Sunday, 24 March 2013
john coltrane: 'lush life' in seattle, 1965
this from a cd which collects the remaining recordings from coltrane’s residency at the penthouse in seattle in 1965 – an expanded group comprising pharaoh sanders, donald rafael garrett (on bass and clarinet), jimmy garrison, elvin jones. the quality is pretty dreadful compared to the officially-released impulse 2-cd set (the untitled half-hour track taken from a radio broadcast is the cleanest, similar in vein to ‘evolution’ from the impulse set). nonetheless, worth making it thru the murk to find this cover of billy strayhorn’s ‘lush life’. i’ve been playing it for days, it makes me feel ill or something tho’, voices transported thru some ancient analogue form of recording technology, ghosts in the machine sounding out some terrible warning barely disguised as languid balladry, an interlude before the up-tempo and familiar ‘my favorite things’ routine (which itself sounds under some terrible strain here, coltrane’s soprano piping away obsessively over phrases that drown out under the general murk of the rest of the band’s pounding). this is partially a quality of the recording, but it’s there in the rest of the seattle tapes as well (as per this blog post from a little over a year ago). partially this is to do with the tension between the move towards free jazz that coltrane, sanders and garrett are taking, and the continued use of standard material – i mean, it’s perhaps somewhat surprising to find coltrane playing the strayhorn at this stage (tho’ the impulse set also includes ‘body and soul’), and there are moments here, as there are (to a far greater extent) on 'body and soul', where pharoah sanders enacts a queasy near-disintegration of the standard quite different to anything else in his or coltrane’s work (despite an online reviewer’s rather dismissive comment that he simply was “not really in this mould,” that it was “not his bag then”). & while coltrane and tyner stick to the chord changes, coltrane's playing nonetheless has an urgency to it far from the smooth and uncluttered phrasal shapings of his 1962 'ballads' record and collaboration with the smooth baritone of singer johnny hartmann. while the hartmann version stays solely and comfortably within the mode of wistful, resigned melancholy that characterizes strayhorn's tune, its chronicle of lonely day-drinkers (“sad and sullen faces / with distingué traces”, “twelve-o-clock-tails,” etc), here we have an attempt – or at least, this is how i hear it – to seek reassurance within that melancholy as a kind of pleasurable resignation, even transformed into a triumphant emotive assertion (as in nathaniel mackey's notion of 'blutopia'), rather than the desolation and desperation that the interpretation increasingly gestures towards – hence coltrane’s clinging close to the melody in a fairly lengthy opening exposition. yet sound and fury are always on the verge of kicking in, as witnessed by some upper register intrusions around two minutes in, and by increasing phrasal clutter and expansion before the entrance of pharaoh sanders (just as, in this period, coltrane's own ballad 'naima' comes to seem less and less a serene ballad, more and more poised between the quiet bliss of its first half and the element of uncertainty that creeps into the second, that element of the tune emphasized and exacerbated in lengthy solos that are increasingly dramatic in their stasis - check, for example, the 1965 version at antibes, or the version with sanders at the village vanguard the following year). so sanders follows coltrane with strange tonguings (signalling elvin jones’ drums to really start kicking in, almost drowning everyone else out on the muffled murk of the bootleg recording), a queasy sliding or turning away, a kind of dribbling and wavering quality to the tone, far from 'free jazz macho', an uncertainty, hesitancy, odd phrasal gaps, not quite going far enough away from the tune to constitute an explosion of something radically other (as in archie shepp's solo preface to a version of 'in a sentimental mood' live in san francisco), but rather opening up some space in another dimension inside or outside the tune (between the lines, off the edge of the page) which it never quite enters, falling between the changes-melody approach and something much more askew, all the more disturbing for that uncertain balancing act. (and all the more emphasized by the fact that the other musicians are rhythmically and harmonically still within the changes framework - that quality, tension-and-release, soloist straining from rhythm section yet playing with them at the same time - given a particular and still almost shocking quality in these seattle recordings, in a way that's hard to pin down technically (sanders' own debut recording on ESP disk has the same tension, but it's in no way similarly productive, just as cecil taylor's early recordings are hamstrung rather than productively ennervated by this opposition)). i really think this is something which hasn't quite been matched since (david s. ware's takes on standards, for example are ecstatic, reverent, even sentimental, their ‘free jazz’ techniques nowhere near as chilling as elements of coltrane’s seattle ballads): it certainly hasn’t been matched in sanders' own late-career interpretations of standards, which move back to a smoothed-out, less-complex version of coltrane's own earlier takes on that repertoire. nowhere here the volability of coltrane’s 'sheets-of-sound' approach, a kind of unstoppable glossolalia, hyper-complexity as the realisation of the form at its limit, teasing out every single implication of the tune's harmonic sequence to the point of exhaustion or even self-parody, hyper-articulacy as a kind of babbling on the edge of terror to which the only response is the scream, literally vocalised or sounded thru saxophone multiphonics, reed-shriek. sanders’ later ballads don’t really contain the smoothness of coltrane’s more measured approach on 'ballads' either; rather, they manifest a kind of robust steadiness, straightforwardly tender (i’m thinking here of recordings like ‘crescent with love’, or the take on, of all things, ‘a nightingale sang in berkeley square’). tenderness on the seattle recordings, by contrast, is wracked by doubt and violence, desperately yearned for, returned to, but never with any sense of resolution – that which one breaks thru to, in that "air from another planet" of sanders' solos (as in the final movement of schoenberg's 2nd string quartet, poised on the breakthrough to atonality) isn't fulfilled utopia, isn't heaven, is unimaginable, could be utter horror, catastrophe. and even tenderness itself enshrines exactly such horror in the societal conditions in which one must place coltrane’s 1965 recordings (tho' their address to these conditions is in no way propogandistic-direct, doesn’t necessarily offer alternatives or answers) – by which i mean that tenderness cannot be a total other to violence, is implicated within it even as it must be vitally felt as its other, its counterforce (thus, coltrane’s following up of the unexpected and utterly chilling multiphonic in his recapitulation of the melody at the end of ‘body and soul’ with an exceptionally tender melodic extrapolation that at once mitigates against and emphasizes the sheer strangeness and foreigness of that multiphonic). well this version of ‘lush life’ doesn’t go quite so far as i might seem to be suggesting, within the compression of its 10 minute running span (on the recording of ‘body and soul’, it’s partially tyner’s lengthy solo that sets the ground for the most ‘out-there’ sections of the piece, ratcheting up the tempo, granite thud and thump and right-hand sprinkle, wavering arco, spirals of repetition like a sudden lock, trapped in a cycle you can’t get out of) – and yet at times sanders’ solo comes to seem a hideous parody as it tries to push the tune into something it isn’t and remains stuck on those changes, a gurgling and gargling strained thinness of tone transforming the tune and its changes from melancholy to an emphasized statement of – what? and then coltrane’s re-statement of the melody, ending in low-register barfs and morphing back into the contours of strayhorn’s tune, stuck in codas that can’t end, that contain but can neither entirely release nor entirely dissipate the disturbed energy that has built up on the relentless propulsion of jones’ drums and sanders’ questing spirals. and right at the end, almost all we can hear is the hollow thud of jones’ drums, tyner’s piano tinny uncertain ending, cut-off by the recording before it’s even finished. what the hell would this have sounded like as you sat in the club with your strayhornian cocktails. what the hell does it sound like now. melancholy as real despair, latent violence, hardly some heroic artist-struggle but objective social record. that’s how we have to hear coltrane, that’s why even fans like the amazon reviewer i quoted earlier just don’t get that, for example, sanders’ utterly un-canny or really terrifying solos on ‘body and soul’ and ‘lush life’ don’t just evince a failure to fit into a particular mould, that he can’t play ballad changes properly or something; rather, they temporarily split that ballad form right open and reveal the abyss at its heart.
(a belated part 2)
that last sentence was one of those rhetorical flourishes on which it seemed right to end the other night, but i've been thinking about this over the past day or so and realized that one element i could and really should have talked about to a greater extent was the tune 'lush itself' itself, and its relation to strayhorn's race and homosexuality. it seems fairly established that the line "i used to visit all those gay places" is not a reference to sexuality, both because the sexual connotations of that term were not widely established at that stage, and because strayhorn, as a 16 year-old from homewood, pittsburgh, wd likely not have been aware of them. but i wonder if we cd argue that the tune's melancholia, its lyrics' description of a milieu which is materially luxurious but emotionally unsatisfactory (visits to paris, moves into a cosmopolitan world of jazz and cocktails, and so on, don't make up for the pain of lost love), is also a melancholia with unspoken, perhaps even unintended wider resonances - if not in the original, or hartmann's smooth, gentleman's rendition, then certainly in coltrane's exacerbated expansion of something that was in some sense there at the heart of the original tune (that 'abyss' i somewhat clumsily mention at the end of the original post). by these i mean, firstly, racial overtones: fine clothes, drinks, a more tolerant / cosmopolitan european cultural setting with its own african-american expatriate community, don't disguise the glaring fact of continuing racism which means that wealth for a black man or woman is not the same as it is for a white man or woman - not to mention the real melancholia of continuing murders and race riots and ghettos and incarceration as tactic (these things which have not gone away, even if frank ocean's portrayal of disaffected ‘super rich kids’, on the album 'channel orange', is of a very different kind to strayhorn's projection of an older man's world-weariness from the position of a non-rich kid; and even if black wealth is increasingly celebrated as excess, joie-de-vivre, the jewell'd paraphernalia and weaponry of hip-hop, its money obsession). second, the melancholia of strayhorn's own sexuality, the particular and difficult problems of that sexuality within the black community, the sense of seeking 'sophistication', elegance, etc, as opposed to a more macho modern of proletarian manliness that the black arts movement would frequently valorize to the extent of caricature.
and it’s in relation to this that fred moten’s ‘in the break’ proves helpful: moten puns on strayhorn’s surname and the similarly ‘straying’ or wavering pitch of his vocals on his 1964 version of ‘lush life’, to suggest that str’s work manifests “a disruptively essential fugitivity”, “a propensity to wander or migrate or stray that is always animated by desire,” this propensity characteristic not only of his own practice but of the artists of the harlem renaissance whose sexuality and frustration at american racism lead them to europe – james baldwin, beauford delaney – this perhaps also present in strayhorn’s line in ‘lush life’ about a curative “week in paris.” relevant here might be strayhorn’s early ambition to be a classical composer (a realm he could not enter due to his race) – again, this realm of ‘sophistication’, that which, in a double-bind of condemnation, one is not allowed (by the white establishment) to enter into, not supposed to possess, because of one’s race and class background (‘culture’ as doubly foreign, both european in influence and ‘alien’ to yr supposed class and race position) – and the desire for which is also later taken (by the militant black resistance to the white establishment) as a betrayal of black working-class culture, in often sexualised terms. (see here amiri baraka’s conflation of aspects of the european or white avant-garde with this betrayal – his ambivalence towards cecil taylor explicitly figured thru a suspicion of the ‘euro-american’ lineage which he sees as taking taylor away from the more ‘authentically black’ style of, say, an archie shepp (even as taylor himself, in interviews, frequently claims just that very blackness, disowns the very same euro-americans – cage, stockhausen, david tudor – that baraka lumps him in with) – yet implicitly predicated on a suspicion of taylor’s homosexuality conflated with 'whiteness', 'europe', or 'classical influences' (again, see moten’s more expanded take on all this in his reading of baraka’s ‘the burton greene affair’)).
if this fugitivity is both racially and sexually determined, it would be be too simplistic to draw this back into the argument about coltrane and sanders’ exacerbation of 'lush life's melancholy: the melancholy of the original tune can’t really be said to emerge out of a self-tortured closeting (strayhorn was nothing if not open about his sexuality, tho' his relatively low public profile compared to ellington seems to have been the price he paid for such freedom). i mean, check his enunciation of the word "places" on the afore-mentioned 1964 version of the tune on which he sings and plays piano - this isn't the wounded heterosexual masculinity of chet baker, more a clipped kind of queerness that identifies itself as queer precisely by being less heart-on-its-sleeve than someone like baker. this itself is perhaps out of a reaction to the stigmatizing of homosexuality as particularly 'feminine', out of which camp dismissal emerges as the deliberate parodic disavowal of deeply felt hurt or pain, especially in love – and so strayhorn’s own version of ‘lush life’s’ melancholy is less emotionally volatile or searing than coltrane’s or sanders’ can be, as if fear of any indulgence in a specifically homosexual or 'feminine' melancholy comes to be precisely that which characterises the homosexuality of strayhorn’s rendition, while the heterosexual musician is free to take the role of emotional depth-plumber. (think also of the fact that miles davis' trumpet playing, actively taking the 'female role' as it 'speaks' for the silent jeanne moureau in scenes from louis malle's 'l'ascenseur pour l'echafaud' (or taking the role of porgy in 'porgy and bess', or the female mourner in 'saeta' from 'sketches of spain'), doesn't seem afraid of emotional vulnerability, even as davis' own personality veers strangely(?) between the debonair, fine-dresser ('the man in the green shirt') and the hyped-up boxer, hard drinker, ladies' man.)
which is all to say (again) that it would be too simplistic to interpret coltrane and sanders as consciously bringing out the racial and sexual melancholy that lies behind the surface love-melancholy of 'lush life': i’ve no idea of their attitude towards homosexuality, and in any case tackling a strayhorn tune isn’t exactly a statement of intent in that regard, ‘lush life’ itself having become such a standard (coltrane apparently adding it to the session with johnny hartmann after hearing nat king cole’s rendition on a car radio). nonetheless, their take on the tune (which as far as i can tell is pretty much unique in terms of its emotional register among the many interpretations that have stacked up over the years) might be taken without too much of a stretch to suggestively, if not uncomplicatedly, correlate with those resonances.
similarly, their playing here, not necessarily through programmatic intent, but through its affective qualities, pretty much blows away the argument that being particularly open about emotions, especially painful ones, is a particularly feminine thing, that strong/silent men might remain more tight-lipped – tho’ perhaps one might characterise the emotional register of coltrane’s work as hard to mistake as stereotypically ‘feminine’ in a way that davis’ might have been. (even as davis and coltrane get lumped together as both equally examples of masculinity by herman gray, for instance, who argues in a piece for callaloo that “davis and coltrane, like their contemporaries, enacted a black masculine that not only challenged whiteness but exiled it to the (cultural) margins of blackness - i.e, in their hands blackness was a powerful symbol of the masculine.”) that said, at the point coltrane and sanders recorded ‘lush life’ in seattle, davis’ own work had moved more towards a fast and loud style in which the softness and perceived technical shortcomings of previous recordings were replaced by hard, fast tempi. well, that’s itself a caricature, take ‘filles de kilimanjaro’ or ‘in a silent way’, take even simon reynolds’ argument that the emphasis on groove, extended timings and so on across davis’ late 60s-mid-70s output, its gesture towards something approaching the ambient, is itself some kind of feminine, anti-phallic, ‘oceanic’ deleuzian flow: “i reckon miles was half in love with, half in read of, the ‘female’ will-to-chaos, the mutagenic, metamorphic life force[…]that’s why miles’s misogynist nickname for oceanic flux with ‘bitches brew’.” in any case, to suggest that emotional forthrightness, length, technical complexity and so on are specifically male or macho would of course be a stupidly reductionist position to take. one might, for example, note the change from the rhythmic emphasis of mccoy tyner and elvin jones to the more floating, freer rhythms of alice coltrane and rashied ali as a different kind of complexity and elongation, one predicated less on the tension that characterises the seattle recordings and more on a trance-like flow in which detail is of less importance than overall, continuing effect (the deleuzian / gregory batesonian ‘plateau’) – and one might then adopt reynolds’ position and characterise this (albeit in scare-quotes) as ‘feminine’, noting alice coltrane’s role, her harp-like arpeggios. but then one might also note that her work on, say, ‘live in japan’, has a kind of droning grounding to it predicated on a strong left-hand (she cites her husband as encouraging her to use the whole register of the piano, to move away from a more limited be-bop concentration on particular areas of the keyboard), is hardly just harp-like delicacy and float. and rashied ali, jimmy garrison, sanders, coltrane, are equally, collaboratively responsible for this freeing-up. while gendered readings of the music might prove valuable, then, (witness david ake’s essay on ornette coleman and the ‘re-masculation’ of jazz), i’m not primarily interested here in reading coltrane's music that way – even if i have proffered the (homo)sexual melancholy of strayhorn’s composition as some sort of backdrop to the expanded melancholy of coltrane and sanders’ rendition. and even if i have suggested that the more emotionally forthright performance or transformation of this melancholy comes to seem a heterosexual privilege, as much as jazz itself came to seem a particularly macho or heterosexual form (despite its original, new orleans brothel associations with homosexuality – viz. jelly roll morton’s gay mentor tony jackson). but this is meant less in terms of a particular performance of black masculinity (sexualized or not) as in terms of a socialized understanding of coltrane’s 1965 ‘lush life’ in which melancholy, as in the blues but formally beyond it, comes to seem a force, not of resignation or quietism, but of some kind of registration of the objective difficulties and traumas of revolt, racial, sexual and political.