Wednesday 6 May 2009

The Universal Mind of Bill Evans (documentary)

Just stumbled across said programme on youtube; looks to be an unusually thoughful jazz documentary. Too often even quite promising modern jazz docs are overly scattershot in their approach: for example, you arguably learn more about Sun Ra from the fiction film 'Space is the Place' than the more recent 'Brother from Another Planet' (which draws on 'SITP' as well as the 1980s documentary 'A Joyful Noise' - 'AJN' does the right thing in letting Ra and members of the Arkestra speak their mind without 'amplification' or 'enhancement' from obtrusive journos or critics). 'Talking heads' (whether these be critics or musicians) tend to be used merely to deliver fairly obvious factual snippets or unsubstantiated opinions, with short bits of music that aren't given time to breathe amongst the commentary. A good example might be the film about 'New Thing' jazz released on DVD by ESP Disk, 'Inside Out in the Open', which is admittedly hampered by its length - it feels like it's trying to cram a whole TV series' worth into a mere hour. But even those programmes which have the luxury of giving more time to their subjects, such as Ken Burns' 'Jazz', fall into the same trip - most infamously when Cecil Taylor could be dismissed by a wilfully ignorant Marsalis comment and an extremely brief snippet of a piano solo whose overall feel is actually very different to the chosen excerpt. (Full video here: Some might argue that, as with television news, an agenda is being pushed - the impression of 'neutrality', of hearing several sides of the issue, is foisted upon us by the wide variety of talking heads, even as they merge into one voice, crowing the party line. This might not even be their fault - but selective editing can make it so. And, importantly, it might not even be the fault of the film-makers (debate Mr Burns' motivation in the aforementioned Cecil Taylor example as you will), as much as a result of the constraints they have to work under - most obviously, with regards to length, and to the sheer scope of material they have to address within such limiting confines.

Which is why I think the 'small is beautiful' approach is probably where the best jazz docs come from. There are no such compromises, no glaring omissions and skewed/chopped viewpoints in the Bill Evans documentary. By limiting things down to three people - Steve Allen, for the introduction; Bill Evans, as the documentary subject; and his brother Harry, as interviewer - it allows their thoughts to emerge at greater length, and with greater clarity; allows us access to the creative process of an artist without the talking-heads' schizophrenic data-barrage of dates, annecdotes, narratives. It's willing to be slow and to give time for actual thought about jazz as a serious artform.

As for the actual content of the prog, there are some interesting ideas, though I'm not sure I agree with all of them. The intro from Steve Allen is surprisingly shtick-free (apart from the rather forced gag where he pretends to forget his name), and his point about technique becoming so ingrained that the spontaneous aspects of improvisation can flow naturally, without forced or pre-planned conscious thought - that the artist can think with/through technique - actually parallel some of the comments Evan Parker makes in David Borgo's book on improvisation 'Sync or Swarm': Parker backing up his ideas with scientific reference to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, or to psi phenomena.

The statement by Evans which opens the doc is particularly controversial: the notion of a "universal musical mind" somewhat similar to Chomsky's 'universal grammar', or even to Hegel's 'Absolute Spirit', relies on non-interrogated notions of the 'real', the 'true', the 'good'. (Though admittedly, later on, Evans demonstrates (by some variations on the tune 'How About You'), how playing 'simply' can be more 'real' than approximating a more complex approach for which you do not have the technical skill). I'm also intrigued by the way in which he thinks a 'sensitive layman' may have more insight than a hardened professional, unconcerned as they are with the technical niceties of performance, more able to appreciate the spontaneous joys of creation. I'd only go along with that so far, though I think it's a valuable corrective to the 'high priesthood' of critics telling us what to think, whose opinions may be no more valuable than those they 'teach'.

But let's not get into that whole 'role of the critic' debate. There's much to digest on this documentary, so click the play button and enjoy. I'd be quite interested to generate some discussion about this, so, once you've seen the thing, do leave a comment below if you have any thoughts.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

The Convergence Quartet Live in Cambridge

Photo from here:

Churchill College Recital Room, Cambridge, Saturday 2nd May 2009

A co-operative, trans-Atlantic group whose previous visit to the UK resulted in a fine album (this tour also involved a recording session, so keep your eyes peeled for future developments), the Convergence Quartet boast a wealth of combined experience: Taylor Ho Bynum’s immersion in the complex musical worlds of Anthony Braxton, Harris Eistenstadt’s fine work as a leader, and Alexander Hawkins’ and Dominic Lash’s involvement in the UK improv scene. As might be expected then, they played a fascinatingly varied programme, but there was also a real sense of a group identity – perhaps cemented by the fact that this gig came towards the end of a week spent touring the UK.

The concert began with Lash and his woody, twangy ‘improv bass’, Eisenstadt inquisitively testing the waters alongside. A few minutes in, and Bynum began to play a muted and moody melody with the softest of touches, continually cycling back to the original theme as the piece developed, rather in the manner of Miles Davis’ ‘Nefertiti’; it certainly gave an unusual structure which would prove to be typical of the group’s atypical ability to create something diverse but not perversely scatter-brained, to balance composition and improvisation, to create new configurations and patterns afresh, at will.

Formal experimentation was perhaps most notably attempted about half-way through, with a performance of Dom Lash’s piece ‘Representations’, in what was announced as its 15th configuration (previous performances have included a rather fine one at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music festival, available as a free download on Lash’s Last FM page). While its restraints (involving much page-shuffling and stern concentration, and afterwards described by Hawkins as akin to Russian roulette!) could potentially have zapped some of the spark from the group, on this occasion they provoked a degree of interaction that was quite different from the improvisations on the composed pieces, but no less fascinating. Hand signals led to transitions between sections or signalled duets, trios, and whole group configurations, different musical events occurring on different planes – thus, a series of vaguely Messiaen-like chords carried on underneath several other switches from the rest of the group (though this never felt like a changing background, an accompaniment to the piano). All this resulted in a kind of textural overlapping which meant that the piece, which might otherwise have seemed rather austerely episodic, instead seemed purposeful and knife-edged poised. It was fascinating indeed to watch musical minds at this level of concentration, to see if the risks taken paid off.

A Leroy Jenkins piece dedicated to Albert Ayler emerged in heartfelt quiet, cornet and trumpet delicate with their unison melody. The band certainly have an ear for not often-heard compositions: it’s nice to hear this legacy of the underrated jazz masters getting its due, rather than endless re-hashings of 1930s popular songs and jazz standards. And they proved this once again by performing Tony Oxley’s ‘Crossings’, which juxtaposed full-throttle free jazz squall, full-band cluster climaxes, bowed drone tones, and a pretty melody whose appeal was illustrated when Bynum spontaneously whistled along to Hawkins’ rendition.

There was much to notice about the individual players. Bynum plays his cornet loud (those high, brash tones!) and with some style too – by which I mean to suggest, not that he demonstrates a polished virtuosity (though virtuosity it is), but rather, that his playing locates him in the great tradition of ‘bad-taste’ jazz trumpet, with cartoon parps (which, perhaps not entirely due to coincidence, require a lip position which gives him the temporary appearance of Donald Duck) and ‘distortion’ through the use of an ‘on-off’ mute effect. Indeed, he has rather a lot of these tricks up his sleeve – including pouring water down the mouth of his flugelhorn, which gushed out in irregular spasms as he played (though it didn’t really seem to effect the sound of the instrument), and using a ‘jazz hat’ as a mute. But they never really felt like ‘tricks’ – sure, he does them because he can (and what’s wrong with a bit of showmanship?) but he also does them because they make musical sense, and they never distract from the overall direction of the particular piece in which they are employed. This was best demonstrated towards the end of a piece where Bynum circular breathed to sustain a one-note drone. Many players, I’m sure, would have employed it to generate applause in their solo (nothing like that sort of display to get listeners excited) but – proof that Bynum didn’t want to be the flashy focus – it ended up being probably the quietest element in the texture, occasionally rising in volume to create odd harmonisings with the bass as things were dominated by sprightly piano.

Hawkins seems to get better every time I see him live; every solo he took tonight was a journey, or, if you prefer, a well-told short story. They would begin as jazz explorations, or even boogie-woogie-flavoured romps, before whipping themselves up to a frenzy of clanging clusters, rolling glissandi, and fast-paced, dissonant runs, like a dancer tripping over their feet as the speed of their performance spins out of control. This was both tremendously exciting and the consequence of a logical development – jazz taken to the edge and then pushed over, because there really was no where else to go – and it was always – somehow – contained within the framework of a two or three minute showcase.

The afore-mentioned ‘Representations’ demonstrated Lash’s skills as a composer, an organiser of sounds, and he proved equally capable slotting in with Eisenstadt to provide tight grooves on the jazzier numbers, though the most notable moments in his performance were when he made full use of his instrument’s range, bowing behind the strings, teasing out harmonics, changing the whole texture of a piece with sensitive arco work.

Eisenstadt is not the most flashy drummer, but a vital part of the Quartet’s musical identity: he has a tendency to go for the slightly off-kilter groove, loud, chunky, thumping beats and cymbal crashes just past the point you’d expect them to occur. He’s a sensitive ballad player as well, mallets making cymbals sigh, barely there as the group trod more tender lines; and he proved his improv credentials in the freer passages, with moments of perfect quick-thinking, most notably when he followed two taps on the snare with two on cymbal, almost as if he was in dialogue with himself as well as with the other musicians. A small moment, easy to miss with all the other activity that was going on around it; there were probably many more of a similar kind which I failed to notice, indicating the music’s real fullness and richness.

The audience was not particularly large, but clearly appreciative, and so the Quartet finished with an encore: a slice of South-African good humour via Dudu Pukwana. Bynum inserted a neatly-disguised ‘Happy Birthday’ quotation into his muted solo in honour of the pianist (incidentally, who knew that Mr Bynum was such a good SA jazz player?), and everything ended with a series of churchy and completely satisfying chords, bass and piano linking tones and the last reverberations of the piano’s sustain pedal fading away with an effect that almost sounded electronic, merging with the short, satisfied sigh of a listener in the audience to perfectly satisfying effect.