Wednesday, 20 November 2013
This is music with a pose aware of its own status as pose, but one posed for an audience different to that working-class or lumpen-proletarian audience one which hip-hop might, in the past and even in some cases in the present, at least pretend to speak for and to. This is music for hipsters, the Pitchfork crowd, posing as music for the people, but which everyone knows is music for hipsters; to be listened to by trendy white kids ‘slumming’ it through their headphones, but with the requisite amount of ‘artiness’ to prevent them from feeling that they’re actually accessing a true lumpen-proletarian vision. Thus, the mix of lyrics with pretensions to the hard-edge macho-misogynistic boasting of a gangsta lienage with ‘cloud rap’ quasi-melancholy, the woozily doomy ambience of post DJ-Screw aesthetics. A$AP Rocky doesn’t rap much, compared to, say, MF Doom’s hyper-virtuosity: the words merge into the background, the track standing on its production rather than by its words (a trend perhaps initiated by the Lil B/ Clams Casino collaborations). Indeed, this is what characterizes the increasing blurring of the lines between style and content, where the emptiness of the gangsta boasts is indeed treated as empty, as almost a secondary texture to the production, dextrousness of flow more than content. Lil B is the extreme example of this, perhaps, veering wildly between the most banal of self-help positivity mantras and aggressive rape-threats to the more interesting parodies of the ideas of persona whereby Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” becomes ‘I’m Bill Clinton’, ‘I’m God’, ‘I’m Gay’, etc, all reduced to the same incompetently slurred and slow, seemingly semi-improvised quasi-rapping.
Still, I think the first song ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, which shares the name of the album, is doing something more interesting, structurally, something which both underlines and goes against the suggestions of its title, with its suggestions of royalty, the urgent non-spaced full-stop between the words breaking up the length or eternity it claims to claim, the urgency of the ASAP acronym turned into ‘get money’, as if that eternity could be accomplished by the money that accumulates the exploitations of an obscured history as its never-ending transcendental legacy for getting everything you want right now, forever. What, for example, to make of the poignancy of its high-pitched sung chorus, asserting that, “Of course, I’m living forever I’ll / Forever, I’ll live long”, with its odd rhythmic landing on the first word (‘I’ll’) of the next sentence, here included as the concluding cadence of the previous line; the grammatical weirdness whereby a verb is elided in order to allow that rhythmic extension of the “I’ll”, so that Rocky claims he’ll “forever”, in which ‘forever’ becomes a verb one could perform, even as the future-projection in the claim to be able to live forever is insistently reduced to a present tense “I’m living forever,” ending with an insistent “I’ll LIVE” that nonetheless never connects up with the “I’ll / forever” which precedes it and which it should complete, so that the futurity of living forever can never be said directly. Not only because of this grammatical weirdness, but because of the odd ethereality of the voice itself – which one might even depict as having the vague associations a kind of soul-ascended-from-the-body spectrality, particularly after Rocky, his “soul […] feel[ing] empty” challenges “the reaper [to] come get me” at the end of the first verse – or the fact that Rocky, despite his claims to invincibility and immortality, to being “on the road to riches” and “tot[ing] that 9,” equally depicts himself as running scared, somewhere between Malcolm X (perhaps via Krs-One), holding his gun in readiness at the window, and a middle-class weakling (“Strangers make me nervous, who’s that peekin’ in my window with a pistol to the curtains?”).
This is all, it seems to me, a making-fragile of the usual gangsta boasting (a boast, to live forever through one’s music or one’s poetry, that of course has existed well before hip-hop) as it appears in the verses, whose juxtaposition with this dreamy chorus is highlighted with almost clunky transitional tenacity in the production, highlighting the status of that chorus as both dream interlude before the reality of life sets back in and as that aspired to by the rest of the song, but only ever briefly reached. The notion of eternal life is here abstracted from the very material subject matter of the rapping – money, women and drugs – so that the material ‘keeping it real’ boasts of hip-hop (which have been, to varying degrees, of course a dramatic facade, a wish fulfilment fantasy, in large or in part) are given a kind of metaphysical tinge (which is, one might argue, entirely apposite given the sacralization of money and/or its gains that hip-hop capitalism has fully, though perhaps parodically and from a complex class position, embraced). As such, this is perhaps the opposite of that process Theodor Adorno believed to be traced in the music of Gustav Mahler, in which “the underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind”; here, corporeal presences and ambitions (which might lead, indeed, to becoming a corpse, through drug addiction, gun crime, and the like, as the lyrics acknowledge) re-ascend into a set of starry heavens which are no longer believed, mystified in the here and now. The stars have already been moved down to earth, and have taken up residence, as hip-hop celebrity replacing the class solidarity that the genre had, and still does, at least in part promise, as the vague intimations of metaphysical belief that circle around Christianity and Islam in hip-hop’s mythic universe.
We might compare here Kanye West’s figure of Yeezus; West still with enough belief invested in some vaguely-theorized ‘Most High’ to take precautionary measures to defend himself against accusations of blasphemy, yet elevating material ambitions, getting, enjoying and maintaining the trappings of wealth as an almost divine goal in itself. But whereas Kanye’s Yeezus is relentlessly harsh, even in its self-pity, the ugliness of the Nina Simone sampling on ‘Blood on the Leaves’ only the most egregious example of this, A$AP’s far less skilful and interesting play with persona – as much a factor of the (multi-personed) production as of the actual rap – nonetheless haunts in its manipulative poignancy in a manner that might also indicate where hip-hop might think it’s come in 2013; or where the afore-mentioned Pitchfork-esque white hipster audience that seems to me to increasingly be shaping this kind of work, thinks it’s come. The wistful whimsicality of the ‘live forever’ chorus is not equivalent to that gesture by which, for Adorno, Mahler’s ironic undercutting of the utopian urge is precisely where he is at his most utopian; instead, it denies that very possibility, and would even seem happy with that state of denial, fetishizing that sense of melancholia and loss in order to amp up its boasts, while dressing them all up in a gauze of a simply aestheticized beauty.
Of course, that sentimentality – think UGK’s “One day you’re here, baby, the next day you’re gone,” as turned into epic vocalized sorrow on the elongated, stretched-out DJ Screw remix – is a hip-hop staple that allows the tough-guy to think himself a feeling man at heart (or, at the least, the production, the use of a jazz or a soul sample, might allow that). A$AP’s female / child-like alter-ego (note the child’s voice that comes in in the final reprise of that chorus), his dreaming high voice – whether or not it is his, treated, or a guest appearance – is thus both separated from and fused with his more ‘gangsta’ image, having it both ways, removing the dreams of ‘living forever’ which might be a call for a collective justice and redemption rather than merely the individual desire for invincibility they would more easily, obviously or even accurately seem to be, while also suggesting that they are central to the verses they surround or interrupt.
Or again, the trope of a boast which undermines itself is hardly a new one – and it’s also present on Kanye’s ‘I am a God’, however much this kind of 1950’s movie-psychologising response is anticipated and satirized within the form of the song itself, a relentless refusal of a particular kind of confessionalism, even as much of the album also falls into an ugly and self-regarding self-pity. On ‘God’, the production, rather than suggesting an ethereal other register as it does in ‘Long.Live.A$AP’, only serves to heighten the relentless crudity of the lyrics, the way they constantly put their foot in their mouth and celebrate the fact of doing just that. So that (to repeat myself), the melodrama Kanye makes of the song’s relentless self-inflation (the repeated sampled screams and the stutters in the music, placed just so as to unsettle the flow at the ‘wrong’ moment) is not so much a cutting-down, a staged vulnerability, but part of the whole performative mask which anticipates an imagined defeat or fear or hubris as, maybe, just another boast. (As well as being part of the whole persecution complex that goes with that exaggerated vanity). But to say that there’s, oh, I don’t know, some ‘real despair’ behind it all is exactly the move that the music anticipates and disallows by occasionally staging moments of apparent self-doubt (which are anyway often ‘resolved’: the singing of “ain’t no way I’m giving up. I am a God” after the final four screams).
Yet, by contrast, I can’t help feeling that there is something more to Rocky’s eeriness than either this anticipatory denial of a separate ‘true inner core’ – jarringly enacted by the high-pitched male screams which ‘punctuate’, or, more accurately, interrupt the lyrics – or a kind of evasively sentimental quasi-metaphysical gesture, hinting at the true material core, the potential collective demand behind the relentless individualized drive of its gangsta-materialisation of the spiritual and spiritualisation of the gangsta-material. This, if only for the way it’s insistently been embedded in my head now all day and all night, despite itself, despite its own anticipations or manipulations of this for indie-cred.
But perhaps I am simply wrong.
Tuesday, 19 November 2013
There is a piece by Charles Mingus recorded variously as ‘Inspiration’, in a very early 1949 performance with members of the Stan Kenton orchestra (as well as future members of his own groups such as trombonist Jimmy Knepper), and ‘Portrait’, in the 1962 Town Hall rehearsal-concert often described as a fiasco, but whose rough-edged playing through of some prime Mingus material forming part of his gigantic catch-all ‘symphony’, whatever you might call, ‘Epitaph’ (the title belying its grandeur, or perhaps amplifying it, as monument rather than after-thought) appeals to me in the way that the smoother (tho’ very weird) arrangements by Sy Johnson on ‘Let My Children Hear Music’, to pick a (perhaps particularly bad) example, don’t, quite. On this piece, whether ‘Inspiration’ or ‘Portrait’, or a more amorphously-identified component, a fragment, for use and re-use, for shuffling and re-shuffling, for titling and re-titling, in Mingus’ floating set-list or compositional oeuvre, there is a melting second melody which I have been living through and with for a week. This isn’t just the notion of the ‘earworm’, burrowing into an ear as some annoyance spoiling the apple’s juice, corrupting the already corrupt symbol of temptation, the invisible worm flying in the night and eating away at the heart of the rose of the world, corruption of desire or its suppression; rather it is that rose, as desire longed for and not had, or had, in recollection tho’ not tranquillity, always implying that which moves on from it and that which is lost in that move, as Mingus’ multi-part compositions do, elongating then breaking away.
So what catches is the catch, the break, the pause, the transition; in Mingus, the break is central; break as theorized by Fred Moten in his theorisation of the centrality of rupture in African-American culture, politics, cultural politics; or as Scott Saul discusses in his essay on Mingus’ Jazz Workshop, its accelerandos and decelerandos, sudden switches of tempo and instrumentation, the “the rhythmic foundation [which] seemed to rest on a San Andreas-sized fault”. Here, with the somewhat stiff Kenton musicians, the arrangement with a distinctly-third stream flavour, even a little reminiscent of Gil Evans’ arrangements for Claude Thornhill’s orchestra from around this time – mainly to do with the use of clarinet as a lead voice over a sort of soft-edged bed of brass, I think – the transition from the melodrama of the opening material (re-used in a movement from ‘Epitaph’, possibly ‘Children’s Hour of Dream’, and perhaps also in the material on ‘Pre-Bird’) to that secondary theme, is really emphasized; that theme, one of Mingus’ melting, romantic ones, which I’m sure is re-versioned elsewhere (as ‘Song with Orange’? my identification of tune with title tends to be slippery at best in Mingus’ case), on the Town Hall recording, played by Charlie Mariano (or is it Charles MacPherson? I think it’s Mariano) in that melting, declarative manner with which Mariano plays the themes in ‘The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady’ (and I also always think, when the Black Saint comes to mind, of Byard Lancaster’s to me at times very similar playing on Bill Dixon’s ‘Intents and Purposes’); but in 1949 the stiffness of that performance is the very thing that makes the twist that makes it, emphasizes the awkwardness of that pause; that transition, as if an intake of breath, moving to that new start. I’ve been reading John Wieners’ poem ‘Cocaine’; this transition is like that of the line-break before the ‘start’ that starts the final stanza, that fucks up the syntax, that breathes desire and despair in its space, beginning again with reduction of desire to reduce hurt, having been hurt, or, with Mingus, to desire more, out of storm, so here, reading them together, Wieners’ desire to reduce the significance of love and Mingus’ desire to increase it to its highest pitch, at the risk of melodrama, the overblown, whatever, meet and explode in and over that space of transition and break, and as I replay and restart that melody over and over again in my head or out loud in what must sound like a particularly egregious tuneless and toneless approximation of singing, messing up the ending, recircling, recycling, the melody becomes for me something like an absolute index of desire, starting MORE close to the source of desire, as Mingus too would want it, I think, to reach and hold onto it (or would Mingus impulsively move and throw that away, only to obsessively and declaratively reclaim it; more likely he would), that pitch of contentment. It’s the particular lilt given the melody here which simultaneously pogo-sticks the heart up with a stupidly fluttering happiness and makes it catch in the throat with the sadness that is that happiness’ underside; this pitch which will not be liveable, that pitch reached for which perhaps even you might try to live for and towards, ‘contentment’ too small a word for it and entirely the wrong one, implying satisfaction, possession, gain for myself, when what this is I think the move OUT for another and others in whom and with whom I find myself. This happened to me, too, with a piece by Sunny Murray, recorded only once, as far as I can tell, by a group called the ‘Spiritual Ensemble’ of whom there exists a single recording, as far as I can tell, a live one, in which this piece, a ballad called ‘Volaseta’, is played: Arthur Jones, the saxophonist whose albums for BYG/Actuel are beautiful and fiery and lyrical and true, but who, like so many, recorded little outside this brief late 60s/early 70s period, delivers the melody, which melts, in a very different way, into that same pitch, the rumbling of Murray’s malleted drums and Joseph Dejean’s guitar leading to a strange troubled, dissonant solo from Dejean, from which the lead back into the melody is glorious return; the many times I’ve heard this the solo itself most perfectly in place, everything, too, here not so much break as flow, oceanic wave, Murray’s cymbal work, the ferocious crashes at the end, the ballad amped up. These are personal indexes of some kind, taken for my use. What does this mean to anyone else, as I am sitting here furiously banging out keys with my headphones on and being absurdly overblown because I have stayed in from the rain outside and I am tired but at that stage of tiredness where a tendency to a kind of self-dramatization and investment in great emotional claims about what I have been listening to seems like a good idea. In both cases, I will say, or this is some sort of feeling I might have been charting without words or even very fixed-thoughts over a period of time, the utopian index of this music is not undercut, or in the Mingus that destabilizing move between moods is a kind of undercutting but with utter sincerity, irony and satire and pastiche and parody too, as in Mahler that balance of utter sincerity and a ferociously critical self-parody or refusal to simply inhabit the romanticized nostalgias he appears to idealize and idolize is crucial; in Murray there is a more basic trajectory, perhaps, between desire and the troubling of or assault on desire, that free jazz move in which a ballad moves from serenity to agitation and back, in that move leading either to dialectical resolution or to some perfunctory return which is actually equally an index of the desire for that resolution in its clichéd or failed or attempted version of it; I’ve written about this in relation, in particular, to Coltrane’s version of ‘Lush Life’ in Seattle in 1965, but I think also of his ‘Peace on Earth’ from Japan in ’67, or ‘Naima’ from the Village Vanguard in ’66, or the late recordings collected on ‘Expression’ and ‘Stellar Regions’. For starlight is almost flesh, the flesh that fires the night, with dreams and infinite longing, that extension forwards and back from that source presumed or fetishized as lost but each time heard revoked or re-vocalized, called, re-enacted, and, did you not know, the underworld of music is mobilized against the disappearing world of the starry heavens in order for the latter to be moved and to be a corporeal presence among humankind.
Tuesday, 5 November 2013
Charles Gayle - tenor saxophone, piano
Ksawery Wójciński - bass
Klaus Kugel - drums
The write-up on the Cafe Oto website suggested – or perhaps this was just my impression on an over-hasty glance that morning – that Charles Gayle might have ‘mellowed’, become more interested into forays into different traditions than the Aylersque intensity for which he’s known; almost an apology in advance, for those who might be disappointed by this direction. Presumably the reference was primarily to his piano playing – which, however, anyone with a more than passing acquaintance with his career will be aware has been present for a while, operating in quite a different area to his saxophone work – but the set as a whole was full of bark and bite, the thickness and grit which gives his playing its, shall we say, ‘purer’, more stripped-down, more difficult dynamics, in comparison, say, to someone like the late David S.Ware, buoyed on and up by Matthew Shipp’s riffs and by a luxuriant ‘godspelized’ balladry; this in large part due to the fact that Gayle prefers working in trio settings, the only piano playing his own, decidedly chunky, resolutely un-flowing.
Gayle’s upper-register playing is like nothing else; or, it’s like plenty else in that post-Ayler repertoire, but the moments when he goes there for thirty seconds at a time, pauses, goes back, pauses, goes back, the sudden release and clamp down and release of a flock of screaming birds, their placement, are his own, decidedly material, for all the controversial, whatever, Christian rhetoric and framing. (Spirit is material, of course, in the conception of any number of African-American musical traditions; is the material working through and on tradition within the physical body of the performer who performs in and as that music’s history, with its back-up and with its challenge and weight.) Listen to that upper register neither as the clichés of yawps of glory of cries of pain by which the whole biographical focus on homelessness glorified as martyr-suffering revelation would force the critical terminology, but as a concentrated area of concern. Technique, whatever. Carved out of and carving a space; thinking, spatially. To be taken up, you take yourself there, force the flight. For any heaven that he wants to reach, Gayle will be climbing up Jacob’s ladder, stepping or slipping on each rung.
Seymour Wright, who was in the audience, sometimes plays sets in which he almost exclusively focuses on this kind of area – I’m thinking in particular of one absolutely ferocious in its intensity and focus, played by his trio with Paul Abbott and Daichi Yoshikawa, lln, in a freezing warehouse in Cambridge back in January. But whereas an improviser such as Wright might take that element from someone like Gayle and move it away from obvious idiomatic references to jazz, with Gayle, it’s part of a vocabulary that comes from a different place, with a different idiomatic tinge. For instance: a moment with notes tugged and wailed as a melody heaves itself out; a foot insistently tapping over walking bass, tone still rough and shouting. There was a similar section in Peter Brötzmann’s performance here earlier in the summer; but whereas Brötzmann’s occasional turn to that kind of frame is perhaps part of a conscious decision to reference various forms of jazz history – certainly in spoken interviews, also partly in the playing – Gayle’s always been more overtly and referentially of various traditions, doesn’t need to ‘turn’ to them. There are bits of late Coltrane in the steeliness of the lower register, though the rhythmic approach is often quite different; with Ayler is shared an emphasis on blocks (rather than sheets) of sound; the rhythmic focus or interplay comes out of the pauses that are left between these blocks, in interaction with the rhythm section, which might lift or drop, sustain or undercut or emphasize them; you get a real sense of this from watching Gayle’s body language, making, for instance, two attempts, two lunges, spitting out into the mouthpiece, mouth pursed forward, until finally the sound blasts forth on the third attack; ducking his knees, bending down and bouncing up as a kind of visual or physical anticipation of the sound whose appearance is in a kind of rhythmic dialogue with that precursor, a different kind of movement. This of course isn’t visible on record, but no doubt it inflects the rhythmic emphasis that can be heard there; somewhere between Gayle catching himself off guard, deliberately, keeping himself on his toes, in both the literal and figurative sense, and a more unconscious state of being in the music – or both at once, an element of technique that wouldn’t necessarily be theorized as ‘technique’ as such, but is a vital part of the music’s physical, material process of making.
So Gayle’s body language is a part of his style in itself, knees bending lower and lower while the top half of his body remains straight; all the more striking for his gaunt frame, perhaps not as stick-thin as Roscoe Mitchell but with a slight frailty that manifests itself when he finally takes a breather, switches instruments, allows the other players to solo. Early on a burred blast is followed by a brief burst of coughing; Gayle later apologizes, he has asthma. He seems almost taken aback by the warmth of applause, willing him on and back, wiping his brow, announcing his co-players and almost embarrassed when they mention him in turn.
As for the piano playing, it’s shot through with Monk, with, say, a characteristic TSM trinkle-tinkle flourish turned into the key-rolling cluster-run of the avante-garde; Gayle favours a left hand motif strongly reminiscent of the opening phrase of Misterioso; elbow or open-palm slams granite reiteration will alternate with a kind of deliberate awkwardness with chord changes or, at one point, a semi-quotation from Body and Soul, the avant-garde flourishes (or not so much flourishes, there for crushing heft and weight rather than virtuosic note-excess) interrupting the shadings of standard voicings and melodies which are in turn interrupted by a hefty thwack or thump.
The bass player is a virtuoso, no question; his bowing technique in particular is stunning, bow lifted off strings, glancing off them, wisps of sound as if overhead and caught in passing on some wind, Aeolian. The drumming is less impressive, or at least draws less admiring attention to itself; certainly noisy, at times rather distractingly so (particularly during a lengthy second set section in which bass and drums are still locked in a kind of high-energy free jazz mode which gives Gayle’s more balladic piano no room to breathe); but with pleasant colouristic additions from a small set of mini-gongs and bells to the side of the kit and some nice feathery brush playing, glancing off cymbals and surfaces under the impressive first bass solo. These moments occurred in the first set, which overall had more focus (though moments in the second, such as Gayle’s sudden decision to switch instruments and insistent following two-handed thump on the piano keys, or his insistent tenor re-entry on the final tune, were as fine as any of the evening). I didn’t really snap out of the impression of that first set for five minutes, even as the interval music came on over speakers to force people into bar mode and mood, that interlude ritual; perhaps what I’ll remember most of all is Gayle’s first piano excursion, top half of his body this time bent almost double, bending out of or into the piano’s shade, letting out occasional exhaled groans or grunts, slowed to a crawl; that almost ponderous exactness, pedalled emphasis, reminiscent not only of Monk but of Mal Waldron – or maybe it’s just that I’ve been listening to Waldron on and off quite a bit recently – though the effect is far less that of the inexorable build-up or following of the contours of a tune in which Waldron specializes, more of a kind of deliberate non-smoothness, a succession of grinding, halting blocks, squeezed out. I didn’t even know if I liked it at the time, which is the resistance that tells ‘us’ or me or whoever that something is being done that is real and challenging work; work that is not easy, not easily taking off into wished energy music catharsis, not the vital scintillation and buoyancy of (in particular) the first track on Touchin’ on Trane, its fleet dance, but something more characteristic, perhaps, of ‘late work’. Or maybe by bringing up the spectre of late work I’m doing that very biographical inflection I criticized earlier, basing this on the hesitancy, the physical vulnerability of Gayle’s stage persona, itself not seeming a ‘persona’ as such as the real reactions to live events and the particular community of music venues of someone who’s not worked on a ‘persona’, or who, when he does, makes the kind of mis-step that brings down almost universal approbation or confusion or scorn, as the mute ‘Streets the Clown’. Still, that idea of ‘late work’; late at night, late in life, whatever; slower, more stumbling, not so much honed and perfected as the achieved end of a process; perhaps, even, more or differently compelling because less sure of itself and thus harder won; dragging on, wrenching; forced out of and into the moment with attention, with the possibility of failure, present and real.