Monday, 10 August 2020

"Airpower coming out of my mouth": Candace Hill

Candace Hill, Muss Sill (London: Distance No Object, 2020)

Just out from London-based small press Distance No Object, this 67-page volume has, over the past few days, provided some welcome flickers of light in early August’s pandemicked heatwave. Hill is best known as an artist working in photography, mixed-media collage, and watercolor—her painting ‘The N.Y. Pigeon’ stands as front-cover sentinel. Though she’s previously worked with words as part of images, this is her first collection of stand-alone poems. But it doesn’t easily fit the paradigm of artist’s book, book by artist, studio journal, manifesto. Hill instead more closely resembles—in level of focus, if not the work itself—artist-poets like Etel Adnan, for whom the disciplines of art and poetry are not subsidiary to each other, nor mirror reflections, but equally-weighted paths of investigation. The poems are ‘stand-alone’ in being purely textually based: but they also ‘stand alone in their distinctiveness. Theyre poems that fit most every definition of ‘unique’, ‘individual’, ‘not like any other’: at the same time, they rarely rest for any authority on the originating or binding consciousness of the mind’s I that spawns their strings of creative association. That’s to say, they sound like nothing but their (multiple) selves. Sometimes ecstatically beside themselves, sometimes in the position of the sardonic observer standing to the side, the poems are clearly the product of a very particular, very individual linguistic consciousness: they reflect a very specific way of seeing, hearing or speaking the world in words that’s unlike other, more familiar ways of seeing, hearing, or speaking the world; that, in the dictionary definition of idiolect, manifests “the speech habits peculiar to a particular person”—a condition after all, that governs the productive tensions of speech itself.


It’s like this: “ ‘She nodded’. Whoever she is. Move the huh huh huh / Huh’s in”. As a whole, the book is a sometimes frenetically overlapping ensemble of shorter pieces, anything from a few lines to a few pages in length, perhaps best appreciated through its parts rather than its sum. After several read-throughs, I’ve found that they have their fullest effect when taken in small doses. Chorically chaotic, a swarm of sounds, impressions, senses, noises, flashing insights, fast and lively, it can be hard to keep up, and zooming in on a few pages at a time helps to elucidate their workings with greater richness. When sampled this way, it’s all the more readily apparent how these poems dance with a slapstick precision; how they fizz with the sheer delight of language, the sonic preponderances that are poetry’s particular unbounded domain; how they zip and pop with a delight in the mysteriously material mechanics of language, spectrally earthy, morphing on the tip of a poised tongue. This is not poetry which will do what you want or expect it to do, but in its quick-linking, jump-cutting double-takes, it whirligigs everything that comes into its path—including that individually generalised figure, ‘the reader’, shaken and delighted by its pun-riven audacity.


For all their individuality, Hill’s poems operate in a tradition of African American experimental poetry—that territory critics like Aldon Nielsen have so painstakingly tried to bring into the consciousness of a literary-historical model that almost entirely ignores them. Gertrude Stein may or may not have met Langston Hughes, as the book’s preface notes (recall Hughes’ audacious political reading of Stein’s statements in the context of US race prejudice and imperial practice, written in 1949), but Tom Postell saw her on the Down Town El to New York City (in the first edition of Yugen) and Harryette Mullen trimmed her into the shape-shifting free-play constraints of her prose-poetic frames. Langston Hughes gets name-checked a number of times across these poems, though he doesn’t sound very much like anything you’d hear here; Hill’s delight in puns is, however, very much in the vein of Julie Ezelle Patton or Russell Atkins or Julia Fields or Elouise Loftin or Lloyd Addison, and their practice of what Patton dubs “phonemenology”.

In Hill’s case, this approach means that within the space of a single line you might find—to pick an example at random—Marie Curie and Nat Turner jostling for space, as the poem seems to construct a discourse on racialised divide-and-conquer strategies of artworld curation: “Lets rate hate hate hate curate hate hate hate / madam Curie mate Nat Turner hate hate hate curate”. (The next lines spin through Shakespeare, St Francis of Assisi and (possibly) Louis Armstrong-style scat and the 1938, Sabu-starring imperialist vehicle The Drum: keeping up with the trains of association enough to construct a summary would be a fool’s errand.) Let’s say that these poems are something like Coltrane’s sheets of sound, perhaps (exploring every single permutation, every harmonic implication of a particular phrasal or chordal structure, both directions at once), or the pleasure of recognition and defamiliarisation in hip-hop’s multiple samples, a plunderphonic spree in curlicued rhapsodic stutter (the kind of stutter that’s the subject of a poem that muses on the mooring and unmooring, the tethering and untethering of ‘poem’ to ‘meaning’). This process can be both exhilarating and vertiginously risky: the fast breath of ecstasy a split second from the asphyxiating hyper-ventilations of anxiety attack.


Um um um um

Stutter stutter stutter

Omission of jay words

Grunts my incomplete sentencers

Er er failure


The book’s preface suggests as another frame of reference scrolling or rolling news and all the contemporary old/new catastrophes that implies—that out-of-time contemporaneity that time operates in the news’ cycles of the catastrophically unstoppable ever-same — “oh wait it’s 2016”. But there’s material heft, grit, graft, that knottily resists digital simulacra even as it engages with/in its frames: the wastage and resistance of the material that, even in rotting, serves as remainder and reminder of histories those news narratives would rather forget— imprisonment, death, racialised violence and patriarchal power. “Wrongful imprisonment can you hear me up / In damn Antarctica touching freedoms”, begins a poem in which the figures of chairs, walls and livelihoods take place within claustrophobic sculptures that run from the plight of miserable children to the general condition of carceral capitalism, where “nails run / down jailers’ wall’d victory”. But this is also—as a necessity of survival—the realm of those inventive responses that circumvent the given frame. The poem ends on a combination of bitter irony and tentative affirmation:


[…] Slip up on a Motown riffty kinda day yes will win

Stay sporadic & still be gay prayful as we sit

In modernised Jim Crow hay.


In such conditions, there’s no such thing as originality—language as virus or Martian, as the colonial language of the enemy, the linguistic cleansing of class-based grammatical control, a condition of being ‘seized’, from the hold to the cell, the ship to the tower-block, that (re)collects with precious little tranquillity.


Think about jest or originality do you know a mess

it’s close to cunning collected language

What will the will to do do

will the me in me seizure plate.


Collection plates, collected poems, the unchanging will to change, these phrases haunt these lines that are jokes or gestures or death’s jest-book. Yet more often than not—as in that “Motown riffty kinda day”, the poems manage to inhabit a resonant space of conviviality accessed above all through music. Jazz in particular forms an aural soundscape in which the poems can breathe, as Ben Webster free associates into Illinois Jacquet; Jean-Michel Basquiat, famed for painting to bebop, pays a cameo visit; Mal Waldron suddenly turns up in the middle of a seafood cookbook recipe; Billie Holiday’s arm directs an orchestra, suddenly clarifying in a single gesture some particularly bewildering preceding lines, like a couplet’s open closure. This is not musical poetry because it references or describes music; rather it is, in a way, music in itself. Driven insistently, even obsessively by sound, syllables tumbling after each other in a vowel-driven string of association. 

Hill also delights in visual puns—seemingly misplaced apostrophes that radically call into question the English languages orientation towards property/possession; the use of numerical abbreviations (‘2’, ‘4’) from the early days of SMS messaging turning into numbered lists, or parodies of lists, ways of enumerating relation that form a non-totalising total, a fractiously equalised sum. It would be lazy to read any of the poems as manifesti, as analogous to art practice—this book is notable precisely for not fitting that traditional model of the artist who dabbles in poetry as a kind of testing ground for ideas more fully realised in their art. Rather, the practice of making visual art exists alongside, say, listening to music, going on dates, or cooking seafood. Such practice is most obviously present in the collection’s penultimate, and longest text, a prose poem in 4 sections called ‘Not to Worry’. “Representational painting isn’t much my thing (except the window / thang slidin’) not showing”, writes Hill, suggesting the need to avoid too easy a mimetic switch or slip in the way we think about art: “mix the paint tip the brush standing in for vibes”. In the third section of the poem, Hill asks “Why not write about the inside of creation”. For someone who works with externals, the visual, in another medium (language) that supposedly acts as conduit between interior and exterior, Hill would prefer to wobble that tightrope in delirious pleasure, operating on paradox, wit, and nerve: “Completes compositional destructively / Uncivilly proportionally”. There’s power in play, in pleasure reclamation and yet a reckoning with “forgetting’s bloodletting”: such “bodacious intelligence” may approach the infantile (“dirt do doodles shit’s”; “this is an unryhmed poem an anecdotal / Hammertime individual a winning poo poo reaction”) but it’s a serious embodiment of thought and thought of embodiment that provides material to pore over for days, struck each time by the stringent delirium of invention, laughing out loud at the audacity of a string of puns like a string of pearls sliding all over the floor. 

The book's back cover to the book presents us with an (invented) dictionary definition which explains its odd title. “Muss sill” is said to be “the underlying brown mess small flowers make having been left too long without adding fresh water or rotating in any porous receptacle; the window sill dust over time when left wanting”. Flip to the legit dictionary and muss is a 19th century variant on ‘mess’, a state of disorder, or more often a verb of messing something up, generally with affection—mussing (up) someone’s hair, say. A window (“the window / thang slidin”), opening and closing; the sill an edge on top of an edge, a link between exterior and interior, “the inside of creation”, where “want” and mess, decay and rot nonetheless create possibility, fertilisation, flowers from the shit. At the end of the long prose poem, the poet catches themselves burning food, having left the flowers to rot, and it feels glorious: 

After-all I left corn on grill under candles muss sill

all day sure’s you born still feels good. 

Indeed it does.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

New Writing Elsewhere: June and July

First, an obituary for the late Jacques Coursil for Artforum (thanks to Ciarán Finlayson and Chloe Wyma). I missed the chance to see him speak at a Glissant-related conference in the UK last year, and am rueing this all the more so now. Having spent the past few weeks exploring his work, from the early albums like Black Suite to the later works such as Clameurs and Trails of Tears, it's clear that he was a phenomenal musician, and a fascinating figure: a true internationalist, a deep thinker, someone whose oeuvre demands close attention. There's so much to unpack, from decolonisation to serialism, the phenomenon of the Catholic jazz mass to the work of Saussure, Fanon and Édouard Glissant, the relation of improvisation and language to the relation of music and the history of racial capitalism. Sadly, though there's coverage in the French language press (and a wonderfully suggestive short essay by Glissant, published in the liner notes to Trails of Tears), there's been little written in English. (Pierre Crépon's excellent piece for The Wire was the first, recently joined by an obituary by Kevin Le Gendre at Jazzwise and a more detailed essay by Cam Scott at Music and Literature). I'm hoping to write something longer in the future, evaluating his legacy and dealing with at least some of the aspects mentioned above...

'Horses and History'--essay up at Social Text on the Chicago cowboy, the horses of the Lewisham police department, Hegel, Toussaint L'Ouverture, and others. Thanks to Marie Buck.

Long essay on Alan Shorter in Point of Departure--this came out back at the start of June, and had its genesis in something briefer I wrote on this blog. Thanks to Bill Shoemaker (and to Pierre Crépon for his archival help).

Review of Bob Kaufman's Collected Poems at Music and Literature. Thanks to Taylor Davis Van-Atta. Everyone should try to get their hands on the great Billy Woodberry's Kaufman film, And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead--it was streaming for free at the Criterion Channel a month or so ago, a stream that's now ended, I think; but it should still be available behind the paywall.

Review of Arcana, the Stephen Jonas Reader published, as was the Kaufman, by City Lights last year (the review was written around a year ago, so much having changed in the meantime). It appears in the mega new (16th!) issue of Tripwire, edited from California as ever by David Buuck, and featuring a tribute to the late Kevin Killian focusing in particular on Kevin's work with Poets Theatre. (There's a brief discussion of the performance of Kevin's Box of Rain in the UK in which I was lucky to be involved.)

Review of Steve Abbott's Beautiful Aliens at Chicago Review. Thanks to Geronimo Sarmiento Cruz and the team at CR.

And finally, a poem called 'Slightly Broken', written in November, from Ian Heames' and Antonia Stringer's Earthbound Press, who have been printing one pamphlet from a different poet each week since January, and will be for the rest of year.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Urban Guerrilla Planning in the United States: As Above, So Below (1973)

Larry Clark's second feature, Passing Through, is one of the most acclaimed of the films to emerge from the 'LA Rebellion' moment connected to the UCLA Film Programme in the 1970s, though, like many of these films, it's still extremely hard to track down. Currently available on YouTube, however, is his first film, As Above, So Below. Produced by pioneering arts administrator Vantile Whitfield's Performing Arts Society of Los Angeles (PASLA), an organisation founded in 1964 to help train inner city-youth in the arts, the film is a product of local organisations, interdisciplinary in their reach and collaborative in their ethos. Jazz will be utterly central to Passing Through, and in some ways, the forms of improvised cooperation within the sphere of improvisational music serve as one model here, and the film is saturated with the often improvised music of Horace Tapscott's group (recall, after all, that Larry Clark was nephew of jazz pianist Sonny Clark, and that, the previous year, he'd served as Director of Photographer on Mel Stewart's outstanding Wattstax). Around an hour in length, the film's credit sequences depicts a lone gunman on what look like military manouevres in a snow-covered forest. The film goes on to depict the recruitment of this gunman, Jita-Hadi (Nathaniel Taylor, who also stars in Passing Through) an ex-Marine, who's participated in US imperial meddling in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, by an urban guerrilla group: a network of militants who operate in small groups yet who now constitute a linked, nationwide uprising. It's never quite clear in what precisely their activities consist: the activities of the militants are rendered as a series of training exercises rather than in detail (an encounter with murderous armed police at the end of the film might be read as its 'climax', though the film's narrative logic refuses anything like a three-act structure). But detailed plot isn't the point--it's the idea of armed resistance, and the dedication, quiet determination and efficiency necessary to accompany this that are at stake. The depiction of militancy echoes Ivan Dixon/Sam Greenlee's The Spook Who Sat By The Door, which had been quietly buried by its Hollywood distributors earlier that decade (the two films were screened together at UCLA), and Jules Dassin's Uptight, but the film is, in general, looser, rougher and less linear in its texture, as befits Clark's role in the LA Rebellion and the influence of Third Cinema. While most of the film depicts recognisable locations and interactions in a broadly realist fashion, surrealism is a factor, as in the sudden appearance of Jazz Age dancers outside a contemporary cafe in an incongruous fantasy sequence that insistently reminds us of its nature as mediated fantasy, or a lengthy shot, early in the film, of a blank grey sky accompanied by the sounds of machine gun fire and police sirens.

Sound is also key: much of the film is set to the ubiquitous sounds of the Horace Tapscott group, driving scenes with rhythmic propulsion or offsetting them with bursts of free improvisation (with the great Arthur Blythe's alto very much in the mix). And much of the information, texture and atmosphere of the film comes from the equally ubiquitous radio transmissions that play as both diegetic and non-diegetic texture. The soundtrack is not as wildly multi-layered as fellow LA Rebellion director Haile Gerima's soundtrack to Bush Mama (Gerima appears in a cameo here), in whose opening sequences a barrage of sound, from jazz to the sounds of police helicopters to non-synchronous conversation to an audio collage of the questions of invasive welfare office workers, is poised between the psychological and the 'realist', suggesting a traumatic breakdown between inner and outer that aims at sensory overload, not to overwhelm through spectacle, but as a dialectical quality of form that encourages active spectatorship and aids thought. Clark's use of radios in As Above instead imparts a kind of documentary quality, an argument or thesis absorbed as part of the sonic texture of everyday life--in itself a political argument about the respective stakes of mass media and revolutionary counter-transmissions, perhaps inspired by radio in Vietnam (Radio Hanoi and 'Hanoi Hannah') or Cuba (where the exiled militant Robert F. Williams broadcast Radio Free Dixie). Sound makes historical connections without having to put clunky speeches in the mouths of characters: thus, out first glimpse of the film's hero is as a young boy in 1945, as the radio announces the release of Japanese Americans from detention camps, a still too little-known aspect of US history and one that's echoed later in the film as the radio announces similar measures for African Americans, along with curfews and psychiatric torture/'therapy', reminiscent of the racialised brutality of the mental health apparatus made infamous by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). (The radio reports draw on HUAC reports on Black militancy from the late 1960s--ironically enough, Clark recalls that one of his professors at UCLA wanted to report him to HUAC on the basis of this film, never mind that HUAC had by then disbanded.)

Mid-way through the film, dialogue and narrative scenes are intercut with a lengthy sequence in a church prayer meeting; reminiscent of a similar sermon that occurs at the end of Bill Gunn's Ganja and Hess and of the more dream-like church sequence intercut in Gerima's Bush Mama. Most obviously, the sequence reinforces the film's critique of the Black Church as mental opioid: one of the most eager participants is Kim (Gail Peters), the owner of the cafe whose endorsements of her Saviour, combined with the rambling secular odes of the customer who praises 'the white man', form a chorus of reaction, seen as two sides of the same coin; and there's a satirical dig as a church elder asks for donations, from one to one hundred dollars--no entry to the church without a wallet. At the same time, the visceral power of the sequence and its non-alignment with the main narrative renders it with a 'documentary' energy that leaps beyond the bounds of plot. In that sense, one might be reminded of Glauber Rocha's first feature, Barravento, in which the depiction of cadomble practices, religious ritual and social rituals of song and dance achieves an audiovisual immediacy existing in unresolvable tension with the didactic, anti-mystical speeches that condemn such practices as tools of backwardness and fatalism. (See Robert Stam's nuanced reading of Rocha's film here.) The placement of these sequences in Clark's film is somewhere between didactic formal argument and an aesthetic quality that doesn't so much contradict the film's unflinching advocacy of militancy as place them in dialectical tension. Here, as throughout, the film crackles with a desire to expose, highlight and further social contradiction as part of a process of revolutionary change.

And this dialectical quality is present, too, in the apparently incongruous occultist/Hermetic reference in the film's title (later appropriated for a truly diabolical horror film set in the Paris catacombs). This is a film of doubles--many of the characters we initially encounter turn out to be secret members of the armed cell, an Ellisonian disguise by which a perpetually-coughing junkie is actually a militant leader, something that reads as actuality in the film's plot, but that the film also suggests is a potentiality outside the film's universe. This is most apparent as a key scene replays in a kind of coda after--but really serving as--the 'completion' of the film's principal narrative strand. Early in the film, Jita-Hadi enters the cafe where he will meet Bee (Lyvonne Walder) who, unbeknownst to him, is one of the leaders of the guerrilla cell: their subsequent intimate encounter is one of the final stages, or tests, in his recruitment into the group. When they meet, she describes their encounter in terms of deja-vu, the uncanny feeling that what's happening in the moment is the replaying of a previous encounter. At the time, it's just a chat-up line, complete with talk about dreams coming true (or, in terms that sound closer to psychoanalysis, travelling to the farthest recesses of one's dreams). But sure enough, Jita-Hadi's entry into the cafe is repeated at the end of the film. At the film's climax, the customer in the cafe earlier seen praising 'the white man' seeks to inform on the armed cell, for which he's shot by cops, who in turn are shot by Kim (Gail Peters), the proselytising Christian owner of the cafe who turns out to be another  of the militants. As we cut from Tapscott's eerie inside-piano work to the entry of the full band in affirmative unison melody, the film cuts back to an earlier shot of Jit-Hadi driving a car and to his entry into the cafe. Passing the resurrected neighbour on his way in, over the soundtrack, we hear Bee's words of the initial encounter replayed over the soundtrack: "Hey brother, do you believe in foreknowledge? You know, deja-vu--it's like a birth to a new life, and you go on and on to other, still higher planes of life..." Thence the film cuts to the scene with which it began, the lone militant on manouevres in a snow-covered forest; except this time, we see him joined in conversation with a comrade, before the fade to black. What initially were a set of social encounters characterised by alienation or isolation--the lone militant, the reactionary conversations in the cafe, the wary glances of strangers--are now revealed to be potential nodes of solidarity. There are a number of ways we can red this: the revolutionary potentiality by which dreams coming true--travelling the furthest recesses of the dream--does not mean the dreams of the Church service, of the attainment of luxury goods, of the goodness of the 'white man', or what Henry Threadgill sardonically calls 'refined poverty', but the dream of a transformed society. The film does not, then, reveal a mystical secret, though there may be parallels between the underground guerrilla cell and the mystical or religious cult, a revealed knowledge into which one must be initiated for purposes of evading religious authority or state power, but the possibility of self-emancipation by any means necessary.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

"It has become that time of evening": The Horse (1973, dir. Charles Burnett)

Burnett made this short in California on a break from shooting Killer of Sheep, using some of the grant money for his much better-known feature. The conception is simplicity in itself. Based on a Faulknerian short story he’d written—he’d early on dreamed of adapting Faulkner—the film presents a group of white men waiting outside a derelict shack in the midst of vast farmland. An African American pre-teen stands apart from the group in the field, gently attending to a horse. We learn that he’s the son of Ray, the man the group have hired to shoot the horse; Ray eventually turns up as the sun has almost set, reuniting with his son and taking the gun which one of the men loads with a single bullet. The death happens off screen in a final freeze frame on the boy’s anguished covering of his ears as Burnett’s jump cut makes the screen literally leap with the sound of the shot.

In contrast to the busy soundscape of Burnett’s first film, Several Friends (1969), The Horse is sparse on dialogue and action, concentrating instead on the sounds emerging from its distinctive landscape. Ray is played by Burnett’s fellow LA Rebellion director Larry Clark, himself later to direct a film about Black cowboys, and Burnett’s film in its iconography and setting clearly gestures at the Western, perhaps most obviously the opening sequence to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), at once enshrining and undermining Hollywood's the romanticised nationalism of frontier mythos. Leone’s nod to Ford occurred most obviously in his use of Monument Valley; but whereas Leone lets Claudia Cardinale ride across its distinctive, open rocky landscape on her journey across the new frontier, the landscape of Burnett's film is at once lusher and more constricted. The opening shots establish a vast, green open space, dwarfing its inhabitants; yet, set it as it is in a valley surrounded by steep hills, we almost never see the sweeping horizon that characterises the classic Fordian model. The trio of gunfighters in Leone’s opening sequence includes Woody Strode, one of the few African American actors permitted access to John Ford’s west which is Leone’s point of homage and critique: Strode riding across Monument Valley in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) serving as a kind of apologia for the racism of Ford’s earlier films emblematised in his 1964 Cheyenne Autumn. Despite their virtual invisibility on screen, Black cowboys were the inspiration for a number of staples of the genre: African American lawman Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, while the plot of The Searchers (1956) was likewise based on an incident involving a Black cowboy, transformed in Ford’s film into John Wayne as racist killer, motivated by an ideology of family loyalty, national expansion, and race purity. But, as this transformation of source material indicates, the Western in general has performed a long history on exclusion of the Black cowboys who in fact constituted a significant part of the Frontier workforce. Burnett’s film—though not a western per se—thus acts as corrective while simultaneously tapping into the genre’s dynamics of masculine violence and the racialised invasion or defense of land. As in the slaughterhouse scenes that dominate Killer of Sheep, White America gets Black America to do its dirty work. Yet, unable to bear the consequence themselves, its inarticulate white males are unable to state this outright. Instead, the film, with the weight of allegory, makes the point visually, in its opening shots of shoes, suggesting different class status or aspiration (from shined brogues to scuffed work shoes) which we might suppose made from the hide of horses like the one whose fate the film concerns.

As in Killer of Sheep, music and sound design makes a subtle but important part of the film’s implicit argument. If the soundtracks of his other early films were alive with the sounds of Black history and Black sociality—the overlapping, sometimes raucous dialogue of Several Friends, as its characters kill time and shoot the breeze, or the history of Black Classical music, from William Grant Still through Dinah Washington, provided in Killer of Sheep—here, the soundtrack is dominated neither by dialogue nor by music but by the eerie creaking of farmyard equipment, which at times comes to resemble avant-garde instrumental or electronic score. Burnett surely has in mind the dialogue-free opening sequence of Once Upon A Time In The West, in which a soundscape of similar creaks, the buzzing of a fly, and so on, again take the place of music, yet in themselves become musicked, sounding something like real-life musique concrete. Whereas Leone’s white men are gunfighters awaiting the arrival of the villainous Frank (Henry Fonda, played against noble, Abraham Lincoln type), Burnett’s men are indeterminate in profession (though they mostly wear ties, suggesting some position of power or at least steady employment) and are awaiting instead Ray (played by fellow L.A. Rebellion director Larry Clark). Yet both films await an act of violence, and violence is a part of the being of Burnett’s tie-wearing White men as much as it is of Leone’s gunfighter types. Throughout American popular culture, but particularly in the Western, horses are simultaneously sentimentalised (Roy Rogers and ‘my pal Trigger’) and summarily dispatched with casual violence (as in the infamous cliff-edge leap in Jesse James (1939), after which the American Humane Association to monitor the treatment of animals in Hollywood films; this incident is sometimes attributed to the 1940 John Wayne vehicle Dark Command, in which, ironically enough, he co-stars with none other than Roy Rogers.) In itself, this doubleness functions along the same lines that constitute the implicit ideology of anti-Blackness, in which characteristics of sentimentalised fidelity are projected onto those who are also subject to gratuitous violence, bondage and the condition of social death. (In his reading of the film, Frank Wilderson suggests that “the horse is just an alibi” for racialised, homosocial violence.) The film hints—rather than states—the violence which white Americans force Black Americans to perform might easily be redirected at Black Americans themselves: the historical connotations of a group of massed white men and a handful of African American men in the midst of open country are hard to ignore. Burnett subtly underscores this with the casual, contained violence of the shot in which one of the men flings is pocket-knife into the porch ceiling above; the sudden explosion of racial epithet from one of the other men, ignored but not contradicted by the other characters; or the slow loading of the handgun at the end of the film. Whereas both Several Friends and Killer of Sheep, as Several Friends tend to focus on Black sociality, with white people a minimal presence, here, the focus on whiteness, and the way it outnumbers blackness in a social configuration, is key to the film’s suppressed drama.

The film opens with a fragment of Samuel Barber’s orchestral song ‘Knoxville—Summer of 1915’ (1948), a setting of a James Agee poem which depicts an urban community in the midst of a war that’s never mentioned by name.

It has become that time of evening
When people sit on their porches,
Rocking gently and talking gently
And watching the street
And the standing up into their sphere
Of possession of the trees […]

Confident in their ‘possession’, owning house, street, and its natural surroundings, safe within the domestic sphere of the white family and its generations of parents, grandparents, grandchildren, the inability of this community to anticipate the geopolitical conflict which will decimate their ranks (and, autobiographically, the deaths of both Agee’s and Barber’s fathers) finds expression only in generalities intuited by its youthful speaker – ‘Who shall ever tell the sorrow / Of being on this earth […] Oh, remember them in kindly in their time of trouble; / And in the hour of their taking away.’ The poem ends on a crisis of identity that troubles its picture of loving family and loving community as mirrors of each other:

And those receive me,
Who quietly treat me,
As one familiar and well-beloved in that home:
But will not, oh, will not,
Not now, not ever;
But will not ever tell me who I am.

Read this way, Ray’s son functions something like the speaker of Agee’s poem. But the identity he cannot name is one connected to a far more deathly unhomeliness than Agee’s combination of nostalgia with existential unease. After all, the white men of Burnett’s film barely even pretend to receive or quietly treat Ray or his son as ones familiar and well-beloved in the derelict shack that stands in for a home: the crumbling ‘house I live in’ under the weight of collapse in the closing years of the Vietnam war—with its racialised death count on both sides—inner city rebellion, and coming economic collapse. In Several Friends, a horse suddenly appears at the edge of the frame as its characters watch a fight in a parking lot. The shot is never repeated and never explained: blink and you’d miss it. The incongruity of that shot—as in the now-iconic scenes of masked children playing in Killer of Sheep—serves to emphasize a surrealism that bites back at a patronising realism which would trade in pity or abjection, fresh instead with all the possibilities of the marvellous. Here, however, the horse serves to index a whole set of racialised violence, both cinematic and extra-cinematic, all the more present, and prescient, for being unstated or unseen.

(Along with Several Friends and other shorts by Burnett, the film is currently available to stream for free as part of the Criterion Channel's Black Cinema season, as well as in a lower-quality stream on Youtube.)

Monday, 1 June 2020

Calvin Hernton in 1966

Calvin Hernton, in the article pictured above, was writing about the insurrections in Watts, Los Angeles in 1966 (here published in British socialist newspaper Peace News during his time in London). He also wrote, brilliantly, about the wider wave of urban insurrections, from the Harlem Rebellion of 1964 through Newark, Watts, Detroit (and Atlanta, Baltimore, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Britain, Rochester, Plainfield, Tampa, Toledo, Washington D.C.) in his 1968 essay 'Dynamite Growing out of their Skulls', which is one of the most important essays of that period about the long hot summers, and which has much to teach about what's changed and not changed since then. And here we are again in June 2020 as anti-blackness is -- once again! -- revealed as the structuring order of a society simultaneously decimated by mass unemployment, by a virus whose effects -- of course! -- are disproportionate, and social, not 'natural', in their effect on those who are not 'the people who think themselves white' or thinks themselves comfortable, safe, middle or upper class, male, who wear that identity like a magic cloak. And a President who encourages neo-Fascist militia to declare open season on 'leftists' and people of colour, who describes resistance as terrorism, and who hides in a bunker when the smell of the smoke reaches his nostrils through the White House walls. (And as, here in the UK, the government here refuses to set a date for the enquiry into disproportionate BAME deaths from COVID due to concerns that this would be a 'bad combination' with the Floyd protests in the US.)

Hernton grew up in the South under American racial apartheid; he lived through the era of McCarthyism, was watched by the FBI, harassed by cops in New York, was in London when Stokely Carmichael was refused re-entry into Britain after the speeches he'd given at the Dialectics of Liberation conference, the same year that Carmichael had his passport confiscated in the States for visiting Cuba. His work in prose and poetry speaks with righteous anger and realistic despair about this situation--in his poems about the Harlem Rebellion or the Birmingham church bombing, in the late poem he wrote for the murdered graffiti artist Michael Stewart. He knew as well as anyone that it was never just about 1966, or 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968. History doesn't move in a straight line from past to present, but, in his words, the past "haunts", "traps" us. Has its own sparks, the fire next time. The 1960s, or LA in 1992, might seem the obvious historical parallel (if parallel is really the right word for the way history moves). But take it further back. Robert Greene II's concise and on-the-money article at Jacobin draws parallels between the Red Summer and what he dubs the current 'Red Spring'. Pandemic, global conflict, racial terror in which the victims and those who resist are labelled 'terrorists', liberals wring their hands over violence against property. How much have the co-ordinates changed since the selection of poems that Claude McKay published in The Liberator in 1919?

And so the sparks of June 2020. As Hernton puts it: "Not even a child should have been surprised".

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Elaine Mitchener Solo -- Café Oto Livestream, 23.03.20

March 2020 has moved incredibly quickly, for reasons of which anyone reading this will be all too aware. Likewise, this will be no doubt littered with typos and overly-elongated sentences: perhaps others share this feeling that there is right now too much to say, all at once, and, simultaneously, that one feels numbed to not being able to say anything at all, overtaken by events, swept up in them, left behind. Yet at the same time, things have ground to a weirdly atemporal standstill, with all the glacial suddenness of what seems to be an imminent world historical leap: the treading of a fine line, a balance (though hardly balanced), between slivers of hope—that the current cruelty of economic and “social” arrangement might collapse, and that in its place agitation for transformed notions of social justice might emerge—and premonitions of horror and catastrophe, as the atomisation of social life reduces the possibilities for collective action and agitation, sharpens the knife edge that so many without the luxury of a comfortable “day-to-day” already face. This process exists on every level, from local to international to global. There's the chaos—the most noisily and easily-trumpeted—into which even the wealthiest of Western powers are plunged: powers whose arrogance assumed this could never happen, and thus made and (failed to) deploy utterly inadequate containment measures. Then, and inseparable from this, are the global inequalities by which, for the West, pandemic is always “elsewhere”—othered, racialised—and by which those who suffer the most and are the most at risk, those who are sacrificed on the pyre, those who are rendered expendable and peripheral, are always those who are already othered, racialised, those who, pandemic or no pandemic, are pushed to the mere brink of survivable life. London—where the UK government’s incompetent and disastrous laissez-faire refusal to act, followed by abrupt about-faces and the ever-present risk of authoritarianism, has allowed a high and sudden spread in cases, caught between “business-as-usual” (economic flow over human life) and war-footing “Blitz spirit” measures—is an uncertain place in the lately-woken spring sun.

Maybe it seems either callous or more important than ever—or both, or neither—to focus on music in this instance. But I’ll do so anyway. Since the earlier announcement of “social distancing” measures—in which the population seemed to temporarily took the lead over a government which briefly flirted with the absurd notion of “herd immunity” as (non)containment strategy—Café Oto switched its usual roster of gigs to a series of livestreams, in which musicians performed to an empty venue, broadcast on the web. Tuesday’s was the first I’d managed to catch, and just as the livestream began, the UK government announced what—in the often disastrous confusion that’s typified the governmental response to the increasing spread of the Covid outbreak over the past few weeks—seemed to amount to a full-on lockdown (police presence, trips outside rationed, most businesses closed—all with unclear provision for those on precarious contracts, with no fixed abode, and for all the various reasons that the cosy option of “working from home” is hardly an option for many). So this would be the last of these livestreams (now archived online:, the announcement exacerbating the already eerie fragility of two solo sets to a split and invisible audience (for it’s the coming together—to borrow Rzewski’s title—of audience that makes the socius of such music as much as it is the coming together of musicians, and as much as that coming together can occur across temporal and physical spaces, via recordings, scores and the like). That announcement also threatened to overwhelm the music, and I found it hard to focus on Kerry Yong’s performance of the first three of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseuax, fine though the performance was. Instead, all I could notice really were physical details: Yong acting as his own page-turner, moving the sheets on top of the piano—as if, like Igor Levit, he were giving the recital from his own living room—the way Yong’s hands seemed to glide with a kind of serenity down the keyboard even as he was actually executing some of the more tricky of Messiaen’s trilled avian notation-fantasias. Or maybe this was just a function of the inevitably glitchy nature of the livestream format, by the fact that, for the past few days of house-bound distancing, when I open the window all I hear is birdsong and building work and sirens and I’m not sure if silence or noise is more reason for alarm.

The second half was originally billed as Elaine Mitchener with bassist Neil Charles—who gave a superlative performance as part of Anthony Braxton’s Standards Quartet at Oto a few months ago, when all this seemed barely a blink in anyone’s eye—but ended up being Mitchener solo. For at least an hour, Mitchener crooned, howled, answered back, debated, channeled, chattered, dug deep and floored things in a solo vocal display astonishing not just for its virtuosity—Mitchener has Cathy Berberian levels of wild skill—but for what that virtuosity enabled her to do. This was emotionally heightened by the official announcement, and by all the uncertainty of the previous weeks, and of the weeks or months to come. Mitchener seemed to take that uncertainty in and on, to fully inhabit it, making it a ground from which to begin, while also offering the rock-like comfort against it. This comfort, this alternative, is something already central to Mitchener's music-making. By this I mean an alternative mode of temporality, which has two elements. Firstly, a total openness and ability to move within the moment—improvisational capacity, expressively buoyed by a variety of physical movement and gesture that responds to / echoes / drives the sound. Secondly, the aim to suggest, or even inhabit, alternative temporalities—cosmic, spiritual, non-Wester—the lyrics of Sun Ra, their afro-Futurist refusal of the killing constraints of presentness through projections into (imagined) past and (imagined) future, their atopic utopianism which is, of course, more material than any of the capitalist realist lies we’re daily told even as they break/thrive under the pressure of crisis. That’s an imprecise way of rendering what, in the experiential necessity Mitchener’s vocal work demands of performer and listener alike, is absolutely clear. You can stop reading and just click below if you want to know what I mean.

Mitchener began wordless, voiceless, lighting a bag of cheap candles (tea-lights, right?) on one of Oto’s signature tables, ringing a service bell every time one was lit. I wondered if it was a ritual for the dead—as Mitchener has previously memorialised the victims of criminal negligence in Grenfell Tower—so, here, those who have died so far of the virus, or perhaps those to come—or if that was placing too much symbolic freight on it, or if, as prelude and ritual, it was something that existed as a space deliberately open to interpretation: an entering in. Moving to the microphone, Mitchener began the recital’s musicked part with words that only after a minute or so made themselves manifest as decipherable words—stretched, distorted, chopped by their staggered speech-sung emergence, like a voice that’s trying to get out but at the same time trying to hide, operating within contradictory impulses, and it’s only from such contradiction that the full soar of sung note, of melisma or melody, can emerge; must be earned. The words, as far as I can tell, pertained to (a particular interpretation of) ancient Egyptian mythology—”the focus of oneness in time and space”.

Ra is the first principle which emerges out of the Primeval Waters. He is the subtle, singular principle of Creation, the focus of oneness in time and space. The Primeval Ocean itself transcends time and space and is beyond existence and non-existence. Ra is the first principle to emerge out of the Absolute (as Ra-Tem). His emergence signifies the beginning of existence

Point from which creation begins, as Oliver Lake put it—a singular principle that is yet subtle, the beginning of existence yet itself somewhere in between realms. It’s easy to metaphorize this:creation as a point which is not a point in time or space but refuses those categories, yet which maintains a necessary cohesion akin to that of any creative being; creation recreated every time we add to it through human activity. So in a sense that fragmented phrase—in Mitchener’s rendition, removed from origin, emerging in barely decipherable form (and decipherment only working backwards, as one stitches together a word from a syllable, a syllable from a string of notes, etc)—serves as another way of entering in, another statement of purpose, but also a statement of elsewhere, not as escapism, not as evasion of the moment where we are—for the rest of the performance channeled that with a ferocious and necessary intensity—but as the opening up of alternatives to the (mis)management of death in which our lives, more than ever, are now variously and unequally entwined.

The rest of the ‘recital’ passed in something of a blur, though it was beautifully precise, moving through a series of demarcated and holistically-constructed pieces, as Mitchener removed each page from her music stand (whether scores of simply words / prompts, I wasn't sure, and it didn't seem to matter), laying them on the floor. About half-way through, some Sun Ra lyrics appeared, as well as some pieces from Mitchener’s “sings the Black Avant Garde“ project, in which vocal pieces from ‘free jazz’ repertoire are treated as occasions for recital, given the seriousness they deserve as compositions, in the processing restoring the presence of the voice (particularly the gendered female voice) to free jazz, in which it is essential (Linda Sharrock! Patty Waters! Jeanne Lee! June Tyson!), but from which it is too often excluded. Remembered in no particular order, the other pieces included Archie Shepp and Jeanne Lee’s “There is a Balm in Gilead”, one of the great recordings of the 1960s, no doubt, Mitchener here echoing not only Lee’s own relatively un-extemporized renditions of the melody, but also the counter-melodies by Shepp’s tenor saxophone and Lester Bowie’s ghostly trumpet. There were Ra lyrics, removed from their original melody and rendered more tonally abstract, to the accompaniment of a shaker. There was an echo of classic Berberian-esque performance-art/avant-garde ‘New Music’ theatre featuring a trio of squeaky toys (a doll, a pig, and a long-necked rubber chicken)—more extraordinary here than the seriousness with which Mitchener treated these as instruments, the refusal to play for laughs or excess, was the fact that she managed to pull this off. Another pieec (perhaps the second), which began as a kind of spoken dialogue, of interpellation, hailing and refusal, sometimes seeming to touch on the present moment—spectres of people hoarding food and fighting in supermarket, as Mitchener listed various ingredients and foodstuffs—and in which voice’s internalised and externalised, inherently dialogic nature, could be tracked not only in the range of sound Mitchener produced—closer to Phil Minton or Maggie Nicols than Lee or Berbarian here—but in the viscerally expressive gestures by which she slapped, caressed, and framed her face and body; gestures of balancing and centering, of falling way and apart, holding the music in and letting it, letting oneself collapse but keeping it all together. Towards the end, Yong, who'd been sitting the whole time at the piano to the right of the stage area, silent and observant, briefly joined, with some brief rumbles of strummed piano strings; but it was Mitchener alone who ended things with an utterly devastating rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’. Written by a slaver-turned-abolitionist, the piece of course transcends its nature as white guilt-exculpation and religious apologia (Newton’s spiritual conversion predating by some years his ceasing to participate in the slave trade) to become a vehicle for libration, sung on Civil Rights marches by Fannie Lou Hamer, Mahalia Jackson and others—as Jackson put it, “to give magical protection – a charm to ward off danger, an incantation to the angels of heaven to descend”. So that history, the felt presence of the melody as something so familiar most of the audience could probably sing it—something Mitchener half-jokingly suggested when she said “sing along if you like”—but very quickly Mitchener, her live vocals dragging behind I think two or three voices of pre-recorded, multi-tracked rendition a la the phased unison/separation of Feldman’s ‘Three Voices‘, swayed a long ways from the familiar melody, her live line more and more hanging behind the pre-recordings and progressively omitting words, consonants, articulation in an elongated slur, so that the final round of the tune’s familiar contour essentially lacked either the melody or words except as sounds in the memory. As this process occurred, Mitchener sunk lower and lower to the floor, and closer and closer in to herself, the world around kept out—in its mendacity—yet allowed in—as something like Jackson’s protective spell—for those who need it. "I was not sure the magic worked outside the church walls ... in the open air of Mississippi", noted Jackson. "But I wasn’t taking any chance". Likewise today: who knows if such spells work. Who knows what that would mean. But I just want to register for now the strength in vulnerability of this performance as exemplary, as gift, benediction, and the rest: both a farewell to past certainties and a beginning to a situation we’re only, really, beginning to contemplate.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

McCoy Tyner / Recent writing elsewhere...

R.I.P. the great McCoy Tyner, who's passed away at the age of 81. Perhaps easy to forget how transformative that first encounter with his work could be, easily overshadowed in context as it is by the 'sideman' role that he took within the Coltrane quartet; but it shouldn't go unstated just how integral his vital and innovative piano sound was to the quartet, the lightning runs of the right hand, their speed dizzying and dazzling and hard to believe, that characteristic rolling trill as chiming accent or endpoint to ascending-descending melodic steps, and, perhaps even more than this, that left-hand rolling out thunder, the chordal, rhythmic anchor, pounded out so loud you'd think the stereo might break, the piano shake, the walls of Jericho fall down: this the inexorable and committed foundation to Coltrane's flights, a key component of all the dimensions that music opened and still opens. Hank Shteamer says it well here, with succinctly astute observations on jazz as a 'band music'. But the Coltrane quarter was not, of course, all: after and even before leaving Coltrane, Tyner made some wonderful recordings on Blue Note, my favourites those from the late 1960s: the under-sung Expansions (1968) with a double-horn line-up of Wayne Shorter and Gary Bartz; the almost identically-named Extensions (1970), a really stupendous record with that line-up supplemented by Alice Coltrane on harp; Cosmos (1969), featuring some tracks with string quartet that can be interestingly compared to Andrew Hill's recordings with a similar configuration around the same time (the two obviously extremely different as pianists, in terms of sound, spacing, timing, everything!). Into to the 70s, and after a dry period in which Tyner had to drive a cab to make ends meet, he signed with Milestone and recorded two of his best records: the underrated Song for My Lady (1972), with Mtume's bubbling percussion and Michael White's violin adding poise and stratospheric squal over one of those classic Tyner bass grooves on the opening 'Native Song', 'The Night has a Thousand Eyes' reinvented in classically thunderous Tyner fashion, 'A Silent Tear' the expected Tyner ballad, all gravity and grace, storm and sun; and the expansive Sahara from the same year, with a condensed version of the same band (who can also be seen in the live performance above, recorded off the TV show Soul), Sonny Fortune absolutely wailing on soprano, Tyner on one track playing koto...

On these records, Tyner was interested in expanding the palette of the music beyond the usual jazz quartet format, with bits of extra percussion, extra horns and percussion, the string quartet, Ron Carter on cello, string sections, wind sections, groups in all sizes from medium, chamber-music style ensembles to much larger big bands, the latter imparting a movie-music style grandeur on albums like Fly with the Wind and Song of the New World. Some of the most texturally interesting work happens on Asante, where guitar and voices thicken out the music, all topped off with the chunky undercurrent of Mtume's congas (around the time he joined Miles Davis' heaviest electric ensemble). None of this ever sounds quite like the fusion then popular -- as heavy as any fusion band, Tyner never really enters into rock territory, experimenting with instrumentation but essentially taking a piano style and an overall musical conception that was established by the early 1960s and engraving its edges with textural variety. Into the '70s and '80s, that established style seemed to get if anything, thicker, heavier, more grandiose, propelling forward those big bands, quartets and the like -- even if '70s recording biases meant that too often the group (particularly drums) would sound boxy (hence perhaps the best recordings are live: Atlantis, The Greeting). Tyner's albums and tunes never seemed to need more than one word to convey those qualities that his music embodied -- a rooted searching, a resolved quest: Expansions, Extensions, Cosmos -- and have a unique combination of high energy, propulsive excitement and an underlying hopefulness, a genuine calm. On solo performances, particularly ballads, Tyner could be floridly romantic: his solo work, beginning with Echoes of a Friend (1972), one of a number of tributes to Coltrane,  is an under-appreciated aspect of his work, but is an excellent way to hear his total command of structure: swelling and rising over the ever-chiming sustain pedal that carries this music forward, one moment he will be pounding out thick left-hand chords, the next stroking out the basic essence of the melody in what (in his music) seems almost a whisper. This take on the piece 'For Tomorrow' gives some indication.

As he entered the '90s, he tended to concentrate on smaller groups in contrast to the expanded units of the '70s and '80s (though there are some excellent big band recordings still), including a group with Bobby Hutcherson and a duo with, of all people, Stéphane Grappelli, as well as some completely powerhouse trio work with bassist Charnett Moffett (this version of 'Passion Dance' reaches some new levels of thunder)...The repertoire perhaps tended to standards a little more -- one critic suggests that Tyner had begun to function as a kind of 'jazz historian' -- though standards appear throughout his body of recorded work, but that sound was still in place. And it was there even when, in the very last years of work, he lost some of the speed and sonic massiveness that characterised the majority of his post-Coltrane work, adopting instead an approach perhaps a little more laid-back, yet still frequently exciting and intense. Judging by the recordings, often live sessions, what was by then a well-worn style was no less effective for that. I still kick myself for missing the opportunity to see him play in London a few years back.

Of course, we'll always come back to the recordings with Coltrane: the way the piano sets up 'My Favorite Things', Tyner's repeating chordal pattern almost as familiar as the main melody itself, the graven thickness of his playing around 1965, for my money the quartet's most exciting year. Tyner is not often thought of as a 'free' player -- his rhythmic insistence is too solidly in place to enable the freed-up pulse central to much of the 'New Thing' -- but it's precisely that contrast with the playing around him that imparts records like Ascension and Meditations with their unique and vital tension and beauty -- after the ferocity of Coltrane and Sanders' double-soloing on 'Consequences', Tyner's solo, beginning about five minutes in, is as good a display as any of his capacity to build a solo that felt like a structured suite rather than a linear run-through over changes. Dave Liebman calls it: “a mini-twentieth-century piano concerto in scope, intensity and technique”, setting the scene for “benediction”. When I hear the emotional and technical contour of that solo I think of the praise heaped on (say) The Köln concert, and I think of how Tyner accomplishes all of that in just five minutes. A great loss.

And a quick summary of some recent pieces that have come out in other venues:

This piece on 'Cecil Taylor's Voodoo Poetics' at Bill Shoemaker's wonderful online journal Point of Departure. Have been following PoD since its inception back in, and honoured to be included. The issue also includes excerpts from Blank Forms' excellent reprint of Joseph Jarman's Black Case.

Write-up at Art Forum of Anthony Braxton's residency at Cafe Oto earlier this year -- part of a European tour with the new 'Standards Quartet' (Braxton, Alexander Hawkins, Neil Charles and Stephen Davis).

Also at Art Forum, a write-up of the Art Ensemble of Chiagco (plus guests) late last year.

And a piece on the life work of Sean Bonney at The Poetry Foundation.

Monday, 2 March 2020

'Why?' Alan Shorter's Parabolic 'Free' Jazz

A heavily revised and much expanded version of these initial notes now appears in Point of Departure, Issue 71 (June 2020): Thanks to Bill Shoemaker.

Spurred by the randomised algorithm of online listening to pay attention to some things I hadn’t heard, or, really, thought about, for years, I thought I’m going to briefly focus here on the two records released under his own name by Alan Shorter: trumpeter and flugelhorn player, elder brother of Wayne, obscure even amongst the already obscured field of the 1960s “New Thing”. Growing up in Newark, New Jersey, with Wayne, friends with Amiri Baraka, Shorter initially played saxophone before switching to trumpet, perhaps due to Wayne’s growing fame. Baraka knew the ‘weird Shorter brothers’ in Newark, NJ (back when Alan was a bebop player) and provides a helpful essay in the CD reissue liners to Shorter’s debut album Orgasm, noting that they reconnected at Howard University – where both were blackballed from the fraternity – and Shorter’s switching from saxophone to trumpet. Though nowhere near Wayne's soon-meteoric rise, spurred by membership in the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ ‘Second Great Quintet’, the elder Shorter nonetheless had some sort of presence within the burgeoning New York free jazz underground, playing with the New York Art Quartet (hitherto-unheard tracks have recently surfaced on the massive ‘Call it Art’ boxset), and on dates by Marion Brown and Archie Shepp – most especially, Four for Trane (1964), as well as some more obscure later dates from later 1960s and early 1970s, when both Shorter and Shepp were plying their trade on the European circuit – as well as a kind of cameo on Wayne’s own The All Seeing Eye with a recording of his piece ‘Mephistopheles’.

On the latter, Herbie Hancock, normally the expert builder of solos full of melodic and harmonic invention, is reduced to repeating a single note at the lower end of the piano while the Shorter brothers take slow, odd solos that promise to build to a climax that never comes. Piano disappears on Shorter’s first record, Orgasm, recorded in 1968 with a quartet format of Shorter (playing flugelhorn on all but one track), a ‘fire music’ tenor player as a foil (on Orgasm, the role if filled by Gato Barbieri; on Shorter's sophomore album, Tes Esat, it's the more obscure Gary Windo). Don Cherry had made similar use of Pharoah Sanders and Barbieri on his own records from a few years before, in which bands move through suite-like structures, full of changing moods and generic nods. On Shorter's record, Charlie Haden’s bass and Muhammad Ali’s splashily boxy drums offer a more insistently forward momentum (check out the back-beats on ‘Rapids’!), and Barbieri’s solos more often swirl around iterations and reiterations of melody – as well as harmonics that sound like the Surrealist meeting, not so much of a sewing machine and an umbrella, as of a drill and a lyre bird. Shorter’s heard more here than he will be on Tes Etat, his solos brightly buzzing. The playing sounds less burnished, less introspectively moody than his contribution to 'Mephistopheles': both the bright openness and the thinner buzzing around the edges of that sound recall Cherry, but the odd pauses are something else again. Shorter seems always to wait just that little bit too long before re-entering with another melodic variant or set of fast-repeating, trilled burrs, giving a kind of ante-chamber, limbo, waiting room feel – a destabilising effect that’s not so much the sardonic, ironic, quizzical sound pianist Andrew Hill was getting in this period from a similar playing with time, as a constant holding-in of breath, sound of claustrophobia, anxiety, but more on the part of listener than player, perhaps. In the multiple sense of musical 'playing', something’s been toyed with, though that toying's not necessarily playful.

The same is true of the composed melodies to the pieces, which are just as important as the improvisations that follow. They’re slow, but not ballads, knotty, but not fast or virtuosic. They sound very much composed (to the extent that the drummer will often seem to be playing the melody with the same melodic and rhythmic accentuation as the horns), and they’re repeated many times – they’re not just throwaway prefaces to ‘blowing’. One review describes them as ‘sinister’ - and, indeed, Wayne Shorter notes that Alan was inspired by Dracula and Frankenstein movies (Wayne himself preferring musical and sic-fi) – and this sense of the (bend) sinister, the left-ward curve, maybe has to do with that sense of waiting again, the expectation of something, but a something of which one’s not quite certain, an expectation of expectation. Their emotional tenor lacks – to run through a fairly random list - the rhapsodic or hopeful quality of one strain of free jazz – the Noah Howard, Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders kind of melody – the ecstatic religious fervour of the Ayler variety, the Romanticism of Cecil Taylor’s composed pieces, the spring-in-the-step joy of Ornette or Cherry. This lack of placeability (which often gets named in the little commentary there is on Shorter ‘intellectual’ – for want of a better word, as ever) is both why Shorter’s music has been neglected (as well as the massive shadow of his brother) and the reason it still fascinates.

Orgasm is not the title one would immediately associate with the music – hence, perhaps, the re-issue of the session under the name of another of the tracks, Parabolic. There’s deliberation if not ecstasy (one always knows who’s doing what on this record), a sustained plateau of concentration, intensity and pleasure if not particular moments of release. But metaphors are not what's important here. If this is music that always suggests an elsewhere - a scene of action that's taking place outside the sphere of the music itself - it doesn't have a the vocabulary to express this elsewhere that metaphor in language provides. In his retrospective liner note essay, Baraka describes the music as “weird, thorny, stylishly tenuous”. That’s stylishly, not stylistically – the music is tenuous, yet it also has a kind of forward momentum, an insistence - “the march or marked stride of something portentous, even dangerous”. Yet, as Baraka put sit in a later poem of his ownL "I seen something / You seen it too / You just can't call its name". And so this intuition, this half-knowledge, this inkling of a mood or a thought may bring a forward “thrust” to the music – perhaps the insistent drumbeat (so different to Tes Esat, at times approaching the military taps that the Ayler band would channel) - yet that "thrust" will always be belied by a sense of uncertainty, or possibility – “it could be this way, but then again…who knows”. Parabolic. In Baraka’s narrative account, Shorter will periodically turn up in the same social orbit, from high school to university to New York bohemia to the Black Nationalist context of the Congress of African Peoples (CAP), but it’s never clear what directions he’s going in musically (he may have switched instruments, or styles). For Baraka, this is reflected in the music, which he links more broadly to the uncertainty of the '60s jazz avant-garde or ‘new music’ in general, an uncertainty central to the awkward ways in which that music was phrased in relation to what Werner Sollors famously dubbed, from a phrase of Baraka's own, a ‘populist modernism’.

“New, but relative to what?” Baraka asks. “Aggressive and determined […] not altogether certain of what”. The music is meant to “call for a ‘new dispensation’, perhaps, of the whole order of things”. Note that perhaps. Clarity and uncertainty, declamation and the tenuous, “mood and emotion”. Baraka links Shorter’s use of flugelhorn to Miles Davis (on those 1950s Gil Evans records) and the notion of ‘cool’ – a certain secrecy, a holding back which yet gives a sense always that there is more to say, held back either deliberately, out of diffidence, out of calculation, hesitation, control. A new dispensation of the entire order of things: the destruction and remaking of the world itself. These are the revolutionary and cosmic messages of much music of this era, of Baraka's own writing from that era too - these later liner notes, written in 1997, adopting a more reflective, diffident approach in keeping with Shorter's own music, and in that weird sense, making Shorter's music seem all the more timely in the '90s than in the present of its recording. What we have here -- 'perhaps' -- is the fantasy of a music that does not yet exist (which includes both the mysteriousness and apparent incompleteness of Shorter's own discography and the incompleteness of the music in general) poking out from around the corner of these traces that do. Baraka’s vocabulary suggests that this music is a "warning", a "short, fearsome message", offering bursts of "proto-rational description": not celebration, not ecstasy, but cryptic declamations, reports on a state of reality that, for those who mendaciously broker power and for those who do not stop to think on it, does not appear to actually exist. This is emphatically not mystical, however, but a rational report on states of collapse, of transfers to other states, other ways of being. It's interesting too that Baraka sees Shorter’s solos not, in the vocabulary familiar from much free jazz criticism, as ‘explosions’, but ‘implosions’, "somehow removed, as a statement from the whole […] as if he is commenting on, rather than existing as part of the whole". For Baraka, this is to do with Shorter not having found his own voice as soloist – the compositions containing the real sum of his individuality, even as they sometimes sound like the "outline of a tune" more than the tune itself.

If, then, free jazz is often seen as a model for and reflection on social conditions – both in terms of protesting existent arrangements and offering models of cooperation that could challenge it – Shorter’s concerns seem more abstruse. As Wayne puts it, "Alan created his own world. He had some ideas about breaking through the old of the mass-aimed [i.e. commercial] forms […] no bands behind him, no arrangements." This meant that Alan "was always in confrontation, or there were confrontations on the horizon…with record executives, rehearsal places, front offices, professors in school." Similar tensions emerged in the recording session for Orgasm, though it seems, not this time at his own instigation – in the liners, Rashied Ali recalls how he accused producer Esmond Edwards of deliberately playing with the musicians by requesting multiple takes of a piece that already had a successful recording, ultimately walking out of the studio. This led to the music being recorded by two rhythm sections on two separate dates, with Charlie Haden and Rashied's brother Muhammad subbing for Reggie Johnson and Ali. Though there's little to go on apart from this story, we might speculate that Edwards' apparent hostility had to do with lack of familiarity with, or hostility to, free jazz (Edwards had come up as a pioneering photographer and producer during the 1950s, working for prestige records). Whatever the case, what emerges here is a doubleness: the enforced framing of artistic vision within the confines of recording booth, the control of a producer managing and controlling expectation; and the doubled recording session.

A more conducive home seems to have been found in Europe, though again, recorded evidence is sparse: some dates with Shepp (the sprawling and somewhat unfocussed Pitchin' Can, Coral Rock, Doodlin', and 'Full Moon Ensemble' albums, and appearances in large group contexts with Alan Silva, Francois Tusques, and apparently (though this seems somewhat unlikely) the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland big band. Two years after Orgasm, Shorter recorded his only other album as a leader, Tes Esat, in London. In the liner notes, Shorter tells Val Wilmer: “Everybody is a leader, there’s no sidemen any more – sidemen are decadent. Free music has a kind of leadership of its own”. Certainly no ‘decadence’ here, no excess or ornamentation – this is free jazz as sometimes austere focus, implosion rather than explosion, muted and mysterious even in its outbursts. Tes Esat – the title is uncertain, an anagram, a play on sitting and having sat, or a test, a private joke? I guess the obvious word is ‘estates’ – not ‘states’ (states of being – Shorter in the liners talks about ‘living’ rather than what one is doing while living) – but legacies, propertied repositories of wealth or dispersed traces of preceding lives. Anagrams involve the rearrangement of fixed elements, a working with, worrying at the edges of, the given, that works in terms of the spirit if not the structural operations of Shorter’s music. One feels here not so much that the musicians are discovering new ideas in their playing as working at the cracks of what already exists, and finding that as mysterious, as inexplicable, filled, perhaps with horror, or a more inscrutable sense of dread, as the ostensibly unknown. As we've seen, Shorter’s best-known piece is called 'Mephistopheles' – the broker of the devil’s bargain in the search for knowledge; the risks of the unknown, but also the risks of the given. Ostinato rumble, smoothly off-tumble, extended wail, clipped report / retort. Again, Baraka’s notions of 'description', combined with his notions of ‘cool’ – an apparent oddity when talking about the ‘heat-filled’ music of free jazz – fit well here. Description is about telling what you know; cool, often, about holding back what you know to give the impression of knowing more than you're letting on--secrecy, holding-back, as tools of power. Shorter's music falls somewhere in between.

Cool jazz for the free jazz age? Perhaps. In any case, this is not music about soloing, or virtuosity. What’s extraordinary about Tes Esat, even more so than Orgasm (though Orgasm is probably the better record overall) is how little Shorter's own playing is foregrounded, and how little in fact the horns appear at all. Before the melody statement comes in, tracks will open with a minute or two of just bass and drums, in a kind of abstract territory where a lot is happening, in terms of notes and switches of register, but at the same time almost nothing seems to be happening: again, we’re in an anteroom, a pause, a limbo, waiting for the ‘head’ that we know will appear. (Instead it’s a bass player rather than one of the horns that dominates the record: the great Johnny Dyani’s slipping, sliding harmonics, swooning and scrabbling, as well as his piano playing on the first track.) When the melodies do appear, they’re somehow both curt and extended, always played in unison by the horns with long held, repeated notes that are stabbed out over a busy backdrop, their repetitive stasis all the more emphasized by the business of bass and drums. Shorter’s music is far from Ornettish, a comparison that’s been made on the basis of the piano-less format of his two albums as leader. While some free jazz melodies/heads are overtly stripped down, essentially just preliminaries to free playing, Shorter’s – like, say, Albert Ayler’s – are very much a part of the piece, and thus, more than ‘heads’. Not that the improvisations take place on their harmonic frame, but the sound of the composed material being articulated at the beginning and end of the piece is as vital to the piece as are the improvised sections. Can one imagine a through-composed free jazz? Where's the freedom here, what spaces do we traverse. When the 'freely' improvised sections do occur, Shorter tends to lay out, while Windo’s saxophone, possibly put through some sort of electronic effect (unless it’s just the distortion on the recording), is as abrasive in its tone as any I’ve heard, not through playing hard and fast so much as the well-judged screech or smear, sounds which sometimes appear as if from another world – I think some of these are also the yelps, the vocalised exhortations, the bits of percussion and so on that Dyani employs. But really, that’s the total effect of this music too. Music that’s present yet somehow doesn’t fully reveal itself, material in its sometimes limited focus yet ghostly in its otherness. “Listening to Alan Shorter gives one the impresions of being felled by a feather duster” writes
poet Ron Welburn
. in a rare review of his work in a 1973 issue of Black World . Or “an open night, with things flying around in it”. Mechanical birds, organic industrial objects, claustrophobic ghosts on an open plain.

On the album cover to Tes Etat, the musicians are caught in a spotlit against a dark background, dressed in Afro-centric dashikis and wearing shades in the 'cool' vein of which Baraka speaks. Though we see Shorter relaxed and laughing in a studio shot on the back of the LP sleeve, the light's harsh glare here seems designed to appear intimidating, capturing the musicians, catching them (out). Yet rather than looking caught -- whether in cop-headlights, military searchlights, the spotlights of an often hostile 'entertainment' business -- they stand, even sit, their ground. They're not going anywhere, won't be read. And so this music, its insistent (un)availability. Wrecked estates, plentiful absences, the dip and curve of parabolic reverie or nightmare; even, of some kind of detached rest, if not peace. As Wayne Shorter notes of Alan in an interview with Baraka printed in the reissue notes to Orgasm, "Teachers would mark his papers, and he would ask 'Why?' on top of the teacher’s marks."

Alan Shorter’s music continues to ask questions – of us, the world, itself.