Tuesday, 20 December 2011

John Coltrane: Selflessness / Live in Seattle

Coltrane in 1965 is what I keep coming back to. Now that all this stuff is on the you tube (see above), I've been listening to it again, taking advantage of the potential to skip back and forward in a track, to listen and re-listen to particular second-long clips without having to juggle the fast-forward function on cassette or cd player – just with mouse clicks, to listen to a ten-minute or a ten-second section three times in a row...and all that jazz. McCoy Tyner's playing was so *thick* at this time, his chordal voicings approaching clusters in their density, and his rhythmic monotony a crucial part of the dialectic between stasis and continuance/momentum that gives his playing its peculiar quality. (This is similar, I suppose, to the trance states induced by particular kinds of tribal drumming, but you're not going to go into a trance here: the rhythm is too insistent and also too broken-up (thanks to elvin jones, “gretsch freak”) – it doesn't have that swirling endlessness that makes alice coltrane's playing on, say, ‘live in japan’, ultimately boring (much as I love her harp-like-swirl and the use of the entire range of the keyboard, from lowest thud to highest tinkle - and tho' of course the boring and monotony as such are in some sense a crucial part of both pianist’s playing styles, in a way i'm not sure i've yet quite grasped or come to terms with. (Tho’ this might provide a clue:

The venerable Curt Sachs may have put his finger on what is at issue here in Rhythm and Tempo (1953), when he discovered that "rhythm" itself, to misquote Freud, is a primeval word with antithetical senses. On the one hand, rhuthmos (Greek) denoted river or flow. On the other rhythmus (Latin) denoted blockage or dam. Sachs's point is not that Greeks and Romans had different cultural coordinates (to a large extent they did) but that coiled within rhythm itself was a certain undecidability - perhaps the very same undecidability that Derrida traced in the connotative oscillations of "tympan."

John Mowitt, 'Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking' (Duke University Press, 2002), p.24))))

So there's this thing called 'selflessness' that coltrane recorded in ’65 - it's from those studio sessions that were included on 'the major works of john coltrane', a 2cd box set impulse released in the 90s sometime, and which i remember listening to after borrowing it from my local library (who for some reason owned this (now probably out-of-print) thing alongside art blakey and stan getz and MJQ and courtney pine (they subsequently sold off all this stuff, no idea where it went: perhaps some old-people's home now possesses 'ascension', 'om', 'selflessness' and 'kulu se mama' on two shining discs and plays it as dinner music)). that was the first time i heard 'ascension', and 'selflessness' is a side-note compared to that…but ‘side-note’ is the wrong turn of phrase entirely, this is *vital* shit. i hate it when, say, allmusicguide does one of their fucking capsule reviews where they go, 'o, this is fine, but not the best place to start if this is your first time with player x', relegating most everything to some deferred future where you're an ‘expert’ and can therefore ‘take it.’ to that I’d say, *launch yourself in*, yeah? - of course you won't fucking understand it, I still don't, coltrane himself didn't, this is at the limits, it's hard to understand when you're up in that air... - but, ok, I heard 'expression' and 'ascension' early on, and i loved the passionate melodics of the opening heads (‘ogunde’ is based on a folk song, after all), and i didn't really *understand* pharoah sanders at all, and in fact i actively disliked him, but these things take time, go on with it, get on.

('selflessness' and 'live in seattle', which are the things i'm going to write about here, both feature donald rafael garrett on bass and clarinet, which is ostensibly the reason i'm considering them both together. garrett's not someone who was much heard from, or about, but val wilmer's 'as serious as your life' posits him as one of those crucial mentor figures during the mid-60s (giuseppi logan as another), whose contributions to the music and to the scene were certainly not proportional to their scant and inadequate documentation on record. (http://www.bardoworks.it/rafael.html has some further info.)

Donald Rafael Garrett in concert in Pisa, San Zeno abbey, 1983

// now let's get on, 'selflessness' opening with one of those melodies coltrane was writing around this time, ostensibly as serene or joyous up-cry, but which turn into a kind of desperate keening -as if one wished *too much* for that transcendent, solving/dissolving joy, for that synthesis, for the one final note that would provide the answer to the thousand fractured, cycling notes played through before: coltrane himself blowing the melody strong, sanders dipping and diving around him, with some wonderful watery, rattley flutter-tonguing.

& rafael garrett's arco bass insists on being taken as a third lead melody voice, blending with the horns, rather than partaking in the strummed and thrummed deep-end accompaniment that jimmy garrison, the coltrane quartet regular, would have provided. – to illustrate this, let’s take the first ten minutes or so of 'evolution', from the 'live in seattle' recording, where Coltrane, Sanders, and Garrett (this time on bass clarinet) soar in imitative, roaring and meshing blasts and honks, while Garrison provides a solid rhythmic underpinning which seems to be going on its own separate box or booth, tethering down the 'out of this world' massed vocalised ecstasies of breath and air and metal, and essentially playing the flamenco-inflected bass solo which he then proceeds to deliver once the horns have stopped playing (this solo being a regular occurrence on Coltrane's live recordings). the absence of a drummer highlights just how 'free' the horns were capable of be(com)ing, of moving outside established licks in a flowing and melting and melding way: formally, one could describe this as ‘rhapsodic’ (in the sense that the term 'rhapsody’ comes from the Greek 'rhapsōidos', which itself comes from the combination of 'rhaptein', to sew, stitch together, and 'aidein,' to sing). & jazz itself is, perhaps, ultimately a rhapsodic form, based on fragments, breaks, discontinuities, allusions and quotations – at the same time that, as in hip-hop, *‘flow’* is central: propulsion, momentum, ‘looking ahead’. nonetheless, garrison’s desire to provide an established 'jazz' element does contrast with what the horns are doing (tho' to start off with his picked harmonics sound suitably 'exotic'); their flow reaches an extent to which it becomes *overwhelming*, dispensing with clock-checking time, with finishing a tune in ten minutes so that people can go and buy drinks, so that time itself becomes a felt, controllable thing, slowed down and speeded up at the musicians’ will – for the ultimate example of that, you’d have to look at those mammoth extended pieces by the Cecil Taylor Unit, where time itself stretches so much it almost seems to break, to fracture, to become meaningless.

well, now we’re here, hell, let’s just *listen* to the *whole* of 'evolution' – garrett's thin-reed wail on clarinet, notes bent, metallic melted to malleable shape-shift, transitioning into sanders' shronking and then that unbearably beautiful way he ends his solos with a kind of desperate lyricism, keening up-slide to notes. again, that *thin-ness,* not the full-bodied-ness we think of when we think of free jazz – say, Brotzmann or Coltrane himself – not that *filling out* of the sound-space: yeah, Sanders can do that, does do that, but what I'm talking about here is his use of *fragility*, a sense of self un-stable and breaking under the pressure and force of riots and revolutions and that late 60s belief in cosmic transformation; yeah, fucking *eschatology*, if you like, material transformation – sound is material, isn't it, it could speak another reality into being and not simply be contained within the glass-cash-register chinking register of the night-club / the record-label / the hit-parade / the culture industry. Uh, yeah, if Sanders' multiphonic explosions of simultaneous multiple notes, overtones, difference tones intend to vibrate the space into the fullest potential possible, the most filled wholeness - "every kinda chord you can hear under the fucking sun” - his solos at this time end with, say, two successive notes, the stalled beginnings of a melody, as his saxophone moves into being a voice, trying to sing a song to itself but now having to flutter-tongue burble and cry in woundedness – and it's the *transition* here that gets me, in this say, thirty seconds of music which expands out beyond itself as a non-melodic ear-worm which encapsulates for me what Coltrane could have and was constantly trying and failing to do - that failure as *built into the condition of the music*, the condition of music itself, the condition of the world itself that would not change as was wished – a desire that cannot express itself in logic, barely even in illogic, gesturing towards the "possible world," yeah, a "community of risk," someone in some other context said that.

that transition i mean is when sanders' solo is ending and suddenly, without warning on the audio version at least, coltrane, i think it is, comes out to the microphone and starts shouting, comes in roaring, 'OOOMMM' 'OORRRRHM' / 'OOOOOM' – 'OM', the primal word, the primal vocalised sound that sets the universe into being ("and god *said*, let there be light" - light and sound as one simultaneous flash, an explosion into being as the origin of the universe, some collective pre-evolutionary memory of the big bang) (see simon weil's fine article 'circling om') - that roaring is *almost* a parody of some horror-movie ‘black-magic’ voodoo roar, but it transcends that, it's not transcendent, it's a bellow of roaring animal pain outside language, outside the formal language of music, outside song - is not speech, is not song – is both – those moments when coltrane would take the horn out of his mouth; as miles davis had advised, but not to stop playing, instead to give vent to that roar of exhilaration mixed anguish…

more transitions (‘transition’ the title of a record from this year, coltrane’s music itself in transition, in creative mentor-exchange with the new thing saxophonists – sanders, shepp, carlos ward, ayler, john Gilmore – for whom he was a talismanic figure, the leader and legitimiser of the movement – tho’ he was equally influenced by their own side-slant attack; the ‘classic quartet’ splintering apart, that tension, between tyner’s static rhythmix and the way his playing cannot *help* but ratchet up in intensity and depth and drive when placed in the same physical space as coltrane’s boiling over; jones perhaps the prime force driving coltrane out into polyrhythmic ambiguity (that means, simultaneity), (*energy music*), himself frustrated (exhilarated?) by the wall of sound above and beyond him (reportedly throwing his drum-sticks at the wall at the end of ‘ascension’); garrison the one hold-over, once the transition to that final quintet was accomplished – and yet, it’s precisely that tension, that push-pull, that gives this music its power, and its *objective social content* – this the year of the watts riots – rip it up, split it up, all felt as personal upheaval, split and shatter into collectivity, that transition into new forms is *of course* painful, as any transition is, who knows where and what horror or beauty it could turn into, treading on thin ice, on air, tight rope tightened or loosening.)
so, transition, when coltrane stops shouting and the horns go triple over garrison's jazz moves, when they're wailing da-naaaaaaahhhhh-nuh, da-naaaaaaaaaaah-nuh (I can't fucking 'transcribe this', as onomatopoeia or notation or whatever - it is un-fixable in that sense, less we develop the technology to contain it - and if we did that, then we'd be in some society where our understanding of what went beyond our current grain made life liveable, where wounded cry was not just some impoliteness to be ignored, ill-advised feeling-show)); when Tyner comes in under and it's like some floor locks into place beneath the horns, and then he solos, the relief of that, there's only so much reality or surreality or irreality you can endure... 7:08 into Tyner's solo, Garrison pluck-repeating single note, the music freezing into repeated locked-record-groove stasis, like stammer-stuckness, like Coltrane repeating the head to 'confirmation' twenty times in a row, seeing it from its different angles, its different permutations, trying to reach every possible harmonic implication, to see the whole thing from all fucking angles - but different to that, I suppose, in that repetition is used in Tyner as a particular dramatic effect, whether gravity pillar-thick chord or as harp-like arpeggiated swirl with thick deep-end muscle - a space he moved into at this time, 1965, which never before or since was quite the same, had a lightness to it that this gravity-insistence - well, it's that, but at the same time it suggests that moment when everything's gonna split open - it never quite does - well, the horns come back in and thick cluster bash, is pentecost tongues to "set fire and death on whitey's ass" (if you believe amiri baraka...ok, this is not hate music – or maybe it *is* - “what we need is hatred. from it our ideas are born” (genet) – maybe it is, and maybe the critics were right (the london evening standard’s jack massarik, & his infamous off-mic “torrents of hate” jibe when some coltrane was played on one of bbc radio 3’s afternoon jazz snoozefests) – but if they were right, they were right in a strictly narrow sense that made them see that hatred as mere perversity, misanthropy, nihilism;

any hatred that there is in the music would have to be inextricably linked to love, love and hate mingled, hate motivated by love - by which i mean that there has to be a sense of what *has to be done* (perhaps *hateful* things) if change is going to be more than just a willed-for moment of religious transcendence, reliant on the intervention of an on-high god we ceaselessly invoke with or without the hope that he will finally choose *now* to intervene - it is still an in invocation then, but an invocation to action, however direct or indirect, to change systems of oppression and exploitation, bigotry and misery. of course, coltrane has an odd relation to direct action, we see this in that awkward interview where frank kofsky tries desperately to make him into a post-malcolm marxist but only succeeds in getting him to talk about the need for universal peace...archie shepp, the disciple, no doubt encouraged him to raise the political ante, there were young black men in the clubs at which he played shouting 'black power! black power!', and maybe coltrane would have become more politicised if he'd lived until the 60s - but this is the same as the 'what would malcolm have done if he'd lived' argument that those on the left still engage in from time to time. (counter-facts, counter-histories are all very well, but they never happened, did they?)

oh, ok, back to 'selflessness' again, and finally: things move on out. i'm so used to thinking of sanders' playing as undergoing a trajectory, from wild yawping, coruscating, disturbing beauties with coltrane (and those couple of blue note dates, ‘symphony for improvisers’ and ‘where is brooklyn’ w/don cherry), and then, once coltrane dies and he becomes a leader in his own right, a more controlled use of the free playing as occasional effect, climax, or 'interlude', between burbling, mellow, melodic rambles over ethnicky grooves and repeating chords...but here sanders' playing is not just the squall or blast of sound i'd remembered it as; rather, he develops rather jauntily carnivalesque rhythms (in a very distant pre-echo of Sonny Rollins, circa 'Don't Stop the Carnival'), tho' this is done, it shd be noted, thru unusual and forceful tonguings or fingerings (or however it is he gets those effects).

dig too, on these recordings (on this and 'live in seattle'), how the two main horns, sanders and coltrane, sometimes seem to swap over, coltrane adopting sanders-esque howls, sanders sliding his own melodicisms alongside coltrane's prophet-like, authoritative pronouncements. i'm not using 'prophet' here as some un-thought-through metaphor: prophets (i'm thinking in the biblical sense here) use poeticised, metaphorical, fanciful language (i mean, 'revelations' is sci-fi before the category of sci-fi, right?) to call down the abuses and corruptions and degradations of current society; to predict the calamities that will befall the society if it does not change it ways (or have those ways *changed for it*); and to posit an alternative future in which that society is healed and mended and transformed. is coltrane not doing all three of those here, as far as the limits of his instrument and his epoch and his imagination will let him?

of this kind of *total engagement* there is still need.

1 comment:

Sean Bonney said...

Fantastic piece of writing. Thanks.