Tuesday, 19 November 2013
Mingus / Wieners
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.