Saturday 24 October 2009

A Tribute to Sirone

News has just emerged that the bassist Sirone (Norris Jones) died in Berlin on Wednesday, at the age of 69. So, another one of the great free jazz musicians has passed away; warning that it's more urgent than ever not to rely on those early pioneers still being around and still keeping their music fresh. With Leroy Jenkins' passing a few years ago, this now means that, of the Revolutionary Ensemble, only one surviving member, Jerome Cooper, remains.

In tribute, I've put together a playlist of some of the Sirone performances in my collection. In some instances, I've excerpted bass solos from longer tracks (often when the bass isn't so well recorded, probably a legacy of the traditional jazz notion that the rhythm section is only a backdrop to the horns); in others, I've kept the whole track, as Sirone's accompaniment plays such an active role in the whole texture.

Sirone appears on albums with (to list just a few) Marion Brown, Pharoah Sanders, Noah Howard, Sonny Sharrock, Clifford Thornton, Dewey Redman, Cecil Taylor, and Dave Burrell, and collaborated with many others throughout his career. Born in Atlanta, he played with John Coltrane in the last year of the saxophonist's life, and became highly in-demand on the emerging 'fire music' scene: one might almost describe him as a free jazz session bassist, though that wouldn't do justice to the quality he brought to each session. Free jazz allowed him much more leverage than traditional routes; he was less an accompanist, a 'rhythm section' player, more an active participant, goading on the saxophones and trumpets and contributing sometimes pithy solo statements of his own. In these, he could be heard to take on something of Charles Mingus' very physical approach to the instrument, whereby the sound of fingers on strings had a real snap to it, the sound of slapped and struck vibrating gut; something, too of Jimmy Garrison's flamenco-flavoured strumming; and he developed, more than either player, a trembling higher register sound which would stand him in good stead for his later collaborations with the violinist Leroy Jenkins. In fact, even at this stage, he was the sort of player who meshed very well in unusual instrumental settings, especially with other stringed instruments to work or contrast with; on Gato Barbieri's 1967 ESP Disk recording, 'In Search of the Mystery', his pizzicato playing forms the turbulent backdrop to the piercing, near-anguished melodies played by Barbieri and cellist Joel Friedman.

1/ La Sorrella (bass solo)
from ‘Why Not’ (Marion Brown, 1966)

2/ Domiabra (bass solo)
from ‘The Black Ark’ (Noah Howard, 1969)

The first track in the playlist is a bass solo from 'La Sorrella', the opener on Marion Brown's 1966 album 'Why Not'. This is the longest solo Sirone is allocated (he solos on most tracks, but only for half a minute or so), and a good example of his interaction with Rashied Ali's drums, and their restless refusal to remain rhythmically stable. Following that, a solo from ‘Domiabra’, the opening piece on the 1969 Noah Howard classic ‘The Black Ark’; after the howling fury of Arthur Doyle, a bass solo might seem like respite, but Sirone’s springy jumps and bends round high and low registers are just as exploratory.

3/ Communications Network Part 1
from ‘Communications Network’ (Clifford Thornton, 1972)

Clifford Thornton, a trumpeter and trombonist (as well as cornet and electric piano player on this date) recorded some fine albums in the early 70s, probably the best known of which is the ambitious large-ensemble suite ‘The Gardens of Harlem’, recorded with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. For the first two tracks of ‘Communications Network’, Thornton features an unusual small group which, given the presence of Sirone and Jerome Cooper, is pretty much The Revolutionary Ensemble, with L. Shankar (of Shakti) replacing Leroy Jenkins on violin. This group has a very different sound, though; Shankar’s ecstatic raga lines over Thornton’s electric piano create a fusion feel which sits oddly – but very nicely – with Sirone and Cooper’s free jazz rhythms. Thornton’s cornet playing (he’s presumably overdubbing the electric piano) is declamatory and dark-toned, and, even if he and Shankar are very much the lead voices (bass and drums are way down in the mix, often obscured by the electric piano), it’s an interesting context in which to hear Sirone.

4/ Spring of Two Blue-Js Part 2 (excerpt)
from ‘Spring of Two Blue-Js’ (Cecil Taylor Unit, 1973)

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a jazz bass player is the immense stamina required: whereas a saxophonist can take a breather after blowing hard, bassists will most often play for the entire duration of a piece. Call this problem exacerbated in the music of Cecil Taylor, his pieces stretching to lengths that surpassed even those of John Coltrane, and whose fundamental characteristic was what Ekkehard Jost termed ‘energy’ (as opposed to ‘swing’), though of course Taylor has a lyrical streak which has grown more pronounced in recent years (sounding almost Debussyian at times). Robert Levin recounts one occasion where Taylor’s ‘Unit’ was playing in a jazz club; towards the end of the piece, his bassist at the time, Buell Neidlinger, had become so exhausted that he stopped playing, propped up by his instrument, his eyes closed as if, for all the world, the music had drained so much energy out of him that he had simply expired on the spot. If anything, Taylor’s music had grown even lengthier and more energetic by the time Sirone joined his Unit. An extreme example of this is the triple-LP (now double-CD) ‘One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye’, and to get a real sense of Sirone’s contribution to the music, one would probably have to listen to the whole thing – the cumulative intensity and accumulation of detail into a kind of trance-like block of sound is something that has to be experienced in the listening, rather than the describing – to be experienced as something total, complete. So I’ve chosen a short excerpt from the second piece on ‘Spring of Two Blue-Js’ (1973), an album recorded live at Town Hall in New York (at a concert dedicated to Ben Webster). We’ll hear the tail-end of the energy rush ridden and spurred on by saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, followed by Sirone’s solo, and a brief interaction with Taylor on piano ending the piece.

5/ Seeds and Deeds
6/ Meditation Submission Purification
7/ Joie de Vivre
8/ Qow
from ‘Coincide’ (Dewey Redman 1974)

Next, four complete pieces from Dewey Redman's 'Coincide' (1974), one of my favourite Redman recordings. Sirone and drummer Eddie Moore appear on all tracks (apart from 'Phadan-Sers', a Redman zither solo), and the other players are violinst Leroy Jenkins and trumpeter Ted Daniel. 'Seeds and Deeds' opens the album with some 'hard-driving jazz' (to borrow the title of the John Coltrane/Cecil Taylor collaboration), Redman and Daniels blasting away, Sirone and Moore skittering all over the place to create an exceptionally jittery, energetic feel. By contrast, 'Meditation Submission Purification' has its tone set by the otherworldy sounds of Redman's zither, Sirone's arco harmonics, and Eddie Moore's 'bowed and struck idiophone'. The arco playing of Jenkins and Sirone was one of the finest things about the Revolutionary Ensemble, opening up textures and sonorities which had previously been thought of as the province of 'classical' music (and still are, to some extent, despite the work of John Edwards, Barry Guy et al), and, with the zither coalescing into hanging clouds of sound rather than taking a lead role, Sirone's playing is perhaps the most dominant voice here. It's an entrancing piece with a very special atmosphere. 'Joie de Vivre' shows yet another side to Sirone's work: after the free jazz of 'Seeds and Deeds' and the 'extended techniques' textural work of 'Mediation...', he proves that he can play very fine pizzicato straight jazz ballad bass on 'Joie de Vivre'. It's the same trio as on 'Mediation...' (Redman, Sirone, and Moore) but with a very different use of space: whereas on the previous track the effect was of time standing stil, here it just moves very slowly, in graceful and unhurried comfort. All three musicians sound supremely relaxed. Beginning with an equally relaxed sound, but at a faster tempo (a brisk, happy walk, rather than a slow stroll), ‘Qow,’ the longest of my four selections from this album, opens with Redman playing off Sirone’s catchy repeated riff before his rough-edged smears move things further ‘out’, Sirone switching to fast walking bass and then taking a popping, bubbling solo.

9/ Manhattan Cycles, Side A
from ‘Manhattan Cycles’ (The Revolutionary Ensemble, 1972)

10/ Ponderous Planets
from ‘The People’s Republic’ (The Revolutionary Ensemble, 1975)

Sirone’s probably best-known for his work with violinist Leroy Jenkins and drummer Jerome Cooper in The Revolutionary Ensemble, which formed in the early 1970s. Jenkins had moved to New York from Chicago, where he had been an important member of the AACM. Given the realities of being a jobbing musicians in the Big Apple, the Ensemble was formed partly to fulfill the need for a regular group which could explore some of the subtleties that had characterized the AACM – the so-called ‘chamber jazz’ carried over from the Creative Construction Company, in which Jenkins had played with Anthony Braxton. A long period of practice prefaced the Ensemble’s official emergence. as testified by the flowing interaction of the music – in some ways a contrast to the ‘blow as loud and hard as you can’ school of free jazz. Cooper’s drumming never asserted itself so much as rolled into being, repeating in slowly developing waves, or cells of sound, and Sirone meshed with Jenkins’ melodically assertive violin, rather than trying to sound out as a lead voice. It was this quality in particular that made the Ensemble such a special group – for though, as we’ve heard, Sirone could be an assertive player, he was perhaps at his best when creating a textural thread that altered the whole sound of a group without one quite realizing that, or how, it had been. The Ensemble’s first album came out on ESP-Disk (it’s just been re-issued under the title ‘Vietnam’) and has been criticized for the sound quality, which failed to capture the subtlety of the groups’ quieter, spacier moments. In fact, though, the tape hiss and drone comes to seem almost a part of the music at these times, something entirely appropriate as the ensemble would make use of tape recordings and other non-standard sounds to supplement the basic violin, bass, drums line-up. Thus, on ‘Manhattan Cycles’ (the entire first side of which I’ve included in the playlist), Billie Holiday’s voice floats out, muted, Jenkins picking up on the ghost memory and turning it into living, flowing improvisational lyricism. ‘The People’s Republic’ (apocryphally supposed to have invoked the ire of Quincy Jones over dinner with Herb Alpert, and the subsequent cancellation of A&M Records’ jazz sub-label Horizon) is one of my favourite of the Ensemble’s recordings; the tracks are shorter than on the long-form ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Manhattan Cycles’, with some particularly gorgeous melodies (such as the beginning of ‘New York’) , a spacey, African-flavoured piece for vocals and percussion (the title track), and much atmospheric use of gongs, cymbals, musical saws, and the combined arco playing of Jenkins/Sirone (‘Ponderous Planets’).

11/ Berlin Erfrahung
from ‘And Now’ (The Revolutionary Ensemble, 2004)

During this time, Sirone made a few recordings under his name (it would be more than 20 years before he did so again). The Revolutionary Ensemble split in 1977, and, like many American avant-jazz musicians, he settled in Europe, finding the climate there much more receptive than in his home country. Based in Berlin, he nevertheless to maintain a presence in America as well, going on to work with Charles Gayle, Billy Bang, Cecil Taylor, and the George Adams/James Blood Ulmer group Phalanx. In 2004, the Revolutionary Ensemble, which had been dormant since the late 70s, unexpectedly reunited, releasing an acclaimed album on pi records which demonstrated the same virtues as their 70s work, as fresh as ever. Each member of the group contributed two compositions: Sirone’s ‘Berlin Erfrahung’ offers a strongly melodic approach to composition.

Sirone was still working in the years leading up to his death, recording a couple of albums under his own name with European musicians as well as with the violinist Billy Bang. Needless to say, his music lives on.

Download link for Sirone Tribute Playlist:

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Woe Betide Records

News of a new venture: I've just set up an internet-based label called Woe Betide Records. The label will be dedicated to improvised and experimental music of various descriptions. Each album will be available in CD-R format – complete with artwork, tracklisting and enclosed spontaneous hand-drawing – for £6.00 (this price includes postage, UK and international). Sales will take place over at the website:

The first three releases are:

WB001: David Grundy - Unbidden
WB002: Mark Anthony Whiteford - Zariba
WB003: The Cambridge Free Improvisation Society In Hell

Head over to the website to have a look. And if anyone wants review copies, drop me an email (

Friday 2 October 2009

Gannets + Waschmann/ Stubbs in Oxford

Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford, Tuesday 29th September 2009

The duo of Phil Wachsmann (violin, with electronics) and Chris Stubbs (percussion, also with electronics) took a while to hit its stride (though stride isn’t really the appropriate metaphor, given the particular logic of incident which was in play). Wachsmann bowed violin lines in ‘modern classical’ vein, often repeating one note with bowing variations, playing rather piquant, attractive melodies, then scraping the bow below the bridge or dissonantly plucking: a succession of sound techniques in which flow wasn’t quite adjusted, as yet. That said, what the set revealed as it went on was that flow was often not the order of the game; incidents followed one another in blocks rather than lines, though single areas would frequently be examined at length, especially by Wachsmann.

Things were settling in by the time the first piece reached its latter stages, and Stubbs’ percussion in particular was really coming into its own. Rather than a ‘kit’, he utilised a ‘junk’ set-up: tubs, household implements, and a sheet of metal with stones and coils attached, connected to a small amp and an electronic device which was hidden away behind the upside-down box on which the metal had been placed. His playing was busy, clanging, clattery: a delectable kitchen-pan style approach sure to break things up and keep them moving, though the amplified metal elicited more drawn-out variations, arising no doubt from a delight in the sonorities which were being lovingly drawn from the scrape of a knife or the rattle of a stone.

Waschmann took a closing violin solo (something that he had been building towards for a while, it seemed), and after brief applause, it was Stubbs who went solo, to his surprise as much as anyone else’s – it just felt right, and Wachsmann, eyes closed as ever, concentrated hard, soaking it all up and waiting for the right moment to enter. It came, and soon, with the aid of pedals and resultant effects, he was creating the effect of an entire string section, without this sounding gimmicky – in fact, it was texturally quite delightful, thick and crumbly but with a tautness to it that seemed as though it could break at any point. He even got into some Henry Flynt/ Tony Conrad-style folk-tinged melodic drone, in a section lasting minutes which was really quite pretty, almost pastoral, until Stubbs’ stormclouds of foghorn electronics pushed him into engine effects, bowing up and down the string, and thence to texturally sparser but more actively eventful extrapolations.

Gannets played LOUD from the off, and didn’t stop: the sheer force of their entry took me by surprise, as Steve Noble’s drums and Fyfe Dangerfield’s massively amped-up and distorted keyboard vibrated the floor. It’s impossible really to describe the whole performance (which I guess must have lasted around forty minutes) step by step: though there were definite narrative segments, the overwhelming power and loudness made it hard to remember what had gone before. Paying attention to particular lines or areas or segments would be like concentrating on the individual bricks which made up this monstrous wall of sound. I say ‘wall of sound’, but, on reflection, that well-travelled metaphor seems inappropriate given the relentless propulsion of the thing. This was not a solid construction that sat still on solid foundations; rather something had somehow been set in motion that just would not stop. Indeed, it was almost as if the music had moved beyond the conscious control of the players. I don’t mean that they weren’t in control of what they were playing, but that what and when they chose to play (mostly, sounds full of timbral harshness and buoyant, abrasive energy, all the time) were decisions into which they were pushed by force of circumstance, being made to think and to act simultaneously, to play something before they’d caught up with what was involved. It’s an approach which, of necessity, skimps on detail, or seems to do so, though the make-up of this sound mass is clearly very complex (anyone attempting to analyse the minutiae of what was going on would find enough material to keep them occupied in a research hole for months).

When things threatened to quieten or turn more melodic, one player would be sure to squall or bang or pluck away and up the ante once more, compensating for any drop in volume and tempo. Thus, a slamming riff section or a burst of ‘fake jazz’ from Dangerfield’s suddenly tinny keyboard would soon be dropped for more collective lung-busting, even if Noble did often keep up a fairly pronounced beat, as well as making his customary journeys round his kit with sticks and with various percussive accessories.

Despite the emphasis played on the band as a band rather than as a grouping of showy individuals, each musician’s approach had something distinctively out-standing about it. Dominic Lash’s amplified bass, even with one broken string, gave a real deep end to the band’s sound. Alex Ward’s shards of altissimo wail on saxophone and clarinet were Marshall Allen-like in their scrawly magnificence, and his melodic leaps, as ever, were endlessly fascinating in their absurdly quick-thinking, mellifluous flow. And Chris Cundy played a mean free jazz bass clarinet, alternating low honks, growls and parps with high yawps and cries, and leaping up the registers even more with piercing soprano sax – though his playing on that instrument was often more melodic, if you were able to pick it out of the collective ferment.

At times one wished not so much for ‘subtlety’ (what’s the point in imposing criteria on the music which it was manifestly not attempting to, and not going to fulfill?) as for a slight reduction of volume in Dangerfield’s corner. The utter loudness of his set-up could be seen to have hindered a more dialogic approach between the other musicians which would have produced some textural variety: but then again, the turbo boost of his floor-shaking rumbles and police siren whooshes isn’t something you come across in every improv band. As a whole, the group displayed a nicely collective and layered approach to noise-making: with no ‘leader’ and no ‘solos’, anyone could shape the music’s direction, though that seemed to generate itself much of the time, as an unstoppable current against which the musicians had to swim with ever more frantically powerful strokes. For a good forty minutes, then, Gannets transformed the function room of the Folly Bridge Inn into a profane temple of unholy textured noise.

One Step Beyond Special Edition: Rashied Ali Tribute (September 2009)

Photograph of Rashied Ali by Francis Wolff

I put this show together a few days ago (hence the 'September' reference, even though we're in October now I've finally got round to posting it). The track with James Blood Ulmer is particularly interesting, though I was only able to play part of it in order to keep things down to two hours. Try and track down the whole record if you can: MP3s can be downloaded from Rashied Ali's official website.


* To listen to the show, click on the blog-post title, which should take you over to the relevant site. (Free registration is required for streaming and downloading.)*

Drummer Rashied Ali died last month. Most famous for playing with John Coltrane’s late groups, and for performing on the only duo album Coltrane ever recorded, ‘Interstellar Space’, he went on to appear on many fine free jazz recordings of the late 60s and to play a key role in the ‘Loft Jazz’ scene in New York during the 70s, establishing his own performance space, Ali’s Alley, and his own recording label, Survival Records. Playing until just a few weeks before his unexpected death of a heart attack, he always remained a superb duo player, as witnessed by recordings and performances with Frank Lowe, Leroy Jenkins, Sonny Fortune and Henry Grimes. In addition, he continued to perform the music of John Coltrane with the group Prima Materia, and was part of the explosive trio By Any Means, alongside William Parker and Charles Gayle. Whilst seeking to honour his legacy, this programme is also intended as a reminder that, while the music of Ali and so many great musicians like him still remains endlessly rewarding, it will not do simply to look back with nostalgia and fond regret at the music of those who have passed on; for Ali embodied a spirit of discovery, of experimentation and of deep commitment, which is first and foremost a living spirit, a conception of music as a life force and as a part of lived life, of music as organic and flowing and never-ending.

song is a bolt of light –
being messenger of that light
is no task for those not in touch-
ing distance of all that weight-
less weight, their pasts as now,
worn so lightly, the cloak thrown
not away, but draped to conduct
energy, past prisms of tradition into
light, radiant unsmiling, grave
laughter that will rise again,
ascend always
out of the earth.



Rashied Ali - Solo Drums Improvisation, Moers Festival, 1979 (excerpt)
ALBUM – Unreleased Live Recording

John Coltrane – Venus
John Coltrane (tenor sax, bells) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM – Interstellar Space (Impulse Records, 1974 (recorded 1967))

John Coltrane – Expression
John Coltrane (tenor sax) Alice Coltrane (piano) Jimmy Garrison (bass) Rashied Ali (drums, percussion)
ALBUM – Expression (Impulse Records, 1967)

Alice Coltrane – Via Sivanandagar
Alice Coltrane (piano) Ron Carter (bass) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM – Huntingdon Ashram Monastery (Impulse Records, 1969)

Marion Brown Quartet – Why Not?
Marion Brown (alto sax) Stanley Cowell (piano) Sirone (bass) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM – Why Not? (ESP Disk, 1966)


Frank Lowe/Rashied Ali – Duo Exchange, Part One
Frank Lowe (tenor sax) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM – Duo Exchange (Survival Records, 1972)

Leroy Jenkins/Rashied Ali – Swift are the Winds of Life
Leroy Jenkins (violin) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM – Swift are the Winds of Life (Survival Records, 1973)

Rashied Ali Quintet – Address (Adrees) (excerpt)
Earl Cross (trumpet) Bob Ralston (tenor sax) James ‘Blood’ Ulmer (guitar) John Dani (bass) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM - Rashied Ali Quintet (Survival Records, 1973)

Touchin’ On Trane, Part A (excerpt)
Charles Gayle (sax) William Parker (bass) Rashied Ali (drums)
ABLUM – Touchin’ on Trane (FMP, 1991)

This Must Always Have Happened (excerpt)
Henry Grimes (voice, violin, bass) Rashied Ali (drums)
ALBUM – Going to the Ritual (Porter Records, 2008)