Saturday, 24 October 2009

A Tribute to Sirone

News has just emerged that the bassist Sirone (Norris Jones) died in Berlin on Wednesday, at the age of 69. So, another one of the great free jazz musicians has passed away; warning that it's more urgent than ever not to rely on those early pioneers still being around and still keeping their music fresh. With Leroy Jenkins' passing a few years ago, this now means that, of the Revolutionary Ensemble, only one surviving member, Jerome Cooper, remains.

In tribute, I've put together a playlist of some of the Sirone performances in my collection. In some instances, I've excerpted bass solos from longer tracks (often when the bass isn't so well recorded, probably a legacy of the traditional jazz notion that the rhythm section is only a backdrop to the horns); in others, I've kept the whole track, as Sirone's accompaniment plays such an active role in the whole texture.

Sirone appears on albums with (to list just a few) Marion Brown, Pharoah Sanders, Noah Howard, Sonny Sharrock, Clifford Thornton, Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, and Dave Burrell, and collaborated with many others throughout his career. Born in Atlanta, he played with John Coltrane in the last year of the saxophonist's life, and became highly in-demand on the emerging 'fire music' scene: one might almost describe him as a free jazz session bassist, though that wouldn't do justice to the quality he brought to each session. Free jazz allowed him much more leverage than traditional routes; he was less an accompanist, a 'rhythm section' player, more an active participant, goading on the saxophones and trumpets and contributing sometimes pithy solo statements of his own. In these, he could be heard to take on something of Charles Mingus' very physical approach to the instrument, whereby the sound of fingers on strings had a real snap to it, the sound of slapped and struck vibrating gut; something, too of Jimmy Garrison's flamenco-flavoured strumming; and he developed, more than either player, a trembling higher register sound which would stand him in good stead for his later collaborations with the violinist Leroy Jenkins. In fact, even at this stage, he was the sort of player who meshed very well in unusual instrumental settings, especially with other stringed instruments to work or contrast with; on Gato Barbieri's 1967 ESP Disk recording, 'In Search of the Mystery', his pizzicato playing forms the turbulent backdrop to the piercing, near-anguished melodies played by Barbieri and cellist Joel Friedman.

1/ La Sorrella (bass solo)
from ‘Why Not’ (Marion Brown, 1966)

2/ Domiabra (bass solo)
from ‘The Black Ark’ (Noah Howard, 1969)

The first track in the playlist is a bass solo from 'La Sorrella', the opener on Marion Brown's 1966 album 'Why Not'. This is the longest solo Sirone is allocated (he solos on most tracks, but only for half a minute or so), and a good example of his interaction with Rashied Ali's drums, and their restless refusal to remain rhythmically stable. Following that, a solo from ‘Domiabra’, the opening piece on the 1969 Noah Howard classic ‘The Black Ark’; after the howling fury of Arthur Doyle, a bass solo might seem like respite, but Sirone’s springy jumps and bends round high and low registers are just as exploratory.

3/ Communications Network Part 1
from ‘Communications Network’ (Clifford Thornton, 1972)

Clifford Thornton, a trumpeter and trombonist (as well as cornet and electric piano player on this date) recorded some fine albums in the early 70s, probably the best known of which is the ambitious large-ensemble suite ‘The Gardens of Harlem’, recorded with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. For the first two tracks of ‘Communications Network’, Thornton features an unusual small group which, given the presence of Sirone and Jerome Cooper, is pretty much The Revolutionary Ensemble, with L. Shankar (of Shakti) replacing Leroy Jenkins on violin. This group has a very different sound, though; Shankar’s ecstatic raga lines over Thornton’s electric piano create a fusion feel which sits oddly – but very nicely – with Sirone and Cooper’s free jazz rhythms. Thornton’s cornet playing (he’s presumably overdubbing the electric piano) is declamatory and dark-toned, and, even if he and Shankar are very much the lead voices (bass and drums are way down in the mix, often obscured by the electric piano), it’s an interesting context in which to hear Sirone.

4/ Spring of Two Blue-Js Part 2 (excerpt)
from ‘Spring of Two Blue-Js’ (Cecil Taylor Unit, 1973)

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a jazz bass player is the immense stamina required: whereas a saxophonist can take a breather after blowing hard, bassists will most often play for the entire duration of a piece. Call this problem exacerbated in the music of Cecil Taylor, his pieces stretching to lengths that surpassed even those of John Coltrane, and whose fundamental characteristic was what Ekkehard Jost termed ‘energy’ (as opposed to ‘swing’), though of course Taylor has a lyrical streak which has grown more pronounced in recent years (sounding almost Debussyian at times). Robert Levin recounts one occasion where Taylor’s ‘Unit’ was playing in a jazz club; towards the end of the piece, his bassist at the time, Buell Neidlinger, had become so exhausted that he stopped playing, propped up by his instrument, his eyes closed as if, for all the world, the music had drained so much energy out of him that he had simply expired on the spot. If anything, Taylor’s music had grown even lengthier and more energetic by the time Sirone joined his Unit. An extreme example of this is the triple-LP (now double-CD) ‘One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye’, and to get a real sense of Sirone’s contribution to the music, one would probably have to listen to the whole thing – the cumulative intensity and accumulation of detail into a kind of trance-like block of sound is something that has to be experienced in the listening, rather than the describing – to be experienced as something total, complete. So I’ve chosen a short excerpt from the second piece on ‘Spring of Two Blue-Js’ (1973), an album recorded live at Town Hall in New York (at a concert dedicated to Ben Webster). We’ll hear the tail-end of the energy rush ridden and spurred on by saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, followed by Sirone’s solo, and a brief interaction with Taylor on piano ending the piece.

5/ Seeds and Deeds
6/ Meditation Submission Purification
7/ Joie de Vivre
8/ Qow
from ‘Coincide’ (Dewey Redman 1974)

Next, four complete pieces from Dewey Redman's 'Coincide' (1974), one of my favourite Redman recordings. Sirone and drummer Eddie Moore appear on all tracks (apart from 'Phadan-Sers', a Redman zither solo), and the other players are violinst Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Ted Daniel. 'Seeds and Deeds' opens the album with some 'hard-driving jazz' (to borrow the title of the John Coltrane/Cecil Taylor collaboration), Redman and Daniels blasting away, Sirone and Moore skittering all over the place to create an exceptionally jittery, energetic feel. By contrast, 'Meditation Submission Purification' has its tone set by the otherworldy sounds of Redman's zither, Sirone's arco harmonics, and Eddie Moore's 'bowed and struck idiophone'. The arco playing of Jenkins and Sirone was one of the finest things about the Revolutionary Ensemble, opening up textures and sonorities which had previously been thought of as the province of 'classical' music (and still are, to some extent, despite the work of John Edwards, Barry Guy et al), and, with the zither coalescing into hanging clouds of sound rather than taking a lead role, Sirone's playing is perhaps the most dominant voice here. It's an entrancing piece with a very special atmosphere. 'Joie de Vivre' shows yet another side to Sirone's work: after the free jazz of 'Seeds and Deeds' and the 'extended techniques' textural work of 'Mediation...', he proves that he can play very fine pizzicato straight jazz ballad bass on 'Joie de Vivre'. It's the same trio as on 'Mediation...' (Redman, Sirone, and Moore) but with a very different use of space: whereas on the previous track the effect was of time standing stil, here it just moves very slowly, in graceful and unhurried comfort. All three musicians sound supremely relaxed. Beginning with an equally relaxed sound, but at a faster tempo (a brisk, happy walk, rather than a slow stroll), ‘Qow,’ the longest of my four selections from this album, opens with Redman playing off Sirone’s catchy repeated riff before his rough-edged smears move things further ‘out’, Sirone switching to fast walking bass and then taking a popping, bubbling solo.

9/ Manhattan Cycles, Side A
from ‘Manhattan Cycles’ (The Revolutionary Ensemble, 1972)

10/ Ponderous Planets
from ‘The People’s Republic’ (The Revolutionary Ensemble, 1975)

Sirone’s probably best-known for his work with violinist Leroy Jenkins and drummer Jerome Cooper in The Revolutionary Ensemble, which formed in the early 1970s. Jenkins had moved to New York from Chicago, where he had been an important member of the AACM. Given the realities of being a jobbing musicians in the Big Apple, the Ensemble was formed partly to fulfill the need for a regular group which could explore some of the subtleties that had characterized the AACM – the so-called ‘chamber jazz’ carried over from the Creative Construction Company, in which Jenkins had played with Anthony Braxton. A long period of practice prefaced the Ensemble’s official emergence. as testified by the flowing interaction of the music – in some ways a contrast to the ‘blow as loud and hard as you can’ school of free jazz. Cooper’s drumming never asserted itself so much as rolled into being, repeating in slowly developing waves, or cells of sound, and Sirone meshed with Jenkins’ melodically assertive violin, rather than trying to sound out as a lead voice. It was this quality in particular that made the Ensemble such a special group – for though, as we’ve heard, Sirone could be an assertive player, he was perhaps at his best when creating a textural thread that altered the whole sound of a group without one quite realizing that, or how, it had been. The Ensemble’s first album came out on ESP-Disk (it’s just been re-issued under the title ‘Vietnam’) and has been criticized for the sound quality, which failed to capture the subtlety of the groups’ quieter, spacier moments. In fact, though, the tape hiss and drone comes to seem almost a part of the music at these times, something entirely appropriate as the ensemble would make use of tape recordings and other non-standard sounds to supplement the basic violin, bass, drums line-up. Thus, on ‘Manhattan Cycles’ (the entire first side of which I’ve included in the playlist), Billie Holiday’s voice floats out, muted, Jenkins picking up on the ghost memory and turning it into living, flowing improvisational lyricism. ‘The People’s Republic’ (apocryphally supposed to have invoked the ire of Quincy Jones over dinner with Herb Alpert, and the subsequent cancellation of A&M Records’ jazz sub-label Horizon) is one of my favourite of the Ensemble’s recordings; the tracks are shorter than on the long-form ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Manhattan Cycles’, with some particularly gorgeous melodies (such as the beginning of ‘New York’) , a spacey, African-flavoured piece for vocals and percussion (the title track), and much atmospheric use of gongs, cymbals, musical saws, and the combined arco playing of Jenkins/Sirone (‘Ponderous Planets’).

11/ Berlin Erfrahung
from ‘And Now’ (The Revolutionary Ensemble, 2004)

During this time, Sirone made a few recordings under his name (it would be more than 20 years before he did so again). The Revolutionary Ensemble split in 1977, and, like many American avant-jazz musicians, he settled in Europe, finding the climate there much more receptive than in his home country. Based in Berlin, he nevertheless to maintain a presence in America as well, going on to work with Charles Gayle, Billy Bang, Cecil Taylor, and the George Adams/James Blood Ulmer group Phalanx. In 2004, the Revolutionary Ensemble, which had been dormant since the late 70s, unexpectedly reunited, releasing an acclaimed album on pi records which demonstrated the same virtues as their 70s work, as fresh as ever. Each member of the group contributed two compositions: Sirone’s ‘Berlin Erfrahung’ offers a strongly melodic approach to composition.

Sirone was still working in the years leading up to his death, recording a couple of albums under his own name with European musicians as well as with the violinist Billy Bang. Needless to say, his music lives on.

Download link for Sirone Tribute Playlist:


gilhodges said...

Lovely tribte, David. Thanks.

Sharon said...

Thanks for putting this together this awesome tribute.

olie said...

thanks for this, what incredible stuff.

Matthew said...

Thank you.

Prof. Drew LeDrew said...

A thoughtful and moving collection. Thanks for the good work.

cultchas said...

Great work! Thanks for posting. Its always good to see people pay tribute to underrated artists.

Was the performance of Sirone with Coltrane recorded? If yes, may I know which album is that?


david_grundy said...

hi cultchas, i don't think it was recorded; coltrane was playing with so many people at this point, often in live performances rather than studio dates.

cultchas said...

Thanks for your reply. I was thinking about it all day :).

Is it correct that I should have an account at Mediafire to download the complied tracks of Sirone?

I'm need to check out the Clifford Thornton track.


david_grundy said...

you should be able to download the tracks without a mediafire account, unless they've changed the site recently (which they might have) - but if you can't, it's free to get one and it only takes a few seconds. yes, the clifford thornton track's an interesting one...

zardoz1984 said...

Thx again David for your wonderful tribute to that underrated giant.

PS: I've just figured out how to listen to one step beyond's shows (my PC was too old) & that's a pleasure!
You run a real who's who of music there, meeting with many of my favorites.
And now, what about Don Cherry, Khan Jamal, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Clifford Thornton, Malcolm Goldstein, a complete Leroy Jenkins tribute, Bill Dixon, Mal Waldron, Joe McPhee, Bena Achiary, Eddie Jefferson, AMM, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Alexander Von Schlippenbach, Kenny Dorham, George Lewis, Mildord Graves, David S Ware, Ted Daniel, Cecil, Anthony, Steve Lacy, Hugues Dufourt, Xenakis, Maurice Ohana, Kaija Saariaho, a story of free metal, Nikhil Banerjee, Ali Akbar Khan, some shades of drupad, La Monte Young, John Zorn, Chris McGregor, Charles Ives, Varèse, Tony Williams, Roy Haynes, Joe Chambers, Sam Rivers, Clifford Jordan, Yusef Lateef, Terje Rypdal, Keiji Haino…? Whatever you choose, be blessed for your true labour of love.