Friday, 28 December 2007

Oscar Peterson, R.I.P.

Second blog post of the day from me, and this one's not really one I'd have wanted to make, but, as Corporal Nym says in Shakespeare's 'Henry V', "things must be as they may." So it is then, that the latest jazz great to pass away this year (in what is becoming a regular procession), is Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson, who died last Sunday at his home near Toronto, aged 82. This tribute post is a brief assessment, not in terms of chronological terms, or career, but what his style as a whole meant and contributed to jazz. It's not entirely positive: I have to confess that I've no really been that thrilled with Peterson's style - I'd rather hear any number of other pianists: Tyner, Hancock, Powell, Monk, Ellington, even Basie. I just feel they have something which OP doesn't. But then again, his success, both critical and commericial, speaks for itself, and he was certainly one of the top men in the music.

"He fills his work with riffs and repeated figures, sometimes a single note hammered out relentlessly. This approach offers rhythmic intensity, but from a melodic point of view it often leaves his lines fragmented and somewhat chaotic." (James Lincoln Collier, 'The Making of Jazz')

Collier devotes only one paragraph to Peterson in his history of jazz, and while his judgements can sometimes be rather old-fashioned (to give two examples, he makes a valiant attempt to understand the modern avant-garde, but ends up going down the old simplistic conclusion that it's simply a lot of angry chaos; and his dismissal of Miles Davis' soloing style is also rather peremptory), I think what he says about Peterson does have some relevance.

He lumps together Peterson, George Shearing and Errol Garner as three pianists who had a wider impact on the public than the perhaps ultimately more important Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell -
they constitute a subschool of modern piano playing. All three were working with established styles before either Monk or Powell recorded. They thus began as swing pianists...before the beginning of the bop movement. All of them to one degreee or another moved into the new music, but none of them was firmly committed to it, and the swing feeling has always remained an important element in their playing. All of them were rhythmically forceful; all of them concentrated on popular standards instead of originals or the more difficult bop tunes; all of them tended to present the song's original melody frequently in a performance. This combination of straightforward driving rhythm and recognisable tunes in an idiom that owed much to swing made their music a good deal more accessible to a broad public than the music of Monk, Powell, and the beboppers...taken together, [they] were the major architects of a light jazz piano style that has become central to modern popular music.
Cocktail pianism, pehaps, as Collier goes on to imply, and I think the critic does a good job in capturing the somewhat old-fashioned feel that pervaded Peterson's output. (Someone in a review of Dave Brubeck's latest album said the same thing about him, which is an interesting point of comparison).

Maybe that was what attracted him to the public - he ploughed his own furrow all the way through the noisy experimentation of bebop, then the 60s New Thing and jazz fusion, carrying on in basically the same style, and often the same group (trio, with bass and either drums or guitar - though of course he was a sensitive and prolific accompaninest to the likes of Louis Armstrong, among others, despite serving no real apprenticeship as a sideman - he went straight into being a leader with a much-heralded debut, and never looked back). As Colin Larkin puts it in the Guinness guide to jazz: "he has maintained a certain steady consistency of style that has withstood the buffetting of fashion." This consistency, this steadiness, meant that you could always be certain that he would deliver a performance that was at the very least capable and polished and proffesional, at best truly inspired.

"Nearly everything Peterson plays, he plays with the same degree of force. He leaves no holes for the rhythm section." (Miles Davis, 'Miles: The Autobiography')

"Peterson's powerfully swinging style does tend on occasion to overpower his melodic sense and he is apt to become repetitious, and, less often, banal. After four decades in the business, though, he understands its workings better than anyone. Above all, Peterson delivers." (Richard Cook and Brian Morton, 'The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD')

As the above quotes illustrate, he wasn't exactly subtle, with all those enormous arpeggios and glissandi, and thick, heavy chords threatening to swamp things. Sometimes it seemed as if he'd got carried away with the dizzying brilliance of his own virtuoso technique, and was deciding to show it off - sometimes he didn't employ his undoubted gifts in the best way he could. He might have learned from Miles or Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock to leave space, gaps, breathing points; he might have learned from McCoy Tyner how to build inexorable momentum, and then to sustain the climax at a pitch of intensity for minutes at a time. I don't think he really did, though, more's the pity. In contrast to Bud Powell's modernist shidangle, Peterson's virtuosity is almost schmaltzy - more Liberace than Rachmaninov. Still, that said, it's not as though every piece becomes a showcase for virtouso display, irrespective of the needs of the tune; Peterson was a fine ballad player, if lacking the gift for space that many of the jazz musicians had (Bill Evans especially).

As a little personal aside, my favourite Peterson album turns out to be the one that Cook and Morton describe as the single OP record you should own (I purchased it before reading their review, incidentally), a rather obscure 'Compact Jazz' compilation containing performances from Peterson's 1960s heyday, with various trios (all of them featuring Ray Brown in the bass spot), and trumpeter Clark Terry guesting, in puckish, sprightly (if slightly subdued) form on a couple of tracks. A particular highlight is the opening piece: his reading of 'Let's Fall in Love' is irrestistible, full of delicious virtuoso flurries of Tatumseque intensity. And the way he plays the melody seems somehow just right - he catches it spot on. Also on the record are excellent versions of 'The Shadow of Your Smile', 'Autumn Leaves', his ballad 'Wheatland', which manages to convey a sense of shimmering, slightly melancholly delicacy and down-home gospelly fervour at the same time, and John Lewis' sober tune, 'Django': in comparison to the composers' performance with the MJQ, Peterson's reading of the main melody is that of a sentimentalist (Brown's accompanying bowed bass work is faultless), before he moves on to an easy, trickling, tinkling blues solo.

OK, back then to summaries, to evaluations of legacies (which I suspect I am uniquely unqualified to give)...In many ways, OP defines what most people's idea of jazz piano is. Other modern greats - Tyner, Monk, even Hancock -are more modern, more idiosyncratic, but OP IS jazz tradition, and played with the makers of that tradition (Armstrong, Holliday, Fitzgerald). I guess it wouldn't be stretching it too much to describe him as something of a populist, yet and that's unfair, in that it implies he had no artistic integrity, which is certainly not true. What it all boils down to is the fact that I shouldn't let my personal prejudices cast too big a cloud on a pianist who was capable of performances of undoubted greatness, so, R.I.P., O.P.

And finally...A fascinating short animated film from 1949 called 'Begone Dull Care', made by film-maker/artists Norman MacLaren and Evelyn Lambart in collaboration with Peterson, who improvised the music, over a 4-day period. The abstract images conjured up (by painting and scratching directly onto film-stock) resemble some of William de Kooning's charcoal-like paintings in the black-and-white accompaniment to the 'first movement', and Jackson Pollock's colour splashes later on (though the visual style is unique), and might thus seem somewhat inappropriate to Peterson's basically rather old-fashioned, traditional style, but the result is never less than fascinating.

The Dumb House: A Review

I've just finished the first novel (now 10 years old - it was written in 1997) by the Scottish author John Burnside. It's called 'The Dumb House', and I posted a review of it on, which is reproduced below. I've started working on an extended essay on Burnside this month - not sure when it'll start to expand, or what it'll coalesce into (I'm thinking about bringing it into my academic studies, but I may keep it as a sideline, so that it remains more of a hobby than a chore). I need to read more of his stuff, as I've only read two of his novels (this and 'The Devil's Footprints') and some of the poetry, and there's a lot more out there. Anyway, for now, here's are some thoughts on this one book.

John Burnside - The Dumb House (Vintage, 1998)

I very much admire Burnside as a poet, and many of the themes he addresses in his poetry are present here too, as are some of his turns of phrases, his ways of talking about the world. The only other of his novels that I've read is his most recent, 'The Devil's Footprints'; what they have in common is a solitary narrator, observing with a detached, cynical eye the activities of other people, with whom he may occasionally come into contact, but with whom he rarely interacts on a normal level. Here, even more so than with the ambiguous narrator of TDF (who may or may not have paedophilic feelings towards a girl he runs off with), this virtual misanthropy leads to dangerous courses of action being taken, which often lead to harm for other people, and, one feels, a kind of spiritual betrayal for the narrator too (in contrast to the genuine epiphany experienced at the end of TDF).

It's hard not to see at least some elements of Burnside himself in these figures - they're crafted with too much care, they have too much of a ring of truth about them, they feel as if they emerge from experience (the sort of experience which appears, in flashes, in his collections of poetry). He is anonymous - we only learn his name late on in the book, in a flashback to schooldays where an admired teacher addresses him by name. In a way, it doesn't matter; I never found myself registering him as Luke, but as a presence, the presence that the narrator senses when out on his own, in the garden or on the road - something watching in the bushes, watching, waiting, coldly observing before pouncing with a violence all the more menacing for being premeditated and cold rather than ferociously hot-blooded.

This distanced, dangerous loneliness is not the entire story, however: both narrators share, with Burnside the poet, a deep appreciation for the subtleties of nature, for its changing moods: extreme detail which might normally be overlooked becomes extremely important, and much time is spent on poetic description and philosophical enquiry. It's this that really fleshes out the novel - no, more than this, that provides it with its substance, as the story itself is somewhat bare, a series of events which do not always have a clear narrative arc. Here's just one of many examples, from page 25: a meditation prompted by a visit to Sillbury Hill, where he encounters groups of New-Agers looking at a crop circle.
While I was there, I felt there was nothing to stop me from getting into the car and driving away, back towards the west, moving from one crop disturbance to the next, pretending I was solving the mystery, growing into it, vanishing from the world I had inhabited all my life. I could have become someone else as easily as that; maybe I could even have become the person I had suspected all along, less clearly defined, but also less contained. I could make a game of my own life, like those people I had read about in magazines – the woman who disappears on her way home from work; the man who steps out one summer morning to buy a newspaper, or a loaf of bread, and never returns. He cannot have gone far, dressed as he is in a shirt and a pair of jeans; he only has five pounds in his pocket, but nobody ever sees him again.
Note the exquisitely balanced tone – humour (“he is an ordinary man, quite sane, no known problems – or nothing serious at least” – no, nothing serious enough except it means he vanishes without trace, dressed in only a shirt and a pair of jeans, with £5 in his pocket) the sinister (perhaps they didn’t choose to disappear, but were killed by someone like the narrator), the mysterious and elusive. It has a peculiarly beguiling quality unique to Burnside’s writing – it draws one in, and one ends up pondering on things that it would never have entered one’s head to think about for. Burnside draws us into the world of the forgotten, the unknown, and makes us inhabit it as naturally as he does, and as his narrator does.

In terms of plot, Burnside's starting point is a Persian myth, which describes how Akbar the Great built a palace to be filled with newborn children, attended only by mutes, in order to learn whether language is innate or acquired. None of the children learned to speak, and in the end, the 'experiment' was inconclusive - the legend does not say what happened to the children, only informing us that the building became known as Gang Mahal (The Dumb House). In the novel, the narrator becomes convinced that, by discovering the roots of language, he can discover the human soul: earlier, as a child/teenager, he tries this by dissections, by cruelly murdering animals, cutting them open and watching the life flow out of them to see if he can catch a glimpse of something passing out (the soul). Of course, he never gets very far, and he decides to try a more drastic experiment, which is similarly doomed to failure, only leading him to take life in a destructive and futile quest for personal satisfaction: the philosopher's quest for the roots of knowledge and ideas, for some sort of elixir of life, taken too far, perhaps. Later, he will kick a tramp to near-death and set him on fire; break the fingers of a mute child; and poison his own twin children, whom he has treated as laboratory rats.
(Below - The tomb of Akbar the Great.

It is this latter case that forms the centre of the book, which everything else leads up to. What starts out as "the single most important experiment that a human being can perform: to find the locus of the soul, the one gift that sets us apart from the animals" evolves into a sadistic, bizarre exercise whereby the narrator, in a twisted variant on Akbar the Great's experiment, imprisons his own twin children in a locked room, depriving them of language, and playing them only music over speakers. When they develop what seems to be a musical language of their own, constantly singing, improvising to one another, their gaoler feels excluded and becomes fearful: at one moment, they somehow manage to escape and stand, smiling, watching him asleep, at the door to his bedroom, like the knowing, innocent children we're all familiar with from horror fiction and films (of which the ultimate example is surely the angelic child who turns out to be the anti-Christ in human form, Damian from 'The Omen'). Unsure what to do, he first cuts out their larynxes to silence them (perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of an often very unpleasant book), then poisons the food he brings them. The novel ends with him taking in a desperate, probably instance, alcoholic woman (the mother of the mute child whose fingers he had broken), whom he has earlier had a sexual relationship with in the course of his research into the roots of language, and the cases of mute children. She seems to have taken the place of the mute, homeless woman who has born him the twins, and it is implied that the whole cycle will begin again. The final sentence of the novel comes with a shudder: he locks the woman in his mother's old room, prompting him to remark: "I experienced a sudden thrill of joy, as if I were locking away some hidden treasure that I'd been waiting years to find, the one thing I had never expected: a necessary gift, an indisputable moment of divine grace."

One thread seems to be the inability of science to cope with life's unknowable mysteries: the narrator writes with a poet's language, with many metaphysical passages on the nature of language, man's relation to the world, to nature and to other humans, the relation between life and death, and the existence of the soul, but, every few pages, keeps referring back to his "experiment," reminding himself of the objective, scientific nature of his 'research' into the ephemeral. At one point he relates a story of how, at school, he criticises a teacher for talking about the soul, something which is beyond the knowledge of science, something far more important than any poet's vague ideas of something beyond explanation. But this is clearly a paradoxical view, considering his own poetic inclinations, and Burnside clearly shows him up for the deluded psycopath he essentially is. In the end, perhaps the 'moral' of the novel is that we shouldn't probe too far into the unknowable, else we risk madness in trying to grasp something we can never reach. Just as the religious man's search for answers in religious truths and laws can lead to violence and intolerance, the destruction of human life, so can the scientific man's search for objective fact in realms that are far beyond factual explanation. That would seem to fit very much with Burnside's agnosticism, and whatever we think of such a conclusion, the novel is filled with moments of striking and thought-provoking meditation on these important issues.

Another thread would be the unknowability of evil, which is, we have to conclude, what the narrator is - of course, there are strong suggestions of motive: the strong mother, weak and distant father (unloved by both son and wife), lack of friends, lonely wandering along with little supervision, abusive encounter with a paedophile (p.17-18 – skimmed over so quickly that one almost forgets it has been mentioned). Simplistically, he has a Norman Bates mother-fixation - but, like Bates, he is not merely a crazy psycho (pardon the pun); he is intellectually attractive, sees beneath the surface of things, notices truths hovering in unlikely places(very similar to those that Burnside the poet notices), and can be dangerously beguiling. This is what makes him so troubling: Luke has a cold logic. His choices seem to be, except at the most extreme moments (such as when he breaks a child's fingers, or the chilling last 20-30 pages of the book, detailing his 'experiment', and treatment of the twins as isolated laboratory animals), natural steps in an inexorable series of events. These steps, these acts of violence, are described as if from a distance, as acts meditated on rather than as in-the-moment - unlike Camus' stranger, who kills the Arab in a moment of what one could, I suppose, call temporary madness, blinded by the sun and who knows what else, Burnside's Luke is able to reflect when kicking the tramp to death, on how the body becomes a lump of meat, how it is jarred out of place, broken from its perfection into something non-human - and reflect in this without a trace of remorse or regret or revulsion, but with a curious, detached, almost apathetic curiosity. While the apparent ‘reasonableness’ of what he does disturbingly show how close ‘normality’ is to evil, shows convincingly how someone could do such terrible things and believe that what he is doing is normal, Luke is obviously not normal. There is a total absence of objective morality, the worry some of us non-scientists may share about scientists who become too disengaged emotionally, who, in probing for the meaning of reality, end up going beyond it into an abstract world of facts and figures, experiments and hypotheses. In this sense Burnside's novel offers a probing critique and a valuable corrective. Unlike many other poets, he was a scientist himself, and he has a clear understanding of the traditionally opposed realms of science and art, recognizing the limitations and dangers and singular beauties of both.

It is a very disturbing book, quite nasty in places, perhaps overly so, and one that left me with a curious feeling when I had finished, which I can best describe in religious terms, as 'unclean.' For all its poetic and philosophic grace and depth, it has a nasty, sordid, reality about which is very modern and rather tasteless. One can't help feeling that a slightly less unpleasant theme might be more to the point of Burnside's gift for language; or maybe he reserves that for his poetry. I'm probably being squeamish, but it makes it an immensely hard book to like, much less love. I feel that it's an important book, and one that I would recommend having a look at, but I would find it hard, myself, to read the whole thing through again.

Friday, 21 December 2007

A still, small voice.

VINGT REGARDS SUR L'ENFANT JESUS, by Olivier Messiaen. Performed by Joanna MacGregor. St George's, Bristol, Thursday 20th December 2007.

Well, seeing as 2008 is the anniversary year of one of my favourite composers, Olivier Messiaen, I did a spot of internet browsing to see what concerts were being offered up as part of the tribute. Quite a few as it turns out - there's a festival going on at the South Bank, his complete organ works are being performed at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, his opera 'Saint Francois d'Assise' is being staged (in the US and Netherlands, I believe, but unfortunately not the UK - that is one work I would love to see live, though I'd have to be in a suitably contemplative frame of mind, otherwise all that solemn ritual could bore me stiff...)

During this little spot of research, I realised that the celebrations seemed to be beginning early: at 8PM this evening (the 20th), in fact. In the converted Anglican church of St George's, Bristol, pianist Joanna MacGregor gave a performance of the very demanding 'Vingt Regards sur L'Enfant Jesus', a series of 20 'regards' -'gazes' would probably be the best English translation, although I suppose in essence they're really meditations in essence - on the child Jesus. So, for instance, you have 'regard de l'espirit de joie', 'regard de la Pere,' 'regard de la Vierge', and so on - all drawing on traditional Catholic symbolism and mysticism, both that of various well known thinkers and Messiaen's own, somewhat idiosyncratic version/vision (encompassing as it does Hindu and ancient Greek rhythms, ecstatic/erotic/religious desire, elements of atonality and dissonance sitting alongside almost lush/filmic melodies that might seem in bad taste in other contexts. Plenty of spicy harmonies, crashing left hand notes hanging in a pedal-driven haze under sprinkles of high-pitched right hand birdsong, chords inexorably moving their way up the keyboard, bizarre, off-kilter lullabies.

Digression: this picture, as should be obvious, does not show the concert I'm reviewing: I didn't take my camera with me, and this was the only decent picture of the St George's interior I could find on google image search. Shame it doesn't show the work of art above the stage very well, but I think it gives some idea of the setup.

The concert was advertised as being by candelight, which was something of a red herring, as there was also quite substantial lighting coming from ceiling chandeleirs and various other light sources as well. That is, apart from at one point, about three-quarters of the way through, when these were all turned off, leaving only the candles and MacGregor silhouetted at the piano - which I thought fitted in very well with the whole air of intimacy and mystery that the piece radiates, but which was apparently a mistake, as the other lights came back on afterwards (of course, the fact that she probably couldn't read the score in near-darkness was probably a major factor in that decision).

I arrived a few minutes late, due to waiting around for ages at a bus-stop (and, sure enough, after the wait, two came along at once...), and so missed the first movement, 'Regard de La Pere.' As I sat down and gathered my preliminary thoughts, I wasn't entirely convinced by MacGregor's performance - her jazz leanings were apparent with the dexterous way in which she handled the work's complex rhythms (although at times even she seemed to be showing signs (however miniscule) of strain - maybe just nerves, which disappeared as she really got into the music). However, I did feel that she took it a bit fast - admittedly Messiaen's extreme slowness can seem overly ponderous in the wrong hands, so it's a very delicate balance to be trodden, between dull plodding and seeming to almost glide over what he's written, thus losing the emotional significance, the nuance which has to be teased out of perhaps just single notes or phrases. The recordings I own (Peter Serkin, on an old triple LP set I picked up in an Oxfam shop - not sure if it's still in print - and Messiaen's prodigious protege, Pierre Laurent-Aimard) perhaps have the balance just slightly more to my liking. That said, there's no such thing as an ideal performance, and I'm not convinced by the idea that this performance can exist even in one's head - our idea of how a piece of music sounds is created by the performances we hear; we cannot just come to a piece completely fresh or completely new (unless we are competent enough musicians/sight-readers to decipher the score, and in the case of Messiaen, that's a pretty tall order for most people).

So, MacGregor soon settled in (perhaps taking things a bit slower, at a more considered, but by no means laboured pace), and, particularly during the second half, really got to the heart of what the piece is about. Obviously, there is the very dark, vaguely nightmarish writing, symbolising the awe and grandeur inspired by God, by creation, and so on. This is something Messiaen perhaps addressed most notably in his piano concerto 'Des Canyons Aux Etoiles', inspired by a visit to American canyons, and the overwhelming effect they had on him (the same sort of ideas as the Romantic 'sublime'); also in the penultimate scene from St Francois d'Assise', when St Francis receives the stigmata. The soundworld he uses to convey these emotions is in line with a lot of twentieth-century modernism (Schoenberg and all those that followed - though not nearly as cerebral and dry as a lot of academic modern classical can be), and can cause a lot of people to switch off. As I overhead one person saying as they were leaving the concerthall, "it's too dissonant - I just can't get past that to engage with the rest of it." That was partly my experience when I first encountered Messiaen: he was, I suppose, my way into the avant-garde, having experienced pretty traditional fare before (with someone like Debussy being about as far out as I got). But once you accustom your ears to it, you realise that this is only one element of his work (and not a bad thing in itself, at all). Messiaen's music is deeply inspired by his Catholic beliefs, and he very much emphasises the transcendent, the mysterious, abstract concepts such as 'love' and 'peace' which music can capture perhaps better than any other art form (because of its inherently abstract nature). This can lead to opulent, quasi-erotic orchestral canvaseses (the Turangalila Symphony or Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine), immensely slow-moving, mournful/hopeful melodies over static chords (the 'Louange' movements from the Quattor de la Fin Du Temps, the song of the angle from St Francois), or to something perhaps unique to Vingt Regards.

This, in fact, was one aspect of the work that I hadn't really noticed before: a soothing, lullaby quality, that alternates with crashing, pounding granite blocks and virtuoso sparkle-trails. Hence the title of this post: in the (I think) 16th or 17th regard (I somewhat lost track during the performance, as MacGregor only left very brief pauses between movements), the 'theme of joy' (one of the work's leitmotifs, which appears in various guises in several of the movements, giving the whole thing an overall architecture and unity) is transformed from an exotic, slightly queasy dance into a gorgeous, hushed song. Your pulse and heartbeat drop a few notches, and the whole room seemed to have lapsed into reverie, before the fire and fury of the next movement jolted them back, and there was a collective straightening of shoulders, scratching of heads, and clearing of throats. The tender meditativeness combined perfectly with the panel on the wall above the piano, a depiction of Jesus' ascension into heaven, standing in a curious, arcane, dance-like position in the sun above his golden-haloed crowd of disciples; at once inscrutable, other, unknowable, yet also incredibly present, tangible, full of emotion. That, reduced down to its essence, is what Christ means: God and man, God and child, all-powerful ruler and helpless sacrifice. A figure of paradox, but not contradiction - a beautiful conceptual idea, whether or not you buy into Christianity. And I guess this is the achievement of the Vingt Regards, that it reveals this about its subject, in its multi-faceted gazes on him; it is what makes what seems to be a very emotional, abstract piece also a profoundly philosophical and thoughtful one.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Strange Sun

I've been thinking just now about something I value in a lot of art: a certain quality of dreaminess, of blurring. Something which can approach vagueness, but, in its more succesful forms, exists on the cusp of known and unknown, the ineffable and the expressable. In poetry, the region of "border language" that Jonathan Wordsworth talks about in his ancestor William's poetry; the 'visionary' elements in so many great poets - Walt Whitman's "whispers of heavenly death," William Blake's holding of infinity in the palm of his hand...In visual art, the gorgeous light-drenched paintings of Turner; his descendants, the Impressionists, of course - Monet's late work especially; and their descendants, abstract art - paintings by Arshile Gorky and early Kandinsky, before he settled for a stricter geometric, shape-based approach (resonant and beautiful thought that is). In music, the lyrical pastoral of Delius and Vaughan-Williams; the mysterious beauty of Ravel and, even more so, Debussy; the extremely subtle control over texture in the work of the great avant-garde composer Giacinto Scelsi; and, in a similar manner, the eerie and beautiful choral work by the late Karlheinz Stockhausen, 'Stimmung'. Those moments in collectively, freely improvised music when all the instruments merge together, mesh in detail and texture so that you're not quite sure who's making which sound - such moments were described by the usual pretty taciturn and down-to-earth Derek Bailey, as "magical." (AMM, any ensemble with John Butcher in it...) The general quality of a lot of Marion Brown's music: when he takes elements of the keyboard-rich sound found on early Miles Davis' fusion - all those twinkling electric piano melodies and chordal textues - to build something that's soothingly lovely, static and hovering ('Sweet Earth Flying'); or, with different instrumentation, when he conjures up the wonderful, hazy, later-summer, small-town feel of a piece like 'Karintha' from 'Geechee Reccollections'; or when he presents a challengily indeterminate avant-garde soundscape on 'Afternoon of a Georgia Faun': music which seems to be half-asleep, yet is crafted with subtly shifting, delicate improvisational care. This dreamy quality is captured very well on the recent release by indie band His Name is Alive, 'Sweet Earth Flower: A Tribute to Marion Brown', where airy drifting introductions give way to lyrical saxophone lead lines, with every note carefully placed, then sudden bursts of free-jazz guitar noise.

This impulse, call it what you will, is also what's behind, or what I hope's behind, the atmosphere, at least, of this poem: there are other elements to it, of course, which I have typed up in some detail for myself, but I won't go into them in that same level of detail here, as I don't want to prescribe any particular reading of the poem, nor do I want to make it seem better than it is! It's a sketch, little more. Very briefly, it's an attempt to convey the experience of seeing the sun come out again after a brief but heavy spring or summer shower, and the moment, or moments, when its fuzzy light (obscured by cloudy remnants of moisture/vapour in the air, glinting off the freshly-fallen raindrops) breaks down the edges of physical objects (trees, rocks, fences) into a weird, dreamy, unified whole. Look at this painting by Turner and you'll see what I mean.

Turner's legendary 'Norham Castle, Sunrise' - not, as far I know, a depiction of sun after rain, but with a similar effect.


strange sun, after rain,
poking through moisture,
glowing, muffled, dribbling over
raindrops, melting edges of the
plain, the hard-edged
clouds, dark woods covering
hills like shrouds, and
all is one again.
strange sun, has become
earth water air, all one.

Gacinto Scelsi: a biography and information about his music from Classical Net.
A couple of websites with information about Stockhausen's Stimmung.
His Name is Alive's 'Sweet Earth Flower' can be downloaded from emusic. The page also contains Thom Jurke's excellent, thorough review, originally posted on All Music Guide.
Michael Ardaiolo has written another wonderful review of the same album.
Arshile Gorky's painting The Liver is the Cock's Comb

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Sonny Simmons in the UK

Haven't been posting on this blog as much as I'd like to recently: been busy with the workload of a university term, and my attempt to start a jazz magazine, which take up a lot of my writing energies!

However, here's a short video I made from footage I shot earlier this evening, at a rare UK gig by Sonny Simmons, playing with the Tight Meat group. Billed as a collaboration between the old and the new, and described on the programme as "punk-primitive post-noise" (whatever that means! not a lot, I suspect), what it boils down to is very loud, very intense free jazz. A bit one-track, very unsubtle, not allowing Simmons' more lyrical side to come through - all valid criticisms, but, for sheer visceral impact, there's not much that beats standing in a room having your ears blasted from your skull by the sound of howling, roaring saxophones and plucking, grinding, booming bass and drums.

In the meantime, check out my new site, on which I'm going to be posting new and archived MP3s of my shows on Cambridge Student Radio. This term, there have been programmes on subjects diverse as Archie Shepp, the meeting of Jazz and Classical music, and a brief history of electronic music.

The address is

Monday, 5 November 2007

Donald Ayler and Burma

Donald Ayler has passed away.
He died of a heart attack on 24th October.

Best known for his appearances with brother Albert on some of his classic 1960s free jazz albums, he was fired from the band after an alcohol-related(?) breakdown; the emotional effects of this may in turn have contributed to Albert's suicide. He went on to record one album as a leader, a 3-LP set called 'In Florence', in 1981, and also did a session for Amiri Baraka's Jihad Label, which was never released.

His technique was never prodigious (reminiscent perhaps of Ornette Coleman's attempts at trumpet playing, at times), but he made an important colouristic contribution to Albert's work, and his mixture of a strange Spanish tone with blistering free-form freakout was oddly compelling.

By no means a major voice, but he was there, actively participating, when some of the great, unsurpassed music of the twentieth century was being created, and that's more than many can say.

You can find a description of his funeral here:
More details about the 1981 recording under his leadership here:
A blog post which includes an MP3, 'The Bebop Tune', from that 3-LP set:
And a message board thread touching on, among other issues, his breakdown and how it relates to Albert's death:

Remco Takken, in a review of Albert's 'Bells': "What the critics missed, was what Albert’s brother, Donald, was contributing to that record. Although it wasn’t the debut of trumpeter Donald Ayler- he made his first appearance on disc with Albert on The New Wave in Jazz earlier that year- Bells shows for the first time what Donald was capable of in terms of humoristic and spiritual musical communication.

Albert wanted a trumpet player in his expanding group. So by the end of 1964 Donald took up the trumpet studying nine hours a day for a few months. While being able to follow the breathtakingly sharp improvisations of his brother almost immediately, he never perfected the technique of his trumpetplaying than up to the degree that he needed to accompany Albert’s saxophone.

Donald contributed enthusiastic arranging in turn-of-the-century style, and a Louis Armstrong-era swing to Albert’s writing. The sixties statement that free jazz was in a way a recuperation of early Dixieland music, with all musicians soloing at the same time, is commonly associated with Ornette Coleman’s music. But the music of the Aylers is far more directly connected with New Orleans style jazz than Ornette’s abstract art music. What the Ayler brothers added to furious free soloing, were recognisable hymns and songs. True, those lovely little tunes were set up mainly to be completely deconstructed, and sometimes virtually raped…"

And has anyone else noticed the way that these guys have been forgotten?

...has anyone noticed the way the Burmese crisis just slipped out of the news once the censorship kicked in and no images could get out? Oh well, at least there's Pakistan now - some juicy images for people to look at so that they have something to focus their attention on. And the news teams can get some proper product-shifting in. (Since when has news become a product? And why?)

But just because it's slipped out of the mainstream headlines, and just because hte politicians aren't that bothered (well, I mean, can you imagine that the Americans care that much? I don't see the words "oil" and "Burma" banded around together much, do you?) - just because of this, doesn't mean we should just forget about it. In fact, it makes it doubly important that we keep updated - one way of doing so is this wikipedia entry on the crisis:

Oppression is just a fact of life for much of the world, or so it seems. But that does't mean we should accept it, or be complacent in its face.

Freedom in music and freedom in the world.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Paul Rutherford Memorial Concert

Just a brief post about this, which I attended at the Red Rose last night - four hours of superb music. Lots of interesting combinations and groups - lots of variety - from the opening blues number by Mike Westbrook to the Robert Jarvis/Lawrence Casserley trombone/electronics duo, to the 'Political Duo' of Veryan Weston accompanying Maggie Nichols singing 'L'Internationale' and so on, to appearances from the likes of Harry Beckett, Keith Tippett and Kenny Wheeler (and not forgetting the climactic performance by an augmented London Improvisers' Orchestra). A suitably vibrant and adventurous tribute to the late Paul Rutherford. Here are some videos, taken on digital camera over the course of the evening - the quality is pretty poor (and the sound cuts out whenever I zoom in), but I think it gives a decent impression of the music that was played.

Harry Beckett on trumpet, with Nick Stevens on bass and Tony Marsh on drums. Fine stuff.

Robert Jarvis on trombone and Lawrence Casserley on electronics, producing some mesmering sounds towards the end of this clip.

The quartet of Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford and Philip Waschmann.

An extract from the final performance of the night, a collective improvisation by the London Improvisers' Orchestra. This is one of the quieter moments!

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Trevor Watts/Jamie Harris duo


WEDNESDAY 10th OCTOBER (tomorrow!)
Red Rose, Finsbury Park, London

Pretty late notice, but a quick head-ups for this gig - if you're able to get there, you should definitely go along. Trevor Watts is now the sole surviving member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble following the recent death of Paul Rutherford. Time Out magazine describes this as "intoxicating tribal jazz-dance with an emphasis on Latin rhythms from the saxophone and percussion duo, supporting their recent album 'Ancestry'."

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Hot Rats

I have been asked to give a review of Hot Rats by Frank Zappa. Here it is (this is a review of the vinyl version, not the CD, which has 5 minutes of extra music and is remixed, or something like that).

I guess the first track I should talk about is the second tune on the record, 'Willie the Pimp'. Having not heard 'Bongo Fury', I'm uncertain as to how the Zappa/Beefheart collaboration would pan out - I'm not too sure how well it would work, though of course some of their earliest musical experiments were together, as teenagers. As it is, Beefheart's contribution is pretty minimal, despite the fact that Lester Bangs thought his spirit inspired the whole record - all he does is sing the main melody, a simple and catchy 11-note tune, with lyrics about...well, being a pimp ("I'm a little pimp with my hair gassed back/ Pair o' khaki pants with my shoe shined black/Got a little lady ... walk the street/Tellin' all the boys that she cain't be beat/...Standin' on the porch of the Lido hotel/Floozies in the lobby love the way I sell"). Not sure whether Zappa's trying to poke fun at pimps, or at the people who use prostitues, or just to challenge the boundaries of good taste and amuse himself, but the words are pretty bizarre. Beefheart's voice, singing them, is its usual raucous, always slightly scary growl, but he soon disappears, signing with a trademark yelp, to make way for Zappa's long, long guitar solo. The music is far smoother than the work he's famous for - no jangling guitars going off in several different melodic and rhythmic directions at once here - as this tune is very much Zappa's show.

For some interesting background on the making of the album, this article is worth looking at - Seems like Beefheart and Zappa both had very definite ideas of where they wanted their music to go, but Zappa wanted to control Beefheart as well - though he liked its wildness, its irreverence, it just wasn't polished enough for him. Beefheart had an unpredictability that Zappa probably found both brilliant and immensely irritating - thus, when Beefheart tried to break glass, literally - "he took a deep breath and emitted a long-drawn-out yell. We inspected the window. Not a crack. 'I'm feeling a little tired,' he said" -"the door was thrown open and a furious Frank Zappa burst in: 'What the fuck was that?' he demanded. The yell had penetrated the studio sound proofing and leaked onto a track."

Anyway, wile Zappa's music is highly complex and influenced by European classical avant-gardists like his hero Varese, it's a different kind of complexity to Beefheart's. Whereas Trout Mask Replica, despite the months of secluded rehearsal time Beefheart forced the Magic Band to undergo, still sounds edgy, rough round the edges, not quite put together (the sound of the tape cassette being clicked on and off as Beefheart improvises lyris to 'Orange Claw Hammer', for instance), Zappa's most complex stuff becomes almost like clockwork at the time - the sort of thing that might be better played by machines than musicians.

I have to admit that I'm not the greatest fan of the Zappa solos that just go on and on and on. I may be a bit schizophrenic in my approach here - I can quite happily listen to John Coltrane torrents of notes and noise for hours on end, and even the loose, jam-session feel of Miles Davis' 70s work appeals to me, though both musics have their fair share of longeurs. You can hear the Blues influence in Zappa's playing, but it's filtered through a differnet sensibility - it's not just that it's made more technically complex (Ornette Coleman, for all his elaborate, impenetrable theory of harmolodics, retains a real gut impact, a heavy blues cry, in virtually every solo he plays), but the emotion seems to have been filtered out in exchange for axe-wielding wizadry. He's taken elements of the phraseology of blues players and combined htem with the 60s jazzman's penchant for length and dexterity, but combined them to produce an unsatisfactory middle ground (IMHO, of course).

It's as if he's always on the verge of breaking through, of connecting with the listener, grabbing them by the throat with a musical idea, but remains always just short of that moment, like he was playing behind glass. An annecdote about Larry Corryel could be relevant: he challenged Jimi Hendrix to a guitar duel, and played a complex solo for 10 minutes, unleashing all his jazz runs and tricks - then Hendrix played one long, wailing note and cut Corryel's solo to shreds in under a minute. Sometimes the simplest things are the best: saying more by saying less.

The Lester Bangs review from when the album first came out (read it on the Rolling Stone website here: praises it for its toughness and gritty edge, something lacking in a lot of the early jazz/rock fusion stuff being produced at this time (though I think that a lot of the late 60s/early 70s fusion was actually a lot grittier than what was to come later - for instance, compare the work of British musicians, like John Surman and John McLaughlin, Miles Davis' many excellent bands, and the original Tony Williams Lifetime trio, with later Weather Report, Return to Forever and so on). Bangs wrote: "he's learning from the new jazz heavily...and applying all his technical savvy until the music sounds a far and purposely ragged cry from the self-indulgence of the current crop of young white John Coltranes." He did admit that the guitar solo on 'Willie the Pimp' was not the record's finest five minutes: "[Zappa]'s not really a jazz improviser, and his repetitious and surprisingly simple patterns get boring before he's half-way through" (this criticism is slightly different from mine, in that it's not so much simplicity I have a problem with as what I see as a distance from emotion and a concentration almost entirely on instrumental prowess as an end in itself).

However, I can't help thinking that the whole slant of Bang's review is slightly bizarre and off-kilter, and doesn't chime with my experience of the album at all. He concludes that, "if you're eager for a first taste of Beefheart or interested in the new approaches to instrumental style and improvisational technique being developed these days, this is as good a place to start as any; a good stepping stone to folks like Ayler, Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor-the real titans these cats learned it from." Hm...I somehow don't think this sort of jazz/rock fusion has much in common with any of those names: Don Cherry's pithy and slightly sour-round-the-edges melodicism, Ayler's transcendent altissimo wails to the heavens, Taylor's cascades of sound, his assaults on the keyboard and challenges to how much musical information you can take in in a few seconds. Zappa superficially includes elements of more experimental jazz, such as wailing saxophones, but, just as with Beefheart, they are pursuing their own course rather than. You always read people mentioning Ornette Coleman when discussing the sax/bass clarinet stuff on Trout Mask Replica, but it's light years away from Ornette's saxophone work - maybe it's closer to his playing on trumpet and violin (which, after all, he couldn't really 'play', in the normal sense of the word, and used more for an immediate colouristic/emotional impact), but still. Similarly, I think that to equate Zappa's ironic, self-conscious, knowing, parodistic, schizophrenic muscial style with Ayler's combination of frenzied religious intensity and the simplest of folk-style melodies shows that the critic hasn't been listening to Ayler very closely, if at all...

So what is this record then? I think the best description I've found is over on another internet blog: "soft jazz-rock." Far from being the gritty, free-jazz tinged music Bangs characterised as, it's . Accessible and sunny, full of textural interest (one of the earliest experiments in multi-tracking I believe, building up layers of Ian Underwood's organ and reed-instrument playing to create the sound of a bigger band than is really playing). Sugar Cane Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty are fine on violin (I would urge you to check out Ponty's jazz album of Zappa tunes, 'King Kong'), Underwood is fine on saxes, etc, the rhythm section is tight.

The melodies are killers...'Peaches en Regalia' is just insanely brilliant, perhaps Zappa's best tune. It drives you round the bend with its catchiness, but you can't help feeling uplifted by it. The intro to the 'The Gumbo Variations', with its acoustic jazz bass, is a killer. Everything is good...The record seems relatively irony free for a Zappa album, and that's perhaps the best thing about it - despite the sometimes over-indulgent instrumental virtuosity on display, it's happy just to be entertaining music and not to indulge in the polemical/scatalogical/bad taste/self-indulgently weird shennanigans that seem to characterise even Zappa's better albums. Not a classic, maybe, but always a solid fusion record, and sometimes more than that.

Monday, 17 September 2007

Ghedalia Tazartes

Earlier today, I was browsing posts from the excellent Jizz Relics blog that came under the 'experimental' tag, I decided to download an album called 'Tazartes' Transports' by Ghedalia Tazartes (

I knew nothing about the artist, when it was recorded, or anything like that, but the music was utterly captivating and I've listened to the album several times already. Utterly disregarding any generic conventions, and categorisation, it unfolds in a hypnotic, totally engaging way and manages to sound like very little else. Vocal samples weave their way in and out of the music, often gravely beautiful Arabic-sounding melodies, sometimes played normally in the midst of much complex electronic trickery, sometimes speeded up, sometimes slowing down, sometimes simply allowed to unfold in a quietly meditative haze. The same samples re-appear on different tracks: a woman's laughter can sound light and airy on one piece, sinister and nightmarish on another, where dissonant noise builds up underneath until, just at the climactic moment, the music unexpectedly switches direction for a a moody, vaguely Oriental soundscape full of high-pitched electronic speaks and sqanks and something that sounds like a bird...or a cicada. Screams of "All animals have personalities" add a comedic another point, Tazartes produces something which, for a few seconds, sounds strangely like an Evan Parker saxophone solo. It's intriguing for the way it merges the human and the machine, the emotional and the robotic, cutting-edge electronic sounds with the simplicity of an ancient melody -

Before popping Tazartes' name into google, I thought that this must be contemporary electronic music, of the Autechre/Aphex Twin variety...Unbelievably, though, it was recorded back in 1977 (with three more recent, slightly less adventurous bonus tracks). I've been unable to find much info about him; he doesn't have an official website, or myspace fan page, or anything like that, and most of the information I can find is in French. Despite the astoudning quality of this music ,he doesn't seem to be a very well-known artist at all, having released only a handful of recordings ('Transports' was self-produced, although the CD re-issue from 1998 comes on the Italian label Alga Marghen, who have also re-issued some of his other recordings). Rateyourmusic gives his birthdate as 1947, so he's not that old, and he still seems to be recording (here's his latest release ( I did manage to dig up one interview with him, but it's in French, and Google translater renders the meaning very sketchy indeed! ( The author of this page ( says that he was offered the opportunity to interview Tazartes for 'The Wire' magazine, but turned it down, becaue he couldn't guarantee they'd be interested...And the only other useful page I could find was this one, which has a (very brief!) bio, and information about a couple of newer releaeses:

Oh, and I also find this list of Tazarte's re-issued recordings:

I am mightily intrigued. If anyone else knows of any more resources relating to Tazartes, or has anything they'd like to add regarding his music, spout away in the comments!

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Another one passes on...R.I.P. Joe Zawinul

At a spry 72 with five decades of innovative performing now behind him, does Zawinul know where jazz itself is heading? "I have no idea, ... but as a good improviser, I know where it is not: the past.”

Just the other night I was thinking about the ‘forgotten period’ of Wayne Shorter’s career: his 1970 recordings for Blue Note, ‘Odyssey of Iska’ and ‘Moto Grosso Feio’, from that exciting time period when fusion first started to spiral into something big, yet retained a sense of freshness, experimentation, and adventure which would be sorely lacking by the 1980s. Then, the next day, I learned via the internet that we had lost yet another major jazz musician, and one strongly associated with Shorter, and with that formative fusion period: keyboard player and composer Joe Zawinul. A bit of a sad end really, with the death of his wife earlier this year, and the fact that he was apparently suffering from a rare form of skin cancer; he wasn’t that old either – just 75. Mind you, his touring schedule showed no signs of slowing down (he had dates planned for later in the year).

He was maybe not one of the greats (fusion fans, don’t kill me for saying so!); not in the same league as the recently deceased Max Roach, or Shorter himself for that matter, but he was responsible for one of the biggest jazz hits of all time, in 'Birdland', with Weather Report, the fusion supergroup he co-founded with Shorter. This will always be remembered as his major contribution to music, and more in that to follow in this post, but it's the more overlooked period of the late 60s and early 70s that really interests me. Beginning as a sideman with Ben Webster and Dinah Washington, his big break came when he joined the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, for whom he wrote the immensely popular 'Mercy Mercy Mercy' (which saw him making an early use of the electric piano - a Wurlitzer, in this case).

In 1969, he caught the attention of Miles Davis, and played a pivotal role in a good number of Miles' classic, groundbreaking fusion albums from this period, starting with 'In a Silent Way' (the title track was one of his compositions, and his spacey organ contributed greatly to the music's languid, mysterious ambience), and continuing with 'Bitches' Brew' (again featuring his compositions, as well as his playing as one of the bank of keyboard players). His tunes were a major part of Miles' setlists: 'Directions' opened all of the trumpeter’s concerts from this period. Around this time, he also made a fine debut album, simply titled 'Zawinul', on which he explored more of the IASW ambience, but with more of a personal spin. These pieces were 'tone poems' depicting scenes from his Viennese upbringing - his grandfather's funeral, arrival on ship from New York (an early experiment with studio technology, to be continue with Weather Report), and his days as a shepherd boy on the Austrian hills. The record was a minor classic, though it doesn’t get much attention nowadays, more’s the pity (you can listen to it here,

So on to Weather Report: this is a band of several phases, really, with constantly rotating personnel in the bass and percussion departments lending the band quite different sounds at different periods. The first phase, and for some people, the best (though the least famous) begins with the formation of the band in 1970. Zawinul stuck to acoustic piano and electric piano (with some tasty distortion) – this was far less arranged, less orchestrated, less written-out, than the later stuff, concentrating on in-the-moment interplay between the highly skilled band members: Shorter, Zawinul, and the phenomenal bassist Miroslav Vitous. Vitous refused to conform to the notion that the bassist should play a secondary, supporting role, as was traditionally the case in jazz, and insisted on interacting as a third main solo voice with the saxophone and piano, which gave the music a real edge, a sense of tension and unpredicatability - though this could mean, as Zawinul later admitted, that there was a certain inconsistency – the band could either be smoking hot, or hesitantly noodle their way through the evening, producing lots of notes and sounds but not really hitting the pocket, the groove, the inspiration. Of course, the later approach meant that this was less of a risk, but it also meant that a lot of that initial sense of adventure and excitement was gone, however good the tunes and the playing.

Their debut, self-titled album has some wonderful moments, the highlight of which is perhaps the sublime ballad ‘Orange Lady’ (a Zawinul composition also covered by Miles Davis and his Bitches’ Brew band on ‘Big Fun’), and ‘Live in Tokyo’ shows what they were capable of in a live setting (half the show appears on ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, with the other side featuring studio recordings). This phase shifts in 1973, with ‘Sweetnighter’, where Zawinul starts to focus less on abstract interplay, and far more on groove and rhythm, drawing on elements of contemporary pop music (the most famous track from this record, ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’, is a 13-minute groove juggernaut which Zawinul claimed contained the “first hip-hop beat”; it’s certainly been influential on subsequent generations of DJs and producers of dance music). Vitous was unhappy with this direction, and with the fact that he was being made to play bass guitar rather than acoustic bass, and was replaced by Alphonso Johnson, somewhat underrated as a member of the band, but with a huge, rock-steady sense of groove that gives the music a deliciously pulsing, driving quality (check him out on this youtube video for an example -, with Part 1 (Zawinul's acoustic piano solo) here

The next few albums contain some pretty good stuff – I’ll put in a mention for ‘Tale Spinnin’ and ‘Black Market’, a really joyous, colourful record which sees Jaco Pastorius’ first appearance with the band on the gorgeous ‘Cannonball’ (a tribute to Joe’s old boss Cannonball Adderley, who’d just died). Pastorius became a dominant force, playing a melodic, up-front function as Vitous had done, but with a more lyrical, horn-like approach and a ferocious set of fusion chops. ‘Heavy Weather’, the band’s most successful album, showcases these to the full on ‘Teen Town’, and he seemed to be increasingly taking over the co-leader role from Shorter, his bass and Zawinul’s ever-larger arsenal of synths and keyboards defining the band’s sound, with the saxophone there for decoration and dramatic effect (this may have been less the case live, but certainly on the albums). The later albums (such as the dismal ‘Mr Gone’, which notoriously received a one-star rating from Downbeat magazine) are pretty much disposable, though I suppose some people must have liked them.

One of the main features of Weather Report was its eclectism, and the fact that, at the time, it didn’t really sound like anyone else (though there have been plenty of imitations since, especially in regard to Jaco’s bass style). The combination of advanced musical technology (Zawinul’s banks of keyboards) with what could be simple, accessible melodic lines, joyous, infectious rhythms, and a real sense of musical colour, was a winner, though the music did veer more and more towards the commercial, diluting its qualities of adventurousness and newness to churn out more and more of the same, with less space for improvisation (apart from Jaco’s rather self-indulgent rock-star flights), less space for Wayne Shorter’s compellingly idiosyncratic saxophone, and touches which sound very dated.

Being generous, one could say that Zawinul’s later music (with his band the Zawinul Syndicate) in particular exhibited a quality that characterizes jazz – its openness, its fusing of cultures, primarily African American with elements of white European music, but expanded out to encompass music from India, Latin America etc. While the music itself wasn’t really to my taste: you can hear it on albums such as ‘Faces and Places’, and live albums recorded at Zawinul’s own ‘Birdland’ club in Vienna (a place which was a tribute to a tribute to an original, if you like, evoking associations both of Zawinul’s famous tune, and the original club which inspired it –a nod to both personal and wider musical history).

Ethan Iversen’s post over at the Bad Plus’ blog, ‘Do the Math’ is so good that I hope he won’t mind me reproducing it in full here:
The technique of music doesn't know race…Perhaps the most obvious man to illustrate this still-debated point is Joe Zawinul, who died today. Zawinul had such a passion for funky black American music that he overcame the severe handicap of being born in Austria before becoming an essential member of Cannonball Adderley's band in the 1960's.
In his greatest work (which was the greatest fusion band, Weather Report, co-led with Wayne Shorter), a most curious role reversal took place: the black saxophonist from Newark wrote the thorniest compositions, and the Austrian pianist came up with the funkiest grooves. Like so much of improvised music, Weather Report's discography (while still splendid) is only half the story: all that saw Weather Report live in the 1970's say it was one of the great experiences of their lives."

That captures the global appeal of Weather Report; beyond the African-American roots of jazz, beyond Zawinul’s own white, European, classical background – as he himself sadi, "musicians from Africa know Weather Report music inside and out ... but often didn't knew who was playing it because it would be distributed on pirated cassettes that had no labels. Many such players couldn't believe that some of us were white.” And that was maybe Zawinul's greatest contribution - a transcending of racial and musical boundaries that resulted in a body of work which, at its best, was as colourful and joyous and moody and atmospheric as anything you're likely to here.


And, though there’s no fully-fledged post on this, we shouldn’t forget this man either:

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Help Please!

Not sure if my blog is really the right place to do this, but here goes anyway...

I've decided to start up a magazine focussing on jazz and improvisation, with the first issue hopefully coming out later this month (but more likely October). The first issue will focus mainly on free improv, and following are a few features I hope to include: articles on improvisation, on internet blogs and their relationship to free jazz, and on jazz radio, as well as some concert reviews and CD reviews, and an interview (or two).

I've been shooting off e-mails and posting on message-boards, but I though I'd post an appeal here as well - I'm looking for writers who'd be willing to submit reviews, of recent jazz/improv concerts and new jazz/improv CD/DVD/book releases. Also, presumably many people reading this will be bloggers themselves - if you have the time, and are willing, I would love it if you could e-mail me a short piece on the rationale behind free jazz blogging, the sharing of out-of-print music, and so on. I'm thinking of compiling a feature lasting a couple of pages, maybe more, with fairly concise 'opinion pieces' from various people - probably only a few paragraphs each - linked by some of my own writing.

And if anyone fancies doing a feature themselves (prefferably on some aspect of improvisation, such as its relation to composition, or the aeshetics of free improvisation, its benefits from a performer's/listener's point of view, or some such general topic), that would be very welcome too.

Oh, and thoughts on jazz radio as well...

Unfortunately I don't have the resources to pay anyone who submits anything, as I'm a struggling first (soon to be second) year university student! - however, I would be really grateful for anything I receive, just to get the magazine off the ground.

If anyone's interested, please contact me by e-mail for further details. I think I've put the link in my blogger profile, but just in case, I've put the address on this post as well:

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Max Roach R.I.P.

Max Roach: "I always resented the role of a drummer as nothing more than a subservient figure. The people who really got me off were dealing with the musical potential of the instrument..."

Stan Levey : "I came to realize that, because of him, drumming no longer was just time, it was music."

Max Roach: "You have to pursue, pursue, pursue: sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but if you've been around as long as I have, you can afford to take chances."

Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach died last week. He was 83 and had been ill (with dementia/Alzheimer's) for some time. I haven't got round to writing something until now, as I really wanted to justice to his fantastic career and achievements. Still, in a way, I feel that an entry like mine - hopelessly brief, unable to do justice to Roach's huge legacy (huge chunks of which I am not nearly familiar with as I should be) - is not really serving any purpose. But then again, I amin in this blog (somewhat selfishly) to present things that interest and touch me, I also hope that, by doing so, I can say something that will touch someone else, somewhere.

One of jazz's greatest percussionists, Roach's career encompassed a huge variety of styles and collaborators, from his work with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to MBoom, a percussion orchestra, and duets with avant-garde players Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and Archie Shepp. In the 1950s, he was one of the prime musicians in the be-bop movement, appearing on legendary recordings with Parker, including the superlative 'Jazz at Massey Hall' from 1953. What made him stand out from earlier styles of jazz drumming was that he didn't just 'keep time' and provide a backdrop/cushion for the 'main men' - the horn players and the piano players - to solo over, but also provided a counterpoint, rhythmic and melodic, to what the soloists were doing, actively interacting with them without ever becoming cluttered or intrusive. As he explained, his experience with the Charlie Parker allowed him greater freedom to develop as more than just a mere time-keeper: "One thing I gloried in, working with people like Charlie Parker, was the built-in rhythm section. You didn't need a drummer or a bass player to know where the time was." But he was not a show-off, grandstanding drummer (as some might have accused Art Blakey of being), acknowledging that "jazz is a very democratic musical form. It comes out of a communal experience. We take our respective instruments and collectively create a thing of beauty.” It was not necessary for him to grandstand; those who did might get noticed more, but Roach's more understated approach showed far more subtelty and sensitivity to the collective whole, as Gary Giddins, in his 'Weatherbird' column for The Village Voice, explains:
"Even Buddy Rich, who knew he could paradiddle Roach or anyone else into oblivion, was obliged to consider the limits of supersonic paradiddling...Rich 'ran Roach out of the recording studio' when they recorded together in 1959, but an earlier unspoken contest tells a different story: the records each man made with Parker, where Roach is exalted and Rich frequently at sea."
Peter Breslin, over at his 'Stochasticatus' blog, puts it more explicitly:
"I have nothing against flash. And Roach had plenty of flash himself (his hi hat solos, for but one example). But Roach also made music. Always. He was an artist first and a drummer second. And I can clearly hear that the end result of this sort of priority is that one becomes massively expert on one's instrument. But the technique is in the service of some sort of statement. Roach was always saying something. Some great drummers are sometimes simply saying 'look at how great I am.' "

Roach founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus, one of the first musician-run labels, and co-led a group with trumpeter Clifford Brown - a group, instrumental in the formation of the so-called 'hard bop' style, that was known as one of the greatest in jazz history. Brown's tragically early death in a car crash affected him deeply, but he continued to record and perform in many different contexts: in an excellent quartet with Odean Pope and Cecil Bridgewater; a 10-member drum ensemble, M'Boom; and with gospel choirs, symphony orchestras, brass quintets and Japanese drummers. He also composed music for dance pieces by Alvin Ailey and for plays by Sam Shepard. In the 1980s and '90s, Roach often performed with a string quartet that included his daughter Maxine Roach on viola, played drums in spoken-word concerts with writers Toni Morrison and Amiri Baraka and even accompanied hip-hop artists. His stature as a giant of the music was recognised when, in 1988, he was among the first jazz musicians to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, or so-called "genius grant." He was ill for the last years of his life, and his last recording came 5 years ago: 'Friendship', a collaboration with 82-year old trumpeter Clark Terry.

I was watching videos of Martin Luther King speeches on youtube (there's also a video on there of Roach playing an improvised drum solo as accompaniment to a recording of King's "I have a dream"), and it got me thinking about how distanced jazz has got from the sort of social and political concern of people such as King. So often nowadays, jazz is seen as something rather glib and shallow, an affected style rather than a music of protest and a music expressing real lives, real problems. Wynton Marsalis' work at the Lincoln Centre, however well-intentioned, has a negative effect that, for me, outweighs any of its positive aspects - that of enshrining the work of the masters of the past with scant regard for the fact that they were masters precisely because they were forward-looking, because their music did not rely on cliche. Sure, tradition is a vitally important part of jazz- Andrew Hill understood that, Charles Mingus understood that, Archie Shepp, for all his reputation as avant-garde firebrand, understood that - yet tradition for its own sake, tradition as a endless cycle of recycled music, of other people's music (or your own music, sounding like other people's), is not, for me, what jazz is about. Jazz is about being on the edge - about the excitement, the hint of danger in testing untried waters (as Roach did when he re-formulated the role of the dummer in his be-bop work with Charlie Parker - be-bop may now seem almost old hat, but back then it was something fresh and wild, something that could make Jack Kerouac "popeyed with awe"). By way of comparison, just imagine if classical music had never moved on from the baroque...The be-bop pioneers, I'm sure, did not think that their style would become entrenched, with minor variations, as what jazz is, fifty years on.

And so Roach, despite his role in some of the greatest jazz groups ever assembled, he never once rested on his laurels, playing with string quartet and orchestra, the avant-garde, MBoom, etc: "You can’t write the same book twice. Though I’ve been in historic musical situations, I can’t go back and do that again. And though I run into artistic crises, they keep my life interesting." As he told Mike Zwerin in a 1999 interview, he was asked by the self-appointed guardians of jazz's past, the fetishisers of tradition -
"You used to play with Charlie Parker. How can you work with these guys [Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton]?"
"I answered this way," Roach said. "A person like an Anthony Braxton is more like Charlie Parker than a person who plays like Charlie Parker. Bird was creative and different and looked inside himself. He knew what Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter and the rest of them had laid down. That was the foundation. Bird built on that foundation.
"Now you have people like Phil Woods who preserve the tradition. And then there are people who push forward, who perpetuate the continuum by trying out things. Cecil Taylor is more like Art Tatum than a guy who plays like Tatum. It may not always come off, but that's what creativity's about. Anyway, by now people accept me for what I am."
('From Hip Hop to Be Bop: An Interview' [Interviewer - Mike Zwerin, 14 January 1999]

KRIS TINER at 'Stop the Play and Watch the Audience' makes a lovely point that it's important not to miss in the flood of tributes.
"If only so many of those who will be lauding Roach from the lofty edifice of jazz education would recognize that he didn't just help to create a style, but that he continued to push the music, and continued to recognize and support others who were pushing the music, far past the crystallization point of bebop in the 1950s."

It's something that it will be very easy to miss in the flood of tributes and nostalgia that Max's death will bring, but a point that is incredibly important. Jazz has to be appreciated not as a style, an idiom - 'I like jazz, I like be-bop' - but for what it can do, for whether it's good music or not. (Though of course the question of 'good music' is a minefield!) So, repeating be-bop cliches now may be less relevant than what Cecil or Braxton are doing - be-bop was the revolutionary jazz of its day, after all.

Roach was not just progressive, or non-passive, in musical terms, but in political and social ones as well - in fact, for him, as for many of the 1960s free jazz players, the music and the politics were intimately connected. He put it this way: "art is a powerful weapon that society, or the powers that be, use to control or direct the way people think. Culture is used to perpetuate the status quo of a society. Even though I'm involved in music for the sake of entertainment, I always hope to offer some kind of enlightenment."

Perhaps his most famous recording as a leader was 'Freedom Now!', recorded for Blue Note records with his then-wife, vocalist Abbey Lincoln. With track titles like 'Freedom Day' and 'Tears for Johhannesburg', and a cover depicting a sit-in strike was released, it was obvious from just looking at the record sleeve that this was a politically engaged and concious mode of jazz, and the music itself, with Lincoln's extraordinary, passionate vocals, more than confirmed this imrpession. After the album's release, Roach told Down Beat: "I will never again play anything that does not have social significance. We American jazz musicians of African descent have proved beyond all doubt that we’re master musicians of our instruments. Now what we have to do is employ our skill to tell the dramatic story of our people and what we’ve been through.”

Free jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp was another man who, like Roach, stressed the political messages that lay behind his music, and who, also like Roach, often straddled a line between the avant-garde and more traditional, conventional forms of jazz. The duo albums they released, 'The Long March' (Parts 1 and 2) and 'Force' are long out of print, but should be required listening for admirers of both men. But it was perhaps Roach's collaboration with another free jazz titan that really set the sparks flying - pianist Cecil Taylor.

The duets with Taylor were, as one critic puts it, encounters between the most musical of drummers and the most percussive of pianists, and they saw a true meeting of minds, with the explosive Taylor pushed for sheer stamina and ferociousness of concentration and sound-production by Roach. Gary Giddins in his 'Weather Bird' column for The Village Voice, reviewing a concert Roach gave with Taylor at Columbia University in 2000, gives an example of the spirit in which this muic was made:
"Roach, who leaned heavily on a tuned tom that suggested a tenor timpani, never flinched. Au contraire: After 50 minutes or so, Taylor began what seemed a negotiation for closure; he looked up at the drummer and offered a possible clearing space, to which Roach responded with a furious fusillade that brought the pianist back to the front line. That happened several times, I think—Taylor working toward an exit and Roach slamming all the doors. Finally, at the hour mark, they agreed to desist, or at least ventured enough of a pause for Taylor to walk away from the piano, at which point Roach embarked on a drum solo. These guys, 71 and 76..."

Well, Cecil Taylor still soldiers on, as evidenced by his performance with Anthony Braxton at the Royal Festival Hall earlier this year, but Max Roach's boundless energy and exquisite musical sensitivity and good taste are no more. Rest in peace.

Monday, 13 August 2007

R.I.P. Paul Rutherford and Art Davis

I've been on holiday to Italy for 10 days, and when I got back, I read the sad news that bassist Art Davis and trombonist Paul Rutherford had both died while I was away.

Davis was trained as a classical musician and started out in the 1950s with Max Roach and Dizzy Gillespie. He is perhaps most famous for having played on six of John Coltrane's albums, including Ascension and Olé, often in tandem with Jimmy Garrison; their duets, in which he plays arco over Garrison's thick plucking, creating a mesmeric effect which is particularly in evidence on the title track of Olé. Though the other bassist on that piece is actually Reggie Workman, not Garrison, they venture into similar territory, their double solo culminating in a section where they produce horn like sounds, so that when Coltrane re-enters on soprano sax the textures blend and it almost sounds as if all three are playing the same instrument.

But Davis' relationship with, and influence on Coltrane extended beyond just his recordings with the saxophonist: as Valerie Wilmer comments in her classic book on the American 'New Thing', As Serious as Your Life, the two played extensively in private, "experiment[ing] frequently with various modes, sounds and rhyyhms." Davis assisted Coltrane with some of the chord progressions used on Giant Steps, and, though he was never able to become part of any of his regular working groups because of other engagements, "the high esteem in which he was held was shown by the saxophonist's insistence that his name be listed with the horns rather than in the rhythm section on the sleeve of Ascension" (Wilmer).

As well as Coltrane, Davis played with a large and varied number of leading artists including Quincy Jones, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Hank Williams, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Lena Horne, Ornette Coleman, Roland Kirk, and McCoy Tyner. He also worked in TV orchestras (NBC, Westinghouse Television and CBS), and classical orchestras, including the National Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Radio City Music Hall Symphony, the Westchester Symphony and the Orange County Symphony. However, despite his prodiguous abilities on his instrument (something he proclaimed on his website, describing himself as "the greatest bass player in the world" - not the most modest man in the world!), he also claimed that he had been denied permanent positions in these orchestras because he was black (something Charles Mingus also claimed) - in the 1970s, he even sued the New York Philharmonic for not offering him a full-time position.

As time went on, he drifted away from music (partly because of the protracted court case against the New York Phil, which lead to him being blacklisted (or, as he put it, "whitelisted"). Instead, he became involved in psychology, receiving master's degrees from the City University of New York and New York University and a doctorate from NYU in 1982, and taking up counselling work. By 1986, though, he began to play publically again, touring Europe and Japan, recording with pianist Herbie Hancock and Coltrane's son, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and establishing a foundation that awarded scholarships to underprivileged students. He played with David Murray's All Stars in 2000 and organised annual tributes to John Coltrane in Los Angeles but mainly devoted himself to teaching and playing occasionally in clubs in the city.

Steve Voce, in his obituary of Davis for The Independent, has this to say:
It's hard to imagine a more stunning jazz bassist than Art Davis. He was a virtuoso with a fat, perfect sound on the instrument. He was intelligent enough to blend into any kind of group that he chose to play with, be it Louis Armstrong's, John Coltrane's or James Brown's.

Paul Rutheford, meanwhile, was a pioneer of free improvisation on the trombone, pioneering the use of multiphonics and vocalised techniques on the instrument. He talks more about the development of his style in an excellent interview from 2006 on the All About Jazz website (the whole thing can be found at this address -
I’ve always been radical and I can remember one specific time when I started to play the trombone, I practiced in front of the mirror and watched myself play. I started to investigate the possibility of singing—double-stopping— and it developed from there. I found it to be so unbelievably flexible, and another trombonist might think it was a cumbersome instrument. If you know how to flick the slide, you can play unbelievably fast. I’ve always been interested in that flexibility, which has led me to be more involved in improvisation. I still love playing music in an orchestra, but really my love is just to get on stage and flick the bugle, you know.
Rutherford founded the Spontaneous Music Ensemble with John Stevens and Trevor Watts in 1966, and Iskra 1903 with Barry Guy and Derek Bailey in 1973. His work also encompassed solo playing (including the album The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie from 1974), stints with Mike Westbrook and the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra, and more mainstream commitments with Soft Machine and the Detroit Spinners, a rhythm and blues band. His dedication to the music he played and musical integrity was never in doubt:
I remember one case many years ago in Berlin at the FMP festival, and every year they had a special situation for trombone or saxophone soloists or whatever, and there were five or six trombone players from all over the place. One of the guys who played was involved in contemporary music, [Vinko Globokar] and he had to do a solo one night, another night it was me, and I think another night was Gunter Christmann. Anyway, Vinko came up and said “what are you going to play for your solo?” I said “I don’t know. I’m just going to go out and play.” He said “don’t you have an idea what you’re going to start with?” I said “no, and I don’t want any idea. I’m going to improvise, and I’m going to go on to play improvised music.” This is what actually angers me a little bit about some improvisers is that they go through this little routine of licks, and I don’t want that. I want to go out not knowing what will happen, just getting onto the platform and playing. It will happen anyway.

Though he was a busy man in the 70s and 80s, work dried up towards the end of his life, though he appeared fairly regularly in gigs at the Red Rose in London (including this year's Freedom of the City festival). In a way, what's sadder than the fact that he's died is the fact that, despite being one of the foremost free improvisers on the scene, of the same calibre as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and the like, he was unable to get regular work in the last few years of his life, leaving him depressed and struggling.
I just get so depressed about it—Christ, I know how good I am, but it doesn’t do me any good money-wise. I’m in the worst economic situation now that I’ve been in my life. There are things you take for granted—sometimes I go out for an Indian meal, and I know it sounds silly, but I can’t even think about that now. Inviting a lady out for a drink or a meal is totally out of the question—I can’t afford it. Simple as that. I’m on pension now—I’m 66 years old—and I’m having trouble with the pension. I’m seriously, seriously depressed and I’m just looking forward to getting to the States.

Not exactly a happy note to end on, but then again, there's no point in sugaring the pill. Improvised music has never found much of an audience in Britain, and, beyond a small group of devoted fans, is never likely to find much financial support, so musicians whose beliefs lead them to commit themselves to such non-commercialy viable work are not in for an easy ride. Anyway, click on the link below for a chance to listen to Paul Rutherford, playing wonderfully, as a member of Iskra 1903, on disc two of the rare 3-LP set 'Free Improvisation', released by Deutsche Gramaphone in the 1970s, and long since out-of-print.

Monday, 30 July 2007

The Great Silence

Today, I thought I'd post a review of a fairly obscure spaghetti western made in 1968, directed by Sergio Corbucci, 'The Great Silence.' It was released on DVD a few years ago, so should be fairly easy to get hold of, boasts a fine score by Ennio Morriconne (perhaps one of his best), and is a cut above your average Italian western. More detailed thoughts continue below the picture...

The setting – a bleak, snowy Utah in the 1840s.

The characters – a corrupt ‘justice of the peace’ who controls the town. A beautiful widow seeking revenge for her husband’s murder. A lone gunman whose speed on the draw is renowned throughout the state. And a group of bounty killers hunting down others for profit.

So far, so very standard spaghetti western. But this is no ordinary western, spaghetti or otherwise, and, while parts of it are stilted and the technical competence is sometimes lacking, it’s probably the bleakest and most thought-provoking film in the genre you’ll see for quite a while.

Certain elements immediately mark it out– the bleak, wintry setting (which was also employed in Andre de Toth’s excellent ‘Day of the Outlaw’ from 1959, starring Burl Ives and Robert Ryan), and the fact that the widow is a negress (played by newcomer Vonetta McGee, a striking actress who’d started out in experimental theatre and been involved in social activism, before going on to act in low-budget European movies, and then carve out a career of sorts in the 70s Hollywood Blaxpoitation boom). Tying in with this, there are a number of oblique references to racism (the villain, Tigrero/Loco, comments, “what times we live in - black’s worth as much as a white man”), something that perhaps raises connections with the so-called ‘political spaghettis’ being made by directors like Damiano Damiani (‘A Bullet for a General’). The fact that the hero, the lone gunman, is a mute who speaks not a word and makes no sound for the entire film, takes the spaghetti western tendency to work through expressive, stylised facial expressions to an extreme level (though the actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, makes it seem very unforced, and allows us to actually care about the character, conveying a mournful vulnerability as well as hard-nosed brutality – hard to see Clint Eastwood pulling off the same trick.)

The ending sees bounty killers shoot down the crippled hero before massacring a saloon full of men, women, and children, and riding off with the assertion that it’s all been done according to the law (the people they’ve killed are all outlaws – wrongfully so, but still outlaws). It’s exceptionally bleak, as if to say, this was the old west, this is what your nation was built on, this is what passed for justice – in other words, taking a similarly dark outlook to ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (one of the rare American westerns to take a less than rosy look at the nineteenth century American west – rare, that is, before the spate of heavy-handed 1970s films which drew parallels between the treatment of the native American Indians and the war in Vietnam – ‘Little Big Man’, ‘Soldier Blue’).

But it’s not just the Americans’ view of their own history which it’s subverting – after all, dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find serious problems being raised earlier on – by Ford in ‘The Searchers’, for instance – in other words, it’s not as if all American westerns took a rose-tinted view of their own history. Ford had even made ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ in 1964, four years before Corbucci’s film, where he portrayed the sufferings of the native inhabitants (and, earlier than that, 1950’s ‘Broken Arrow’ marked an important, if somewhat romanticised, sympathetic portrayal of Indians as far more than murdering savages). No, ‘The Great Silence’ is as much a response to other Italian westerns as it is to American ones. Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy showed the west as a brutal, desolate place, where women were virtually absent and killing and money were many people’s sole motives. The villains in his films were clearly villains, characterised by their hysterical, cackling laughter, their drug-induced reveries, their sadism, and the fact that they were accompanied by a dozen or so accomplices. Yet the heroes only seemed to be heroes, perhaps, because the baroque extravagances of the villains were so repulsive. At the beginning of ‘For a Few Dollars More’, a man riding a horse, seen in the distance, is killed by a long-range rifle shot – we don’t know who he is, whether he’s a good or a bad man – he’s little more than a dot on the horizon – but the fact is, he’s just been murdered. Then we read the screen-card: “where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.” It turns out that these bounty killers are the ‘heroes’ of the film, and presumably one of them has just committed the act we have just witnessed. Bounty hunters had figured in American westerns before (‘The Bounty Hunter’, a fairly innocuous effort starring Randolph Scott, came out in 1954), but the fact remains that these are professionals who kill people for money – unlike sheriffs, who act out of a civic duty, a responsibility to the community that arises out of their position as representatives of justice in action – they’re not really very nice people. Leone softens the impact of this in several ways: (1) by showing how corrupt and inept the lawmen, who should be dealing with these criminals, are (Monco: Tell me, isn't sheriff supposed to be courageous, loyal and, above all, honest? Sherrif of White Rocks: Yeah, that he is. [Monco takes badge off of the sheriff's vest, and gives it to some town folks] Monco: Think you people need a new sheriff). (2) By giving his killers motives (Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer in ‘For a Few Dollars More’ wants revenge for the rape and murder of his sister). Or (3) by making a joke out of it, as in the closing exchange of the same film:
Monco (Clint Eastwood): [counting reward sums of outlaws he just killed] Ten thousand... twelve thousand... fifteen... sixteen... seventeen... twenty-two. Twenty-two?
[An outlaw comes from behind, Monco turns and shoots him dead]
Monco: ...Twenty-seven.
Col. Douglas Mortimer: Any trouble, boy?
Monco: No, old man. Thought I was having trouble with my adding. It's all right now.

In ‘The Great Silence’, however, director Sergio Corbucci takes the idea that bounty killers must, by the nature of the job they have chosen to do, have some moral deficiencies, and runs with it – Klaus Kinki (a spaghetti western stalwart, always liable to turn in a scene-stealing psychotic performance, who, incidentally, features in ‘For a Few Dollars More’ as one of the ‘heavies’ in El Indio’s gang), murders and glares his way through the film, his intense blue eyes giving him a look of utter menace. Along with his cronies, he takes the place of the bandits who were the villains in Leone’s films – indeed, here, the starving bandits we meet, hiding up in the hills, are unjustly outlawed men waiting for an amnesty from the governor, and living in terror of the bounty killers who want to kill them for the reward before they are pardoned. In a way, they are similar to Leone’s characters – calculating, quick-draw gunmen who take advantage of the brutal climate they find themselves in for monetary gain – but they are so coldly inhuman that Eastwood and co. seem lovable in comparison. While the hero, Silence, who works against the bounty hunters, is also, partly, in it for money, asking $1000 dollars of Vonnetta McGee’s widow in order to kill Loco, he sticks to certain codes of conduct, such as protecting the innocent, and only shooting in self-defence (he forces his opponent to draw first).

Pehaps the most important thing about this film is that it moves far beyond the moral murkiness of Leone’s trilogy towards a serious examination of the moral implications of such a brutal society as that of the old west. Leone gleefully blasts away all the old myths, but his stylised vision is maybe less ‘realistic’ than one might think – less well-rounded than Corbucci’s ‘Silence’, touching on less complex issues, though, as film-making, it’s perhaps more competent (and more entertaining). The title card at the end of the film, proclaiming the historical basis of the story (something I’m unable to substantiate), adds a note of gravitas lacking from the Dollars trilogy, and the hopeless sacrificial death of Silence actually plays out a cliché familiar from ‘Shane’ - ‘a man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do’ – rather than the more superficial, monetary motivations of Clint Eastwood’s character. As Howard Hughes (not the tycoon!) puts it in the Pocket Essentials Spaghetti Western guide, “the nihilistic finale lives long in the memory – a moment when a man has to do what a man has to do, over love, the odds, and reasonable logic.” A damn sight more thought-provoking and moving than counting up the money you’ve earned by blasting away a dozen heavies and driving off happily into the sunset.

This is not an entirely successful film– Corbucci’s response to Leone indulges in many of the same clichés that the other director had established with his trilogy: the stylised shootouts, confrontations, silences, and so on. Its interest lies more in the ideas it presents than the way it presents them – though it is certainly a cut above many other spaghettis, and the snowy landscapes, coupled with Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score and some good performances, ensure that it’s very watchable.

While it may not be the greatest movie, we need more films like this – films that take us out of our comfort zone, that give us enough generic points of reference to lull us into some sense of security, but in the end will not allow us the easy resolution we expect, and make us question the very basis of the generic values and elements that made us want to see the film in the first place.