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: https://www.cafeoto.co.uk/archive/), 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): http://www.pointofdeparture.org/PoD71/PoD71Shorter.html. 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.