Friday, 24 September 2010
(John Tchicai: tenor saxophone, flute; John Edwards: bass; Tony Marsh: drums, percussion)
Folly Bridge Inn, Oxford
Thursday 23rd September 2010
One might not think of the still yawning gulf between the quality of the music and the size of the audience in the world of improvised music as particularly advantageous, and, broadly speaking, one would be entirely correct. Nonetheless, there is a more fortunate side effect resulting from this state of affairs: because of the music’s low profile, one can get to see such superlative practitioners of the art as John Tchicai in settings such as that in which he performed on this night – unamplified and close, not barking down at the audience from a stage on-high, his instrumental voice (mis-)translated through the electronic boom of a PA system, but at the same level as the audience, on the same floor, just a few feet away from the front-row chairs – where a movement from one side of the room to the other can create a perceptible shift in dynamics, in the weight of sound, where the ‘accidentals’ (the thwack and thud of feet on floor, the sound of breath, of the exertion evinced by total mental/physical commitment to the music) are not drowned out, but can take their place as a vital part of the music’s continuing argument, a kind of sub-plot to the main drama taking place in the world of notes, tones and harmonies.
I say ‘exertion’, and I have in mind Tchicai’s two accompaniments on this occasion, the English drum and bass pairing of John Edwards and Tony Marsh. Both Edwards, who at times let out a mumbling vocal murmur in accompaniment to his bass playing, Jimmy-Garrison style, and Marsh, who, like Tchicai, spent most of the performance with his eyes closed (so well does he know his way round his kit), dropped musical implements (Edwards his bow, Marsh a drumstick), during moments where their physical involvement with the music had reached its most fevered pitch. Tchicai himself, a striking figure with an elegant six-foot-plus frame, showed his involvement for the most part simply by playing beautiful, engaging and engaged music, though there were occasions where his knees bent in the kind of calisthenics for which John Coltrane became known in his later performances. His main instrument of choice since the 1980s has been the tenor saxophone, rather than the alto for which he became known in the 1960s: nonetheless, the particular quality of tone he extracts from both members of the saxophone family is remarkably similar, piquant and individual, like an extension of, or a musical complement and alternative to his speaking and singing voice (which he may also deploy in the course of an improvisation). Whereas many free jazz players emphasize the growling, honking lower register potential of the tenor, Tchicai mostly avoids such sounds, and even the multiphonics and altissimo that mark the opposite, high-register extreme. Instead, he plays inventively melodic and captivatingly open improvisations: lots of phrases are repeated, sometimes with shades of the ecstatic driving-to-abandon of the blues ‘gut-bucket’ honkers, though more often as if to tease out the full implications of the repeated phrase until it springs into a new phrase, a new area of investigation. He is no hurry, willing to let the music evolve and do its work at a speed which will do it justice, with no shortage of ideas but no need or wish to rush headlong through them all at lightning-speed.
There were a couple of sheet-music stands on ‘stage’, but the music was never governed by a simple theme/solos/theme structural template – Ornette Coleman’s great innovation in the 50s, playing on the ‘mood’ of the song rather than its chord-change structure bears fruit still, half-a-century later, in such contexts as these: melodic yet open, rehearsed yet elastic. ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is’ made a brief appearance in the first piece; the second was a calypso, Tchicai emphasizing with relish and almost humorous exaggeration the long, deliciously extended downwards smear that ended the melody. Edwards was –once again! – outstanding, his playing displaying, perhaps more than usual, overt jazz touches that meshed well with Tchicai’s vocabulary, but also plenty of ‘out’ techniques, all adapted to and from the emotional, colouristic and textural needs of the moment. Thus, we had strummed double-stops, punchy thwacks, and buzzing, vibrating strings, walking bass patterns, careening figures produced by sliding both hands in succession over the neck of the bass, and muted accompaniment, produced through variation in finger pressure on the strings, to Tchicai’s flute playing. Some of this was displayed in group work, some in solo spots, and Marsh was also afforded some solo time, his playing radiating a joyous sense of possibility and a sense of melodic invention, as he developed engrossing solo patterns on the kit and traded playful fours (or near-fours) with Tchicai. There was no supporting act on the evening, which seemed just right: wonderful that a band like this should be able to expand and develop their interplay over the course of a whole gig, rather than being squeezed into a single slot where everything has to coalesce instantly and at speed.
After an interval, the second set found Tchicai playing flute as well as saxophone (he brought things to a quiet close on this instrument, his repeated incantation shadowed by bowed bass), and reciting some lines of poetry. “Truth is found/ in between / the mother of all recipes” – these were lines intoned, almost song-like, which seemed to spur on a particular vigorous section of saxophone playing; later, some words about geography and direction (movements north, south, east, west), with a Coltrane reference (Giant Steps – though this was fleeting, and the poem was, thankfully, not another ‘Coltrane’ poem bulked up by quotations of song and album titles), and then a speculation on what it would be like if all those humans and animals whose feet and claws made marks on a beach were brought together at the same time, in that same place. Like Cecil Taylor, Tchicai has not had books or even pamphlets of his work published, though a poem does appear in the recent anthology ‘Silent Solos: Improvisers Speak’: like that recited in Oxford, it concerns itself with speculative and only-half rhetorical questions, dreams, imaginings – in this latter case, a visit to “that/ strange looking star in the lower Milky Way.” “On arriving,” continues Tchicai, “I put my ear to the rubbery surface of the star/ and I heard a sound as if a great crowd of people came toward me.”  The poetic concern in both cases seems to be with the imprints left by people in physical space, on physical surfaces, the history embedded in sand or soil or star, the sense that, in some way, the earth itself is voiced, in exchange with the multitude of speaking and singing humans who inhabit it: that travel is not simply a matter of temporal and geographic progress (though the lines about geography do indicate this as a thematic concern), but something that can be accomplished in the present moment, as a means of communication with the past, with ‘other worlds’ (other spheres of experience, modes of being and apprehension). The ‘here and now’ is thus revealed as more than just a banal present-ness in which we are trapped by routine and the force of circumstance: rather, it is a world of possibilities, echoes, prophecies, borrowings, sharings. Which transfers appropriately to this trio’s performance: it was all about communication with the audience, with each other, with the history, present and future of the music. “The mother of all recipes,” in/deed.
 John Tchicai, ‘untitled’ (pp.145-6), in ‘silent solos: improvisers speak’ (ed. Renate de Rin) (buddy’s knife jazzeditions, 2010)
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
[Note - I'm using the term 'genre' here as a means of defining a certain restriction/ unspoken delineation of what is and is not 'permitted' in works of art. I'm not arguing for the radical overhaul/overthrow of genre itself - working within a set of established conventions/ways of making meaning, and then transcending/ modifying them, perhaps to establish another set of meanings (etc) is a means of engaging with historical & cultural imperatives beyond the individual's imperfect tunnel-vision. Nonetheless, as in the essay which sparked these thoughts, I wanted to mount an attack on/ conduct a sceptical consideration of how artists might relate to genre at present - hence, I did not wish to adopt a reverent tone. In any case, what follows is not 'the finished article', but off-the-cuff/ a provocation/ provisional/ a thinking through. I should also note that this piece of writing, for me, is coloured by various things I've been thinking about in relation to musical free improvisation, & to questions of performance/theatre. It might do to bear this in mind, to realize that the piece is primarily concerned with fairly specific areas of contemporary practice, & probably does not apply very well to, say, the nineteenth century novel.]
A: Excerpts from 'Genre's for Fascists' by Sarah Fox - Blogpost at http://www.montevidayo.com
Norman O. Brown famously concludes Love’s Body: “Everything is metaphor; there is only poetry.
Poetic does seem a lot more accommodating than prosaic, or dramatic, or fictive, or _______. Poetry is elastic, not even remotely confined to literature. Because just about anything can be poetic: a tree’s shape, the texture of a placenta, quantum physics, justice, monsters, dreams, death. Might we entertain the proposition that poetry transcends genre and/or engulfs it? (Baudrillard: “theory could even be poetry.”) Is there, on the one hand, poetry-as-genre, and on the other a more Orphic, or gnostic, or even primordial poetic function originating in Cro-Magnon’s first metaphoric projections on cave walls—”oceanic feeling,” e.g.—that is, terminologically, a kind of universal principle?
Does silence have genre? Chance?
Yoko [Ono]’s ecstatic and vertiginous scream?
Genre is a product and problem of patriarchal economy. Genre = the DNA of the book, its certain paternity, distinction, the disavowal of chaos, “the author.” It’s where the money is (or isn’t). The vessel for both genre and authorship is the book. Which, among other things, is, in a very important sense, a “waste product.” The jouissance and potential “insignificance” for one traveling in the rectal cauldron meet a grave with a trapdoor—just a “little death,” and afterward no toxic trace on the planet (a planet tumored and asphyxiating from all our death drive hyper-reproductivity.) The book—embalmed by genre and the petrified death cries of the forest, metonymous for (reproducing) the person of the author herself—is a burial vault.
So when Joyelle asks us to think about what it really means to go genreless, to essentially speculate about the future of our enterprise, I find myself pondering questions like these: If forced to describe “what you write” without naming genre or any terminology related to the notion of genre, how would you do it? Is genre democratic? Manipulative? Are the constraints of genre part of your process? Are you addicted to genre? In what ways is your identity, your image, significant to the readers of your work? How come nobody but us gives a shit about our genre? Is permanence, and/or “legacy,” crucial to your creative investments? Do you know who you are without genre? Can there be books, or even authors, in a genreless culture?
Paradigm is our enemy. Everything is malleable. There’s only poetry."
B – Genre Violence
Spurred by the piece from which i've quoted at length above, i've been wondering how far the consideration of genre is the condition of possibility for much 'critical' thought about art – does placing artists within a community (real or constructed, canon-formation style, by critics, after the fact) becomes placing them in pigeon-holes, in boxes? The title i’ve chosen is maybe a stupid flippant pun – but in a real sense i think genre does do violence to the work of art, bending/ twisting/ distorting/ modifying it to fit some pre-conceived pattern, shaving off the edges so it will fit neatly & nicely within the designated area in which it is allowed to exist…
Yes it *is* important to consider *community* & the social context of the art in question- where how why it was produced - but doing this thru the trope of genre ends up being always so fucking taxonomic - the 'post-punk shoegaze free-bop avant-nu-metal-speed-thrash-core of the artist's style'... - the work never considered except in constant rel(eg)ation to what has gone before & is judged as the starting point, the eternal point of comparison, the gold standard. We're constantly referred back to a few cultural 'signposts', 'great works', 'top albums' fixed in aspic, often ignoring where they came from (see rock & roll and the white commodification of black music) or that they occurred in the flux and flow and warp and wave of a *continuing* culture (continuing, not necessarily via a process of 'development', but nonetheless thru reciprocal hauntings sharings borrowings etc)). These 'great works' are then judged as the 'starting point' for all future consideration (sometimes the critic tries to predict that the album (or book, or painting, or whatever) will become established as a future 'great work' - actively trying to 'assist' in the process of canon formation). Such reliance on/obsession with 'great works' takes place, it seems to me, mainly because critics cannot be bothered to actually talk about the work itself and its particular aesthetic/sensuous/intellectual qualities - cannot allow the pleasure it might give them (or cannot separate that from the spectacle/economic machine that attempts to shape and subsume it) – must always filter it through canons and genres and critical categories. (Not that 'art' should not be *critical* in a very real sense - but ‘critical’ as connoting a kind of active engagement and passionate concern with the world and the circumstances in which 'we' find ourselves & how we change them and work with and in them and (work our way) out of them - *not* ‘critical’ as connoting the formation of taxonomic categorical cross-referencing genre canons (which always purposely exclude the 'undesirable'/unsayable/unwanted/threatening - or include them only to neutralize them, mute them, strip them of their screaming core))…
This all conditions what is ‘allowed’ or not - what is permissible - 'extreme' things/actions/ways of being are in the end restrained because they too are placed within certain generic contexts - e.g. 'performance art', 'noise music', 'electro-acoustic free improvisation'. & the same with the constant live documentation of every gig/ performance/ reading/ happening on youtube or bootleg mp3s circulating the internet - everything is processed and squeezed through the electronic wires/ circuits/ thru the machine (which replaces/stands in for/merges with the body?). There is no single, important, *present* live act(ion) - everything is connected/ globalised/ simultaneous/ disposable.
& even in live action, when we are in the room performing or watching others (usually men, displaying all the macho qualities of 'radical' political sympathies/imagery (poster boys Che Guevara, Peter Brotzmann, Jesus Christ with their beards / Malcolm X with his machine gun ('By Any Means Necessary')/ Archie Shepp with his saxophone) - even then, even when we convince ourselves that this is the necessary 'underground', the 'resistance', the space which might allow some glimpse of utopia (tho' probably we don't think that slinking down the stairs to buy another pint of beer at the bar), we are held in check. But just what are we afraid of? Of offending people? Offending social norms? But does anyone every really think why those norms are in place to begin with anyway? Is there some sense of guilt in making art? That it must be done 'the right way', the established way (with reference to some previous canonical hero/ martyr), otherwise we're not taking it seriously? Is anyone really worried about failure? Doesn't failure provide the conditions of possibility for new forms, glimpses of possibilities/ utopias/ visions flecked thru dreams ravings starkness? Which only exist as the tiniest flashes in our own body circuits? Which exist only because they cannot be constrained / because they spurt out almost accidentally, tho' willed / like breath or howling
What then is (in) this flash, this glimpse, these flashes & glimpses - what is *not* genre? What is not marketed/marketable - what is itself only itself in that moment nothing else other than itself there present at that one place at that one time in that one room or one place with that one person or that particular combination of persons occupying that space - what is *singular*, irreducible - singular in being itself & no other (& not pretending (simu/lation, di/lution)), yet *plural* too in its sharing/ confrontation/ occupation of multiple possibilities/ impossibilities. I guess this is a way of asking, or answering the question sarah fox poses: “Do you know how you are without your genre?” Do you know how (who/why) you are – without that protection, stripping it away. Which is also the point mattin makes in his essay, ‘going fragile’:
“This is an unreliable moment, to which no stable definition can be applied. It is subject to all the particularities brought to this moment. The more sensitive you are to them, the more you can work with (or against) them. You are breaking away from previous restrictions that you have become attached to, creating a unique social space, a space that cannot be transported elsewhere. Now you are building different forms of collaboration, scrapping previous modes of generating relations.”
In other words...this is the moment/ before we find out / the remit and discover / what's possible
Tuesday, 7 September 2010
Photo by Juma Sultan
September 3rd 2010 saw the passing of yet another free jazz great: the alto saxophonist Noah Howard. Howard’s music has always been some of the most straightforwardly enjoyable of the ‘New Thing’, and I thought it would be fitting to put together some sort of tribute. The track descriptions below relate to an MP3 playlist I’ve put together: you can download the whole thing via this link.
Howard was born in 1943 in New Orleans, and it’s not hard to hear the joyous, declamatory nature of his style as having roots in that city. As a young man, he played in his local church, and with Louis Armstrong; his first instrument was, in fact, the trumpet, and it was not until the 1960s that he switched to alto sax. As with so many other ‘New Jazz’ saxophonists, he moved to New York and came under the influence of John Coltrane, paying tribute to him on his second album as a leader (which had been preceded by a piano-less Quartet date for ESP-Disk). That said, ‘At Judson Hall’, the sophomore album, is quite different from Coltrane’s dense, un-stoppable performances of the time, though both tracks clock in at just under twenty minutes each. The quartet from the first ESP date is expanded to include Dave Burrell’s piano and Catherine Norris’ cello, the addition of another stringed instrument providing greater timbral richness and perhaps mitigating against the dense, high-volume assault of the free jazz ‘blowout.’ Thus, there are moments with a Spanish tinge, as well as a sombre, pensive quality, that actually sound closer to some of the more long-form and abstract explorations of Charles Mingus than to what one might associate with much ‘New Thing’ music of this period. ‘This Place Called Earth’ opens with arco strings (Norris and the great Sirone), Howard sounding a little like John Handy on the latter’s ‘Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival’; after five minutes or so, the rest of the band come in, stating the theme, and there are solos by Colbeck and Dave Burrell. Burell’s lengthy improvisation gradually becomes louder and more intense, pedalled clusters mashing up with flickering cymbals – and Howard (soon followed by Colbeck) takes the opportunity to ride the wave, the horns throwing out chattering, shivering sounds that coalesce and resolve themselves into the returning main theme.
1/ ‘This Place Called Earth’
from ‘At Judson Hall’ (1966)
Probably Howard’s best known work is that undertaken in the late 60s and early 70s on three albums recorded in collaboration with a couple of fiery tenor saxophonists, Frank Wright and Arthur Doyle, whose often abrasive approach was balanced out by Howard’s soaring sweet-and-sour alto. The first of these, ‘The Black Ark’, recently re-issued by Bo’ Weavil, marked Doyle’s recording debut, and he powers his way through these tracks like a force of nature, smearing, shrilling, keening, testifying. As with much free jazz, the actual compositional material (before the solos begin) is accessible and appealing – catchy, melodic, swinging, and gorgeously lyrical. Here’s a (slightly revised) extract from a review of the 2007 re-issue which I wrote for the online magazine ‘eartrip’:
There’s a somewhat cosmopolitan feel to the album: from the Latin/film noir-flavoured ‘Ole Negro’, with Few’s jazzy solo, to the Oriental mood of ‘Mount Fuji’, whose charming melody just about manages to stave off tweeness. In any case the focus is not really on the melody itself- it serves more as a springboard for some righteous blowing and sparkling, ferocious interplay. Also note the way that, as with Coltrane, the melody seems to have become transformed once returned to –struggle and exploration making the starting-point the more precious for having been ‘attained’ the hard way.
On ‘Fuji’, Cross constructs his solo out of yelps and growls, buzzing repeated fingers and tension-building long, held notes. Doyle goes straight for the jugular, like Pharoah Sanders, concentrating on sound and emotion rather than melodic line and careful construction: wailing and screaming, he’s liable to stay in the extreme upper register of his horn for minutes at a time, unleashing barrages of stratospheric trills and supplications. Richard Williams had this to say about Doyle in his 1972 review of the album for Melody Maker, thus: “this man is dangerous – he never plays anything you could recognize, just furious blasts of rage. His solo on “Domiabra” couldn’t be written down, or even sorted out. It sounds more like raw energy than anything I’ve ever heard. He’s nasty, man.” Another review, with reference to that same solo, puts it more dramatically: “he sounds as if he’s trying to blow his whole body through the saxophone.”
Through all of this, the pure, smooth directness of Howard’s alto cuts through like a knife, and it is the moments when all three horns are going for it that are the most compelling on the album. Try resisting the sound of Doyle roaring, Cross blasting, Howard obsessively repeating melodic phrases or playing with yearning, lyrical fervour, undercut by Few’s splashy piano, the insistent bass strum and hum, Ali’s cymbal-work and Juma Sultan’s congas, with the use of a spacey delay sound giving them a Sun-Ra vibe (though it’s easy to lose the detail of their accompaniment in the general exaltation).
It might be helpful to note here that, while the record just drowns in passion, it’s all the more effective for introducing variety in texture and mood, for mixing the bitter with the sweet and the rough with the smooth. As Howard notes in an interview, “if you’ve ever been in a black Baptist gospel church, and the choirs cut loose, you have this incredible harmony, and then you have the soloists, and the soloists go all the way out. And most of the preachers can sing too, and they’ll go all the way out. But always within the context of gospel harmony.” The balance between freedom and restriction, dissonance and harmony, noise and melody, is a difficult one to maintain, but the musicians manage it just about perfectly here.
I personally have a soft spot for another Howard album, the (still out of print) ‘Space Dimension’, which was cut a year later with a slightly smaller group that featured Frank Wright instead of Doyle, and be-bop drummer Art Taylor pitching right into the free fold to replace Mohamed Ali (on all but one of the tracks). It features some of the same tunes, but takes them even further out, and the contrast between Howard’s smoother, more patient and lyrical approach and Wright’s straight-for-the-gut, throaty passion, is perhaps even more pronounced. The way they build from a simple, catchy groove to massive, noisy free jazz is a shining example of how powerful this stuff can be when done right, and has perhaps never been bettered.
‘Uhuru Na Umoja’, released under Wright’s name, features the same group and a similar set of tunes to that covered on ‘Space Dimension’, though the compositions are re-titled (e.g. ‘Queen Anne’ from ‘The Black Ark’ becomes ‘Aurora Borealis’, ‘Viva Black’ is ‘Ole Negro’). The longest track is just under eight minutes, the shortest just three – quite compressed running time for a free jazz record, but this succinctness doesn’t mean that anything is lost in emotional fervour; the musicians give it their all, and the result is one of the most attractive albums in both the Wright and Howard catalogues.
2/ ‘Mount Fuji’ from ‘The Black Ark’ (1969)
3/ ‘Church Number Nine’ from ‘Space Dimension’ (1970)
4/ ‘Aurora Borealis’ from Frank Wright, ‘Uhuru Na Umoja’ (1970)
Howard’s career trajectory was the usual one for free jazz musicians at the time: early recordings with ESP-Disk, under-appreciation and financial difficulty in America, and a subsequent move to Europe to find greater playing opportunities. His relocation occurred in 1972, when he decided to base himself in Paris. A year earlier, he’d recorded for Dutch radio with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, leading lights in the emergent European free jazz/improvisation scene, who’d earlier collaborated with visiting American jazz musician Eric Dolphy. The sextet date, released as ‘Patterns’ on Howard’s own label (and later re-issued on Eremite Records), pairs three Dutchmen (Mengelberg, Bennink, and guitarist Jaap Schoonhoven) with three Americans (Howard, bassist Earl Freeman and conga player Steve Boston) in a free improvisation with a raw, anarchic edge that could be found elsewhere in Howard’s work with Frank Wright and in Mengelberg/Bennink’s Dadaistic improvisations: ululating vocals and African percussion abound. The record cuts in, seemingly mid-way through the improvisation, with a spacey section featuring thick, Sharrockian electric guitar and prominent congas, and it builds from there; a whirlwind of percussion, thunderous grooves, and uneasy romanticism rendered eerie by the studio reverb on Howard’s sax and the unpredictable backing of Mengelberg’s pan-idiomatic, often dissonant piano. There’s some sense that it’s not always an easy fit between the Dutch improvisers, with their desire to play freer and freer, and the groove-focussed Americans – and perhaps it’s that slight mismatch that makes this near-forty-minute session so fascinating. Given the way the piece unfolds, it’s hard to excerpt from it, so I’ve decided not to include the MP3 in this playlist; however, the album (which also includes the collaboration with Chris McGregor included below) should be fairly easily available to buy.
During the 70s, Howard recorded and toured in Europe, often (like Frank Wright) returning to the same themes as anchors for the freer improvisations. He also began to play in a style that was closer to modal jazz than to the ‘New Thing’, as demonstrated on a live 1975 recording of Coltrane’s ‘Olé’. This was also covered by Pharoah Sanders a few years later, and both musicians use the tune’s repetitive chordal structure to build expansive solos, repeating motifs over and over until they seem to crumble under the strain, coalescing into new figures or smooth, held tones and pinched, piercing cries, the drums’ propulsive rhythms constantly threatening to surge and sway over into free playing while always keeping things surging ahead within the framework of the tune. Neither Sanders nor Howard try to emulate the ‘exotic’ quality of Coltrane’s original, which featured Eric Dolphy’s and the wondrous combination of two basses, strumming and bowing to provide a textural element largely lacking from the be-bop of the preceding years. They also focus more on the celebratory, joyous nature of the piece than on the darker, ‘duende’ elements that peaked through in Coltrane’s version; one might also describe the approach as more ‘crowd-pleasing’, though there’s certainly no skimping on length (Howard’s version lasts 12 minutes, Sanders’, 20). It was during this period that some free players began to move back ‘inside’, structuring their playing within more familiar harmonic and rhythmic territory, a kind of middle-ground in which they could meet players associated in most critic’s minds with a slightly more ‘mainstream’ approach – the sort of artists recording for the Strata-East Record label. Whether or not this apparent ‘softening’ of approach gained more than it lost is a matter of debate; personally, I find it a tad predictable, bypassing as it does the transitional, perhaps more episodic and ‘abstract’ approach evinced on the Judson Hall recordings for a more schematic theme-solo-climax-theme layout that, while it does not negate much attractive and inspiring playing, does feel somewhat restrictive. One knows roughly where things are going to go before they happen, in contrast to earlier recordings, where there was a sense of near-chaos, of danger, a sense that the music was being driven by the emotional logic of the moment as much as by pre-determined structural considerations. Nonetheless, if my favourite items from the Howard discography are those from the late 60s and early 70s, particularly the collaborations with Frank Wright, I still find much to enjoy in the later 70s work, and ‘Olé’ in particular is a fine listen.
from ‘Live in Europe, Vol.1’ (1975)
1977’s ‘Red Star’ has the bonus of being available (not the case with many of the Howard recordings that still languish out-of-print); it’s a studio date on which he once more collaborates with the great pianist Bobby Few, as well as with legendary be-bop drummer Kenny Clarke. The track I’ve chosen from this album is ‘Creole Girl’, one of Howard’s signature tunes from this period until, it seems, the last few years of his life. A simple boogaloo, it’s treated here in a fairly straightforward manner. Bass and drums are recorded with that slightly artificial splashiness and lack of depth that seemed to characterise some recordings from this decade (perhaps from engineers who weren’t familiar with the importance of the jazz rhythm section as an interacting part of the whole ensemble, rather than simply background noise). But this is actually one of my favourite Howard tracks from the get-go – listen to the way it opens, with a little tinkle down the piano, popping bass establishing the groove before the entry of the horns; listen to the theme, which comes across in this rendering as at once blissfully relaxed and slightly melancholy, stated in velvet unison by Howard’s alto and Richard Williams’ trumpet. Each band member gets a short and sweet solo – all that is, apart from Kenny Clarke, who, of all the players on this date, would actually be the most familiar to your average jazz fan. First up is Bobby Few, who elaborates on the chord changes with jabbing repeated notes and gospelly fervour. Richard Williams’ trumpet is mellow but ecstatic; Howard develops simple melodic ideas with disarming unfussiness and plenty of feeling; Guy Pederson begins with twangy variations on the theme before the tempo slows for him to ruminate at greater length; then the theme comes back in and we’re done. For me, the charm of this piece comes precisely from the fact that it’s quite low-key – neither a super-fast scorcher, nor an all-out emotional free jazz piece. It’s smooth and ‘professional’, but the musicians don’t sound uninterested – rather, they have their say in compressed, sweet statements that stick close to the tune’s harmonic outline without every sounding overly constricted. The eight minutes just fly by.
6/ ‘Creole Girl’
from ‘Red Star’ (1977)
In 1979, Howard connected with the great South African musicians Chris McGregor and Johnny Dyani to record a session originally designed for release by the Mercury Record label. In the event, what they played was judged too politically inflammatory to release, due to McGregor’s interpolation of the ANC Anthem (this before it became trendy for pop musicians to oppose apartheid). The track in question is a kind of free-ranging suite, sometimes centring around melodic figures, elsewhere flowing into sections loosened up by the ecstatic singing of Kali Z Fasteau, and Dyani’s Zulu vocal interjections and incantations. Howard sounds right at home, striking just the right balance between topical, righteous anger (his playing makes much more use of the ‘honks’ and ‘shrieks’ vocabulary than on the previous two tracks) and celebratory melodicism.
7/ ‘Message to South Africa’
from ‘Message to South Africa’ (1979)
During the 80s, Howard turned to funk, though there seems to be no documentation of this period in terms of recordings. I’m also not familiar with his most recent work, often released through his own label, in which he seems to have been experimenting with world music and lounge-jazz fusions, as well as introducing his singing voice. But there’s some fine material among the music that I’ve heard of his from the late 90s and early 2000s, which is, broadly speaking, in the free jazz mould. ‘Live at the Unity Temple’, a 1997 release on Ayler Records, finds him playing once more Bobby Few, covering some of the staple tunes that have travelled with him throughout his career. A measured solo introduction focuses on the repeated main theme of ‘Lovers’, space filled up by Few’s chunky piano, the drums setting up a cracking pace, full of boiling cymbal crashes – the music feels volatile, dramatic, exciting. Over the next ten minutes, this full band rush alternates with bass and drum solos, before Howard introduces the perky theme of ‘Schizophrenic Blues’ which provides, not an anchoring groove, but the spur to more storming, squalling, rousing improvisation, with Howard frequently, obsessively returning to that melodic figure. It’s a suitably joyous way to end this tribute - like the best of Howard’s work, full of impassioned vigour and melodic zest. The man, and his music, will be missed.
8/ ‘Lovers/Schizophrenic Blues’
from ‘Live at Unity Temple’ (1997)