessarily one audience.

In the liner notes by Vandermark he concludes with two very strange paragraphs:

"Maybe investigating the groundwork for the improvised music from the 1960's and 70's taught me that it was time to get off the shoulders of those artists in order to look in another direction.

Maybe the point has come when it's necessary to realize that the only music worth playing is happening now."

These statements seem simultaneously so thoroughly arrogant and benighted to me that I'm left (almost) speechless. The only thing I have to say right now about the last sentence is...when Monk played Duke's music, when Rollins played I Can't Get Started, when the Art Ensemble played Zombie, when Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy played A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, was that happening now?


Larry Love said...

Peter, have you heard vol 1&2 of this series?

the improvising guitarist said...

"why bring the repertory idea to so-called free jazz?"

Feels almost like the ‘authentic’ performance of the music of the Second Viennese School (which does actually happen now), or those guys who are recreating the performance practice of David Tudor…
It’s a tricky business, attempting not to loose track of (personal and collective) history (something that’s very important to African American self-definition, for example), but at the same time, not wanting to make everything a museum piece (thus sterilizing it of politics and social history).

"Rollins as sound innovator, structural innovator, one of a kind and absolutely original-- no contest. But free jazz?"

Just my two cents, but one of the things that I loved about ‘East Broadway Rundown’ is that, in retrospect, Rollins seems ever so… lost is the wrong word… he playing makes it sound like he’s very much aware of those boundaries that demarcate the tradition (I think in a way that may of the free jazz players of that time were not).
Maybe I’m reading these with corrupt eyes (the record was, as a kid, was my introduction to this way of practicing music, way before encountering Coleman, Taylor, Ayler, etc).
How do Vandermark’s records compare, say, to Frisell, Lewis, Zorn’s ‘News for Lulu’?


peter breslin said...

Hi Larry Love, no, I haven't...this is so far the only V5 recording I've heard. Do you recommend Vol.1 and 2?

S- I really appreciate your comments re: Rollins in the context he himself created for East Broadway Rundown. The solo statement at the beginning floors me because of its laconic, playful use of space. Then his very high pitched mouthpiece sounds at the end are about as out as I ever heard Rollins, with the great Donald Duck summoning everyone back to two statements of the head.

Not losing track of history yet not making everything a museum piece is what I love about "versions" associated with certain heavies but played by others. Steve Lacy's early Monk recordings, Monk playing Ellington, some of the Art Ensemble covers (perhaps Dexterity most of all), Zorn's Spy vs. Spy. There's energy and spirit brought to the proceedings...

thanks again for writing,


The Word-Drum said...

Both of you fellows have a point.
How do you copy the musical disposition of Rollins in the mid-
sixties? Spy V Spy is an exciting record. It's not Ornette but might
attract one to his music. I used to
play with one of the drummers( I
love having 2 drummers) Mike Vatcher. Zorn really got him to play.
I can't believe, Peter, that you
are doing tributes to Ornette and
Monk in New Mexico. I live in N. AZ
and here they never heard of Ornette, Monk wrote 2 songs and
jazz is something you might hear in
a restaurant.

peter breslin said...

Hey Word-Drum-

Are you in Flagstaff? I used to travel through there a lot and caught a small combo at a bar there once near the train tracks, if my memory serves me it was mostly Real Book tunes but there was some interesting playing on trumpet.

I think the proximity of Albuquerque, some college and independent radio, and Santa Fe's "high culture" climate combine to make some music a little more known here. The Ornette reworkings I always felt we "got away with" because very few people know OC very well here. That's one of the questionable features of the musical landscape here-- generating a lot of enthusiasm for stuff in my opinion because the audiences have "never heard anything like it" before. It's okay in some ways, but I always felt like to be fair some of the projects I was on should have sold OC or Monk merch in the lobby or at the door. :-)


The Word-Drum said...

Peter, I live in Prescott.
That's between Flagstaff and
Phoenix. I once worked with a
trumpet player up there and it
sucked. He paused for 5 to 10
minutes between each tune scour-
ing The Real Book for the next
song. He had a doctorate in
performance, which he new
nothing about.
I work mostly out of town
except I play at The Prescott
Resort semi-regularly.
I could sure use a swinging
drummer here.
Hope this prints out OK,
as you can probably tell
I am a neophyte on the internet.
Take Care