Sunday, November 08, 2009

Prayers for Zimbabwe

My good friend and long time collaborator, bassist, mbira player and composer Zimbabwe Nkenya, suffered a stroke Wednesday, November 4, and is in the hospital in St. Louis. No word yet on his condition. My prayers and positive healing energies go out to him and his wife and family.

For the past nearly 20 years in Northern New Mexico, on and off, I've had the privilege of playing drums and piano in various ensembles under his direction and he has graciously agreed to play bass in some of my projects as well. He moved to Tucson, Arizona a few years ago and then to St. Louis, his hometown, where he was central in resurrecting the Black Artist Group there, calling it BAGII.

In New Mexico, his projects included Black Jazz Culture, The African Space Program and a variety of ensembles dedicated to honoring the compositions of Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Duke, Miles, Wayne Shorter and more. He has always been a generous supporter of my musical endeavors. He's especially been supportive of my piano playing, for which I'm deeply appreciative.

Zimbabwe Nkenya and the New Jazz, is available through High Mayhem in Santa Fe. It's an interesting tour through some of Zimbabwe's more jazz-influenced compositions.

The huge, warm tone of his bass playing has always been healing for me, whether I have had the honor of being in the band or the audience. Again, Zim, prayers for your peace and healing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rrake, In Time for Autumn

I've had the great fortune to work with Chris Jonas on a few different vibrant and challenging projects. I first met him shortly after he and his wife, the composer, vocalist, musician, community arts director and conduction expert Molly Sturges, moved to Santa Fe from New York, about 7 years ago.

The first couple of opportunities involved Jonas and Sturges' collaborative band, Bing. Learning their book and then working on music for silent films (the epic The Man Who Laughs and pratfall-laden Buster Keaton classic, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and accompaniment for Wise Fool New Mexico's Circus Luminous all happened in about 6 months and was like going to graduate school for percussion for a couple semesters.

Then came Jonas' project, Rrake. This called on completely different musical resources for me, pulling together some echoes of Captain Beefheart, Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, some of James Blood Ulmer's and Ronald Shannon Jackson's stuff from the '80s and '90s, etc.

The charts involved sections where Paul Brown and I worked out asymmetrical figures while Milton Villarrubia III and Jeremy Bleich, the other drummer and bassist, played cycles of different, but eventually overlapping, asymmetrical figures. Some of the cue phrases are deceptively simple and oddly catchy, despite also being alternately eerie and arcane. In spite of very limited rehearsal time, with Josh Smith coming in from San Francisco the day before the gig, I think, the ensemble turned in some solid versions of Jonas' demanding charts at the 2006 High Mayhem Emerging Arts Festival. Since then, Rrake has performed a couple other times, including a highly enjoyable show with Joe Fiedler on trombone.

Here's one piece that came out well, in my opinion, in 2006, a piece called Vig.

The other four pieces from the 2006 High Mayhem Festival performance are also on YouTube, thanks to High Mayhem's meticulous documentation and my new YouTube account.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Poltergeist Percussion

The Frank Rosaly performance at Modified Arts with openers Static Announcements kicked off a bizarre weekend which found me piling into my car Sunday and driving in a big loop through Quartzsite, Parker, Twentynine Palms, Searchlight and back home. I was looking for Echinocactus polycephalus (pictured above)...a decidedly fierce beast found in the driest, rockiest, hottest deserts of the southwest. The plant has a certain ragged and fierce charm, symmetrical yet shaggy looking, tough as nails yet very challenging to keep going in cultivation, oddly fragile and given to either languishing for years or up and rotting.

A great metaphor for creative improvised music, in some ways. Rosaly was hosted by The Phoenix Creative Music Movement,, which, as Executive Director and Co-Founder Jen Rogers said at the show, has turned into more of "an occasional series of concerts." Perhaps the new direction at Modified Arts toward being a home for more cutting edge music will resuscitate Rogers' idea, which seems to have had a lot of energy behind it back when PCMM hit the scene, in 2005. It is no mean feat to host and produce performances of creative improvised or composed music in any area of these United States these days. In Phoenix? Home of the utterly derivative "wine bar" "jazz" experience? Very challenging indeed. The Phoenix area sometimes seems like a replica of a simulacrum of a city, and this even extends to the "arts scene," which as far as I can tell, centers around about 6 square blocks near Roosevelt and Central, mighty slim pickings for a metro area boasting more than 4 million people. In a few years of living here with my ear fairly close to the ground, this Frank Rosaly/Static Announcements show has been the only one of its kind that I have known of. The low attendance, despite a great write up in Phoenix's miserable rag of an "alternative weekly," spoke volumes about just how retarded Pheonicians can be.

Side note: I realize it has become a great American pastime, bitching about the cities in which we live. But Phoenix really does utterly suck. Everything is smash and grab fake, quick buck ugly. The people are not friendly or welcoming in the least. The air of "wannabe" Los Angeles is pervasive. Phoenix is as thoroughly tawdry as Las Vegas and as materialistic and shallow as LA, only minus both the history and charm. The arts scene around Roosevelt features some lovely stuff but is basically only truly alive a couple of Fridays a month. The music scene is almost entirely focused on really bad jazz (the worst of all music) and equally bad "indie rock" (oh man) or "death metal." The idiots who have watered the desert and stacked condo on top of hideous condo on top of puke colored strip mall after strip mall after completely disposable rectilinear street corner after street corner graced by everything that is hideous about Amerika have, at the same time, predictably ignored the cultural landscape of the city. In Tempe, the great "hip" strip is supposed to be Mill Avenue. "It's so funky and unique!" people said to us when we first moved here. Tell that to the minimum wage slaves working at Fatburger, American Apparel, PF Chang's, etc. along this outdoor shopping mall of a cultural shithole. So bereft of anything even resembling cultural curiosity that even the frikkin' BORDERS BOOKS AND MUSIC mega outlet right next to the UNIVERSITY couldn't manage to stay in business. But I digress.

I had been tipped off to Rosaly by my Santa Fe friends at High Mayhem, (ha, nice Wiki page folks!). The show there had involved a multi-percussionist piece featuring some of my favorite Santa Fe musicians. Rosaly came highly recommended. I have attended a very few solo percussionist performances. In fact, I think the only other one might be the absolutely transformational and gorgeous performance at High Mayhem a couple years ago by Tatsuya Nakatani.

Rosaly's performance was equally gorgeous. He uses a sort of hybrid, electro-acoustic drumset, featuring old Rogers drums and some pickups/transducer mics placed around the kit. I didn't get to talk with Rosaly either before or after the show, so I don't really know the technical details. I do know that Rosaly opened by creating some echoing, clanking and clattering textures using electrified mbiras on his floor tom. These forays into industrial machine percussion alternated with shitstomping, furiously fractured avant metal beats. Rosaly also did an extended meditation on some polyrhythms loosely associated around a 6/8 figure. His wonderfully honed technique and four way (actually, more like 6 or 7 way) independence and counterpoint were never flashy but always served some overarching musical idea. During the course of his energy-charged excursions, Rosaly made use of a wide variety of beaters, including hitting the drums with cymbals, a vibrator, a kitchen utensil that looked like a pasta server, etc. A wonderful boinging, chattering effect was created by a flexible glockenspiel mallet held across the head and rim of the snare drum and pulled up and released. Shproing wobblewobbleblblblblblb.

The timbral feast was rich and spicy, like a Thai hot curry. Overall, I was reminded of some of my all time favorite re-conceptualists of the drums, including Milford Graves, Han Bennink, Ronald Shannon Jackson, etc. Rosaly's gestural shenanigans were fun to watch as well, as if he felt a force field around the drums and was cagily and at times warily entering into a temenos, or sacred, magical space. Rosaly also sang a strange little tune at the end of his second piece, with inscrutable lyrics. This is risky stuff. But it totally worked. One of the delightful ironies of his performance was a final, direct and explicit reference to "jazz drumming" at the very end, where he settled into some Jack DeJohnette style time keeping and fills. It was as if it took him the entire hour of conjuring poltergeists, ghosts, demons, manic angels and fiery, alien landscapes to purge himself of the burdensome history of drumming and stereotyped vocabulary of the drumset in order to be comfortable enough to play some jazzy figures.

If you get a chance to see Rosaly in action, jump. I enjoyed Static Announcements too and hope to see them again here in Phoenix. I hope, too, that the Phoenix Creative Music Movement can continue in any form, even on life support. It is a sorely needed possible source for sonic adventures in this otherwise barren desert.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


Music critic Chris May takes a bizarre tack in reviewing the latest CD from Vijay Iyer's trio, Historicity.

Writes May: "There is much that is immensely exciting about pianist Vijay Iyer and something else that is intensely irritating. The excitement lies in the music and the irritation in the miasma of cerebralization that surrounds it."

Can anyone guess to whom Iyer is inevitably, ineluctably compared a mere 1 paragraph later? Anyone? Starts with B. And it ain't Buxtehude. Anyone, anyone? Bueller?

I am as leery of miasmas of cerebralization as the next guy. My enjoyment of art is often utterly destroyed by gasbags who insist on articulating their insights, methods, musings and reflections, especially in big fancy words of more than say, 3 syllables. Think of how the accessible folk songs of Harry Partch were completely destroyed by his ridiculous "theory." Imagine how much more enjoyable Schoenberg or Webern would be without all that annoying "Serialist" pretense.

I prefer immediacy. I like my artists utterly aphasic, in fact. Too much thinking and self-reflection, especially when it reaches MIASMIC levels of CEREBRALIZATION, and I'm outta there. I don't know much about music, but I know what I like, and it isn't musicians who are more intelligent and articulate than I. Young, dumb and full of JASS, good time music, no philosophy.

Lo and behold, in a startling new trend that I wrote about last year sometime, Mr. Iyer himself weighs in on the comment thread to May's review. I suppose this isn't strictly new. I vaguely remember musicians writing letters to the editor at Downbeat, responding to 2 star record reviews or whatever. Generally, however, for centuries, critics have written about artists at a certain insulated distance.

Anyway, in the comment thread, Iyer posts the actual miasmically cerebralized liner notes to Historicity, to wit:


"The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is 'knowing thyself' as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory."

- Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks

There are two main meanings for "historicity":

1) the quality of being historically accurate, as opposed to ficticious or legendary
2) a condition of being placed in the stream of history; also: a result of such placement

The second sense matters here: without a doubt, it's the past that's setting us in motion. With eons of recorded music ringing in our ears, and several years of intensive collaboration behind us, we take on pre-existing works by Andrew Hill, Julius Hemphill, Ronnie Foster, Stevie Wonder, Bernstein & Sondheim, and M.I.A..

Most of these works have a disruptive quality that we aim to reproduce with the trio. (The exception is "Somewhere," which simply gets retold on our terms.) You could see our covers as tributes, but we've also tried to augment each song with a fragment of ourselves. Each cover becomes a conversation between the original work and something else entirely; the best word for it is versioning.

I also borrow from my own past: earlier prototypes of "Trident" and "Sentiment" appeared on my first few albums, over a decade ago. And all of our music draws influence from the musical traditions of South Asia, Africa, and their diasporas (the Brown and Black Atlantic); perceptual illusions, mathematical equalities, and physical resonances; and everyday life in transcultural New York City.

The coda sections of "Historicity" and "Helix" both consider our experience of time as a continuous dimension instead of a series of events. For psychologist J.J. Gibson, events are perceivable, but time is not; he contends that time's continuum is something we imagine, as our way of connecting the dots.

Music, it seems, also connects -- carrying us smoothly across the tumult of experience, like water over rocks. That would make historicity the swirl of undercurrents, the reason we brace ourselves as we step into the river.

Thanks for listening.

vijay iyer"


Not really, of course. Iyer's notes are interesting. I've been thinking a lot about the history of the music, how it relates to the repertory approach of Jazz at Lincoln Center, what the value of a retrospective "versioning" is, why people still get together all over the world and try to play Real Book tunes, how all of this history can be an inspiring force rather than a stultifying and intimidating Mt. Everest of genius, etc. One of my favorite blogs, It Is Not Mean If It Is True, was for a long time doing an "improvised music" reading of Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence. (also some fascinating reflections on Adorno's Verse une musique informelle, but I digress....)

A closer examination of May's objection suggests he may have missed some of what Iyer is communicating. According to May, Iyer's musings boil down to nine words: "we are all part of the tide of history." I think not. Perhaps if one exposed a sullen yet mysteriously literate fencepost to Iyer's liner notes, said summary would result. Those of us with the patience for MIASMIC CEREBRALIZATION garner somewhat more. Each creative act is a gesture of incorporation of all the influences, in the mysterious aggregate, that come before. Each "new" statement is an homage as well as a rejection. Each moment of an artist's life is a "version" of the past yet entirely present. Influence can be literal, entombing the past in amber, fossilizing what was once vital, or it can be metaphorical, liberating and transcendent. I have long admired artists who baldly and reverently embrace influence (The Art Ensemble of Chicago, for example) but eschew imitation.

May continues: "As Iyer and his publicists frequently remind us, before becoming a full-time musician Iyer studied mathematics and physics at Yale and UC Berkeley. The guy has smarts; can we please move on now? For if he isn't careful, Iyer is going to match reed player Anthony Braxton's bone-dry academic posturing and in doing so set himself apart from the sizable audience his music could reach."

IRRITATING. Really a sort of trifecta of gasbaggery. 1). implying that Iyer and publicists (I imagine a vast team of marketing MBA's sitting around a shiny stainless steel conference table generated high-falutin' smartypants copy, a team of buzz-building former math majors, unheard of in JASS music until now....) somehow try to sell Iyer's music by making him look "smart," 2). implying that Iyer will somehow lose listeners as a result, 3). completely mischaracterizing the philosophical background and entire career of Anthony Braxton. ding ding ding! Insufferable gasbaggery for the win!

The irritating parts of May's review read like a Daily Mail article. May's appreciation for the music doesn't actually offer much insight into the methodolgy or aesthetics of the trio and there's a kind of inarticulate critical vocabulary at work. It's more plot summary than critical assessment. The sort of "review" that's fairly easy to pound out in 20 minutes, hungover, after giving the CD one listen. Maybe this is why a greater word count is actually dedicated to lamenting Iyer's intellectualism than to the music?

Anyway, file under "anti-intellectualism in jazz criticism," along with decades of other dismissive and condescending perspectives.

Ironic that the CD is available where smart people live (Europe) but won't be released here until October 13. In the meantime, in case you were wondering, here's a photo of the irritating and dangerously inscrutable CEREBRALLY MIASMIC Iyer. Be on the lookout.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

If Q then not necessarily P

Americans have long had a technique fetish in their Calvinist, superficial attempts at appreciation for the arts.

Recently, Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success caused quite a stir. As soon as I heard Gladwell's glib "10,000 hours" formulation, I knew a couple things. I knew it would become a meme, a viral apothegm. I also knew it was a formulation of no ultimate consequence. This past summer, I was snooping around a friend's bookshelf, found a copy of Outliers and read it in about 45 minutes. How utterly disappointing, to see that the "best minds of my generation" are well-fed, superficial and have decided to reduce their intelligence to Reader's Digest levels of pablum-spewing lack of significance.

I'm sure there is a correlation between time spent engaged in a task/field of endeavor/area of expression and the quality of the results. I'm also sure that switching the "if...then" of the basic proposition reveals, in what should be an obvious way, the glib superficiality of the basic idea. "People who show extraordinary success at X have put in at least 10,000 hours of practice" simply doesn't translate to "People who put in 10,000 hours of practice at something will be extraordinarily successful at it." That this simple logical converse does not seem to shed light on the transparent uselessness of the original correlation for a lot of people speaks to how bereft the arts are (for example) in America.

The American sensibility seems to me often to reduce appreciation for an artist to the admiration one shows for a circus freak. Speed of execution, articulation, ability to manipulate the physical world and one's body, excellence at representing reality, extraordinary agility, flexibility, etc. These are the hallmarks of a "true artist" for the essentially materialistic American "consumer" of the arts. Even in the case of highly technically accomplished artists who also have a great depth and individuality of expression, what many Americans seem to value is merely the technical accomplishment.

Take, for example, the majority opinion on John Coltrane. Check out this bracing video of a transcription of Coltrane's solo on Giant Steps, the version originally released on Atlantic:

This metronome 240 (roughly) foray into linear and arpeggiated statements over functional harmony, an exaltation of both freedom and form, is a landmark performance. But the pathetic Jazz University that would soak such a form in formaldehyde entirely misses the point.

Coltrane's trajectory soon followed entirely new shapes, much to the dismay of many long time fans. The triumph of "be bop" was also its downfall. The form allowed for too much formalization, and very soon the genius practitioners of the form chafed against the "hamster wheel" experience of simply running the changes in 12 or 16 or 32-bar cycles again from the top. What could be said in such a fashion was exhaustively said, by artists of such expressive ability and insightful genius that there was no artistic urgency to revisit the endless chord wheel yet again.

Yet the phase of Coltrane's career most beloved by Americans, and especially most revered in "The Jazz University," is absolutely the phase of greatest traditional display of traditional technique. This is as it always has been here in the great US of A. Even 'Trane's later work with Miles Davis on the so-called "modal" Kind of Blue
pieces begins to attract resistance. "Too many notes," say some. (Possibly even Mr. Davis, who in his famous, possibly apocryphal, rejoinder to Coltrane offered a very simple suggestion for how to end a solo, namely, "Take the @%#$!* horn out of your *#@*&% mouth").

I have had many be-bop lovin' hepcat jazzbo white guys who are still running tired, fleet and technically accomplished solos over even more tired Real Book (tm) tunes say to me "I can't stand that later Coltrane stuff! He must have gone back on smack or something! Or that cat went crazy man! Ya Dig!!" (not really that last part, so much, but you get the idea).

So I'd offer Coltrane as one example (of a very, very many) of an American artist embraced as a master up until that regrettable leap off into madness, marked especially by what is perceived as an abandonment of technical facility. For contrast, and for a renewed sense of just how astonishing 5 years can be in the lifetime of an American innovator, check this transcendent 1965 performance of Naima :

And this is especially telling, as Naima is itself now considered a "jazz classic," and sometimes is subjected to the usual superficial, glib, utterly semantically depleted exsanguination as any other "tune" suffering the general misfortune of being adopted by the jazzbots. (At the same time, also tellingly, Coltrane's Sufi-like ecstacy in his solo is often dismissed as "just too much, " even now, 45 years after the fact).

So where does this version of Naima fit in the Gladwellian formulation? Clearly, Coltrane's utter mastery of the tenor saxophone, of the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, of the great sweeping arcs and jagged jumps of compositional drama in his solo, these aspects of Coltrane's art could (perhaps) be taught. Certainly, if not taught, at least analyzed, more deeply admired through analysis and perhaps employed in part or attempted whole by other artists, other students of the music. One could imagine easily spending 10,000 happy hours learning to play every nook and cranny of a handful of Coltrane recordings from roughly 1962-1967. Indeed, an entire school could be and in fact has been built on Coltrane's work, or Davis's, or Parker's, or what have you. Entire 10,000-hour schools could be built on single solos by these masters, or even some of the methodologies summarized in a few bars. This may sound hyperbolic, but listen to any so-called "JAZZ" recording claiming to be "mainstream" from the past 40 years or so and tune in to how each solo is an homage to an homage to an homage to some masterful statement, several decades old, a palimpsest featuring Sunday cartoon comics sketched over layers of what used to be culturally significant, the bottom-most layer an intricate, fundamentally unreproducible and urgent statement of vital truth.

What Coltrane (and so many others) plumbed (and continue to plumb) at the peak of their self-expression cannot be taught. Cannot be practiced. Only a mistranslation (at best) or a sorry-ass recapitulation is possible. Check the Naima clip from 2:49 to about 3:17, or the amazing interlude of telepathy with Elvin Jones from 4:26 to about 5:05 for but two examples (totaling just over a minute) from Coltrane's improvisation of what 10,000 hours, or 10,000 lifetimes of 10,000 hours each, could never teach.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Comfort Zones

Vijay Iyer, one of an inspiring young(ish) cadre of creative improvisers making inspiring music, posted a link on Facebook to this Wall Street Journal article giving Wynton Marsalis a generous, lotion-soaked tug job.

The article in turn inspired me to read up a little bit on Larry Blumenfeld. I knew I had seen his by line somewhere before, but I'm not (ahem) a regular reader of The Wall Street Journal. Turns out Blumenfeld is also "editor at large" for JazzIz magazine (not sure what editor-at-large means?) as well as a "regular contributor" to The Wall Street Journal. He's self-described as a "cultural journalist specializing in jazz," and as such I wonder how he could possibly have written the WSJ article with a straight face? The piece is thoroughly misguided. It unleashes some real howlers. Calling Ornette Coleman a "free-jazz avatar," (hyphen included), is absurd. Ornette Coleman is an American master, a stone cold American genius, a one-of-a-kind American iconoclast who has been making ridiculously beautiful music for decades. His composition for two improvising quartets called _Free Jazz_ was originally released nearly five decades ago (next year is the 50th anniversary) and has its own Wikipedia page. The term "free jazz" is thoroughly passe. To reduce Coleman to a cipher who still represents a movement that is 50 years old is really very bad music writing.

Blumenfeld also writes: "Mr. Coleman's engagement, which may nonetheless stretch some subscribers' comfort zones, is less aesthetic leap than show of strength." Precisely what sort of stretch for some subscribers' comfort zones will Mr. Coleman's engagement present? This is the sort of delicate writing that one used to (very occasionally) encounter in The New Yorker 35 freaking years ago. In my opinion, Wynton Marsalis is not fit to wash Mr. Coleman's underwear by hand. I realize reasonable people can disagree. It's just my opinion.

More importantly, Blumenfeld denies the importance of the still very much alive aesthetic, political and economic tensions in "jazz" since its entanglements in the culture wars of the late 1980s, yet uses broad distinctions that arose directly out of the exact same conflicts. Why call Ornette Coleman a "free-jazz avatar" and talk about comfort zones at all if "The so-called jazz wars of the 1990s, often focused on Mr. Marsalis's organization, now seem largely irrelevant"? Why use similarly superficial, glib and dismissive language referring to Cecil Taylor and John Zorn ("both avant-garde darlings")?

Quoting Blumenfeld at greater length:

"When saxophonist Ornette Coleman, a free-jazz avatar, opens Jazz at Lincoln Center's sixth season in its own space in the Time Warner Center on Sept. 26, some may interpret the booking as a widening of the mainstream-jazz credo long espoused by Mr. Marsalis ("Having the swing element and the blues at its center," he's often explained, "and heavy on improvisation"). But Mr. Marsalis presented a night of Mr. Coleman's compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist into the center's Hall of Fame last year. By now, Jazz at Lincoln Center, perhaps out of practicality as much as philosophy, has embraced a range of music that defies the conservative caricature..."

Again, I am left wondering in precisely what way Mr. Blumenfeld "specializes in jazz," if he can so thoroughly miss the very essential point of Ornette Coleman's music. For more than 50 years, Ornette Coleman's music has been entirely dedicated to the jazz credo espoused by Wynton Marsalis (never mind the execrable use of the term "mainstream," again reminding us that maybe the "so-called" jazz wars were actually significant somehow). Ornette Coleman has always made music "having the swing element and the blues at its center and heavy on improvisation." Perhaps this is precisely WHY Marsalis, ever-haughty and ever-condescending and ever-wrong-headed about the significance of jazz in American cultural history since 1959, "presented a night of Coleman's compositions back in 2005, and inducted the saxophonist (composer? innovator? revolutionary? aesthetic paradigm shifter???) into the center's Hall of Fame last year."

And I'd love to know more intimately what Dave Douglas was trying to say when he said:

""Has Jazz at Lincoln Center's promotion of jazz succeeded in assisting music and musicians? Without a doubt, yes," said trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose free-thinking approach has often been contrasted with Mr. Marsalis's in the jazz press, and who has performed at Rose Theater. "Has its strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians? Without a doubt, no. On balance, the influence is overwhelmingly positive.""

This sounds like an abbreviated quotation to me. It also really buries some interesting critique just below the surface. Why hasn't Jazz at Lincoln Center's "strict genre boundaries and corporate image succeeded in silencing creative music and musicians"? Is it because the market for creative music and musicians in Europe and Japan remained very strong in spite of America's own abandonment of its own vital, progressive and ever-changing art form? Is it because a ton of dedicated people labored in the trenches at great personal sacrifice to keep the bodies and souls of creative musicians barely knit together? Is it because Jazz at Lincoln Center has been completely and totally irrelevant when the issue has been creative music and musicians? Or are there a host of other reasons that bear very close scrutiny and probably say a lot about the arts in America in general?

I could go on and on about Blumenfeld's fawning materialism (Marsalis in a "Lincoln Navigator," the JALC Orchestra "turning a profit three months a year," etc., etc.). Perhaps this fetishistic focus made the piece able to pass editorial muster at the WSJ, basically Fox News for the college educated?

If, like me, you need a soul-cleansing antidote to all of this, listen to the master himself. "free-jazz avatar" my ass. But watch out! Your comfort zone might get stretched! (check out the dudes in the audience at about 1:45 for some real comfort zone, haha).

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Is this thing on? I've spent so much of the past few months on Facebook that I'm afraid I've completely neglected the "long form." FB is tempting like fast food, like a cheap date. Instant micro-posting of various random thoughts, perspectives, reactions to the news, YouTube links, instant responses, no real dialogue.


-8 months and three days smoke free.
-A return to full time high school math teaching with perhaps the heaviest class/student load I've ever had.
-A possible concert in Santa fe brewing, no definite plans.
-A renewed appreciation for Fishbone.

There's more.

But for now, I'll just post a link to a wonderful Elvin Jones performance with Dave Liebman, Courtney Pine and Palle Danielson. I love the way Elvin has his drums tuned. The floaters are roughly a half step apart, which creates some interesting tonal variations. His opening salvos in 5/8 are some wonderful stacked phrases. His language on the drums is instantly recognizable, of course. There's something about his actual stroke, the looseness and volume of it, the attack, that even with a few single hits it might be possible to say "That's Elvin!"

I like the way Lieb starts his soprano solo. It reminds me of some of the Miles Davis chromaticism from the mid-70s band. And definitely check out Lieb's pitch bending response to Pine at about 6:54. I do wish Courtney Pine would make more of a statement when he solos. His scalar/modal flurries are all right, but just don't seem to say much to me, other than "I have listened to a lot of Coltrane."

Anyway, hope you enjoy.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Bulbous, Also Tapered

There's no iconoclast like an American iconoclast, at least musically speaking. It's summer and I'm not teaching, so I don't really have to wheel out proof for my thesis statement. But as I scribble a few lame sentences here, Moonlight On Vermont kicks in at full volume from Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica.

As I mentioned in my last post, I finally picked up a CD of TMR, having had it on several different formats over the years. For many years it was an insignia on the general concept of "novelty." That is, my perception was that it was an entire album assiduously dedicated to the proposition that being self-consciously strange could be a diverting stand-in for Art. Connected to this: I have for a long time now kept certain recordings in my arsenal, specifically to wheel out for anyone within earshot (but even more specifically, uninitiated musician friends of mine) in order to produce the "what the fuck is this?" response. Some of these recordings I myself am not that close to. Patty Waters, for example. But I recognize the stretch and I like to lay the stretch on others, not so much out of a spirit of confrontational, in-your-face competition but out of a sincere love for sharing the experience of the new, the surprising, the shocking, the general WTF-ness of it.

(meat rose in hairs/meaty rose in hairs....which always made me think of disgraced baseball great, Pete Rose).

But there's some eye-opening aspects to having the CD and playing it on a pretty good stereo. I think Trout Mask suffered in the past from the extremely low-fi platforms I tried to play it on. The mix is very heavy on Beefheart's vocals, way up front, to the extent that the Magic Band sometimes sounds like it's in another room (which I think it was, at least for some tracks). In general, it's very difficult on poor equipment or with the interfering noise of a car (I used to play TMR on cassette tape on a boom box in my car) to focus on the absolutely outrageously intricate accompaniment. Lost in the haze of passing time and legend: who actually composed and arranged these instrumental parts. Apparently John French, aka Drumbo, had a lot to do with the final shape of each tune. Apparently also, the band lived in utter cult-like bizarre squalor and worked for many, many weeks on the pieces.

For a long time I figured a lot of the band parts were improvised. This is absolutely wrong, of course, and probably a side effect of my background before I heard TMR, which was from the so-called free jazz side of things. It's also because for a long time I never really knew how to listen to rock/blues electric rhythm/harmony guitar as an instrument (also an auditory blind spot resulting from a lot of jazz listening). I also bought into the myth that Beefheart successfully fabricated of absolutely untutored, raw primitivism. In fact, of course, the chromatic, contrapuntal polyphony that is yet surrealistically rooted in blues cliches and phrasing is highly sophisticated.

The relationship of the vocal parts to the band is almost constantly embattled. Some of the finest instrumental lines/harmonies are underneath the most vocally horrifying or potentially annoying pieces, such as Pena or The Blimp. The entire idea of what "lyrics" are is constantly shifting. The narrative lines are hilariously mercurial. The seemingly casual, tossed off, self-subverting lyrics sometimes contribute to the sense that the entire enterprise is a sick joke ("I'll set up with ya Big Joan/I'm too fat to go out in the daylight"). Beefheart's use of the soprano saxophone was very difficult for me to hear years ago, but much more a working part of his concept now. I hadn't yet accepted the "anti-technical" in music back in the '80s-'90s. Even Albert Ayler or Peter Brotzmann's approaches to saxophone were ones I could embrace, but not Beefheart's. It seemed an almost-inexcusable co-optation of "free jazz" methodology, yet another white raid on black music. This too is a whole other layer of Beefheart's approach, his "blues" influences, seemingly ever more remote and buried under layers of completely unexpected harmonic and melodic detours. Then there's the sometimes grotesque hippy/psychedelic angle, such as in Ant Man Bee. Then there's the hilarious faux hobo (fauxbo?) acapella "folk" flarf angle, such as in Orange Claw Hammer. And the Beat Poet/Dada/stream of consciousness poetry reading angle. And the bizarre references to various perspectives on "nature." And in spite of all of this, it's still possible to get that deeply skeptical, "you can't be serious" mistrustful feeling anywhere along the line. (or is it the "you've gone too far!" feeling? or the "this is just ridiculously pretentious bullshit!" feeling? Or the "damn, this is hideous!" feeling? etc.)

Are there PhD recipients or candidates out there writing about these themes? What about a larger picture where the "popular culture" could somehow support Beefheart even showing up on the radar, pun(s) intended? (I sometimes feel this way about certain recordings by Tom Waits, Primus, Helmet and a very few others). How does it happen that America comes to embrace, however briefly, partially or superficially, cultural items of extreme oddity? The musical landscape in the US is usually so unrelentingly and uniformly non-confrontational. A reasonable argument could be made that Trout Mask Replica is (so far anyway) the most aesthetically challenging "pop" recording ever released. That copies of the CD are available at, for example, Barnes and Noble, is nothing short of a miracle.

Which goes to show you what a moon can do?

Saturday, June 06, 2009

China Pig

So I finally checked out one of the local chain music stores, haha, yes indeed, everything (almost) here in AZ is a "local chain." This place, called Guitar Center, is like a sort of upscale music store Target or maybe WalMart. Remarkably low prices. Hard to resist, really. The exact sort of Darth Vader of Retailing outlet that has put mom and pop independents out of business over the past few decades.

Here's the deal: the last time I spent a dime on my drums was maybe 15 years ago, no joke. Maybe even longer. Remo Weatherking Pinstrip drum heads last a looooong time. Somewhere in there I must have bought the Camco bass drum pedal and the used Tama hi hat stand. But I've had the exact same red sparkle Rogers Holiday bass drum and floating toms since 9th grade, the odd setup where both floaters were the same size at 12". The set originally came with the red sparkle standard Rogers snare and a floor tom. Over the years, I bought a Rogers Dynasonic snare, (how old am I? stuff I bought in person, brand new, is now considered "vintage"), inherited a very thin-shelled resonant Yamaha floor tom (somewhere in there I also had the very odd Yamaha pedal tuned tympani floor tom, damn I wish I still had that drum. It seems to be enough of a rarity/anomaly that I can't even find any photos or info about it in the web), replaced the old Rogers ball and socket bass drum tom mounts with Yamaha tom mounts and was given a 24 inch Zildjian Ping Ride by my mother for my birthday. The biggest investment came in 1989, when I used my first ever credit card to buy a Noble & Cooley single ply custom snare drum, only $700 at the time (new, they're roughly $1,400 now, retail). That's it.

This same setup has been through literally hundreds of punishing scenarios. The most punishing of these must have been the stint with the alt/funk/metal/thrash/math trio Purple Circle 7, all up and down the east coast, with Seth Herman's many inches of Gallien-Kreuger bass speakers to compete with, and a reliance on a few pairs of Vic Firth Tommy Lee drum sticks per gig. (the photo doesn't really do justice to the baseball bat nature of these huge sticks, at least one of which would break each time PC 7 played). Some indication of the fury that was PC7 can be heard at this myspace page, featuring PC7 guitarist Alex Bovone.

Many times these drums, never with any cases, were loaded into various vehicles, trucked all over the country, especially the southwest. Left in the car for weeks on end due to a lack of space in apartments.

So it was a red letter day indeed when I visited Guitar Center and bought all new drum heads, new snares, a new snare stand, a new cymbal stand and most exciting of all, a used custom K Zildjian China for $99 and a nice, used Zildjian Splash for $40.

I also took several hours to strip down the drums, lube everything, clean all the metal, clean the shells, etc. The smell of Brasso permeated the house, evocative of factory fumes from the Garden State Parkway in North Jersey. I haven't cleaned up the old cymbals yet, and haven't picked up the new ones. The new ones are on "police hold:" all used gear that comes into the local Guitar Center goes on police hold for a couple weeks, in case it really is too good to be true. Anyway, here's a couple of pics of the kit:

To top off the past couple of days of blissful aural-aesthetics-oriented consumerism, I stopped at a truly local, independent music store here called Hoodlums. I picked up a CD of Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Safe as Milk, two BYG Sun Ra (The Solar Myth Approach, Vols. 1 and 2) and the classic 1957 (!!!!) Sun Ra Sound of Joy.

I'll have more to say about these CDs soon. But for now, I leave you with a link to the amazing early Magic Band, a live performance of When Big Joan Sets Up/Woe Is A-Me Bop/Bellerin' Pain. Check out the awesome amplifier noise just before Big Joan officially uses her small hands to destroy all preconceptions of what music could be.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hermit Hears Duets

Hanging at home all day today, just me, the dog and the cat, as the significant other is away. Don't know what Freud would say, but all the records ended up being duets. Marion Brown and Leo Smith, Marion Brown and Elliott Schwartz, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden (Soapsuds,Soapsuds), the entire two disc Cecil Taylor/Max Roach duets from 1979. Joseph Jarman and Don Moye, Egwu Anwu (Sun Song) from 1978. So yes, with the exception of the Ornette, each set of duets a double album as well, oddly.

I don't have much to articulate about these recordings, really, except to say there's something uniquely intimate about improvised duets. Having done 24 of them last year I know it firsthand, but it really came home today. The connections between Roach and Taylor are awe inspiring. Haden and Coleman, such purity. I might have listened to Hampton Hawes and Haden too, but it was altogether too mellow by contrast so I saved it.

Don Moye and Jarman call forth Art Ensemble levels of sound manifestation, despite being 2/5 of the band. Heavy with the Africanisms, but still kick-ass. It works somehow, unexpectedly, the layering of sincerity on top of the pretense of African-ness. Why it works: the two of them are absolutely killer musicians. Oh yeah.

Maybe it's time to start blogging again.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Self-Obsessed Drivel

The interwebs are an odd country. The few posts here "about" quitting smoking have mostly generated constructive comments, interesting suggestions, cheerleading, etc. Someone sadly too chickenshit to identify him or herself (which is precisely what I get for allowing anonymous comments) wrote: "What self-obsessed drivel! So you were dumb enough to smoke for many years. Why should the rest of us, who were smart enough not to pick up a fag, be tortured with your detox story?"

And this is an excellent question! Indeed, why should the rest of you, indeed why should any of you, be TORTURED with my detox story?

I have no ready answer for this most incisive query. Except for the hearty rejoinder that has become universal internet currency: if you find my detox story torturous, don't fekkin' read it, ya wanker.

Or some several variations thereof.

And yet. The comment did serve a salutary purpose. For one thing, it had me reflecting, yet again, on how true it is. All blogging is actually really just self-obsessed drivel. I mean, isn't that what blogging is? So on a meta-level, yes indeedy. What self-obsessed drivel! Obviously.

And on a particular level, it's also true. Stories about addiction and the struggle to recover from same are oh-so-tediously boring and ridiculous. They are perhaps the new archetype of the worst kinds of sensationalist, self-absorbed, exceptionalist story.

Smoking specifically is such an idiotic cultural arena. People who pick up fags and then insist on tarring their lungs and destroying their hearts and tasting/smelling like ass for years truly are total and complete morons, at least in this particular regard. So it is difficult to have sympathy for those who finally snap to how idiotic they have been and then whine on and on about how dreadfully difficult it is to stop doing this unquestionably moronic behavior.

Then there's the Confessional Society thing. The Oprah Winfrey-ization of all of our personal and private struggles. The Who Gives a Royal Rat's Ass response is not only appropriate, but refreshing. As my friend Willy Blake transcribed from Hell: "Damn braces, bless relaxes."

So today, as March draws to a close, as I celebrate 10 weeks without cancer sticks, as I reflect on $500 saved and 2,000 cigarettes not smoked, as I gloat over my continuing liberation from the likes of RJ Reynolds and their Thank You For Smoking duplicitous PR bullshit, I solemnly swear that I'll not blog more about what it's been like to quit. Well, not much more. Maybe a bit. Could be, for the next several months. Sorry.

For example, it continues to floor me how powerful the grip of the cravings is. Weeks ago, supposedly, the nicotine molecules were purged, the receptors died off, the physiology of it all was restored to normal. Yet, my repeated desire for a smoke is awe inspiring and humbling, as if a terrible black-winged nicotine demon has me in his heart-clutching grasp several times a day, sometimes for minutes on end. I am emerging from the regularity and ferocity of these cravings slowly, but their force is truly a wonder to behold. I'm told that this will be the case for at least the entire first year, in all likelihood. If nothing else, these tidal cravings illustrate, once again, the angry-Poseidon-ish nature of the mind. "You're not physically addicted anymore!" one of my students said and I thought "that's the least of it." What a mystery. You'd think I'd be able to mind my own mind. Cheeky bastard has a mind of its own.

My irritability, tendency to isolate and curmudgeonly growl have all definitely come to the fore. I don't think I've been very good company, particularly. Which is too fucking bad (he said not to those within earshot but to himself). As I'd rather be addiction free and unpleasant than on my way to an accelerated, horrifying respiratory death and Mr. Sparkles. Not that those are the only two choices, except that they are, a lot of the time. Exactly how it was that cigarettes aided me in being available to people and in being more extroverted, I have no idea. Not in the same way that alcohol did. But some other way.

Which reminds me: aren't you glad this isn't an AA/Recovery/sobriety blog? Because oh how it could be. Oh what fun it would be to be. And how how I reserve the right to make it so. Especially considering how I have yet to find a recovery community here in good old Scarizona. How much fun would it be if I were to blog relentlessly, torurously, narcissistically about *both* recovery from alcoholism and years of smoking? Ah what great fun, what great originality!

Yet, there's more to life than becoming less mentally ill. I said to myself just this morning, looking at my spring-turgid and budding cacti, "hey, there's more to life than becoming less mentally ill, you know."

For example, music.

Yesterday at school, a very talented multi-instrumentalist and vocalist student of mine asked the seemingly innocent question: "So what sort of 20th Century innovative composers would you recommend?" I always ultimately feel sorry for students who ask me questions like this, as I always end up shoveling cultural references at them ton after ton, until they look like they want to say (yet politely don't) "enough already, man, get a life, holy cow, enough enough!" We promptly headed to YouTube, whereon we discovered excerpts from or versions of Ionisation by Varese (this version conducted by Pierre Boulez; there are a few versions up), Metastasis by Iannis Xenakis (with agraphical score, the audio is low, so pump up the volume), the famous Requiem by Gyorgi Ligeti (with funny still photos from 2001: A Space Odyssey), Penderecki's Threnody on the Victims of Hiroshima with suitably plain black video (conducted by Penderecki himself), Stockhausen's "Helicopter" String Quartet, and last but not least, George Crumb's Black Angels.

By the time we finished watching these, either entire or in snippets, my student was deeply enthused. "Why doesn't anyone teach us about this music?" was one of the plaintive questions. To which I had no answer.

Friday, February 27, 2009

It's F@*$+*G Distracting...

The title of this post one of the outbursts from Christian Bale's awesome, expletive-laden rant, captured in its sparkly essence by Revolucian's remix.

It's probably a sign of a certain spiritual, emotional and mental imbalance that I persist in finding the above so delightfully entertaining. Lately, in particular, I have a renewed appreciation for the way Bale pronounces the letter F. Like a fricative lisp. Sort of.

Te interwebs (mostly youtube) continue to provide an endless cavalcade of amusement. Piano playing cats, sneezing panda bears, John Berryman's dream songs, Art Ensemble and Cecil Taylor and Don's all jumbled in my media-fevered and indiscriminate mind.

Today marks week 6 without a cigarette. 42 days. Probably about 850 cigs not smoked. About $200 saved. I continue to be surprised by how strong the cravings are from time to time, and as of last weekend anyway, all weekend long. There's actually no noticeable easing up yet. Not entirely sure why not. It makes no difference, really, but it's astonishing. I figured a few weeks tops would be the most harrowing part. Sometimes the only thing I've got is "well, the discomfort, as bad as it might be, won't kill ya."

I'm ready to kiss February goodbye. Is it astrological, biorhythmic, acculturated, otherwise metaphysical, this tendency for February to crush my spirit like a bug? The nadir of the year, fairly reliably.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

100 non-cigarettes later

It's almost as if things are sort of coming back online. The withdrawals are still wicked, as are the cravings. But two days of teaching 130 high school math students didn't drive me back to lighting up. So that's something, eh?

One thing is, it's getting boring. You know I think I started smoking because I'm frikkin' hyper. I pace around a lot. I'm wired, man! Cigs were like an accessory for being essentially a human squirrel. So now I've already been up against that bored feeling. Like now what?

On the other hand, this is of course the evil whispering devil on my shoulder. Surely just because you're bored that means it's an excellent idea to GET CANCER.

Nobody ever said addiction was rational.

To bed, 120 hours with nothing but air and Phoenix AZ crud in my lungs....

Monday, January 19, 2009

On Being a Non-Smoker

So 60 hours ago I had my last cigarette. There's a trusty and (as far
as I can tell) almost completely ineffectual (but maybe that "almost"
is pretty important) 21 mg. patch slapped on my arm. One reason why
the measly 21 mg. delivered over 24 hours might still be leaving me
with skin crawling, excruciating nerve clanging withdrawals

When I started smoking again after nearly 9 months without a
cigarette, in July of 2004 (ironically, on Independence Day), I chose
Natural American Spirit cigarettes. Health smokes, don't you know. It
turns out these are stronger than Marlboro Reds, the smokes I had been
smoking. I also gravitated toward the second strongest cigarette American
Spirit makes: their pimped out super minty menthols. 2.17 mg. nicotine
per cancer stick. And promptly hit a pack a day. In other words, 43.4
mg. of glorious nicotine delivered over roughly 16 hours, usually in
great clumping gobs of heart stopping, lung crackling joy.

My legions of receptors are laughing maniacally at the puny patch.

The "simple spiritual tools" of AA have been helping me immeasurably
the past 2.5 days. Okay, maybe just uncommon sense: right now, I am a
non-smoker. I'm not in charge of quitting; all I have to do is show up
without smoke in my lungs. I can't figure out why or how I'm quitting
or even if I'm able to do it. In other words, I am powerless over
nicotine and my life has become unmanageable. My short form of the
Serenity Prayer: "Help me!" Just a great yelp to the universe.

Antheil's Ballet Mechanique or Varese's Ionisation or far, far worse, something like Neil Diamond's I Am...I Said playing at full volume in bad headphones pretty much 18 hours a day without interruption. Tiny little insectile devils jabbing happy tasers into my back and forearms, dancing and laughing like Daffy Duck. Pornographic images in my mind of the great allure of the crackle of the baccy as the flame from the lighter hits it. Fantasies of the utter repose and peace provided by just one cigarette. A James Brownian restlessness. Flashes of Olympian rage not triggered by anything in particular. A strange feeling that my soul is plunging feet first into a bottomless pit, surrounded by a howling maelstrom. Combined exhaustion and hypervigilance.

And now, for the second day in a row, I head into the desert to walk up hills.