Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The Horse (1973, dir. Charles Burnett)

Burnett made this short in California on a break from shooting Killer of Sheep, using some of the grant money for his much better-known feature. The conception is simplicity in itself. Based on a Faulknerian short story he’d written—he’d early on dreamed of adapting Faulkner—the film presents a group of white men waiting outside a derelict shack in the midst of vast farmland. An African American pre-teen stands apart from the group in the field, gently attending to a horse. We learn that he’s the son of Ray, the man the group have hired to shoot the horse; Ray eventually turns up as the sun has almost set, reuniting with his son and taking the gun which one of the men loads with a single bullet. The death happens off screen in a final freeze frame on the boy’s anguished covering of his ears as Burnett’s jump cut makes the screen literally leap with the sound of the shot.

In contrast to the busy soundscape of Burnett’s first film, Several Friends (1969), The Horse is sparse on dialogue and action, concentrating instead on the sounds emerging from its distinctive landscape. Ray is played by Burnett’s fellow LA Rebellion director Larry Clark, himself later to direct a film about Black cowboys, and Burnett’s film in its iconography and setting clearly gestures at the Western, perhaps most obviously the opening sequence to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), at once enshrining and undermining Hollywood's the romanticised nationalism of frontier mythos. Leone’s nod to Ford occurred most obviously in his use of Monument Valley; but whereas Leone lets Claudia Cardinale ride across its distinctive, open rocky landscape on her journey across the new frontier, the landscape of Burnett's film is at once lusher and more constricted. The opening shots establish a vast, green open space, dwarfing its inhabitants; yet, set it as it is in a valley surrounded by steep hills, we almost never see the sweeping horizon that characterises the classic Fordian model. The trio of gunfighters in Leone’s opening sequence includes Woody Strode, one of the few African American actors permitted access to John Ford’s west which is Leone’s point of homage and critique: Strode riding across Monument Valley in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) serving as a kind of apologia for the racism of Ford’s earlier films emblematised in his 1964 Cheyenne Autumn. Despite their virtual invisibility on screen, Black cowboys were the inspiration for a number of staples of the genre: African American lawman Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, while the plot of The Searchers (1956) was likewise based on an incident involving a Black cowboy, transformed in Ford’s film into John Wayne as racist killer, motivated by an ideology of family loyalty, national expansion, and race purity. But, as this transformation of source material indicates, the Western in general has performed a long history on exclusion of the Black cowboys who in fact constituted a significant part of the Frontier workforce. Burnett’s film—though not a western per se—thus acts as corrective while simultaneously tapping into the genre’s dynamics of masculine violence and the racialised invasion or defense of land. As in the slaughterhouse scenes that dominate Killer of Sheep, White America gets Black America to do its dirty work. Yet, unable to bear the consequence themselves, its inarticulate white males are unable to state this outright. Instead, the film, with the weight of allegory, makes the point visually, in its opening shots of shoes, suggesting different class status or aspiration (from shined brogues to scuffed work shoes) which we might suppose made from the hide of horses like the one whose fate the film concerns.

As in Killer of Sheep, music and sound design makes a subtle but important part of the film’s implicit argument. If the soundtracks of his other early films were alive with the sounds of Black history and Black sociality—the overlapping, sometimes raucous dialogue of Several Friends, as its characters kill time and shoot the breeze, or the history of Black Classical music, from William Grant Still through Dinah Washington, provided in Killer of Sheep—here, the soundtrack is dominated neither by dialogue nor by music but by the eerie creaking of farmyard equipment, which at times comes to resemble avant-garde instrumental or electronic score. Burnett surely has in mind the dialogue-free opening sequence of Once Upon A Time In The West, in which a soundscape of similar creaks, the buzzing of a fly, and so on, again take the place of music, yet in themselves become musicked, sounding something like real-life musique concrete. Whereas Leone’s white men are gunfighters awaiting the arrival of the villainous Frank (Henry Fonda, played against noble, Abraham Lincoln type), Burnett’s men are indeterminate in profession (though they mostly wear ties, suggesting some position of power or at least steady employment) and are awaiting instead Ray (played by fellow L.A. Rebellion director Larry Clark). Yet both films await an act of violence, and violence is a part of the being of Burnett’s tie-wearing White men as much as it is of Leone’s gunfighter types. Throughout American popular culture, but particularly in the Western, horses are simultaneously sentimentalised (Roy Rogers and ‘my pal Trigger’) and summarily dispatched with casual violence (as in the infamous cliff-edge leap in Jesse James (1939), after which the American Humane Association to monitor the treatment of animals in Hollywood films; this incident is sometimes attributed to the 1940 John Wayne vehicle Dark Command, in which, ironically enough, he co-stars with none other than Roy Rogers.) In itself, this doubleness functions along the same lines that constitute the implicit ideology of anti-Blackness, in which characteristics of sentimentalised fidelity are projected onto those who are also subject to gratuitous violence, bondage and the condition of social death. (In his reading of the film, Frank Wilderson suggests that “the horse is just an alibi” for racialised, homosocial violence.) The film hints—rather than states—the violence which white Americans force Black Americans to perform might easily be redirected at Black Americans themselves: the historical connotations of a group of massed white men and a handful of African American men in the midst of open country are hard to ignore. Burnett subtly underscores this with the casual, contained violence of the shot in which one of the men flings is pocket-knife into the porch ceiling above; the sudden explosion of racial epithet from one of the other men, ignored but not contradicted by the other characters; or the slow loading of the handgun at the end of the film. Whereas both Several Friends and Killer of Sheep, as Several Friends tend to focus on Black sociality, with white people a minimal presence, here, the focus on whiteness, and the way it outnumbers blackness in a social configuration, is key to the film’s suppressed drama.

The film opens with a fragment of Samuel Barber’s orchestral song ‘Knoxville—Summer of 1915’ (1948), a setting of a James Agee poem which depicts an urban community in the midst of a war that’s never mentioned by name.

It has become that time of evening
When people sit on their porches,
Rocking gently and talking gently
And watching the street
And the standing up into their sphere
Of possession of the trees […]

Confident in their ‘possession’, owning house, street, and its natural surroundings, safe within the domestic sphere of the white family and its generations of parents, grandparents, grandchildren, the inability of this community to anticipate the geopolitical conflict which will decimate their ranks (and, autobiographically, the deaths of both Agee’s and Barber’s fathers) finds expression only in generalities intuited by its youthful speaker – ‘Who shall ever tell the sorrow / Of being on this earth […] Oh, remember them in kindly in their time of trouble; / And in the hour of their taking away.’ The poem ends on a crisis of identity that troubles its picture of loving family and loving community as mirrors of each other:

And those receive me,
Who quietly treat me,
As one familiar and well-beloved in that home:
But will not, oh, will not,
Not now, not ever;
But will not ever tell me who I am.

Read this way, Ray’s son functions something like the speaker of Agee’s poem. But the identity he cannot name is one connected to a far more deathly unhomeliness than Agee’s combination of nostalgia with existential unease. After all, the white men of Burnett’s film barely even pretend to receive or quietly treat Ray or his son as ones familiar and well-beloved in the derelict shack that stands in for a home: the crumbling ‘house I live in’ under the weight of collapse in the closing years of the Vietnam war—with its racialised death count on both sides—inner city rebellion, and coming economic collapse. In Several Friends, a horse suddenly appears at the edge of the frame as its characters watch a fight in a parking lot. The shot is never repeated and never explained: blink and you’d miss it. The incongruity of that shot—as in the now-iconic scenes of masked children playing in Killer of Sheep—serves to emphasize a surrealism that bites back at a patronising realism which would trade in pity or abjection, fresh instead with all the possibilities of the marvellous. Here, however, the horse serves to index a whole set of racialised violence, both cinematic and extra-cinematic, all the more present, and prescient, for being unstated or unseen.

(Along with Several Friends and other shorts by Burnett, the film is currently available to stream for free as part of the Criterion Channel's Black Cinema season, as well as in a lower-quality stream on Youtube.)

Monday, 1 June 2020

Calvin Hernton in 1966

Calvin Hernton, in the article pictured above, was writing about the insurrections in Watts, Los Angeles in 1966 (here published in British socialist newspaper Peace News during his time in London). He also wrote, brilliantly, about the wider wave of urban insurrections, from the Harlem Rebellion of 1964 through Newark, Watts, Detroit (and Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, Tampa, Toledo, Washington D.C.) in his 1968 essay 'Dynamite Growing out of their Skulls', which is one of the most important essays of that period about the long hot summers, and which has much to teach about what's changed and not changed since then. And here we are again in June 2020 as anti-blackness is -- once again! -- revealed as the structuring order of a society simultaneously decimated by mass unemployment, by a virus whose effects -- of course! -- are disproportionate, and social, not 'natural', in their effect on those who are not 'the people who think themselves white' or thinks themselves comfortable, safe, middle or upper class, male, who wear that identity like a magic cloak. And a President who encourages neo-Fascist militia to declare open season on 'leftists' and people of colour, who describes resistance as terrorism, and who hides in a bunker when the smell of the smoke reaches his nostrils through the White House walls. (And as, here in the UK, the government here refuses to set a date for the enquiry into disproportionate BAME deaths from COVID due to concerns that this would be a 'bad combination' with the Floyd protests in the US.)

Hernton grew up in the South under American racial apartheid; he lived through the era of McCarthyism, was watched by the FBI, harassed by cops in New York, was in London when Stokely Carmichael was refused re-entry into Britain after the speeches he'd given at the Dialectics of Liberation conference, the same year that Carmichael had his passport confiscated in the States for visiting Cuba. His work in prose and poetry speaks with righteous anger and realistic despair about this situation--in his poems about the Harlem Rebellion or the Birmingham church bombing, in the late poem he wrote for the murdered graffiti artist Michael Stewart. He knew as well as anyone that it was never just about 1966, or 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968. History doesn't move in a straight line from past to present, but, in his words, the past "haunts", "traps" us. Has its own sparks, the fire next time. The 1960s, or LA in 1992, might seem the obvious historical parallel (if parallel is really the right word for the way history moves). But take it further back. Robert Greene II's concise and on-the-money article at Jacobin draws parallels between the Red Summer and what he dubs the current 'Red Spring'. Pandemic, global conflict, racial terror in which the victims and those who resist are labelled 'terrorists', liberals wring their hands over violence against property. How much have the co-ordinates changed since the selection of poems that Claude McKay published in The Liberator in 1919?

And so the sparks of June 2020. As Hernton puts it: "Not even a child should have been surprised".

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Elaine Mitchener Solo -- Café Oto Livestream, 23.03.20

March 2020 has moved incredibly quickly, for reasons of which anyone reading this will be all too aware. Likewise, this will be no doubt littered with typos and overly-elongated sentences: perhaps others share this feeling that there is right now too much to say, all at once, and, simultaneously, that one feels numbed to not being able to say anything at all, overtaken by events, swept up in them, left behind. Yet at the same time, things have ground to a weirdly atemporal standstill, with all the glacial suddenness of what seems to be an imminent world historical leap: the treading of a fine line, a balance (though hardly balanced), between slivers of hope—that the current cruelty of economic and “social” arrangement might collapse, and that in its place agitation for transformed notions of social justice might emerge—and premonitions of horror and catastrophe, as the atomisation of social life reduces the possibilities for collective action and agitation, sharpens the knife edge that so many without the luxury of a comfortable “day-to-day” already face. This process exists on every level, from local to international to global. There's the chaos—the most noisily and easily-trumpeted—into which even the wealthiest of Western powers are plunged: powers whose arrogance assumed this could never happen, and thus made and (failed to) deploy utterly inadequate containment measures. Then, and inseparable from this, are the global inequalities by which, for the West, pandemic is always “elsewhere”—othered, racialised—and by which those who suffer the most and are the most at risk, those who are sacrificed on the pyre, those who are rendered expendable and peripheral, are always those who are already othered, racialised, those who, pandemic or no pandemic, are pushed to the mere brink of survivable life. London—where the UK government’s incompetent and disastrous laissez-faire refusal to act, followed by abrupt about-faces and the ever-present risk of authoritarianism, has allowed a high and sudden spread in cases, caught between “business-as-usual” (economic flow over human life) and war-footing “Blitz spirit” measures—is an uncertain place in the lately-woken spring sun.

Maybe it seems either callous or more important than ever—or both, or neither—to focus on music in this instance. But I’ll do so anyway. Since the earlier announcement of “social distancing” measures—in which the population seemed to temporarily took the lead over a government which briefly flirted with the absurd notion of “herd immunity” as (non)containment strategy—Café Oto switched its usual roster of gigs to a series of livestreams, in which musicians performed to an empty venue, broadcast on the web. Tuesday’s was the first I’d managed to catch, and just as the livestream began, the UK government announced what—in the often disastrous confusion that’s typified the governmental response to the increasing spread of the Covid outbreak over the past few weeks—seemed to amount to a full-on lockdown (police presence, trips outside rationed, most businesses closed—all with unclear provision for those on precarious contracts, with no fixed abode, and for all the various reasons that the cosy option of “working from home” is hardly an option for many). So this would be the last of these livestreams (now archived online:, the announcement exacerbating the already eerie fragility of two solo sets to a split and invisible audience (for it’s the coming together—to borrow Rzewski’s title—of audience that makes the socius of such music as much as it is the coming together of musicians, and as much as that coming together can occur across temporal and physical spaces, via recordings, scores and the like). That announcement also threatened to overwhelm the music, and I found it hard to focus on Kerry Yong’s performance of the first three of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseuax, fine though the performance was. Instead, all I could notice really were physical details: Yong acting as his own page-turner, moving the sheets on top of the piano—as if, like Igor Levit, he were giving the recital from his own living room—the way Yong’s hands seemed to glide with a kind of serenity down the keyboard even as he was actually executing some of the more tricky of Messiaen’s trilled avian notation-fantasias. Or maybe this was just a function of the inevitably glitchy nature of the livestream format, by the fact that, for the past few days of house-bound distancing, when I open the window all I hear is birdsong and building work and sirens and I’m not sure if silence or noise is more reason for alarm.

The second half was originally billed as Elaine Mitchener with bassist Neil Charles—who gave a superlative performance as part of Anthony Braxton’s Standards Quartet at Oto a few months ago, when all this seemed barely a blink in anyone’s eye—but ended up being Mitchener solo. For at least an hour, Mitchener crooned, howled, answered back, debated, channeled, chattered, dug deep and floored things in a solo vocal display astonishing not just for its virtuosity—Mitchener has Cathy Berberian levels of wild skill—but for what that virtuosity enabled her to do. This was emotionally heightened by the official announcement, and by all the uncertainty of the previous weeks, and of the weeks or months to come. Mitchener seemed to take that uncertainty in and on, to fully inhabit it, making it a ground from which to begin, while also offering the rock-like comfort against it. This comfort, this alternative, is something already central to Mitchener's music-making. By this I mean an alternative mode of temporality, which has two elements. Firstly, a total openness and ability to move within the moment—improvisational capacity, expressively buoyed by a variety of physical movement and gesture that responds to / echoes / drives the sound. Secondly, the aim to suggest, or even inhabit, alternative temporalities—cosmic, spiritual, non-Wester—the lyrics of Sun Ra, their afro-Futurist refusal of the killing constraints of presentness through projections into (imagined) past and (imagined) future, their atopic utopianism which is, of course, more material than any of the capitalist realist lies we’re daily told even as they break/thrive under the pressure of crisis. That’s an imprecise way of rendering what, in the experiential necessity Mitchener’s vocal work demands of performer and listener alike, is absolutely clear. You can stop reading and just click below if you want to know what I mean.

Mitchener began wordless, voiceless, lighting a bag of cheap candles (tea-lights, right?) on one of Oto’s signature tables, ringing a service bell every time one was lit. I wondered if it was a ritual for the dead—as Mitchener has previously memorialised the victims of criminal negligence in Grenfell Tower—so, here, those who have died so far of the virus, or perhaps those to come—or if that was placing too much symbolic freight on it, or if, as prelude and ritual, it was something that existed as a space deliberately open to interpretation: an entering in. Moving to the microphone, Mitchener began the recital’s musicked part with words that only after a minute or so made themselves manifest as decipherable words—stretched, distorted, chopped by their staggered speech-sung emergence, like a voice that’s trying to get out but at the same time trying to hide, operating within contradictory impulses, and it’s only from such contradiction that the full soar of sung note, of melisma or melody, can emerge; must be earned. The words, as far as I can tell, pertained to (a particular interpretation of) ancient Egyptian mythology—”the focus of oneness in time and space”.

Ra is the first principle which emerges out of the Primeval Waters. He is the subtle, singular principle of Creation, the focus of oneness in time and space. The Primeval Ocean itself transcends time and space and is beyond existence and non-existence. Ra is the first principle to emerge out of the Absolute (as Ra-Tem). His emergence signifies the beginning of existence

Point from which creation begins, as Oliver Lake put it—a singular principle that is yet subtle, the beginning of existence yet itself somewhere in between realms. It’s easy to metaphorize this:creation as a point which is not a point in time or space but refuses those categories, yet which maintains a necessary cohesion akin to that of any creative being; creation recreated every time we add to it through human activity. So in a sense that fragmented phrase—in Mitchener’s rendition, removed from origin, emerging in barely decipherable form (and decipherment only working backwards, as one stitches together a word from a syllable, a syllable from a string of notes, etc)—serves as another way of entering in, another statement of purpose, but also a statement of elsewhere, not as escapism, not as evasion of the moment where we are—for the rest of the performance channeled that with a ferocious and necessary intensity—but as the opening up of alternatives to the (mis)management of death in which our lives, more than ever, are now variously and unequally entwined.

The rest of the ‘recital’ passed in something of a blur, though it was beautifully precise, moving through a series of demarcated and holistically-constructed pieces, as Mitchener removed each page from her music stand (whether scores of simply words / prompts, I wasn't sure, and it didn't seem to matter), laying them on the floor. About half-way through, some Sun Ra lyrics appeared, as well as some pieces from Mitchener’s “sings the Black Avant Garde“ project, in which vocal pieces from ‘free jazz’ repertoire are treated as occasions for recital, given the seriousness they deserve as compositions, in the processing restoring the presence of the voice (particularly the gendered female voice) to free jazz, in which it is essential (Linda Sharrock! Patty Waters! Jeanne Lee! June Tyson!), but from which it is too often excluded. Remembered in no particular order, the other pieces included Archie Shepp and Jeanne Lee’s “There is a Balm in Gilead”, one of the great recordings of the 1960s, no doubt, Mitchener here echoing not only Lee’s own relatively un-extemporized renditions of the melody, but also the counter-melodies by Shepp’s tenor saxophone and Lester Bowie’s ghostly trumpet. There were Ra lyrics, removed from their original melody and rendered more tonally abstract, to the accompaniment of a shaker. There was an echo of classic Berberian-esque performance-art/avant-garde ‘New Music’ theatre featuring a trio of squeaky toys (a doll, a pig, and a long-necked rubber chicken)—more extraordinary here than the seriousness with which Mitchener treated these as instruments, the refusal to play for laughs or excess, was the fact that she managed to pull this off. Another pieec (perhaps the second), which began as a kind of spoken dialogue, of interpellation, hailing and refusal, sometimes seeming to touch on the present moment—spectres of people hoarding food and fighting in supermarket, as Mitchener listed various ingredients and foodstuffs—and in which voice’s internalised and externalised, inherently dialogic nature, could be tracked not only in the range of sound Mitchener produced—closer to Phil Minton or Maggie Nicols than Lee or Berbarian here—but in the viscerally expressive gestures by which she slapped, caressed, and framed her face and body; gestures of balancing and centering, of falling way and apart, holding the music in and letting it, letting oneself collapse but keeping it all together. Towards the end, Yong, who'd been sitting the whole time at the piano to the right of the stage area, silent and observant, briefly joined, with some brief rumbles of strummed piano strings; but it was Mitchener alone who ended things with an utterly devastating rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’. Written by a slaver-turned-abolitionist, the piece of course transcends its nature as white guilt-exculpation and religious apologia (Newton’s spiritual conversion predating by some years his ceasing to participate in the slave trade) to become a vehicle for libration, sung on Civil Rights marches by Fannie Lou Hamer, Mahalia Jackson and others—as Jackson put it, “to give magical protection – a charm to ward off danger, an incantation to the angels of heaven to descend”. So that history, the felt presence of the melody as something so familiar most of the audience could probably sing it—something Mitchener half-jokingly suggested when she said “sing along if you like”—but very quickly Mitchener, her live vocals dragging behind I think two or three voices of pre-recorded, multi-tracked rendition a la the phased unison/separation of Feldman’s ‘Three Voices‘, swayed a long ways from the familiar melody, her live line more and more hanging behind the pre-recordings and progressively omitting words, consonants, articulation in an elongated slur, so that the final round of the tune’s familiar contour essentially lacked either the melody or words except as sounds in the memory. As this process occurred, Mitchener sunk lower and lower to the floor, and closer and closer in to herself, the world around kept out—in its mendacity—yet allowed in—as something like Jackson’s protective spell—for those who need it. "I was not sure the magic worked outside the church walls ... in the open air of Mississippi", noted Jackson. "But I wasn’t taking any chance". Likewise today: who knows if such spells work. Who knows what that would mean. But I just want to register for now the strength in vulnerability of this performance as exemplary, as gift, benediction, and the rest: both a farewell to past certainties and a beginning to a situation we’re only, really, beginning to contemplate.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

McCoy Tyner / Recent writing elsewhere...

R.I.P. the great McCoy Tyner, who's passed away at the age of 81. Perhaps easy to forget how transformative that first encounter with his work could be, easily overshadowed in context as it is by the 'sideman' role that he took within the Coltrane quartet; but it shouldn't go unstated just how integral his vital and innovative piano sound was to the quartet, the lightning runs of the right hand, their speed dizzying and dazzling and hard to believe, that characteristic rolling trill as chiming accent or endpoint to ascending-descending melodic steps, and, perhaps even more than this, that left-hand rolling out thunder, the chordal, rhythmic anchor, pounded out so loud you'd think the stereo might break, the piano shake, the walls of Jericho fall down: this the inexorable and committed foundation to Coltrane's flights, a key component of all the dimensions that music opened and still opens. Hank Shteamer says it well here, with succinctly astute observations on jazz as a 'band music'. But the Coltrane quarter was not, of course, all: after and even before leaving Coltrane, Tyner made some wonderful recordings on Blue Note, my favourites those from the late 1960s: the under-sung Expansions (1968) with a double-horn line-up of Wayne Shorter and Gary Bartz; the almost identically-named Extensions (1970), a really stupendous record with that line-up supplemented by Alice Coltrane on harp; Cosmos (1969), featuring some tracks with string quartet that can be interestingly compared to Andrew Hill's recordings with a similar configuration around the same time (the two obviously extremely different as pianists, in terms of sound, spacing, timing, everything!). Into to the 70s, and after a dry period in which Tyner had to drive a cab to make ends meet, he signed with Milestone and recorded two of his best records: the underrated Song for My Lady (1972), with Mtume's bubbling percussion and Michael White's violin adding poise and stratospheric squal over one of those classic Tyner bass grooves on the opening 'Native Song', 'The Night has a Thousand Eyes' reinvented in classically thunderous Tyner fashion, 'A Silent Tear' the expected Tyner ballad, all gravity and grace, storm and sun; and the expansive Sahara from the same year, with a condensed version of the same band (who can also be seen in the live performance above, recorded off the TV show Soul), Sonny Fortune absolutely wailing on soprano, Tyner on one track playing koto...

On these records, Tyner was interested in expanding the palette of the music beyond the usual jazz quartet format, with bits of extra percussion, extra horns and percussion, the string quartet, Ron Carter on cello, string sections, wind sections, groups in all sizes from medium, chamber-music style ensembles to much larger big bands, the latter imparting a movie-music style grandeur on albums like Fly with the Wind and Song of the New World. Some of the most texturally interesting work happens on Asante, where guitar and voices thicken out the music, all topped off with the chunky undercurrent of Mtume's congas (around the time he joined Miles Davis' heaviest electric ensemble). None of this ever sounds quite like the fusion then popular -- as heavy as any fusion band, Tyner never really enters into rock territory, experimenting with instrumentation but essentially taking a piano style and an overall musical conception that was established by the early 1960s and engraving its edges with textural variety. Into the '70s and '80s, that established style seemed to get if anything, thicker, heavier, more grandiose, propelling forward those big bands, quartets and the like -- even if '70s recording biases meant that too often the group (particularly drums) would sound boxy (hence perhaps the best recordings are live: Atlantis, The Greeting). Tyner's albums and tunes never seemed to need more than one word to convey those qualities that his music embodied -- a rooted searching, a resolved quest: Expansions, Extensions, Cosmos -- and have a unique combination of high energy, propulsive excitement and an underlying hopefulness, a genuine calm. On solo performances, particularly ballads, Tyner could be floridly romantic: his solo work, beginning with Echoes of a Friend (1972), one of a number of tributes to Coltrane,  is an under-appreciated aspect of his work, but is an excellent way to hear his total command of structure: swelling and rising over the ever-chiming sustain pedal that carries this music forward, one moment he will be pounding out thick left-hand chords, the next stroking out the basic essence of the melody in what (in his music) seems almost a whisper. This take on the piece 'For Tomorrow' gives some indication.

As he entered the '90s, he tended to concentrate on smaller groups in contrast to the expanded units of the '70s and '80s (though there are some excellent big band recordings still), including a group with Bobby Hutcherson and a duo with, of all people, Stéphane Grappelli, as well as some completely powerhouse trio work with bassist Charnett Moffett (this version of 'Passion Dance' reaches some new levels of thunder)...The repertoire perhaps tended to standards a little more -- one critic suggests that Tyner had begun to function as a kind of 'jazz historian' -- though standards appear throughout his body of recorded work, but that sound was still in place. And it was there even when, in the very last years of work, he lost some of the speed and sonic massiveness that characterised the majority of his post-Coltrane work, adopting instead an approach perhaps a little more laid-back, yet still frequently exciting and intense. Judging by the recordings, often live sessions, what was by then a well-worn style was no less effective for that. I still kick myself for missing the opportunity to see him play in London a few years back.

Of course, we'll always come back to the recordings with Coltrane: the way the piano sets up 'My Favorite Things', Tyner's repeating chordal pattern almost as familiar as the main melody itself, the graven thickness of his playing around 1965, for my money the quartet's most exciting year. Tyner is not often thought of as a 'free' player -- his rhythmic insistence is too solidly in place to enable the freed-up pulse central to much of the 'New Thing' -- but it's precisely that contrast with the playing around him that imparts records like Ascension and Meditations with their unique and vital tension and beauty -- after the ferocity of Coltrane and Sanders' double-soloing on 'Consequences', Tyner's solo, beginning about five minutes in, is as good a display as any of his capacity to build a solo that felt like a structured suite rather than a linear run-through over changes. Dave Liebman calls it: “a mini-twentieth-century piano concerto in scope, intensity and technique”, setting the scene for “benediction”. When I hear the emotional and technical contour of that solo I think of the praise heaped on (say) The Köln concert, and I think of how Tyner accomplishes all of that in just five minutes. A great loss.

And a quick summary of some recent pieces that have come out in other venues:

This piece on 'Cecil Taylor's Voodoo Poetics' at Bill Shoemaker's wonderful online journal Point of Departure. Have been following PoD since its inception back in, and honoured to be included. The issue also includes excerpts from Blank Forms' excellent reprint of Joseph Jarman's Black Case.

Write-up at Art Forum of Anthony Braxton's residency at Cafe Oto earlier this year -- part of a European tour with the new 'Standards Quartet' (Braxton, Alexander Hawkins, Neil Charles and Stephen Davis).

Also at Art Forum, a write-up of the Art Ensemble of Chiagco (plus guests) late last year.

And a piece on the life work of Sean Bonney at The Poetry Foundation.

Monday, 2 March 2020

'Why?' Alan Shorter's Parabolic 'Free' Jazz

A heavily revised and much expanded version of these initial notes now appears in Point of Departure, Issue 71 (June 2020): Thanks to Bill Shoemaker.

Spurred by the randomised algorithm of online listening to pay attention to some things I hadn’t heard, or, really, thought about, for years, I thought I’m going to briefly focus here on the two records released under his own name by Alan Shorter: trumpeter and flugelhorn player, elder brother of Wayne, obscure even amongst the already obscured field of the 1960s “New Thing”. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, with Wayne, friends with Amiri Baraka, Shorter initially played saxophone before switching to trumpet, perhaps due to Wayne’s growing fame. Baraka knew the ‘weird Shorter brothers’ in Newark, NJ (back when Alan was a bebop player) and provides a helpful essay in the CD reissue liners to Shorter’s debut album Orgasm, noting that they reconnected at Howard University – where both were blackballed from the fraternity – and Shorter’s switching from saxophone to trumpet. Though nowhere near Wayne's soon-meteoric rise, spurred by membership in the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ ‘Second Great Quintet’, the elder Shorter nonetheless had some sort of presence within the burgeoning New York free jazz underground, playing with the New York Art Quartet (hitherto-unheard tracks have recently surfaced on the massive ‘Call it Art’ boxset), and on dates by Marion Brown and Archie Shepp – most especially, Four for Trane (1964), as well as some more obscure later dates from later 1960s and early 1970s, when both Shorter and Shepp were plying their trade on the European circuit – as well as a kind of cameo on Wayne’s own The All Seeing Eye with a recording of his piece ‘Mephistopheles’.

On the latter, Herbie Hancock, normally the expert builder of solos full of melodic and harmonic invention, is reduced to repeating a single note at the lower end of the piano while the Shorter brothers take slow, odd solos that promise to build to a climax that never comes. Piano disappears on Shorter’s first record, Orgasm, recorded in 1968 with a quartet format of Shorter (playing flugelhorn on all but one track), a ‘fire music’ tenor player as a foil (on Orgasm, the role if filled by Gato Barbieri; on Shorter's sophomore album, Tes Esat, it's the more obscure Gary Windo). Don Cherry had made similar use of Pharoah Sanders and Barbieri on his own records from a few years before, in which bands move through suite-like structures, full of changing moods and generic nods. On Shorter's record, Charlie Haden’s bass and Muhammad Ali’s splashily boxy drums offer a more insistently forward momentum (check out the back-beats on ‘Rapids’!), and Barbieri’s solos more often swirl around iterations and reiterations of melody – as well as harmonics that sound like the Surrealist meeting, not so much of a sewing machine and an umbrella, as of a drill and a lyre bird. Shorter’s heard more here than he will be on Tes Etat, his solos brightly buzzing. The playing sounds less burnished, less introspectively moody than his contribution to 'Mephistopheles': both the bright openness and the thinner buzzing around the edges of that sound recall Cherry, but the odd pauses are something else again. Shorter seems always to wait just that little bit too long before re-entering with another melodic variant or set of fast-repeating, trilled burrs, giving a kind of ante-chamber, limbo, waiting room feel – a destabilising effect that’s not so much the sardonic, ironic, quizzical sound pianist Andrew Hill was getting in this period from a similar playing with time, as a constant holding-in of breath, sound of claustrophobia, anxiety, but more on the part of listener than player, perhaps. In the multiple sense of musical 'playing', something’s been toyed with, though that toying's not necessarily playful.

The same is true of the composed melodies to the pieces, which are just as important as the improvisations that follow. They’re slow, but not ballads, knotty, but not fast or virtuosic. They sound very much composed (to the extent that the drummer will often seem to be playing the melody with the same melodic and rhythmic accentuation as the horns), and they’re repeated many times – they’re not just throwaway prefaces to ‘blowing’. One review describes them as ‘sinister’ - and, indeed, Wayne Shorter notes that Alan was inspired by Dracula and Frankenstein movies (Wayne himself preferring musical and sic-fi) – and this sense of the (bend) sinister, the left-ward curve, maybe has to do with that sense of waiting again, the expectation of something, but a something of which one’s not quite certain, an expectation of expectation. Their emotional tenor lacks – to run through a fairly random list - the rhapsodic or hopeful quality of one strain of free jazz – the Noah Howard, Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders kind of melody – the ecstatic religious fervour of the Ayler variety, the Romanticism of Cecil Taylor’s composed pieces, the spring-in-the-step joy of Ornette or Cherry. This lack of placeability (which often gets named in the little commentary there is on Shorter ‘intellectual’ – for want of a better word, as ever) is both why Shorter’s music has been neglected (as well as the massive shadow of his brother) and the reason it still fascinates.

Orgasm is not the title one would immediately associate with the music – hence, perhaps, the re-issue of the session under the name of another of the tracks, Parabolic. There’s deliberation if not ecstasy (one always knows who’s doing what on this record), a sustained plateau of concentration, intensity and pleasure if not particular moments of release. But metaphors are not what's important here. If this is music that always suggests an elsewhere - a scene of action that's taking place outside the sphere of the music itself - it doesn't have a the vocabulary to express this elsewhere that metaphor in language provides. In his retrospective liner note essay, Baraka describes the music as “weird, thorny, stylishly tenuous”. That’s stylishly, not stylistically – the music is tenuous, yet it also has a kind of forward momentum, an insistence - “the march or marked stride of something portentous, even dangerous”. Yet, as Baraka put sit in a later poem of his ownL "I seen something / You seen it too / You just can't call its name". And so this intuition, this half-knowledge, this inkling of a mood or a thought may bring a forward “thrust” to the music – perhaps the insistent drumbeat (so different to Tes Esat, at times approaching the military taps that the Ayler band would channel) - yet that "thrust" will always be belied by a sense of uncertainty, or possibility – “it could be this way, but then again…who knows”. Parabolic. In Baraka’s narrative account, Shorter will periodically turn up in the same social orbit, from high school to university to New York bohemia to the Black Nationalist context of the Congress of African Peoples (CAP), but it’s never clear what directions he’s going in musically (he may have switched instruments, or styles). For Baraka, this is reflected in the music, which he links more broadly to the uncertainty of the '60s jazz avant-garde or ‘new music’ in general, an uncertainty central to the awkward ways in which that music was phrased in relation to what Werner Sollors famously dubbed, from a phrase of Baraka's own, a ‘populist modernism’.

“New, but relative to what?” Baraka asks. “Aggressive and determined […] not altogether certain of what”. The music is meant to “call for a ‘new dispensation’, perhaps, of the whole order of things”. Note that perhaps. Clarity and uncertainty, declamation and the tenuous, “mood and emotion”. Baraka links Shorter’s use of flugelhorn to Miles Davis (on those 1950s Gil Evans records) and the notion of ‘cool’ – a certain secrecy, a holding back which yet gives a sense always that there is more to say, held back either deliberately, out of diffidence, out of calculation, hesitation, control. A new dispensation of the entire order of things: the destruction and remaking of the world itself. These are the revolutionary and cosmic messages of much music of this era, of Baraka's own writing from that era too - these later liner notes, written in 1997, adopting a more reflective, diffident approach in keeping with Shorter's own music, and in that weird sense, making Shorter's music seem all the more timely in the '90s than in the present of its recording. What we have here -- 'perhaps' -- is the fantasy of a music that does not yet exist (which includes both the mysteriousness and apparent incompleteness of Shorter's own discography and the incompleteness of the music in general) poking out from around the corner of these traces that do. Baraka’s vocabulary suggests that this music is a "warning", a "short, fearsome message", offering bursts of "proto-rational description": not celebration, not ecstasy, but cryptic declamations, reports on a state of reality that, for those who mendaciously broker power and for those who do not stop to think on it, does not appear to actually exist. This is emphatically not mystical, however, but a rational report on states of collapse, of transfers to other states, other ways of being. It's interesting too that Baraka sees Shorter’s solos not, in the vocabulary familiar from much free jazz criticism, as ‘explosions’, but ‘implosions’, "somehow removed, as a statement from the whole […] as if he is commenting on, rather than existing as part of the whole". For Baraka, this is to do with Shorter not having found his own voice as soloist – the compositions containing the real sum of his individuality, even as they sometimes sound like the "outline of a tune" more than the tune itself.

If, then, free jazz is often seen as a model for and reflection on social conditions – both in terms of protesting existent arrangements and offering models of cooperation that could challenge it – Shorter’s concerns seem more abstruse. As Wayne puts it, "Alan created his own world. He had some ideas about breaking through the old of the mass-aimed [i.e. commercial] forms […] no bands behind him, no arrangements." This meant that Alan "was always in confrontation, or there were confrontations on the horizon…with record executives, rehearsal places, front offices, professors in school." Similar tensions emerged in the recording session for Orgasm, though it seems, not this time at his own instigation – in the liners, Rashied Ali recalls how he accused producer Esmond Edwards of deliberately playing with the musicians by requesting multiple takes of a piece that already had a successful recording, ultimately walking out of the studio. This led to the music being recorded by two rhythm sections on two separate dates, with Charlie Haden and Rashied's brother Muhammad subbing for Reggie Johnson and Ali. Though there's little to go on apart from this story, we might speculate that Edwards' apparent hostility had to do with lack of familiarity with, or hostility to, free jazz (Edwards had come up as a pioneering photographer and producer during the 1950s, working for prestige records). Whatever the case, what emerges here is a doubleness: the enforced framing of artistic vision within the confines of recording booth, the control of a producer managing and controlling expectation; and the doubled recording session.

A more conducive home seems to have been found in Europe, though again, recorded evidence is sparse: some dates with Shepp (the sprawling and somewhat unfocussed Pitchin' Can, Coral Rock, Doodlin', and 'Full Moon Ensemble' albums, and appearances in large group contexts with Alan Silva, Francois Tusques, and apparently (though this seems somewhat unlikely) the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland big band. Two years after Orgasm, Shorter recorded his only other album as a leader, Tes Esat, in London. In the liner notes, Shorter tells Val Wilmer: “Everybody is a leader, there’s no sidemen any more – sidemen are decadent. Free music has a kind of leadership of its own”. Certainly no ‘decadence’ here, no excess or ornamentation – this is free jazz as sometimes austere focus, implosion rather than explosion, muted and mysterious even in its outbursts. Tes Esat – the title is uncertain, an anagram, a play on sitting and having sat, or a test, a private joke? I guess the obvious word is ‘estates’ – not ‘states’ (states of being – Shorter in the liners talks about ‘living’ rather than what one is doing while living) – but legacies, propertied repositories of wealth or dispersed traces of preceding lives. Anagrams involve the rearrangement of fixed elements, a working with, worrying at the edges of, the given, that works in terms of the spirit if not the structural operations of Shorter’s music. One feels here not so much that the musicians are discovering new ideas in their playing as working at the cracks of what already exists, and finding that as mysterious, as inexplicable, filled, perhaps with horror, or a more inscrutable sense of dread, as the ostensibly unknown. As we've seen, Shorter’s best-known piece is called 'Mephistopheles' – the broker of the devil’s bargain in the search for knowledge; the risks of the unknown, but also the risks of the given. Ostinato rumble, smoothly off-tumble, extended wail, clipped report / retort. Again, Baraka’s notions of 'description', combined with his notions of ‘cool’ – an apparent oddity when talking about the ‘heat-filled’ music of free jazz – fit well here. Description is about telling what you know; cool, often, about holding back what you know to give the impression of knowing more than you're letting on--secrecy, holding-back, as tools of power. Shorter's music falls somewhere in between.

Cool jazz for the free jazz age? Perhaps. In any case, this is not music about soloing, or virtuosity. What’s extraordinary about Tes Esat, even more so than Orgasm (though Orgasm is probably the better record overall) is how little Shorter's own playing is foregrounded, and how little in fact the horns appear at all. Before the melody statement comes in, tracks will open with a minute or two of just bass and drums, in a kind of abstract territory where a lot is happening, in terms of notes and switches of register, but at the same time almost nothing seems to be happening: again, we’re in an anteroom, a pause, a limbo, waiting for the ‘head’ that we know will appear. (Instead it’s a bass player rather than one of the horns that dominates the record: the great Johnny Dyani’s slipping, sliding harmonics, swooning and scrabbling, as well as his piano playing on the first track.) When the melodies do appear, they’re somehow both curt and extended, always played in unison by the horns with long held, repeated notes that are stabbed out over a busy backdrop, their repetitive stasis all the more emphasized by the business of bass and drums. Shorter’s music is far from Ornettish, a comparison that’s been made on the basis of the piano-less format of his two albums as leader. While some free jazz melodies/heads are overtly stripped down, essentially just preliminaries to free playing, Shorter’s – like, say, Albert Ayler’s – are very much a part of the piece, and thus, more than ‘heads’. Not that the improvisations take place on their harmonic frame, but the sound of the composed material being articulated at the beginning and end of the piece is as vital to the piece as are the improvised sections. Can one imagine a through-composed free jazz? Where's the freedom here, what spaces do we traverse. When the 'freely' improvised sections do occur, Shorter tends to lay out, while Windo’s saxophone, possibly put through some sort of electronic effect (unless it’s just the distortion on the recording), is as abrasive in its tone as any I’ve heard, not through playing hard and fast so much as the well-judged screech or smear, sounds which sometimes appear as if from another world – I think some of these are also the yelps, the vocalised exhortations, the bits of percussion and so on that Dyani employs. But really, that’s the total effect of this music too. Music that’s present yet somehow doesn’t fully reveal itself, material in its sometimes limited focus yet ghostly in its otherness. “Listening to Alan Shorter gives one the impresions of being felled by a feather duster” writes
poet Ron Welburn
. in a rare review of his work in a 1973 issue of Black World . Or “an open night, with things flying around in it”. Mechanical birds, organic industrial objects, claustrophobic ghosts on an open plain.

On the album cover to Tes Etat, the musicians are caught in a spotlit against a dark background, dressed in Afro-centric dashikis and wearing shades in the 'cool' vein of which Baraka speaks. Though we see Shorter relaxed and laughing in a studio shot on the back of the LP sleeve, the light's harsh glare here seems designed to appear intimidating, capturing the musicians, catching them (out). Yet rather than looking caught -- whether in cop-headlights, military searchlights, the spotlights of an often hostile 'entertainment' business -- they stand, even sit, their ground. They're not going anywhere, won't be read. And so this music, its insistent (un)availability. Wrecked estates, plentiful absences, the dip and curve of parabolic reverie or nightmare; even, of some kind of detached rest, if not peace. As Wayne Shorter notes of Alan in an interview with Baraka printed in the reissue notes to Orgasm, "Teachers would mark his papers, and he would ask 'Why?' on top of the teacher’s marks."

Alan Shorter’s music continues to ask questions – of us, the world, itself.

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Unit Structures: The Art of Cecil Taylor (A Report)

Unit Structures: The Art of Cecil Taylor
October 23-26, 2019
The Graduate Center, CUNY and Brooklyn College

Cecil Taylor is often noted and acclaimed for his pivotal role in twentieth-century music. But his work is still too often misunderstood. October 2019, just over a year on from his death, saw the first academic conference devoted to Taylor’s work, an interdisciplinary affair held at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Brooklyn College, spanning four days, and comprising papers, poetry listening sessions, workshops and concerns involving figures like Fred Moten and Nahum Dimitri Chandler and a large-group performance led by Taylor’s long-time collaborator Karen Borca. Taylor’s aesthetic system was vast, its references drawn from Haitian voodoo to Mesoamerican irrigation, West African to ancient Egypt mythology, biological science, jazz to ritual, poetry to experimental dance, and it has much to tell us about the century from which it sprang and the century we’re in now. The conference had the advantage of length, but it still felt like we were only scratching the surface. There was so much to take in here that I’ve only just now managed to properly organize my thoughts into this report, which is offered especially for those who couldn’t make it. Hopefully, in any case there will still be material of interest, the conference’s temporality going beyond its immediate excitement.

Amiri Baraka famously said of Albert Ayler that the existent recordings were only ‘rumours’, inadequate traces of music whose full force could only be experienced live. Taylor’s traces are more varied than Ayler’s. Only a handful of recorded interviews with Ayler exist. Taylor, on the other hand, left hours of interview material in video, audio and printed form: Chris Felver’s film All the Notes, for instance, provides some memorable examples. In these interviews, we hear the same elements recycled like licks, riffs, refrains: a set of particular stories, often focusing on his early artistic development, his childhood, formative experiences as a teenager or during his struggles to make it as a musician caught between the poles of too much exploitative work—playing bog-standard jazz standard material for hours on end in a tiny club for a pittance—or no work at all—no clubs being willing to put on or pay him for performing his music. Taylor would also tell these stories to his friends, admirers, fans: the expression that keeps coming back is ‘holding court’, drinking champagne, smoking American Spirits, talking for hours at a time as people listened. The stories constitute a kind of meandering, circuitous autobiography. Entangled in any one of his long, circuitous, repeating anecdotes, the stories of his life and intersections with stars, auratic presences: seeing Billie Holiday enter a club as a ‘vision’, being made to read Schopenhauer as a child by his mother, meeting the poet Bob Kaufman and listening to him read his poems for six hours straight. Journalists were entranced and bemused by Taylor’s persona in equal measure, and, more than this, frequently confused by music that went well beyond the usual vocabularies of ‘jazz’. One thing this conference usefully did was to suggest that our assessments of Taylor’s work will have to work through, not only the tendrils of his own discourse, but the ways in which that discourse was framed by those who didn’t always understand it. The idea, for instance, that Taylor had somehow studied the music of avant-garde composers of the Darmstadt School when he was a young man makes very little sense, but is frequently repeated, with the result that the influence of jazz – Holiday, Dave Brubeck, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington – is de-emphasized, despite Taylor’s own insistence on its centrality to his work.

[Day 1] Poetry Listening Session
Wednesday October 23rd, James Gallery, CUNY Graduate Center

Given this, it was the neglected aspects of Taylor’s work that often received attention in the four days of this conference, not least amongst these Taylor’s poetry. It was appropriate that the conference as a whole began with a ‘listening session’ in the James Gallery at CUNY, amidst an excellent display of material relating to the Cold War Triconntinental movement, its bright, Third Worldist images blaring off the walls. Brent Hayes Edwards and Fred Moten began with some brief scholarly spurs – Moten linking Arturo Michelangeli’s tendency to approach every note with equally intensity (Michelangeli was apparently a favourite of Taylor’s) to Taylor’s own poetic recitations, in which virtually ever phoneme seemed stressed. For Moten, Taylor was concerned with the sounding of every aspect of a word, manifesting a desire “to infuse ‘content’ with something extra”, as well as a concern with displacement in which topography, the obsession with bridges and engineering, and the Olsonian mapping of the ‘field’ of page/sound resonate with longer, diasporic histories. Edwards, meanwhile, noted that, like his music, Taylor’s poetry was apparently composed by ‘cell’, each phonemic element susceptible to an infinite “efflorescence of inflection”, a “poetics of testing” with parallels to the ways Taylor’s music could improvise off a single figure or (in his characteristic letter notation) ‘tree’ of notes for up to an hour.

Moten and Edwards then proceeded to play us a bunch of rare and not-so-rare recordings of Taylor’s readings—in some cases familiar, like the brief ‘Ellel’ from Garden (where Taylor sort-of-sings something between ritual invocation, field holler and defiance of death), but in many cases new, unexpected and revealing. Not least of these was a book called The Book, a joking title for someone who never published a ‘book’ of poetry per se. Apparently a privately-printed gift, of which one copy was made for one person, the text sits alongside an audio recording on CD which is an integral part of the work, and from which we heard excerpts. Though Edwards and Moten didn’t remark on this, it sounds like what was happening in some instances here was that Taylor would speak—a discourse half-way between the mythopoetics he would deliver in performance, spanning world religion, biology, musicology and the like, and the anecdotal conversation he would deliver in private or in interview. This was most evident on a piece called ‘improvisation’, which as bassist and composer Dominic Lash nudged me to note, sounds like just that – an improvised description of the relation of improvisation and composition that was then notated. This did make me wonder if the whole of The Book was composed that way – one of the other pieces, an anecdote about ‘Barry’ (who, it turned out, was dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov) having a scandalous affair with the daughter of a famous film star), juxtaposed with Betty Carter’s epic ‘Sound’, soon span off a long ways from its initial, gossipy starting point.

The standout out of all the pieces we heard and saw from The Book was perhaps the piece simply called ‘To Dad’, a moving reminiscence of Taylor’s father, and a meditation on (literal) biology and familial lineage as emotional, social, and biological, and, ultimately, on the “paradoxical totality” of what a person is, what the soul is. It made sense of a lot of the references to biology in the late work as heard on bootlegs, live performances and the like – a rare fusion of inter-personal, intimate connection with the ‘abstract’ registers of scientific discourse. The poem presented Taylor’s father – here described as a “Southern oracle”, who, as Taylor remarks elsewhere, was a storehouse of oral tradition, of song, and who supported Taylor financially after the death of Taylor’s mother and while Taylor struggled to make ends meet in the early stages of his career – after he’d ended up at the Rivercrest Sanatorium: as the poem had it, having given all he had until there was nothing left. It centred on a description of trying to walk through New York, changing trains, his walk inflected by a life of labour, and made all the stronger Taylor’s own seeking to liberate the body through performance, music dance. Body attitude, body gesture, these are not abstract categories, but ways of responding to, surviving, challenging the dread and drudge of the work routine, of exploitation and misery, and the apparently esoteric or ‘intellectual’ content of Taylor’s work shouldn’t blind us to this.

(Above) ‘To Dad’ from The Book (unpublished); manuscript page of the text to Chinampas (1987)

A few pieces from The Book, such as ‘Abata’ and ‘Before Time’ were recognisable from similar bootlegs (this 2007 performance, for instance) but most of the texts were brand new to me. Though much of this is still speculation, one thread emerging here was that, often, there simply wasn’t a single, stable text for a poem. Moten noted how, when Taylor read, he’d hold up one piece of paper written on from several angles, treating a single page as a book in itself. The Book, then, is more than a book, intrinsically related to a CD recording of its poems; and any release of Taylor’s writings would have to reckon, not only with the disorderly state of the archive, but with the fact that these often handwritten manuscripts were scores for performance—that the discovery Moten and Edwards presented of (some of) the pages of the first poem from Chinampas are not the holy grail, not ‘the poem’ itself. As Moten noted, the recording is the poem: Taylor deliberately didn’t print the poems in the liner notes to his one poetry record. Against duality, binaries, Taylor wants to see it all as a totality. This said, Moten and Edwards briefly alluded to the fact that they, along with Chris Funkhouser, are to edit several volumes of Taylor’s work in print: it’s likely that one of these might be The Book, along with a Reader of the uncollected work that does exist in print, long in the making, and perhaps an annotated copy of a book by poet David Henderson. Due to the complications of the estate, this might take a few years, but it’s at least on the horizon.

[Day 2] Concert: Matthew Shipp / William Parker / Andrew Cyrille
Thursday, October 24th, Elebash Recital Hall, CUNY Graduate Center

The second night relocated a few doors down the same building to the Elebash Recital Center for a trio performance by Matthew Shipp (piano), William Parker (bass) and Andrew Cyrille (drums). Cyrille – with Taylor’s late-1960s and earlier 1970s Units – and Parker – a long-term collaborator later in the Taylor’s career, notably in the Feel Trio with Tony Oxley, were two of Taylor’s most important collaborators; each musician gave a short talk on what Taylor’s music had meant to them. In fact, over the course of the conference as a whole, Cyrille turned out to be the only musician who’d worked closely with Taylor heard from at length, in a spontaneous narration of his time with Taylor, playing in front of artworks by Miro, touring Europe. “We could play for two hours straight – just blasting – just taking off”. Those metaphors of jet-propelled, rocket travel, of flight, are common ways to figure the intense energy of this music of course – at the same time, and against the stereotype of ‘free jazz’ as ‘angry’ or ‘disturbed’, Cyrille emphasized the healing dimension of this music. Playing with Cecil got easier and easier, he noted – at times he felt as if he were floating on a cloud, the experience therapeutic and restful, looking at each other and laughing and having a good time.

In the performance itself, Cyrille was unbelievably crisp, his snare-drum rolling out loud into the auditorium, his timing utterly precise, combined with a melodic sense of tuning and placement – he could play a whole gig on just snare and hi-hat, the key instruments in his kit. Shipp didn’t try to be Cecil, his a more lugubrious, dogged insistence, stabbing out two-handed chords along with free-bop runs that emphasized their own virtuosity, Parker’s arco bass smearing, sliding and bending the string. From the opening, AACM-like spaciousness, as Cyrille’s triangle rang out into the auditorium, to passages of collective, melodic insistence, this was fine stuff.

[Day 3] Papers / Concert
Friday, October 25th, Elebash Recital Hall

The first day of papers took place in the same building. A panel on Taylor’s early development laid some useful ground in challenging certain long-held presumptions in the way Cecil’s work has been framed, even by well-meaning critics. For instance, Christopher Meeder’s paper on Taylor’s training at the New York Conservatory and the New England Conservatory of Music fills in some of the gaps in Taylor’s own account rendered in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business (further work has also been done independently by Allan Chase, and can be found online). “Your music is mood music”, a member of faculty apparently told him. “That’s OK as long as it’s not Mood Indigo”. Fitting into neither the model for classical composition – due to his race – nor for ‘popular’ music – his conception already moving in the direction of the avant-garde – Taylor was stuck arranging music for toothpaste commercials. Having escaped these sort of presumptions and beginning to make his way in the jazz world, Taylor still faced well- or badly-intentioned misinterpretation. Lewis Porter’s presentation of a 1959 interview with a Swedish journalist – Taylor’s first – initiated an important topic of discussion that would recur throughout the conference: that an interview is another performance in which the musician seeks to frame themselves, sometimes in contradistinction to the framings imposed by the journalist, for the implied public to whom they must present a certain face. This conversation was continued by Matthias Mushinski’s paper from the same panel on Taylor’s reception in Jazz-Hot magazine and the role of leftist French journalists of the 1960s as ‘participant-observers’ in the New York jazz scene (the next day, Dominic Lash’s paper on the documentary on Taylor produced as part of Luc Ferrari’s ORTF series Les Grandes Répétitions, ‘The Other Side of the Tracks’, extended this to the realm of film.) This sort of work can sometimes seem excessively detailed – exhuming student correspondence, attendance records, and the like – but following the paper trail in this way is necessary in order to challenge the ill-informed characterisations of Taylor mentioned at the start of this report. As one audience member said, listeners and critics tend to hear any sort of dissonance as invoking “modern classical” – but of course there are as many varieties of dissonance as there are of consonance, and no one says that consonance, or western harmony, is limited to any one genre…

Fumi Okiji,
in the first extended paper of the day, extended some of the theoretical concerns that inform her first book, Jazz as Critique: Adorno and Black Expression Revisited (2018), which turns Theodor Adorno’s notoriously anti-jazz aesthetic theory against itself, using it as a way to explore jazz’s contribution to the history of freedom and the history of music in general. Against a loop of Billie Holiday’s arm, picking up from the cues laid in Taylor’s poem ‘Sound Structure Of Subculture Becoming Major Breath / Naked Fire Gesture’ –“As a gesture Jazz became: Billie’s right arm bent at breast moving as light touch” – Okiji picked up on notions of correspondence and community through the notion of the fragment and non-identity, the principal theorist here Adorno’s friend and Frankfurt School colleague Walter Benjamin rather than Adorno himself. Like a number of the papers, the force of this piece came through as much from its at times prose-poetic style as through the more analytically-argued papers seen on other panels, but a number of very suggestive threads were laid, gestures of their own.

The second panel developed the notion of ‘gesture’ first mentioned in Okiji’s paper in a variety of ways: Chris Stover through an analysis of Taylor’s early readings of standards, in which he suggested that the musical syntax later developed in more characteristic form
in Taylor’s own compositions was already developed in these early performances; Anthony Caulkins, through some diagrammatic visualisation of Taylor’s ‘gesture-classes’ and ‘gesture flow’ ; while John Rufo – himself a poet – focussed in less analytic fashion on Taylor’s controversial 1978 collaboration with Mary Lou Williams, Embraced,, and what it might have to tell us about the principle of collaboration, solidarity and the like not only within musical contexts but political / activist ones too. In a sense, what mattered here was not so much the accuracy of the observations – Benjamin Givan has written an exhaustive and thoroughly-researched essay on this encounter (seeds laid in the Williams chapter from Brent Hayes Edwards’s Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination) which would seem to be pretty much the definitive word in scholarly terms – but for the metaphoric extension to politics, for the undoubted political valency that lies within Taylor’s theorisation of improvisation and collaboration within the musical ensemble.

The third panel offered primarily artistic responses to Taylor’s work – Jeff T. Johnson live-typing a poem / essay along to Taylor’s Indent as part of a digital poetics project; Charles Sharp rather strangely juxtaposing the philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer with a slowed-down version of a Taylor piano solo; Magdalena Dukiewicz discussing her own self-decomposing sculptural works alongside the organic-synthetic decay of the cover to Taylor’s Solo (1973) – though frustratingly, she didn’t mentioned the artist who produced this cover art, along with Taylor’s other release on the Japanese Trio Records, Akisakila, Hiroshi Sato (I can find very little information about Sato and would like to know more). Finally, Scott Gleason’s talk focussed not so much on Taylor, but on the visual artwork of Morgan O’Hara, whose drawings of musicians’ hands literalize and fix the questions of gesture (Taylor being one of the artists who were O’Hara’s subjects). After a break, the day’s second keynote saw musician and writer David Grubbs extrapolate some more ways into Taylor’s poetry, principally through the lens of a poem that Taylor read at the ceremony for conferment of an honorary degree at Brooklyn College in 2012 (where he was patronisingly introduced as someone who’d played with “Johnny Coltrane”), at which he read an untitled poem “in appreciation and for the moment we are surrounded by these beautiful trees…” (See video below.) The poem begins “it leans within the scented parabola”, and Grubb’s paper nicely curved around the questions of performance, utterance, speech and music also explored in his own book-length prose poem, Now that the Audience is Assembled (2018).

The evening concert, given the rather grandiose title ‘In Sonic Discourse with Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures’, and taking place once more in the Elebash Auditorium, was a more mixed affair than the previous day’s Shipp-Cyrille-Parker set, in general straying closer to a contemporary classical vocabulary. The piece most likely to have stuck in audience minds was the ‘anti-fascist action’ by Black Bloc-masked group Mayakov+sky who bashed and sawed away at both grand and upright pianos, violin and electronics, as well as showering the audience with slogans-as-confetti (“housing for all or the city will fall”, “#deathtocapital”); it may not have resonated much with Taylor’s own performance or music aesthetic, but provided an unexpected detour at least. Lewis Porter presented solo piano improvisations of his own on material from Taylor’s Unit Structures, in general trading a more conventionally jazz-based vocabulary than Taylor’s own. That’s not meant as a criticism – indeed, Taylor’s improvising style and personal musical vocabulary seem so linked to his own compositions that it’s hard to imagine anyone playing them outside the context of his own bands. (The only examples that come to mind are Steve Lacy’s very early recording of Taylor’s ‘Air’ in the 1960s, and Mal Waldron’s ‘Variations on a theme by Cecil Taylor’ from Update (1987).) Porter, then, interestingly presented the little-explored notion of Taylor’s own compositions becoming something like standards in the hands of those who musical vocabulary is very different. Of the remaining pieces, Chris Stover’s ‘Four Assemblages’ was a fairly muted piece of chamber music with echoes of the unison grandeur of Taylor’s own composed themes; and Sandow Sinai’s ‘Anacrusis’(which I missed, turning up slightly late) likened the titular figure – the pause before note or poetic syllable, a notion explored as a structuring concept in Taylor’s Unit Structures – to the process of coming out as a (trans)(gender) woman. To my mind, the best piece was that by conference organizer Yom – virtual space of air / reverse apocalypse, for piano (once again played by Sinai), flute and no-input mixing board feedback ‘breath’ sounds, the lengthy programme note riffing off unheard melodies, a number of poems by Taylor (“theory not of numbers / and quantity but of states […] existing before / the mathematical congregation / of abstract figures / which existed in nature”).

[Day 4] Papers / Concert
Buchwald Theater, Brooklyn College

The second day of papers moved to Brooklyn College, where, as Grubbs had reminded us, Taylor has read his “scented parabola” poem seven years before. This day was perhaps more focused on musicology: there were interesting talks on the day’s opening panel concerning Taylor’s letter notation systems from Jeff Schwartz – noting how Taylor students Glenn Spearman and Marco Eneidi used Taylor’s letter notation as a means to set down, not only pieces by Taylor himself, but standards and their own material – and Scott Currie, who provided valuable participant insight into the Taylor piece he commissioned for the Sound Vision Orchestra in 2002, ‘With Blazing Eyes And Open’d Mouth.’ (A bootleg recording can be found here, and is quite something; images of excerpts from the score can be seen below.) Jessie Cox gave a more philosophically-minded paper which usefully linked Taylor’s work to Glissantian theories of créolité (particularly significant given Taylor’s interest in Haitian voodoo). And the panel was rounded off by what was perhaps the single most impressive work of scholarship of the whole conference, Mark Micchelli’s transcription and analysis of a solo performed by Taylor for the film Imagine the Sound (1981). Obviously, intricate readings of musical detail are not the only way to approach Taylor’s holistic conception, but this music is of such complexity that analysis does seem a necessary way in. The attention to pianism, to the role of physical gesture, was impressive here; having studied the filmed performance and experimented himself at the piano, Michelli noted, for instance, that Taylor had to shape his impossibly fast runs down the keyboard the way he did (striking notes with the side, rather than the tips of the fingers) because otherwise his knees and elbows would have hit the keyboard. Another angle on ‘gesture’, then: building on previously published analyses of Taylor’s solo music by Lynette Westendorf and Kaja Draksler, there’s much to be done here…

(Above) Images from Taylor's score With Blazing Eyes and Opened Mouth (2002) from Scott Currie's presentation.

After the break, Ben Young presented a lengthy ‘listening session’ in which he talked about the recordings that exist in the Taylor archive and played an excerpt from a late-1960s performance featuring the explosive tenor of the Reverend Frank Wright. This was part of a project of public listening which, for Young, is essential to continuing the legacy of this music one the musicians who played it are no longer around to deliver it live, as well as the lengthy process of researching and writing Taylor’s biography, about which there were understandably eager questions. It seems as if, as with the proposed volumes of Taylor’s poetry discussed by Moten and Edwards on the first day, we might have to wait a few more years yet…

The first afternoon panel focussed on voice, live presence, the personal dimensions of encounter. Jeanette Lambert raised the necessary spectre of misogyny within jazz performance context. Having taken part in a music workshop in the Canadian Rockies at which Taylor was visiting artist, she noticed how Taylor defended her against the misogynist abuse and harassment she’d received, linking his poetry, native Americans roots and queerness to his refusal to tolerate the macho behaviour of the white straight men. Taylor was, as any number of anecdotes will tell you, a difficult person, but Lambert’s story – as with Andrew Cyrille’s the night of the first concert – emphasized the other side, that of generosity and kindness. (Lambert’s own summary of her paper is here.) Chris Funkhouser played a collage of out-takes from his hugely important 1994 interview with Taylor on poetry, an edited version of which was printed in Nathaniel Mackey’s Hambone and has long been available online; one Taylor became many, the cadences of his speaking voice and the multiple tendrils (or what Edwards had called ‘efflorescences’) of his conversational style forming a pleasing weave. Dominic Lash’s previously-mentioned paper provided some useful analyses of Taylor’s film experience from both a musical and a Film Studies background – those questions of framing and gesture again coming to the fore (a shot of Andrew Cyrille with a metronome on his drumkit belying the notion that time in ‘free jazz’ is totally ‘free’). Finally, Chris Felver presented out-takes from his excellent Taylor documentary All the Notes, shot on and off the fly over a number of years: a genial and enthusiastic presence, this was one of the more purely enjoyable parts of the conference.

(Above) Andrew Cyrille with metronome...

The final panel of the day featured my own paper, on the centrality of Voodoo to Taylor’s poetry and aesthetics – rushed through on the day, a more considered version is imminently forthcoming in Bill Shoemaker’s journal Point of Departure ( Kehinde Alonge, currently a masters student at the University of Buffalo, likewise focused on Taylor’s poetry – principally the ways in which it gets framed through its printing in the liner notes to Taylor’s albums, against the context of Black musical collectives such as the Jazz Composer’s Guild and the role of musical and poetic socialities / collectivities as part of what he called the “hidden archive of blackness” that exists in and against the nexus of exploitation, commercialism and misunderstanding within which musicians like Taylor had no choice but to work. There were some wonderful turns of phrase here – the notion that a poet’s duty is to create language, working with the given to go beyond it – that will stick with me for some while, and it’ll be exciting to see how this scholarly work develops as part of Alonge’s broader graduate study.

The panel concluded, not with a paper, but a poetry reading. Steve Dalachinsky had originally been scheduled to read from his pamphlet of poems for Taylor, The Mantis, but sadly himself passed away a few months before the conference. An enormous presence on New York poetry and experimental jazz scenes, his absence was not so much filled as attested to in readings by Ammiel Alcalay, Elliott Levin, and Anne and Devin Waldman. Alcalay’s brief introductions usefully linked Taylor to the Olsonian ‘projective verse’ continuum, as well as to histories of racialised and classed labour which shouldn’t be left out of our readings of Taylor’s work. Alcalay’s own poems linked his own memories of New York labour and living with Taylor’s performances at venues such as the Five Spot. He also read from The Mantis, a kind of impressionistic form of poetic music criticism – Dalachinsky observing how Elvin Jones, in duo with Taylor, turned even his ‘fiercest moments’ to intimacy, or pleading “Let us remain locked to each other. / Let us remain”. Elliott Levin played saxophone and flute and also recited poems. Levin played in a number of Taylor’s large ensembles since meeting Taylor when the latter was artist-in-residence at Glassboro University in 1973; Taylor encouraged him to present poetry within the context of the music, and in 1988, when Levin wrote a poem in memory of his friend Kathy Chang, who’d self-immolated in protest at American foreign policy, Taylor allowed him to open a concert by reciting the poem while he danced in accompaniment. (Levin also tells this story here.) As with Jeanette Lambert’s paper, that more generous side to Taylor emerging again; a generosity returned when Levin wrote and played a flute solo to a semi-conscious Taylor, then on his death-bed. Levin played the piece again to close his set. Finally, Anne Waldman read – or rather, sang – from her manuscript Acousmatic, dedicated to Taylor, accompanied by her nephew, saxophonist Devin Waldman. As Waldman noted, she’d first met Taylor when her mother took her to see him perform in 1964, and she’d later invited him to read his poetry at the St Mark’s Poetry Project, her intention being to honour his poetry and to ensure that he was seen within that poetic history that Alcalay also emphasized. “Cecil! No death”.

(Above) Anne and Devin Waldman in performance; cover collage to Steve Dalachinsky, The Mantis (2009)

The force of Nahum Dmitri Chandler’s often moving keynote, delivered via skype from Japan, lay as much in the measured, near-glacial delivery as in the words themselves. It began as a meditation on friendship – Taylor and Chandler spent long hours together, and Chandler delivered a eulogy at his funeral – and on why Taylor might have chosen to turn to solo music – he had no Ellington orchestra of his own. (This is certainly true of the official record; that said, on this point, it was precisely access to large and willing ensembles that Taylor did have in the early 1970s when he had teaching appointments at Antioch College and the University of Wisconsin. Though this period is completely undocumented in the official discographies, archival discoveries in this field might reveal another dimension to Taylor’s large group music.) Chandler then detoured via Japanese architecture and the ‘cantilever spar cable-stayed bridge’ of Spanish structural engineer Santiago Calatrava, a particular obsession of Taylor’s – before ending with a reading of the title to Taylor’s solo record Air above Mountains (Buildings Within) its resonances with the Book of Corinthians and with Afro-Christian figurations of body and spirit in the context of slavery. For Chandler, Taylor’s poetry is a Dantean epic trying to get us out of hell – a characterisation which, along with the brutally humorous Ralph Ellison anecdote Chandler told in the questions – I haven’t been able to get out of my head since.

(Above) Nahum Dimitri Chandler.

The concluding event of the festival was a set in the same auditorium by big band led by Karen Borca, and featuring several participants from the festival and additional musicians who’d played with Taylor such as Levin, Ras Moshe Burnett and Bobby Zankel. Taught through a combination of Taylor’s letter notation scores and Borca’s own memories of playing the material, the band’s performance was based in charts from Taylor’s magisterial Winged Serpent (Sliding Quadrants) (1984). The band had little time to rehearse, and there was no Taylor to feed the band chunks of melody or streams of notes (Judging from accounts from those would could hear him on the stage itself, Mark Micchelli by provided an impressive parallel, but his performance was inaudible from the audience, despite the fact that in rehearsals he played with such energy that a key flow off the piano and one could see the piano lid almost levitate). The performance was dominated by the horns, with everyone playing at once more than solos per se, Borca cueing unison melodies, structured as unison monody or as simple counterpoint, grandiose and moving in a way unique to those Taylor ensemble melodies (of which he apparently wrote hundreds – Alex Ward provides a useful analysis of some of them here: ). However ragged the performance itself, moments were moving indeed, in large part due to those Taylor pieces. Do we call this aesthetic florid, Romantic, melodramatic, existential? Do we need to call it anything, except to note the way it moved everyone in the room to some other level, some other inner building in the basement air above mountains?

(Above) Big band conducted by Karen Borca in compositions by Cecil Taylor.

It was fitting, in any case, that the festival found as much time for music as for scholarship, and this balance will be an important one to bear in mind if and when ‘Taylor studies’ takes off. We might bear in mind Ben Young’s comments on public listening sessions, at which interested listeners gather to listen to rare recordings, as the way we hear this music now that Taylor has passed, form one element; likewise, the musicological papers on or from those who’d studied with him might impact the music of others, and more work from his collaborators would be welcomed. Finally, aside from Levin in the poetry reading, Parker and Cyrille in the first evening concert, and Currie on Taylor’s Sound Vision Orchestra Piece, we didn’t hear that much from musicians who worked with Taylor, and there would no doubt be valuable insights to be gleaned here. (I have, for example, learned a lot from talking to Bobby Zankel about Taylor’s time at Wisconsin and Antioch in recent weeks.)

By the end of his career, Taylor had won a MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant, the Kyoto Prize, and many other prizes, grants and the like; he performed regularly, on good pianos, and received critical acclaim, even if his elements such as his use of poetry and dance, or the apparent influence of European avant-garde classical music on his style, continued to be widely misunderstood. Taylor’s late career stability – albeit one which was inevitably precarious, as his Brooklyn home was in frequent needs of repairs, which saw him swindled out of his Kyoto Prize money—has to be understood in context as a victory against the indifference, contempt, neglect and (sometimes) exploitative, patronising inclusion with which America treats its artists. After suffering an illness, Taylor told critic Ben Young “I’ve had to be invincible for some years now”, a statement poet-scholar Ammiel Alcalay picked up on as a key instance of what this context might mean. Take the work of other musicians from the same or slightly earlier generations than Taylor who did not make it as far as he did: not only the more famous instances of Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, but Thelonious Monk (whose unorthodox style and personal eccentricities were often framed in similar ways to those of Taylor, and whose mental health issues went misdiagnosed, as he was forced to keep playing on seemingly endless tours of Europe and America), Mal Waldron, Holiday’s accompanist in the last years of her life, and himself subject to electroshock therapy, his breakdown so severe that he had to relearn the piano from his own records ; Coltrane, dead by 40 after years of addiction; and Albert Ayler, dead in the Hudson river at 34. Taylor’s legacy is so valuable because he managed to survive for so much longer than many of these musicians, at a cost we can perhaps hardly begin to imagine. And of course, to quote graffiti that sits behind Bill Dixon in Imagine the Sound, countless other “forgotten rebels died”. Yet, too, there’s William Parker’s more hopeful onstage claim during the second day concert: “we stop playing, but the music never stops”. There will always be more: more to do, more to say, but this was a fine start.