Tuesday, November 21, 2006

up to your boobies in white satin

"You can be up to your boobies in white satin, with gardenias in your hair and no sugar cane for miles, but you can still be working on a plantation." (Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues).

Jazz books on the floor next to my bed currently include Reading Jazz, edited by Robert Gottlieb and Visions of Jazz by Gary Giddins, as well as Ted Reed's Progressive Steps to Syncopation, which I keep returning to over and over to find new ways to apply the studies not only to drumset work but music and composition in general.

Reading Jazz is a remarkable anthology heavily weighted toward the mainstream but still stuffed full of great material. The autobiographical section ranges from Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet to Cecil Taylor and others. The Cecil piece is from Len Lyons' 1983 book, The Great Jazz Pianists, and Gottlieb's comment says something like "sometimes the life of an interviewer is a difficult one." I suspect this is meant with a dash of humor and as a tongue in cheek commentary on Taylor's apparently combative and argumentative responses, but truly, although you can tell he's trying, Lyons' questions are superficial and idiotic. How little must the man have known about Taylor to begin his interview with "What approach did you use for developing finger dexterity, and what would you recommend that younger pianists do in that regard?" Not only does he open with that absolutely inconsequential question, but he persists doggedly. This is Lyons making his own life difficult.

It's also representative of a thread that keeps winding through these autobiographical texts, which is a white attitude that is clearly condescending, racist, patronizing and unconciously or blatantly infantilizing. The position of the artist in America, let alone the black artist, is laid bare repeatedly and it's ugly.

Giddins' compilation of short essays is a wonder to behold by comparison. Yes, it leans a bit toward hagiography at times, but his respect is welcome even if it borders on reverence. Giddins is so obviously a fan of the whole spectrum of genres and approaches, and in particular it's a lovely experience to read articulate and knowledgeable insights into the work of musicians as disparate as Budd Johnson and Roscoe Mitchell.

Acquisitive jazz slut that I am, I recently snagged Randy Weston's latest (at 80 years old!), Zep Tepi, as well as the odd Impulse reissue that combines Taylor's Into the Hot pieces (Pots, Bulbs, Mixed)with Roswell Rudd's Everywhere session. Every time I hear Weston I want to hear more, and it's too bad that I somehow managed to miss his work along the way. I only gave Taylor's sessions for Gil Evans a cursory listen when I was younger, largely because I had already been absolutely riveted by Indent, Silent Tongues, Dark to Themselves, 3 Phasis, etc. and too quickly dismissed Taylor's early work as unformed and quaint. With fresh ears these Taylor originals are absolutely mind blowing and yet again mark a whole range of possibilities that Taylor perhaps left behind too quickly. (That's my greed talking). There's something lush and humid about his orchestrations, the song forms, the dense and usually not reiterative themes. Amazing that Ted Curson was working with Mingus at the time. I wonder what he thought working his way through Taylor's Mixed?Not because it is different from the Mingus workshop, but because it launches off of so many similar strategies. (It's also instructive to hear Sunny Murray on these recordings; his odd 5/4 boogaloo beat, his leanings toward the concept he'd plunge into quite soon after).

Roswell Rudd is one of those rare musicians who intuitively understands sound. The trombone is a perfect fit for the man's ears and soul. My first impressions of the Impulse session is that it's unfortunate he wasn't surrounded by heavier players. Charlie Haden is too far behind Lewis Worrell in the mix and I don't get grabbed by Guiseppi Logan and Robin Kenyatta, really. I just want to hear Beaver Harris and Roswell Rudd do duets.


the improvising guitarist said...

“Cecil piece is from Len Lyons' 1983 book”

My god, that brings back memories (may have been the first Taylor interview I read).

“Not only does he open with that absolutely inconsequential question, but he persists doggedly.”

The flip side is that at least he asks Taylor about these mechanical aspects rather than assuming, as some writers do, that he already knows the answer already (e.g. Taylor brought the conservatory technique to the street, etc etc etc).
However, as you’re right to point out, Lyons’ problem (beyond not doing his research) is that he cannot accommodate, or adapt to, the flow and direction of the conversation; he cannot, in fact, improvise. If I remember correctly Taylor does touch on some interesting points, goes to interesting places, but we’re always back to that dead end fingering question….
(aside: It does remind me a little of Zappa being asked about what strings he uses, the hardware in “Blue” Gene Tyranny home studio.)

“…a white attitude that is clearly condescending, racist, patronizing and unconciously or blatantly infantilizing.”

Do you feel like exploring specific instances of this in your blog? I would be interested in your crit/take.


Mwanji Ezana said...

Last night I listened to the third disc (which groups "Uhuru: Afrika" and another lots-of-percussion album) of the Randy Weston Mosaic Select set for the first time. The whole set is amazing, at least for me, as I don't know Weston's work.

Melba Liston's arrangements on the two discs are great too, often jump-cutting from retro-crooning to angular dissonance to straight-ahead swing.

peter breslin said...

Hey- thanks for pointing out that at least Len Lyons doesn't assume certain things about Taylor's technique, I hadn't thought of it that way. Two things come to mind-- one, that for young musicians the biggest "problem" or most duanting challenge or whatever is this whole question of technique. One wants to be "good" at drums or piano or whatever. What I found out for myself is I was myself in relationship to the instrument and that relationship started to be more abiout sound than about what I was able or not able to do. So I think Taylor's implicit critique of the "technique" question goes in many directions, not just the quasi-Marxist anti-trained monkey direction, but also his whole philosophy of sound. The other thing that I remember is when I sat and visited with Mr. Taylor for a long while after a ocncert here a couple of years ago, one didn't engage in conversation so much as listen and watch the shapes and ideas and references go by. It was something like listening to someone read Finnegans Wake except the characters were Betty Carter, Miles Davis, Geroge Wein, Lyndon Johnson, etc.

Re: my impression of racism coming through the autobiographical pieces in Reading Jazz: I'll write up a post looking at it from a few angles, probably over the weekend.


peter breslin said...

Hey Mwanji- I need to get busy contacting people like Mosaic and Ayler etc. in the hopes I can get some promo materials for my radio show. The Mosaics I have I bought back in the late 80s...Complete Candid Mingus and Complete Blue Note Herbie Nichols. Both of those are indispensable. Melba Liston! I am a huge fan.