Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Recent Writing (June)

Not posted much on this blog of late, but a fair bit of other writing elsewhere, of which a digest follows...

Over the past month I've been working on a long article on the great organist Larry Young / Khalid Yasin, now up on Point of Departure. The piece covers all the periods of career: early work in the soul jazz idiom from 1960 to around 1964, progressive jazz with the class Unity in 1965, free jazz (or a synthesis of free jazz with elements) from 1966 to around 1969, and then 'fusion' from 1969, first with the Tony Williams Lifetime, then with his own 'Love Cry Want', 'Lawrence of Newark' and 'Fuel' bands. The gist of the piece is that Young provides a lens for all kinds of trends, movements, placements, moving from doo wop to soul jazz to the advanced end of bebop to free playing to fusion of various kinds, along the way reinventing the sound of the Hammond organ. (To hear just how radically he'd transformed what could be done with the instrument, take a listen to this astonishing solo piece). It's often said that Young's training as a pianist is at the root of what was so unusual about his approach--e.g. taking the influence of McCoy Tyner's fourths and Monk's use of space and adjacent, dissonant notes, rather than the Jimmy Smith licks and held-note vocabulary ubiquitous amongst soul jazz Hammond players from the late 50s on. At the same time, of the technical achievements of his playing-are developments from  materiality of the instrument itself, as a kind of proto-synthesizer/big-band-in-minature, and from the vocabulary of soul jazz, even as they explicitly move away from it. So' for example, when he transitions from soul jazz on albums like Unity, Young explicitly moves away from the Jimmy Smith technique of holding a single note over the tune's chord pattern in an ecstatic imitation of tenor 'screamers', blues 'shouters' etc. But in the 1970s, that technique returns, transformed into a series of  sustained drones and 'washes' of sound which create dissonances, clusters, white noise blocks as the harmonic pattern surrounding them departs radically from the soul jazz patterns with which Smith worked. Similarly, the doubled thinking required to play both bassline in the footpedals and comp/solo with hands on the keyboard leads to a dialogic conception that in turn influences his playing within a group--a collective approach that in turns leads naturally to free jazz (Of Love and Peace in 1966) and the groove-based large-group improvisations of Love Cry Want and Lawrence of Newark in 1972 and 1973. And in terms of genre, the roots for the free jazz/ avant-garde playing of c.1966-69 are laid in soul jazz and hard bop of c.1960-62--in itself a kind of 'fusion' of elements of progressive jazz (bebop) with urban pop music (R&B)--which then presage the jazz fusion of c.1969 onwards, as the harmonic ambiguity of free jazz combines with the harmonic simplification of fusion and its focus on rhythm and groove. Which means that this at once a dialectical process--as per the Hegelian sense that hovers over fellow Newarker Amiri Baraka's earlier account of the movement from bebop to cool/hard bop to free in Blues People in 1963--and Baraka's 'changing same' circa 1967--which is and is not dialectical, at least in the same sense. (Clearly more thought needs expanding on this!). Baraka's not invoked arbitrarily here--he provided liner notes for an early Young album and was immersed in/emerged from the same thriving music scene in Newark. Which is the piece's other argument--that Young, along with Alan and Wayne Shorter, Grachan Moncur, Woody Shaw, Tyrone Washington, etc etc--marks a strand of Newark-originating playing in the late 50s/early 60s that often challenges strict divisions between 'mainstream' and 'free' and suggests another stream to the music. So that circa 1967/8--the year, after all, that Baraka writes 'The Changing Same'--there are a number of recordings which suggest a continuum between R&B, free jazz, mainstream hard bop, etc--Young's Contrasts, Washington's Natural Essence, Eddie Gale's Ghetto Music, even (less successfully) Ayler's New Grass--that are a kind of 'fusion' in advance, but alway in terms of Black music, rather than the way that fusion later becomes, too often, a kind of code for white virtuosos coming in and making the money. (As producer David Rubison put it, "Jazz fusion meant white people playing Black music"). All these arguments end up becoming somewhat speculative in part because Young (and Washington, Gale, etc) was never documented as much as he should have been. There's roughly a record per year when he had a contract with Blue Note (1965-1969), but after that--which is precisely when his playing really takes off--the documentation is a lot more sporadic: Lifetime's best work was live, but can only be heard on a few bootlegs; there's only one recording apiece for the Love Cry Want and Lawrence of Newark bands; I'm still wondering if tapes of the trio with Dewey Redman and Rashied Ali at Slugs' Saloon in 1968 exist...(Highly unlikely that are recordings with Frank Wright, Cecil Taylor and Coltrane, all of whom he played with at various points.) For that matter, it's impossible to get hold a copy of his final record, The Magician, a Germany-only release by his much-maligned final fusion band, Fuel. 

So that piece is now out on Point of Departure, along with three other reviews: George (E.) Lewis' Recombinant Trilogy, three works for solo instruments with electronics; The Locals (Pat Thomas et al) Play The Music of Anthony Braxton, which I noted back in Februrary on this blog; and new poetry-and-sound releases on Fonograf Editions from Nathaniel Mackey and the Creaking Breeze Ensemble and Douglas Kearney/Val Jeanty (Kearney's book sho is also out from Wave Books).

(Image of N.H. Pritchard from the East Village Other)

Back in April, I reviewed the reissue of N.H. Pritchard's The Matrix for Artforum: since then, I've been working on a longer piece based on this research as well, encompassing Pritchard's other books, EECCHHOOEESS, which is the first publication from Adam Pendleton's Daba Press, and some uncollected and unpublished work--of which there's a ton out there, including Pritchard's novel Mundus. Watching his appearance as a preacher in Elaine Summers' and Rev. Al Carmines' Another Pilgrim thanks to the digital versatility of the New York Public Library was a highlight of this--a real slice of place and time.

Also Umbra-related: Honoured to have been asked to write on Askia Touré's work for a special issue of Paideuma which republishes his 1972 book Songhai! Researching his poetry and thinking about the role of the African American poetic epic and Islam was fascinating work; it's astonishing that there's so little criticism on it. The piece, 'Songs for the Future', should be out soon.

Also out soon, a final Umbra-related item: from the University of Buffalo, Edric Mesmer's Among the Neighbors is a primarily bibliography-focussed pamphlet series on little magazines associated with the New American Poetry. My contribution to the latest batch offers a chronology and a brief introduction to Umbra, followed by a bibliographic listing of the contents of the five magazines produced between 1963 and 1974. This emerges from a much bigger Umbra bibliography project I began last summer, which aims to track the publishing activity of all the major Umbra poets and other poets associated with Umbra, providing details of major publications, as well as secondary criticism and other relevant material. The draft of that document runs to over a hundred pages, and I'm not sure as to what will be done with it--perhaps part of an online resource at some point. (If you'd like a copy, leave a comment below this post and I can send you the draft.) Many thanks in any case to Edric for his work on the Among the Neighbors pamphlet, which I hope will be a useful resource, given the rarity of the Umbra magazines themselves. (I'm also excited to be working on a two volume Umbra project with Tonya Foster and Jean-Philippe Marcoux, which should be out in the next few years. Watch this space!)

Boston Review are running a piece of mine on Yours Presently, the selected John Wieners letters recently out from University of New Mexico Press. It was edited by Michael Seth Stewart over a period of ten years, and having read the entire, unedited version--Seth's thesis at CUNY--which runs to around 1000 pages, I can attest to Seth's editorial acumen in producing this shorter version, still scrupulously annotated with a wealth of contextual and biographical information. (Let's hope too that Robbie Dewhurst's equally vital work on the biography and the complete poems--the latter provisionally entitled Ungrateful City--might see publishing fruit.) And props to Ammiel Alcalay and CUNY's Lost and Found programme for supporting scholarship like this. Hearing Ammiel, Seth and Eileen Myles talk at the online launch last month, setting this in its context, was a perfect illustration of the spirit in which the enterprise was conducted--Ammiel recalling meeting Wieners at Grolier's bookstore as a thirteen-year old, hanging out and talking, about the government persecution of Billie Holiday, about Wieners as part of the 'outside'--queer activists, anti-war activists, drop outs, and so on--that was much bigger than it is now, as Ammiel put out; Seth reading out a funny and engaging letter in which Wieners puts down Kerouac and Ginsberg and comes out with casually brilliant and moving phrases imbued with the poetry that shot through his life; and Eileen Myles likewise come up with phrases of music and casual poetry--"the basketweave of the soul" a phrase I half remember; all this was a moving affirmation of Wieners' importance. 

The Boston Review review comes out of a bunch of other work on Wieners I've been working on over the past few years--in particular, an essay on Wieners' great book Behind the State Capitol, editing and typography, just out in the Queer Between the Covers collection edited by Leila Kassir and Richard Espley, which emerges from a conference at Senate house Library back in 2018. The whole book can be read here and also includes work on Valerie Taylor's lesbian pulp novels and the government attacks on London queer bookshop Gay's the Word in the 1980s. On the Wieners front, a piece I wrote four years ago on Wieners and Dana (of "God love you Dana my love" fame) for an edited collection on Wieners' work called Utter Vulnerability might hopefully see the light of day in the not too distant future (for now it can be read at; and there will likely be a couple of Wieners chapters in my current book project on queer poetry in Boston and San Francisco, focussing on the lesser-known parts of his career--his early work as editor with Measure magazine and in the context of the Boston 'Occult School', and--supplementing the Queer Between the Covers chapter--further details of his time in the orbit of Fag Rag and Charley Shively. Fag Rag and Gay Community News alumnus--and author of the excellent Culture Clash and Queer History of the United States--Michael Bronski has been super-helpful and generous in discussing this work, along with Seth, Raymond Foye, and all the others contributing to what seems--hopefully--to be a bit of a mini-Wieners revival. Not that he ever went away, but there's so much more to be said and discovered about this work. Michael and I did a long interview about his life in activism, scholarship, publishing, Fag Rag and the rest, back in December and are hoping to publish that at some point.

Over to the world of music--and honoured to have been asked to write the liner notes to the new Anthony Braxton boxset, Quartet (Standards) 2020, selected documentation of the band's European tour last year out from the Tri-Centric Foundation / New Braxton House on June 18th. The group's three-day residency at Cafe Oto--one of the last bits of live music, if not the last bit of live music I saw before the pandemic hit--was extraordinary (my write-up came out in Artforum here), and it was likewise great to grapple with the entirety of the set: 67 tracks in all, of standards familiar and obscure alike, with Alex Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Stephen Davis on drums providing far more than merely a 'rhythm section'.

Some recent liner notes also out to a fascinating released by a large-group ensemble led by UK bassist, improviser, composer Dominic Lash, one of the first batch of physical releases from his Spoonhunt label (the bandcamp page also has some excellent digital recordings, including work with Christian Wolff, Nate Wooley, etc). Distinctions is a 40-minute recording for an ensemble called 'Consorts', working in particular with sustained tones and the relation between acoustic and electric sound: seems like it finds intriguing solutions to many of the problems of large ensemble improvisation (though the relation between composition and improvisation, as ever in Lash's work, can't be eaily parsed). The other CDs in the batch are equally worthwhile: the wholly-improvised Discernement offers one of the final recordings from the late John Russell, in a group with Lash, John Butcher and Mark Sanders; and Lash's quartet with Alex Ward (in guitarist guise), Ricardo Tejero and Javier Carmona on limulus showcases some of Lash's distinctive compositions, in and around (but never quite inhabiting) whatever we call 'jazz'. Get them here.

If Braxton's take on standards represents the latest stage in a decades-long engagement with jazz history in theory and practice, a different take on the music's relation to history emerges in a recent volume curated by Sezgin Boynik and Taneli Viitahuhta, out from Rab-Rab Press. Free Jazz Communism collects a number of historical essays, interviews, source texts and polemics, focusing in particular on the performance by the Archie Shepp-Bill Dixon Quartet at the 8th World Festival of Youth and Students held in Helsinki in 1962. Though the event's been mentioned in a fair few studies of the music, it's rarely been examined in detail, and is an interesting flashpoint for questions concerning free jazz, Cold War politics, and the like.  Pierre Crépon and I reviewed the book at Critical Studies in Improvisation/Etudes Critiques en Improvisation.

As well as Larry Young, recent listening has involved heavy rotations of Hasaan Ibn Ali's 1965 Atlantic date, long thought lost, which has finally been rediscovered and released as Metaphysics, out on Omnivore Recordings. A quartet set, it was recorded a few months after the 'Legendary Hasaan' trio date with Max Roach, with Hasaan's then-protegee, a young Odean Pope on tenor. Hopefully I'll have more to say on this one elsewhere--suffice to add that the archival buzz is more than justified in this instance.

Finally, a poem from Local Apocalypse (published by Materials in 2020) is up at the 87 press, with thanks to Azad and Kashif:

(Writing not on this blog listed/linked on Linktree and the 'Writing Elsewhere' page on the sidebar.)

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