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): 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.

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