Saturday 12 January 2013

Vibes & Time: The Elasticity of Bobby Hutcherson, &c.

Above: Walt Dickerson erasing the drivenness of be-bop, its relentless forward momentum, slowing things down to a floating meditation in which it can seem that every note is surrounded by a wavering, blurred, vibrato’d halo, haze round streetlamp, fogg’d, exquisitely taking its time & erasing time as it goes, so that, rather than remaining within the compact confines of a tune, with its set order & order within the overall set of album or gig, the playing hangs loose, occasionally bursting into plosive, explosive runs, but more often than not just hanging there, tracing the permutations of a simple phrase, as if whispering it diminuendo to oneself alone, sometimes barely audible over the whispered, tremulous harmonics of Richard Davis’ absolutely exquisite arco bass playing. The result is far from merely ambient wash – rhythmic pull & release, ebb & flow is always in evidence; this is serious & inventive playing indeed, but is not jazz in the speed-freak boppery sense. That’s not to say that Dickerson can’t fly up & down those mallets with the best of them, that he can, in the words of John Fordham, “improvise such fast melodies that his mallets seem barely to be making contact” – indeed, there are some scintillatingly fast runs on this very track – but the overall impression is nonetheless far from omni-directional drive, is something far more considered, spacious, even at higher tempi.

This results in part from Dickerson’s own judicious use of vibrato – taking us somewhere close to the “soft-lights glow” that Fordham sees him as rejecting (tho’ Clifford Allen’s paradoxical descriptor “warm-ice sheen” is perhaps more apt) – but also to the accompaniment of such superbly subtle drummers as Andrew Cyrille, who, on a recording like ‘Tell us Only the Beautiful Things', the logical extension to Dickerson’s earlier ‘To My Queen’, sometimes sounds as if he’s barely even there, or else in another room, the swish of his brushes or the tap of stick on stick merging with the hiss of room tone as a kind of gently rhythmic white noise over which Dickerson can stop-start rhapsodize in tandem with bassist Wilbur Ware, here melodic equal rather than mere sideman. Dickerson’s preferred contexts would seem to be in small groups, with players who are more interested in the changes in texture and temporal flow necessitated by improvisational contingency than in maintaining a constant bed to anchor solo playing: Bill Evans taken further out – much further out! – let’s say. Thus, rather than establishing clear sections for particular players to do their thang, there might be sections in which only Dickerson and Cyrille, or only Ware and Cyrille, or only Dickerson and Ware, or only Dickerson, are playing, yet the transitions are so subtle that they don’t really feel like transitions at all. Further, Dickerson has a trait of returning every so often to the initial theme, caught in the same stream as the improvisation; not in the way that Monk would improvise close to the melody over changes, nor as ensemble refreshment between individual solos, but as part of improvisatory thinking and overall mood. Faster passages might stop and return to rumination; or a sustained vibraphone swell might be followed by a breathless run of fast-struck notes; but again, these are not so much sharp contrasts, gestural or timbral blocks in the Albert Ayler manner, as extensions of and in time that evince a beautifully intuitive sense of form’s unfolding as the unforeseen.

The clip at the start of the post is one of a number of exquisite duets that Dickerson recorded with Richard Davis, something of a master of the form (recall the extended treatments of e.g. 'Come Sunday' with Eric Dolphy); & indeed, it's through both Davis & Dolphy that I want to make a connection, or, more accurately, comparison, to another vibes player, Bobby Hutcherson, who, with Davis & Tony Williams, formed one of the great rhythmic set-ups on Dolphy's 'Out to Lunch', ten or so years earlier. Perhaps it's an indication of changing sensibility that these collaborations are so different - certainly, the absence of a drummer affects things, the intimacy of the duo format versus the asymmetrical push of Dolphy's full-group compositions. But it's nonetheless instructive to compare Dickerson's free-float with Hutcherson's much more overtly percussive style.

For Hutcherson, the vibes are jagged edge, each note struck pinging out, the vibraphone's resonant afterglow only serving to round out the sharp attack of that sound still further: listen to the extended section towards the end of his solo on Jackie McLean’s ‘Action’, in which his temporal extensions and tightenings of one phrase move like a stretched and then relaxed elastic band over the steadier, tho' always driving & toe-jiggling momentum of Cecil McBee & Billy Higgins' bass-drum team. Charles Tolliver does something similar in his trumpet solo on the same tune, something about the pauses which might for a moment make you think he's lost his way, phrase out-blown but the smoother repetition which could naturally follow & draw applause in its smooth generation of 'excitement' as be-bop fluency mixed gutbucket edge REFUSED! instead for a repetition that sounds as if it's missed its cue and has to cram the phrase into the remaining time allocated by the changes played underneath with sudden burst of breath, askew & gasping burr. I guess Monk would be the temporal & off-centre phraseological model – tho' Monk's status as piano player often gave the impression that his solos consisted of the spare material that would usually make up another piano player's comping beneath a horn player's solo (while, conversely, his comping, with its clanging lower-register thump & thud, sometimes serves to distract attention from the soloist if they or you aren't careful). Certainly, Tolliver & Hutcherson would desire to fill up the total space more so (plus the tempo itself licks out at a generally higher rate than Monk himself had settled into by this point, with the Charlie Rouse group of his, anyhow).

Hutcherson's own comping, meanwhile, as perfected on Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out to Lunch’, has a kind of floating quality to it that piano players are less able to sustain, by virtue of their instrument's capacities – by this, I don't mean to contradict my earlier comments on his isolation of single notes, but rather to suggest that this kind of ‘floating’ or ‘hanging’ quality is like the suspension of a phrase that is suppressed or skipped, so that the sequence is always implied but never totally filled out: the interval between one phrase and another, either sustained by a silence or a reverberating after-glow of struck notes, is felt as tension, delay, break, rupture, a rupture that can't be entirely filled by bass & drums' maintenance of tempo throughout. (Here one might recall A.B. Spellman’s comments in the ‘Out to Lunch’ liner notes: “For one thing, [Hutcherson] avoids the tight pedalled, piano-like effect of long and lucid arpeggios that most vibists try for. His is a more ringing, chime sound. His chords, once struck, hang in the air.”)

That said, Tony Williams and Richard Davis, on ‘Out to Lunch’, are just as much about breaking things up in this way as is Hutcherson: Davis, insisting on muscling his way into the front row with odd harmonic extensions of the walking bass line, Williams, with his splash-crash-suspend attack, working on similar principles to Hutcherson. (This is also the case, for Williams, in his work with the Miles Davis quintet at this same mid-60s period, where, for example, the usual roles by which horns can break up & vary the temporal & harmonic line over a steady rhythm section backdrop are reversed, so that it is Williams who solos with rhythmic freedom over the steady, obsessive-repeated melodic iterations of Davis and Wayne Shorter – on ‘Black Comedy’ and ‘Nefertiti’ most notably. It's worth noting here that this was a period when Coltrane, tho' buoyed along by the much more steady, on-the beat clang of McCoy Tyner’s left-hand, was starting to blur the edges with the addition of extra percussionists, bassists, horns – even if, ultimately, the direction into which Coltrane would move, in the last phase of his career (the Sanders / Alice Coltrane / Garrison / Ali group) was much more an ecstatic continual thicket of texture, high-energy plateau rather than constantly broken-up, jagged momentum. Albert Ayler’s work proves a further contrast, in which the jagged nature of the music occurs not so much in the collective improvisations – which are experienced, again, as ecstatic thickets (Ayler’s own term) or blocks – but in the compositional or organisational contrast between the simple marching themes & the passages of wild & free atonality).

Returning to the trio of Hutcherson, Davis and Williams: their extension of be-bop's sharpness, its swift & exciting laying down of contour at a speed almost too fast to follow, is primarily a rhythmic extension, in which time itself becomes more elastic, but in which the play between that elasticity & the maintenance of generally consistent and swinging beat creates a constant frisson – the same too, true of the harmonic & timbral permutations of McLean's higher-register work (first deployed as far back as some of his late ’50s-work with Charles Mingus: check ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’). And of course this is not an attack on two fronts, separated into two categories marked 'temporal-rhythmic' & 'harmonic-timbral', because it is the combination of these two elements which gives this music its tense & tensile drive: check also the work of Sonny Rollins from, say, '63-'66, 'Sonny Meets Hawk' & 'East Broadway Rundown', as voice in broken monologue, as an actor forgetting lines, stumbling & stammering thru hesitancies, blank spaces - or, rather, as something much more calculatedly off-centre, the development of a melodic fragment or askew interpretation of a scale that runs deliberately counter to the changes being laid out competently underneath as the horn pursues a different path at a different pace.

{{Another horn to consider, by way of contrast: Archie Shepp, whose work at this point, most notably on ‘New Thing at Newport’, where his group consists of Hutcherson, Barre Phillips & Joe Chambers, provides a fairly steady, ominous set of atmospheres over which Shepp's tenor dives in & out, slurring & blaring with sudden, almost vulgar emphasis or soft-breathed amour straight outta Ben Webster & Coleman Hawkins: exemplified for me, at least, on 'Rufus'. The tone would remain, but the temporal attack would become much more regularized, once Shepp became, to all intents and purposes, a straightforward be-bop/blues heritage player at some point in the mid-to-late-’70s. The repeated & relentless ostinati of Grachan Moncur tunes on which Shepp often draws at this time do share territory with Moncur’s frequent collaborator McLean (or with, say, McLean's version of Tolliver’s ‘On the Nile’, which, on the Tolliver big band recordings (see below), is fast & punchy in a fairly straightforward manner, but on Mclean's sludges out (at least in the opening melodic exposition) at grinding clip-clop pace, drags you into its orbit as dark-toned procession, paradoxically that much more urgent for the slower tempo). Yet this happens several years after the fact, as it were (and several years, indeed, after Moncur himself had been a part of Shepp’s group), so that these tunes are now vehicles for 20 or 30 minute saxophone solos in which seemingly endless exposition of particular scalar patterns or licks replaces packed-in tension & uncertainty with declamatory pontification. (That’s not to say that said pontification doesn’t possess a certain sense of granite purposiveness which can, if you're in the right mood, act as a slow-burning kind of exhilaration. This is the 'hip' in 'Hipnosis', perhaps - i.e. check the 25-minute-plus version of McLean’s tune of that name on ‘A Sea of Faces’, in which that aforementioned relentlessness of repetition becomes both literal hypnosis, a kind of trance state of the sort Shepp explored thru the quasi-african drumming on 'The Magic of Juju' (tho' without the harmonic freedom provided by the keyboard-less, percussion-heavy set-up of that piece). & check also the mega-version of ‘New Africa’ on a 1977 bootleg recording from Alassio, Italy.)}}

Yet all this nonetheless has little of the jiggly nerve-fry that makes you feel really so urgently alive in the McLean-Hutcherson-Williams nexus of the woods. Wrapping these rather rambling notes up, one final comparison might be between the McLean band's take on a number of Tolliver's tunes - 'Right Now!', ‘On the Nile,’ ‘Jacknife’ – to Tolliver's own 1970s takes on them with his band Music Inc., where they're much more straightforward blowing vehicles, the compositional material (these are good, memorable tunes) actually overshadowing the sometimes rather by-rote soloing: well, e.g. on ‘Music Inc. & Big Band’, an album I love, the big-band riffs & so on that come in under the solo rather distract attention from whatever the front-line instrument (normally Tolliver's trumpet or Stanley Cowell's piano) is playing, the soloist sometimes seeming to fill a particular time & space that has been allotted within the format of the tune without that particular urgency or tension or sense of playing with he form that you get in the McLean records. This is not to say that Tolliver’s big band music is not intensely joyous & colourful & punchy, tho' its tone colours are a lot less adventurous than say, those of Gil Evans, or, indeed, the subtle & complex work of the great jazz composer-arrangers of the big band heyday (the effect, by contrast, is something like McCoy Tyner’s piano style translated in stark & unfussy fashion to a bevy of brass instruments, with occasional flutes for the rather rarer delicate moments; indeed, Tyner's own big-band record ‘Fly with the Wind’ is somewhat similar in effect). Certainly, tho’, in terms of form, it's much easier to coast along to in one's listening than McLean and Hutcherson’s constant engagement – or, for that matter, Dickerson’s more meandering elasticity, form as rumination and reverie as against form as inexorable repetition (Shepp) or form as something from which one departs and to which one returns in swift break-outs (McLean, Hutcherson et al)).