Friday, 30 September 2022

Sean Bonney Special Issue

After two years, the Sean Bonney special issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, co-edited by Jeff Hilson and myself, is finally out in the world. It’s been a long road, and a lot of work along that road, but, many hundreds of emails and proofs and conversations later, we’re grateful that so many people have come together to treat Sean’s work with the seriousness it deserves. You can access the issue here.

This is a larger than usual issue of the journal: it reprints four essays by Sean—on Sun Ra/Amiri Baraka, on Louis-Auguste Blanqui/Louise Michel, and on Anna Mendelssohn, along with the complete ‘Notes on Militant Poetics’—and eleven essays on his work, almost all specially written for the issue, by Tom Allen, Christina Chalmers, Robert Hampson, Lisa Jeschke/Danny Hayward, Esther Leslie, Rob Kiely, Will Rowe, Kashif Sharma-Patel, Vicky Sparrow, Lindsay Turner, and Steve Willey, an editorial introduction by Jeff and myself, and a detailed bibliography of Sean’s work that I prepared based, in part, on prior work by Ian Heames, Justin Katko, and Harry Gilonis. Special thanks, not only to the contributors, but to Eleanor Careless, who patiently guided us through many technical issues, especially along the latter stages of the route to publication...

Jeff and I first spoke about the issue in several phone sessions during the first lockdown in summer 2020; and now we head towards the end of summer 2020 with more catastrophe looming. Here’s a bit from the introduction which, hopefully, speaks to some of this:
We’d like to begin with a brief reflection on what it meant to edit this issue when we did, between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022. Sean Bonney died in the autumn of 2019, during the UK general election which saw Boris Johnson elected as prime minister, and a month or so before the first strains of COVID-19 emerged. We first began to edit this issue during a national lockdown in the UK, and a condition of lockdown in many countries worldwide, at a time when social norms expectations and safety nets were even more radically dissembled, with no immediate end point in site.

During this time, reality seemed to have become a Sean Bonney poem [...] Bonney’s work is extraordinarily precise and complex in its disentangling of the relation between metaphor, history, and the actuality of conditions like riot, plague, and starvation: conditions, that as the global pandemic that emerged in 2020 revealed, are far from the mere decorative detail of a distant past, outsourced from the murderously complacent centre of ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Fortress Europe’. Here, plague is somehow at once symptom, cause, and antidote. Bonney attempts to stage the impossible: how to conceive of solidarity when enforced isolation and quarantine seem to make the conditions for collective social life impossible, reinforcing the atomisation that’s already built into each facet of life within contemporary capitalism. The poem doesn’t pretend that it’s reached a new synthesis out of this contradiction: the false balm of a simplified version of dialectics that resolves what remains unresolved in reality, whether in poetry and political theory, or as party line. But with every fibre of its being it wants to push thought past its limit to a synthesis that would move beyond the deadly cost of such contradiction, a desire felt more keenly than ever in the aftermath of Sean’s death, in the ongoing conditions of plague and its after-effects we’re in now. 
We’ve said that, in 2020, reality, its landscapes, both internal and external, seemed to become a Sean Bonney poem. But this isn’t quite the right way to put it. It’s not that reality became a Sean Bonney poem. Rather, reality was already a poem by Sean Bonney, a report on the affective truth of social life, ‘the enormous noises of the border // Kreuzberg. Exarchia. Hackney’, taking in everyone from Dante to Ericka Huggins, Blanqui, Ulrike Meinhof and George Jackson: writers who, too, drew their visions from history’s prisons, precarious housing, social immiseration, and periods of ideological crisis.

Here’s the official write-up and Table of Contents: 

The author of numerous pamphlets and full-length collections, including Our Death (2019), Letters against the Firmament (2015), Happiness (2011), The Commons (2011), Document (2008), Baudelaire in English (2007) and Blade Pitch Control Unit (2005), Sean Bonney was a crucial part of contemporary poetry communities in the UK and internationally. Formatively shaped by the influences of Maggie O’Sullivan and Anna Mendelssohn and by Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum workshops, Bonney’s work drew from the aesthetic practices of the British Poetry Revival, and from Left-wing political and aesthetic radicalism, including the Angry Brigade, the Black Radical Tradition, Punk, the Situationists, Surrealism and Revolutionary Marxism and Anarchism. Predominantly based in London, but also in Liverpool and Nottingham and, in his final years, Berlin, Bonney’s work was in dialogue with a much wider range of international poetries past and present. With Frances Kruk, Bonney ran the small press yt communication, and he was an active publisher and organiser, committed to an aesthetic drawn from Punk and DIY traditions, as well as the legacy of the Mimeo revolution, samizdat publishing and radical pamphleteering. A critic and scholar as well as a poet, his critical work challenged the boundaries of academic writing, as he aimed at conceptualising what he called a ‘militant poetics’, in doctoral work on Amiri Baraka and in essays on Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Anna Mendelssohn and Sun Ra among others. His work in poetry, poetics and critical prose was extraordinarily wide-ranging in its field of influences, and in turn exerted a powerful influence on those poets around him. We hope that this feature will give a sense of the full richness of his career in poetry in its many different phases and dimensions, as well as taking into account Bonney’s unswerving commitment to political activism and to thinking through the relation of politics and aesthetics. 

Co-edited by David Grundy and Jeff Hilson Volume 14 • Issue 1 • 2022. 
(Published September 2022) 

Table of Contents 

Editorial ‘No Simple Explanations’ 
David Grundy and Jeff Hilson 

Sean Bonney: A Selected Bibliography 
David Grundy 


‘As Simple as Music’: Kinds of Noise in Sean Bonney’s Poetry 
Tom Allen 

Speaking with the voices of the dead: Sean Bonney, Arthur Rimbaud, Amiri Baraka and revolutionary poetics 
Robert Hampson 

The State is a Murderous Life-Support Machine: A Conversation about Death 
Lisa Jeschke and Danny Hayward 

A preliminary reading of Sean Bonney’s ‘What Teargas is For’ 
Robert Kiely 

Notes Towards a Commentary on Sean Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament 
William Rowe 

Bonney’s Militant Poetics: Revolutionary Aesthetics, Politics and Black Poetics 
Kashif Sharma-Patel 

‘This Face of Glee...This Terrifying Sound’: Sean Bonney Through the Soundhole, Where Bonney IS 
Stephen Paul Willey 


Time Negatives of Variable Universe: On Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka 
Sean Bonney 

Comets & Barricades: Insurrectionary Imagination in Exile 
Sean Bonney 

Notes on Militant Poetics 
Sean Bonney 

‘Minds do exist to agitate and provoke / this is the reason I do not conform’—Anna Mendelssohn 
Sean Bonney 

The Involution of the Storm Corner: Sean Bonney’s Occult 
Christina Chalmers 

Bouleversed Baudelairizing: On Poetics and Terror 
Esther Leslie 

Sean Bonney’s Social Space 
Vicky Sparrow 

The Poetics of Despair: Listening to Sean Bonney in Charlottesville, Virginia 
Lindsay Turner

Tuesday, 27 September 2022


Above: Pharoah Sanders playing at Carnegie Hall in New York, 1972. Photo: K. Abe/Shinko Music/Getty Images.
Pharoah Sanders passed this week, the day after what would have been John Coltrane's 96th birthday.

My obituary is at Artforum.

As a supplement to that piece, some of my favourite Sanders radio and video shots below.

--Sanders' feature on 'Naima' from Live at the Village Vanguard Again--or for, that matter, on 'Peace on Earth' from Live in Japan--is one of the great solos in jazz's recorded history, reinventing the idea of what a 'ballad' could be, of what a 'solo' could be, of what music could be. But, to me, this version of Strayhorn's 'Lush Life' from the Seattle residency that yielded Live in Seattle and the recently issued live version of A Love Supreme surpasses even those. During those brief years of collaboration before Coltrane's death, he and Sanders were plumbing the depths to reach the heights, their music a lived reinvention of the social, of the painful and beautiful movement towards the creation of a more just world. It calls to us still.

--I only wish there were more recordings of Sanders' work with Dave Burrell and Sonny Sharrock from around the time they made Tauhid. Burrell's pianism, with his ability to vamp for hours, his harmonic inventiveness, his unassuming and relentless energy, was one of the key spurs in Sanders' move from the open-ended frameworks of the late Coltrane groups to something more groove-driven, to one-chord vamps, a kind of free jazz minimalism that, in its emotional impact, is as maximal as anything ever recorded. The aspirations of the music move out--it's there in the track and album titles, but it's there in the music too, its endless open horizon. On Sanders' studio albums, his bands were often supplemented with additional instruments--the unforgettable use of Julius Watkins' french horn on Karma, of Leon Thomas's vocals on Jewels of Thought, of the extra horns and additional percussion on Summun Bukmun Umyun, Thembi, and the rest. Or the ensemble sound of Izipho Zam, criminally underrated, recorded for Strata-East but not released until four years later. In terms of live recordings, move forward a few years and there's Sanders' group with Lonnie Liston Smith, Sirone on bass, and Majeed Shabazz on drums, in bootlegs from the 1968 Antibes Jazz Festival, playing material from Tauhid, which had been recorded two years prior, and The Creator Has a Master Plan, which had yet to be released. Some film footage from the same performances gives some further visual cues into the band's interplay.

--From the Nice festival two years later, with Cecil McBee replacing Sirone and Jimmy Hopps replacing Shabazz and Lawrence Killian on percussion, a quintet version of the Lonnie Liston Smith arrangement of 'Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord' that appeared on Summun Bukmun Umyun, turning the traditional spiritual made famous by the Edwin Hawkins singers into an epic suite of changing moods and colours. Listen to the way Smith's solo, via simple scalar repetition, transforms as he keeps the sustain pedal depressed and the chords become denser and less consonant, moving into the thick intensity of Sanders' multiphonic re-entry, a passage of fearsome power with Sanders' saxophone accompanied by screams and hollers and Smith's piano chords transformed into part of a thicket of percussion, before things settle into McBee's bass solo. I've always found McBee's arco playing here and on the studio album completely astonishing, some of the most moving music I know.

--From the same year, Sanders and Archie Shepp in a dual-horn line-up with Alice Coltrane at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert, channelling the inside/outside feel of Coltrane's Ptah, the El Daoud, where the Shepp role was taken by Joe Henderson. The dual-horn line-up here is not just a reminder of John Coltrane's last band but, as that band itself was, of the "duelling tenors" sound popularized in the fifties, with the sounds of competition, cutting contests, jam sessions, rendered instead contributions to a conversation of collective rapture.


--As Sanders' moved 'inside' during the seventies and eighties, his quartet with John Hicks on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, and Idris Muhammad on drums perfected a certain vein of post-Coltrane, post-bop playing. Analogies might be drawn to what David Murray was doing around the same time: endless streams of invention over changes, 'outside' passages deployed at moments of climax, a resolute swing, a fulsome romanticism. This long, long performance of 'Doktor Pitt' from--I believe, 1986, at the Fabrik club in Hamburg--exemplifies their particular energy.

--With McCoy Tyner at the Lugano Jazz Festival in 1985 playing 'For Tomorrow': wistful yet full of hope. 


--In duo with John Hicks in Frankfurt in 1986, playing material from the quartet album Africa. I've always loved the version of Hicks' 'After the Morning' here. The word that springs to mind so often with Sanders' later career is serenity: this piece exemplifies that.

-- Ask the Ages was one of Sanders' great late-career albums. Sonny Sharrock had been one of his earliest compadres, and the music they made in this reunion, and attendant tour, was a kind of retrospective of all the styles they could play: swinging post-bop, the blue, free playing, ventures into rock. Live, the energy gets dialled up even more--this was, after all, a Sonny Sharrock who'd been playing with Peter Brötzmann in Last Exit for the past few years. But the music is wider, deeper, broader than that of Last Exit: the panorama of Black populist modernism and modernist populism that Sanders had mastered so well.

When Charlie Parker died, Ted Joans went around Greenwich Village writing "Bird Lives" on walls.

As a friend wrote to me on finding out the news of Sanders' passing: "Pharoah Sanders is immortal".

Thursday, 15 September 2022

Betsy Jolas’ bTunes

Video thanks to the invaluable 5against4 blog, whose contrasting write-up can be found here.

Nicholas Hodges (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Monday 5 September 2022.

bTunes, the new piano concerto by Franco-American composer Betsy Jolas, premiered at the Proms in early September on the bill with a much more familiar, but equally strange piece. Under conductor Karina Canellakis, the BBC Symphony Orchestra rendered Mahler’s First Symphony with due attention to its luminous strangeness. The symphony doesn’t so much begin as appear, with the spectral hovering of a seven-octave drone in the strings. It goes on to stage several deeply strange set-pieces, including a lengthy funeral march in which Frère Jacques meets a klezmer melody, and an extended finale, with a sudden and unexpected eruption of doom-laden fanfares and closing, blasting, percussive blare of triumph. At times, Canellakis virtually danced off the podium, and the orchestra’s sprightly account emphasized the piece’s sharp and eerie edges, rendered all the stranger for the strangely apposite sounds of a crying baby in the first movement.

For her part, Jolas’ concerto began with a bit of (extra-)musical comedy, the orchestra’s leader desperately ‘conducting’ the ensemble, cymbal rolls and string textures sounding out like an opening cough, in the apparent absence of conductor and pianist, before Callenakis came running in from the wings, ushering pianist Nicholas Hodges on stage in a Laurel and Hardy routine. More jokes abounded at various points: Hodges slamming the cover down on the keyboard to signal performative frustration or a musical transition—it’s not clear which; the violinists inaudibly bowing the back of their instruments. In such moments, Jolas plays with the traditional roles of the classical orchestra, not only sonically, but in terms of the whole drama and ritual of the concert hall. Musically, as Jolas’ programme note explains, the piece is constituted of separate solo piano pieces assembled as a kind of playlist—hence the punning i-tunes nod in the title. Rather than the traditional romantic warhorse, Jolas renders the piano concerto as a collection of brilliantly-coloured sketches, in which despite a virtuosic piano part, the overall feel is that of a seething, collective texture, the ensemble constantly echoing and amplifying Hodges’ twittering, trilling curlicues. As in much of Jolas’ work, the piece wears its structure lightly: open and flowing, yet precise, its structures assemble and disassemble themselves in a fashion that often feels loose and improvisatory, like breaths of free and clear air.

Astonishingly, once the piece was over, the 96 year-old Jolas stood up from the audience to receive applause and, afterwards, to sign autographs. While some in the audience were clearly bemused, it’s heartening to see such recognition, particularly given Jolas’ long-standing—and clearly gendered—neglect. Jolas herself may not, as she’s stated in interviews, be optimistic about the future of new music, but her own work is anything but pessimistic. It has hope that intellection, liveliness, cheerfulness, joy, and the careful cultivation of an ethics of listening, are all values music can still explore and hold to; hope that awareness of musical history and tradition does not mean being closed but being open, not simply repeating but varying, inventing, ceaselessly turning over and examining the matter of sound with the joy of discovery and with a sense that there is no end to the possibilities to be found.

Saturday, 10 September 2022

Up-to-date (From Attica to AMM)

(Some pieces of writing recently published in other venues.)

Attica is in front of me”, an essay on musical responses to the Attica uprising by Archie Shepp, Frederic Rzewski and Charles Mingus, appears online in a special issue of the Blank Forms journal, edited by Ciarán Finlayson, commemorating the uprising fifty years on.

A piece on the Eddie Prévost residency at Café Oto in July is at Point of Departure. There were four concerts in Bright Nowhere, celebrating Prévost’s eightieth birthday: the piece has write-ups of all four--a multi-saxophone concert, the ‘Sounds of Assembly’ group, a Workshop concert, and the last ever gig by AMM. 

And at Artforum, a shorter write-up of the AMM gig from the same residency.

An edit from a much longer interview I did with Eva-Maria Houben last month is up at VAN magazine. (The full interview will be out in the fullness of time--watch this space: I also wrote about the recent performance of Houben’s ‘Together on the Way’ at the Southbank Centre a few months back.) 

Other odds and ends:

A review of Decoy and Joe McPhee’s gig at Café Oto came out back in the July issue of The Wire, of which there’s an image below; there’s also a review of the Explore Ensemble concert of music by Poppe, Dunn, Dillon and Miller in the October issue, of which I’ve just posted a longer version on this blog

And even further back, in March, organiser Mark O. Chamberlain kindly read out my short paper at the online John Wieners symposium hosted by Durham University: video of that and the other papers can now be viewed online here.

In the near future, among other things, a piece on Igor Levit’s new disc based around Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan, a journal special issue, a poetry pamphlet from Andy Spragg’s and Jimmy Cummins’ RunAmok, new titles from Materials/Materailien, and the Blank Forms reprint of Baraka, Neal and Spellman’s The Cricket, to which I contributed a short introduction. Lauri Scheyer and I are also putting the finishing touches to Calvin Hernton’s Selected Poems with Wesleyan University Press, a project that’s been in the works for a few years and which we’re very excited to see moving to completion...

More on all that in due course!

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Songs, Offerings, Wastes and Suites

Explore Ensemble at Wigmore Hall
Friday 8th July 2022

Enno Poppe, Gelöschte Lieder
Cassandra Miller, Perfect offering
James Dillon, The soadie waste
Lawrence Dunn, Suite

[Note: A shorter version of this piece appears in the October issue of The Wire magazine.]

For the past ten years, the London-based Explore Ensemble, a winds, strings and piano sextet, has amassed a steady range of commissions and concerts, from Feldman to Finnissy, last year receiving the substantial Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung Ensemble Prize. Taking place at the beginning of a summer heatwave within the airy confines of the Wigmore Hall, the Ensemble’s early July concert was a pleasingly undiluted presentation of new music, no filler.

Each of the four works on the programme, lasting between fifteen and twenty minutes in length, explored in various ways the idea of a group and the historical nature of form. In their own way, each piece was an exploration of a pull between sensual pleasure, conventional or unconventionally beautiful sound, and a self-questioning, interrogative tugging at the limits of formal expectation which opened onto history. The concert opened with the strung-out intensities, tightening and loosening, of what was the oldest piece chronologically, Enno Poppe’s late-’90s Gelöschte Lieder (Erased Songs). A quintet of piccolo (doubling flute), clarinet, violin, viola and piano throw out spiky, fracturing lines moving towards and away from cohesion: dissolving unisons, interlocking peals, all the instruments constantly tangling and untangling, with a propensity to dramatic, extreme high notes. Poppe’s piece is lively, bright and effective, polished and highly assured, striking and compelling as a listening experience almost. Yet its relatively standard New Music textures sounded relatively old-fashioned compared to the next piece on the programme—paradoxically, perhaps, given that that piece has a pronounced tendency to quote music of the past, and an at least apparently simple harmony, melody, textures that are rarely harsh or rebarbative.

Written during the 2020 lockdown, Cassandra Miller’s Perfect Offering takes melody apart, re-enchanting the basics and basis of sound by revealing them in all their deceptive complexity. Like much of her work, it’s based on fragmentary transcriptions of other musics—in this case, slowed-down recordings of bells from a French convent—as if the original object has been held up to refracting and reflecting light. In much classical music, bells signify grandeur: sound and fury, triumphant exhortation, religious or State pomp, premonitions of salvation or doom: Rachmaninov’s The Bells, Boris Godunov, the 1812 Overture the Symphonie Fantastique. But they can also be rendered as gentle, swaying traceries, pealing in decorative rather than annunciatory fashion: Liszt’s ‘Les Cloches de Geneve’, Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, Arvo Pärt’s various tintinnabulatory pieces. (Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, with its submerged church rising out of the sea, partakes of both tendencies.) Miller’s bells certainly lean more towards the delicate than the bombastic: gently repeating and slowly morphing, figures for wind and strings mimic the bells’ regular rhythms over implacably calm piano figures. The effect is not mechanical or clangorous, but shimmering and lulling, as much watery as metallic, heat-hazed air shimmering on a summer’s day. At certain points the music rises to hymnal grandeur; in another, extraordinary moment, all the instruments drop out save a lone clarinet, repeating two notes for what seems an eternity before the music moves on.
Writing Perfect Offering during a period of depression, Miller sang along to melodic lines from the slowed-down recording. An absent voice haunts the music: a voice singing itself back into the world by letting go. For Miller, while musical forms are socially produced and historically conditioned, music is also connected to personal, even private emotion, conveyed in ritualised form. Miller deals with a recurrent new music topos—both as problem and resource: that of musical quotation as direct engagement with the music of the past. Composers of the post-war avant-garde--Nono, Lachenmann, Ligeti, and perhaps above all, Berio--have explored quotation as critical framework, reclamation of submerged and subversive traditions, or melancholic glance backward. In Miller’s case, quotation is not disguised or hidden—as it is often is with, say, Nono—nor is it foreground, collage-style—as with Berio. Instead, it’s refracted across the entire surface, visible at almost every point—and, in some ways generating virtually the entire structure of the entire piece—yet remaining uncanny, other than itself. Miller offers what might be called cubist rearrangements of tradition musical objects, retaining their shimmering aura in a fashion that can, at times lead towards a pleasurable, soothing melancholy, at others create a kind of queasy, calm alarm—a slow panic, a distributed anxiety in the process of turning into calm, or calm turning to anxiety. Miller’s pieces don’t propose to make grand statements about music’s history and future, but modest ones: they are experiments, gentle interrogations, that pay attention in a materially precise way to the question of what beauty is and how we’re conditioned to view it.

Music, for Miller, it would seem, is a form of art that’s socially produced and historically conditioned yet connected to personal, even private emotion conveyed in ritualised form. I say ritualised rather than ritual because, while Miller’s pieces often take their musical material almost entirely from quoted, or, as Miller terms it, “transcribed” materials, their form is abstracted from them. Just as an earlier piece, Bel Canto, takes phrases from Callas’ rendition of a Verdi aria outside the frame of the operatic stage, so Perfect Offering invokes both bells and—in its title—a Leonard Cohen song, without taking assuming the form of a religious call or a pop song. Given all this, there’s at once a familiar strangeness and strange familiarity to Miller’s music. In mood and feel, this, along with the consistent mining of the music of the past—whether in direct quotation, or in explorations of and allusions to post-serialist tonality and musical rhetoric—and the invariable adoption of slow, untroubled tempi, is a quality Miller shares with peers and contemporaries like Laurence Crane and much of the music released in the past few years on the Another Timbre label, which by now might seem to be crystallising into a kind of school or style. I have been struck and moved by much of this work over the years, though, as ever when a style becomes widespread, there is attendant risk: in this case, the critical, defamiliarizing edge that, in this case, prevents the music from settling into easy consolation. At their best, the initial power of such pieces was that it was not often clear exactly how to read them, even as they appeared almost absurdly transparent or opaque in their simplicity of means. This was certainly not ‘New Complexity’, but it was not New Romanticism or New Simplicity, exactly. But once this kind of affect becomes too familiar, there is the risk that the work loses its edge. It becomes, in a word, too readable.
To repeat, however, this is a risk rather than a given. Beauty, or its signifiers, can become a problem if that beauty hardens into the repetition of style—though, of course, beauty can’t exist without style. Miller’s music remains beautiful because it pays attention in such a materially precise way to the question of what beauty is and how we’re conditioned to view it, but also because of its intimacy. Perfect Offering is a piece ‘about’ various things, and readable in that sense: about depression and letting go, about separation and distance, about the passing of time, about imperfection and suffering and history and other age-old themes. But it’s never grandiose, and it poses these things as gestures rather than answers, its intimate distance offering each listener space to bring themselves to the piece in a spirit at once reflective and generous. I found it deeply moving.

Written almost twenty years ago, but still full of biting freshness, James Dillon’s piano quintet the soadie waste is named for a social club on the outskirts of his native Glasgow, built on the site of a chemical factory, whose fumes, it was rumoured, still leaked through the floors. Subtitled “wedding receptions, dances and house-housie” (bingo), the piece conjures up cubist visions of social activity, as tight, overlapping rhythms characterise the intense, memorable opening, a cubist invitation to the dance, giving way to more anxiously reflective music before the opening returns with a brilliant flourish. Dillon began in rhythm and blues bands, before a chance encounter with a Webern while he was living on a commune saw him change direction: since then he has, as he's remarked, sought a “balance between intellectual rigour and sensual speech”, attempting to “drag [the] language” of new music “into a space that I could recognise.” His music consciously speaks form the peripheries: away from central Europe, away from the West, finding value in other kinds of sociality, from social clubs to communes to the sound of New Music—itself an outlier within an often musically conservative classical establishment. The soadie waste doesn’t offer social realism, but it does convey a sense of underclass resilience: on the outskirts, outside the metropolitan centre, on Britain’s edges. Over the leaking fumes of an industrial past—a past of dispossession and imperial aggression that still constitutes the ostensibly post-imperialist and ostensibly ‘devolved’ United Kingdom as it exists today—it stages a defiant dancing on the flames, beautiful and strong.

The concert concluded with the world premiere of Suite, by Lawrence Dunn, the youngest of the composers on the bill. I first met Lawrence around a decade ago, at a free improv gig where someone had just demolished a chair: Lawrence looked up with wry and implacable calm as if this sort of thing happened every day. Like Miller’s, Dunn’s work is deeply attentive to musical history, and extremely thoughtful about things like melody and harmony. It’s also determinedly strange, defamiliarizing classical form through the use of quarter tones and apparently out-of-place, sampled recordings. Composed as a single movement, played without a break, Dunn’s Suite falls into discernible parts modelled on the movements that historically comprise a suite. It is, however, far from neo-classicist, staging a kind of enquiry into the form in which it’s written, from within that form.
Initially developing as a collection of Baroque dances, and later as a vehicle for Romantic tone painting, by the early twentieth century, the suite had become uncanny, self-consciously archaic, even arcane, its last gasps works like Ravel’s Le Tombeau De Couperin, a deeply melancholic, ironically classicized work written for friends killed in war, and Berg’s Lyric Suite, which channels cryptic romantic secrets in a febrile atmosphere of vexed love. Suites—at least, named as such—have effectively fallen out fashion since then. So why revive the form now? As the programme notes suggest, Dunn explores the suite as a form that developed in tandem with various stages of imperial history—the growth of European expansionism in the Baroque period, when the court opulence it signalled directly profited from the plunder of slavery and colonial extraction; later, the epochs of nationalism and dissolving empires and their crises. The musical impulse to compartmentalise, to categorise, divide, and collect, Dunn suggests, is a process with wider ramifications as regards imperialism’s practice of division and collection, its violent remapping of the world itself.
This is not so much an overt programme as a backdrop. Three field recordings play at various points in the piece (there were some technical mishaps with the playback in the concert, but they can be heard perfectly in the concert video uploaded to the Explore Ensemble’s YouTube page). The first of the recordings sounds out during the opening. As the ensemble offer knotty, staggered melodic lines and the piano plays a part labelled in the score as “like water”, the faint “sounds of a pier being demolished near the entrance to the Terminal Island Prison and Deportation Center, Los Angeles, US., 2012” add acousmatic background connected to a specific socio-political background which can’t be detected by ear but which by its very presence refutes politically quietist abstraction. Later on, an unaccompanied field recording of schoolchildren singing the national anthem of Suriname in Dutch hints at colonial legacies. Finally, a recording of a fly trapped in a bottle—again, largely submerged within the ensemble texture—gestures towards the trope of the memento mori, a warning of time’s passing, yet without fatalism, suggesting a struggle against the enclosing structures that trap individual perception, history as a nightmare from which we still are still barely awakening.

As the suite has developed—and disintegrated—historically—its functional relation to dance has become all the more distanced, as the dances it contained fell out of fashion and practical use. In the case of Ravel’s Tombeau, allusions to those dances, their rhythms and particular character, form part of a melancholic, arch and ghostly container: the form consciously denuded of its content, while wistfully harking back to those associations it cannot leave behind. In Dunn’s Suite, meanwhile, the kinds of fractured, rhythmically jagged renderings of dance unisons that animate, for example, Dillon’s Soadie Waste, receive a more subdued, uneasy rendering. The music is often characterised by a kind of agitated flow. Rippling might be a good word to describe the feel it often takes; at other points, a conflict between stasis and movement creates a kind of purposive irresolution with a particular, and very compelling tension to it. In the opening minutes, an elaborate, unceasing piano part which almost disappears behind the playing of the ensemble; pianist Siwan Rhys switches to keyboard for subsequent parts, her synth-like sounds at points merging into the thick ensemble texture, at others standing out like matter out of place. The work culminates in an astonishing piece of collective writing, in which a simple melody rises up the octaves, topped off by a screaming piccolo. A brilliant example of how to build and sustain a musical climax, it is, in context, quite unexpected, and all the more effective for it. But Dunn doesn’t let the piece end at its natural resting point. Instead, as Rhys switches back to piano, there’s the briefest of pauses—in which the fly buzzing in the bottle can be heard unadorned—before a kind of sardonic coda, one which refuses the gains of rhetorical accomplishment: not with a bang but a whimper, a muttered afterword to something that had seemed definitively concluded. It’s anything but affirmative, offering unease rather than resolve. Like all of the pieces on the programme, it reverberates as a series of questions as much as a series of reinforcements of answers or what we know already: and, of any of the pieces on the programme, it perhaps offers the most “edge” (a favoured term of Dunn’s).
Within British classical musical culture of late, there seems to be a growing musical conservatism: not so much on the part of performers, composers, or artists, but on that numinous network of programming, funding, and institutional survival within a period of crisis sparked, not only by the covid situation, but by the current government’s increasing hostility towards culture (perhaps the “culture wars” might be renamed by their true term, “class war”, despite the pseudo-populism indicated by appointing Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of the United Kingdom). Spoken or unpsoken apologias disavow all but the briefest of traces of the avant-garde within the world of the classical concert hall—a glance at this year’s Proms line-up, in comparison to the programmes of even, say, five years ago, serves as a good example. And so a concert like that of the Explore Ensemble is all the more welcome for bucking the trend. Thanks, in large part, to the Wigmore’s scheme of £5 tickets for under-35s, and to its programming choices—Elaine Mitchener and Jason Moran as resident artists, fairly frequent performances by groups like Apartment house—there’s a notable change to the usual audiences found in such a venue: often younger, sometimes—though by no means always—less overwhelmingly white and male. Not only this, but that audiences—for this concert, for the Roscoe Mitchell set in late June, for the concerts that Mitchener has been curating during and after lockdown—are engaged, and have come specifically to see this “difficult” music we’re otherwise implicitly told has no audience. On the night, applause for the pieces by Poppe, Miller, Dillon and Dunn was suitably and equally rapturous. Let’s hope we see more such programmes soon.

[Written July 2022]

Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Hip-Hop, Genre and History: Pink Siifu Live

Pink Siifu and Tha NEGRO Alive Experience
Southbank Centre, August 6th 2022

Part of the ongoing show In the Black Fantastic currently on display at the Hayward Gallery, just round the corner of the Southbank’s concrete maze, the setting for this summer gig was an unusual one: the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall had been transformed into a gig space, with a stage set up in a corner and people wandering round the edges into the zone where the music was happening. This perhaps affected the vibe of the show—people wander around, find it hard to focus, the open-plan setting risking relegating the stage itself to a kind of background item. But perhaps that’s also the point—the music as part of a social environment, albeit one bracketed by ticket prices and cultural expectations. Trying to channel the vibe of a party inside an art space makes for an odd feel: but increasingly, as hip-hop and R&B artists enter the artworld, these are the social dynamics that the music has to reckon with. “Make some noise if you’re working class”, Goya Gumbani shouts out at one point in his set. About ten people respond.

Opening act muva of Earth led a solid, jazz-tinged band in songs about nature, positivity, and self-acceptance, accompanying herself on a couple of numbers on rippling, Alice Coltrane-esque harp, alongside the band’s trumpet, acoustic bass, cello, keys, and a drum machine. The music knows its vibe and stays there: a kind of hinterland between jazz, particularly the gentler end of the Afrocentric music of the sixties and seventies, (neo-)soul and R&B: a soundscape shaped by the sounds of the past as connotating a certain mood, a feeling successfully transmitted. That channelling of the sounds of the past as vibe—encountered as much through samples as through—in Goya Gumbani’s set. Another jazz-tinged band—bass, guitar, keys, and again, a drum machine—launched in with one of the familiar Ahmad Jamal samples prevalent in ’90s hip-hop. In their use by the likes of Pete Rock, those samples suggested a kind of critical nostalgia—the music of a prior generation, now often associated with middle-class attainment, repurposed to soundtrack contemporary urban realities. I wonder what their replaying now signifies, and how the relation between these different layers and levels of musical history relates to the broader project of the Black Fantastic exhibition. What attitude toward history might be taken here? Perhaps, though, these questions are too much for any one show to handle. London-based but Brooklyn-raised, Gumbani’s delivery tends towards a gentle upward inflection at the ends of line, as if every line were at once question and statement; the music gently strolls along at a jazzy mid-tempo. Gumbani is an engaging stage presence: the vibes are invariably good, even if the set lasts perhaps a little too long.

The pairing of the opening acts with Pink Siifu is in some ways a strange one. Presumably, they were chosen because all reference jazz within a context also shaped or inflected by hip-hop. But Siifu, it seems, has an entirely different sense of what jazz is. He can do mellow—and on other projects proves well capable of delivering the sort of woozy, jazz-sampling, gently mumbled post-Cloud Rap soundscape recently popularized by the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Mavi, Mike, and producers like The Alchemist. But for this project, based on his incandescent 2020 album NEGRO, jazz, when it appears, is associated with a strain of politically-inflected Black experimentalism about as far from mellow as can be imagined. On the album—a sprawling of twenty tracks, doubled in number in a subsequent Deluxe edition—Siifu’s vocals—often distorted and buried in the mix—move through churning guitars, bursts of free jazz, everything from Amiri Baraka’s ‘Nation Time’ to the Black Panther Coloring Book, in response to the wave of police violence and the rebellion against it in the United States during the spring and summer of that year. NEGRO often challenges the distinction between music as energy, pleasure, and excitement, and music as reaction to trauma: notably on ‘ameriKKKA, try no pork’, where news reports on racist police killings build up into a chattering, feedbacked backdrop. Its opening words recounting a killing streamed live on Facebook, the track sparks reflection on the spectacular mediation of anti-black violence, the scopic fantasies delineated in David Marriott’s Haunted Life. Live, the news fragments form the introduction to an energetic number in which Pink Siifu encourages the audience to rock out, uneasily blurring the boundary between aesthetic pleasure and spectacle of blackness and class with which the history of hip-hop, and its representation in white-controlled media, has played such a pivotal role.

‘Tha NEGRO Alive Experience’ include a number of musicians who collaborated with Siifu on the album itself; this group previously toured Europe last year, but the music hasn’t grown old in that time. Chris Williams plays trumpet—often heavily processed—channelling the hard edge of seventies Miles Davis, where the trumpet seemed to swallow itself and be reborn as a kind of hybrid guitar/hornet/cornet. Many numbers are drenched in Grant Jefferson’s guitar feedback and Parker McAllister’s booming electric bass, while drummer Mekala Session. Siifu himself, wearing a vest and giant skiing goggles, moves round the stage, an electric presence even when he’s letting the band have their say. He functions as catalyst, bandleader, and lead singer, but he’s also part of a group: the energy is collective and shared. That energy draws much of its sound and fury from hardcore punk: ‘Run Pig Run’, played early on in the set, is a good example. Siifu encourages people to mosh at the end, and they do. But the music consistently refuses both genre and a stable pattern of mood or tempo. Following a high energy number, the band switch into a ballad on gentle guitar strums, but cut it off before people can settle in. A number from Siifu’s newest album, Gumbo—its title aptly suggesting his musical aesthetic—gets reconfigured from smooth and mellow to gnarly and edgy.

On both NEGRO and Gumbo, Siifu takes the feel of the contemporary, online playlist, whether curated or algorithmic—constant switches, a logic that’s sometimes rendered more subliminal than apparent—and takes it somewhere else. The music constantly chafes at the constraints of the well-crafted pop: the songs are too long or too short for smooth narrative trajectories, more like shards of avant-garde poetry than crafted short stories. Likewise, it has an ecstatically coruscating sense of the relation between genres, and of the signifiers—particularly racialised—that genres contain. In interviews, Siifu has invoked—among others—George Clinton, Sun Ra, Dungeon Family, and Bad Brains, to the latter of whom the guitar-based punk energy of this show is clearly akin.

This kind of thinking is not new. In the late sixties, Amiri Baraka’s essay ‘The Changing Same’ suggests a kind of united front of Black Music, from free jazz to R&B, putting this into practice on his album It’s Nation Time-African Visionary Music a few years later. Siifu’s invocation of Baraka’s ‘nation time’—here a kind of mellow, spaced-out reflection that sounds as if Siifu is either flying or floating from the heights or from subterranean depths—suggests an ongoing reckoning with musical strategy deeply imbricated in the ongoing history of anti-racist struggle in—and beyond—America.

Hip-hop is over four decades old. Siifu channels its original, hybridising spirit—not as a recognisable genre as such, but an assemblage of elements from seemingly incompatible sources, channelled through the verbal and moral authority of people who use their voice as instrument or the instrument as a voice, whether speaking, rapping, singing or screaming--all of which Siifu can and does do. Listening to and moving with Siifu’s relatively short set—perhaps thirty minutes in length—I also think of Miles Davis, whose music of the ’70s the seventies and its kinship with the hip-hop generation was so memorably chronicled in the writing of the late Greg Tate. At times, in spirit as much as in sound, the music also channels the various New York-based Downtown scene fusions of the early eighties, with its interface of jazz, punk and no wave, or the equivalent scene of British experimentalism, from The Pop Group to God, in which vocals are treated as a kind of structural or instrumental element, breaking down definitions of what we mean by ‘song’. Pink Siifu’s music is clearly what might be labelled ‘experimentalism’, even as the term ‘experiment’ is a misnomer: it draws on numerous predecessors, follows an exciting and still-relevant lineage. Is it an art music or a popular music, and is that an either/or question? The gig took place in a gallery. The music is available for free online: the record or cassette will set you back double figures. Whatever all this tells us about the future of hip-hop, its intersection with class, with social space, and with the available frames for art, Pink Siifu’s music is a real force, and this gig gave a good snapshot of its energies.

Friday, 5 August 2022

Time Jumping Over Itself: Roscoe Mitchell in London, June 2022

Wigmore Hall, 28th June 2022

Roscoe Mitchell: saxophones
Simon Sieger: trombone, tuba
Kikanju Baku: percussion
Dudu Kouate: percussion

No-one does abrasiveness quite like Roscoe Mitchell: his tone, on numerous saxophones, sharp and sour, each note sounded out into space like a rock dropped in water, his approach to form bordering on the ascetic, a calculated restraint, in which the space between the notes is, as the familiar adage goes, as important as what’s played around those spaces. For this concert at the Wigmore Hall, the 81-year-old Mitchell, on alto, bass, and curved soprano saxophones, along with a rogue piccolo, was joined by Marseilles-based Simon Sieger, on trombone and a giant borrowed orchestral tuba, and two percussionists, Kikanju Baku and Dudu Kouate. An unusual set-up which balanced the chamber music timbres of his composed, new music works with the structural openness of Mitchell’s improvised work, the range of registers allowed by the array of horns allowing an expansive play between high and low sounds, encouraged by the Wigmore’s excellent, chamber music acoustics.

Played over two long sets, this is music of intense focus. It begins with Sieger’s throat singing and Mitchell blowing some spare notes on curved soprano saxophone. “Time to move on, perhaps”, Mitchell suggests, and Sieger, picking up the trombone, sits there holding it in silence for some minutes. Much of the contribution the musicians make is about listening: we’re beyond the logic of the solo and the showcase, into the world of sound and silence. As the percussionists set up a transparent wall of sound, Mitchell leans forward into the bass sax—an instrument so big he has to play it sitting down—and blows a single note. He sits back and folds his arms, eyes closed, listening. A pause, and then another note. He sits back once more. The enigmatic space between enigmatic notes erases linearity while forcing us to listen for linearity all the more. The notes form a kind of dispersed melody, each one an entity, a world or even an entire piece in itself, yet also part of a structure that could, potentially, extend infinitely. This is Mitchell’s gnomic method in a nutshell: his tone sharply precise and yet woozily loose; the structure intensely focused and open to any direction, within a self-limiting set of confines.

By contrast, the two percussionists provide a veritable forest of sounds and textures. On one side of the stage, Kikanju Baku leans over a drum kit with expanded gongs, bells, and wooden and plastic cowbells; on the other, Dudu Kouate deploys a whole array of sound-making devices, from a giant gourd filled with water to cymbals and gongs, flutes, a thunder-maker, and bowed crotales. Sometimes sitting, sometimes standing, Kouate in particular draws the audience in like a magnet. At one point, he starts swinging a pink whirly-tube—more officially known as a corrugaphone—over his head, narrowly missing the Wigmore’s vase of plants and the top of Sieger’s tuba, and setting in motion the aethereal strains of the harmonic series. At another, he submerges flutes attached to plastic bottles in the water-filled gourd so that they’re played by the water itself. None of this, however, feels like showmanship: Kouate’s playing throughout is characterised by a profoundly melodic sense, whether varying the pitch on a drumhead to play counterpoint with Sieger’s horns, or in dialogue across the stage with his fellow percussionist.

During the second set, Mitchell finishes an alto excursion to be met by a single audience member’s vigorous applause: weathering the interruption, he follows up with a piccolo solo that touches on the repertory associations of the solo ‘classical’ flute repertory yet ends up—and starts from—somewhere entirely different. He puts it down, never to take it up again. The music is like that: discrete moments, self-contained, yet bleeding into each other with cumulative intensity. It’s not about narrative, momentum, or progress, though some of the most effective moments contrast Mitchell and Sieger’s slow, fractured melodic counterpart with regular percussion rhythms, paradiddles and polyrhythms, a kind of elongated procession, pausing for thought along the way. Time’s doesn’t so much stand still as jump over itself in somersaults.

In rehearsal, Sieger notes afterwards, the band spend hours playing scales, and Mitchell duly plays a major scale to close the first set. In the second, I swear I hear him perform a kind of cubist reconstruction of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. These moments—a kind of refractive woodshedding, at once private and instantly accessible—seem to lie behind Mitchell’s playing even at its most rhythmically-staggered and tart. Strangely familiar or familiarly strange, they echo the kinds of playing you do when you’re starting out, or the singing you might do to yourself at quiet moments—a point of access at a point of privacy, a threshold over which to enter the music. There’s humour here, and what I would go so far as to call love: a love that manifests in listening, in attentiveness, in a sharing no less meaningful for its sometimes thorny difficulty, and perhaps all the more so. And then, suddenly, Mitchell and Sieger launch into the Art Ensemble’s familiar theme tune, ‘Odwalla’, as he calls out the names of the band members. In the row in front of me sit a father and three teenage sons. Throughout, they’ve been totally with the music, even at its most abstract points. As they hear ‘Odwalla’, they nod their heads in knowing acknowledgment. Coming back to its roots for replenishment, this conclusion, as ever, is only temporary: renewal and resting point, only the latest stage in the ongoing journey.

Sunday, 17 July 2022

"Give what you can and take what you can’t"

Poets’ Hardship Fund Family Fun Day / Benefit Reading, 56a infoshop, July 16th 2022

Since January last year, the Poets’ Hardship Fund, run by Tom Crompton, Dom Hale, and Alex Marsh, has been a lifeline for poets and for poetry. In practical terms, it’s a lifeline for poets because it provides them a little extra money that can mean the difference between paying rent and not paying rent, buying food and not buying food. And it’s a lifeline for poetry in that allowing poets to exist and subsist, at least a month at a time, lessening the physical and mental fatigue that crush out words, that dense, barely breathable space from which poetry has to constantly fight its way out: impossible geometries, a Piranesi prison labyrinth or an Escher staircase turning in on itself. More than this, though, the PHF has been an example, springing from the mutual aid initiatives that emerged in response to the government’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic—the response is as much a symptom as the plague itself, as someone said at yesterday’s event. In focusing this specifically on poetry—with the proviso that the problem is a far wider one, and the capacity to link up to other such endeavours—it’s created a real and—to use that word again—practical ground in which that often-bandied word, ‘community’, might actually mean something.
For the last decade or so, my own experience of a particularly poetry community, scene, or whatever term you want to use, has been one of friendship, of a disparate and shared project of writing, but it’s also been one of fractures, disputes, controversies, oversights, often channelled through the academic or fringe academic frameworks—conferences, symposia, papers, special collections, email listservs—which still, to an extent, remain important sources and channels of activity, but in which internalised hierarchies and standards have too often seen an identification, conscious or not, with the institution that ill-prepared us to challenge those processes by which the institution, leaned on by the State, purges and prunes itself of any extraneous elements—us!—judged surplus to requirements. And this has, arguably, caused focus to be directed in the wrong places, perhaps, vision to become obscured. But by no means do I want to suggest that it has been the prime characteristic of these scenes. A spirit of huge generosity—which is by no means distinct from being opinionated, rebarbative, fully of passionately held positions—animates the small presses, magazines, readings and reading series that are the real centre of this marginalised work, and it’s from this spirit that the PHF emerges as a corrective or alternative, not just to the generalized spite of the kinds of life we’re told we should be living—or hardly living—blared out from a newspaper, billboard, or government message near you, but to the hierarchical blindness that can all too easily be internalised by those given a modicum of power—professorships, management and middle-management, what Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon once called being a “mini-boss”.
The PHF and its attendant magazine, Ludd Gang, along with the small press Gong Farm—both sets of publications printed, photocopied, and stapled at home—don’t so much provide an idealised community, but simply a practical one, and one practical in more ways that the endless debates about poetic strategy, whether poems might be slogans, which party poets should join, etc. The bottom line is that everyone is able to survive. Perhaps these questions didn’t have to be asked, or to be asked in the same fashion, a few years ago, though one can hardly say any of these experiences are new. As someone whose experience of higher education was shaped by the 2010 lifting of the fees cap, the protests against which happened a year after I finished my BA, and whose postgraduate education was in turn marked by the sinking horizon of job prospects beyond fixed-term, temporary, precarious positions, mine is a common experience in which I’ve been luckier than many. In their founding statement, the PHF write: “The Poets’ Hardship Fund UK provides a channel for getting some money to poets who require it, without the kind of means-testing processes attached to similar kinds of efforts.” The story keeps writing itself: austerity, the pandemic, and now the expanding effects that have emerged from and on the back of these and into a future of rising energy prices, rising prices in general. Euphemism dominates, as the terms shift, in a language of metaphor, the poetry of capital—“the financial crash”, as if the economy were a speeding car, “austerity”, with its moralistic tinge, “cost of living”, with its language of pure economics, a set of numbers removed from the lives it names but ignores, “hostile environment”, as if this racist, anti-migrant hostility were a product of the space itself, rather than a specific and targeted policy driven by the actions of a set of people, the ideology of a class. As for us, we weren’t even using the term “cost of living” back in 2020: the language was at once more apocalyptic and more practical—“social murder”, “mutual aid”—certainly not euphemistic.

As I say, this is both new and not new. Back in the day, there would be occasional benefit readings for individual poets. Yesterday, the PHF organised what was in essence a benefit reading for an entire community, launching their new anthology, Ill Pips—the title a pun on the
Personal Independence Payment (PIP) that replaces the old Disability Living Allowance benefit—and seeking to raise money to keep the fund going. When the PHF started a year and a half ago, donations flowed in relatively comfortably: since then, however, as the “new normal” reverted to the “old normal”, and the government support temporarily introduced during the pandemic was removed, more have started claiming and few have continued to donate. The PHF benefit took place, largely, in lieu of donations from those actually endowed with the capacity for comfortably survive—which is to say, the of salaried academics with permanent jobs has trailed off at just the point that the ‘cost of living’ bites. Instead, this was mutual aid: the community supporting itself, poets buying each other’s books from the table, giving donations—which, in a sense, is what already happens at a poetry reading with a booktable and in the self-sustaining world of the small press and the little magazine, but which here takes on a larger and more urgent form. What was billed as a “family fun day” took place at 56a infoshop, a small, volunteer-run anarchist bookshop founded as a squat in 1991, located a few street corners behind the labyrinthine ‘developments’ and destroyed market of Elephant and Castle. Inside, magazine holders and books from floor to ceiling, a collection of VHS tapes, posters and information, a small dog wandering in and out of the heat. Outside, the sun beating down in the middle of a heatwave apparently unprecedented in the UK, a self-assembled, malfunctioning barbeque—eventually replaced with disposable—a crate of beer, a table overspilling with books, in a concrete corner by the entrance to some flats. As much as a benefit or a reading, this was a social occasion, a summer party. To me, these occasions are still marked by that sense of realigning when events started to happen again late last year, persisting beyond the lifting of restrictions—the collective processing of a trauma, an interruption, a fragile holding together in which the joins still show. Perhaps this will wear off as more events continue to happen, perhaps it will always be there, something else to add to our losses. I don’t mean to make this sound like a huge gothic edifice, poet-wraiths congregating like a group of the undead Halloween costumed as so many Thomas Chattertons: it was a summer party, and it was fun.
Six of the eight advertised readers read: short sets, attentively heard. Perhaps inevitably, many of the poems were about those conditions that produced the necessity for a fund like this: the precarity of those within the university, the process of applying for work and state benefits. Nicky Melville’s poetry of the past decade or so has often charted processes like these through found texts—a project from a few years ago was based on tippex erasures of bank leaflets. The poems he read today used university brochures in which the words ‘university’, ‘student’, and so on, were altered to refers to ‘butchers’, ‘butchery’, descriptions of courses changed to descriptions of preparing meat. The poems operate on a knowing based on humour: the identification of a shared experience of alienation turned into a collective laughter that takes the deadening repetition of bureaucratese on its own terms and twists it against itself. Perhaps the most effective poem he read, though, was the short, single sentence with which he began: “Life is cheap. Living is dear”. The language of truisms by which economic valuation serves as the basis of life opens up just a fraction to enable some other term of, or beyond value, life beyond measure. Fred Carter’s poems manifested a kind of nervy, earnest argumentative lyric energy. The poems repeatedly speak from an individual experience to a collective wish, their insistent use of “we” and “us” seeking to create a community while also speaking from it. Laurel Uziell read from a new sequence about the experience of defeat, and a personal experience of police violence, first as a kind of crushing helplessness, the second, at a demo where the police where chased away. Laurel’s work, too has an argumentative quality, but one based more than Fred’s in a dialectical irony, a caustic-sincere holding up for inspection of socialized positions and perspectives that unfolds as a movement in and against the breaks and flows of poetic language. The poetry is consistently reflecting not so much on itself, as on the contradictions of activism, social life, the interpellations and mis-interpellations of identities individual and collective alike. Poetry is the vehicle to do this not because it offers direct, unmediated experience, but because it draws attention to meditation and seeks to work dialectically within it.
If Fred’s work largely addressed conditions in the academy and Laurel’s those of activism, Tim Wolff’s poems spoke more directly of life at the receiving end of the State’s slow violence, as expressed in the benefits system. As a volunteer from the shop—whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch—remarked in an impromptu speech that followed Wolff’s reading, the dole queue as a physical entity has now been replaced by an automated system, a website, an app. You’re not standing in a line; you’re on your computer, on your phone, on someone else’s computer or phone, as the site crashes or the phone-line stays on hold for hours at a time, replaying an automated message like a kind of anti-lullaby. The capacity for collective resistance enabled by presence within physical space—when you see someone on the line being mistreated and step in; when you collectively grumble and gossip about the conditions you’re put through—is replaced by forced separation, individualised anxiety, total atomisation. Digital bureaucracy and data gathering are the fronts, at once new and old, of a process of slow social murder. In Wolff’s work, the frustrations and despair generated by such systems translate into physical positions, each line a miniature drama of movement and statis—a line about ‘spinning on the sofa’ comes to mind—as the body exists in relation to. The poems didn’t offer the narrative by which such experiences are often described: instead, they at once resisted and sought for narrative, a through-line, a way out. But this was a language, too, of defiance and anger, of barbed satire. Verbal inventiveness—metaphor, simile, modes of often grotesque comparison—throw back the blankness of bureaucratese and name the conditions for what they are. If socialist realism could be reclaimed, it might describe something like this.
Sometimes, it can seem that every good thing is the product of something bad. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” becomes the new Victorian parlour stitch. The sun which this BBQ party temperatures the result of climate change, as the ironically-named ‘leadership’ context, in which a parade of Tory gorgons line up to compete for callous, murderous intent in the right-wing gameshow that is the British media, sees candidates threaten to abandon the net zero pledge: even greenwashing won’t do. One of the things, it seems to me, that the poetry emerging from our current conjuncture tends to do is to twist figures, metaphors, circumstances in on themselves, at once trying to cut through and further tie itself in knots. The poems—and the figure of the poet within them—act like the contortionists that, faced with the brutality of the state apparatus and its privatized allies, we’re forced to be everyday. The space of the poem is that of a labyrinth, a maze, a black hole, entropy and energy the constant balancing points by which the poem steers around and away from their central voids. That might suggest that the poems are always on the back foot. That would be true. At the moment, what other foot could we be on?
But poetry does not, cannot just offer reactive affective mimesis. A report on reality is written in the hopes of transforming it. Dialectic might be one word for the kind of work such poetry does. Another might be transmutation. Sean Bonney’s work was always exemplary for this: when, in the second set of readings, Sophie Carapetian read out one of Sean’s poems after Katerina Gogou, rendering—at least in this reading—loneliness a means of coming together. ‘and loneliness is power is sharpened and bloodstained is swirling is swirling’. This process of conversion—loneliness as power, atomised suffering turned into a virtual collective of the excluded, including ghosts, the dead, those minimum-waged or unwaged, done daily violence to—happens in the poem first, but we have to believe that it can happen outside the poem for the poem to mean anything. Or is it the other way round? It’s again a question of scale. Sophie’s other text, a sprawling essay, began with a conceit about eyes becoming fists, turned into an analysis of mark making and the line as systems of domination—in the case of official language, official speech, the shibboleths which enables people to speak— or-in the case of much contemporary art—of participation in such processes. It ended as a demand for an intergalactic communism and a reclamation of the idea of propaganda as a necessary force. After all, why not make the most extreme demand? Why not reclaim discarded, discredited words? What is there to lose?
One of Laurel’s poems contained a sardonic line about ‘form’ and ‘content’—the question debated endlessly in poetic histories and seminars rejected and taken up in new terms. In their speech, the 56a volunteer suggested a way this could be understood as a more general model, drawing links here between what makes a poem live and what makes solidarity real. Poets are not concerned with whether or not what they write is a poem: instead, it becomes a poem in the encounter between poet and text, between text and reader, an exchange, a sharing. Poiesis: “the activity in which a person brings into being something that did not exist before”. Likewise, solidarity is an action, a cutting across barriers: those suicided in prison, those on hunger strike, across the states of Britain and Fortress Europe and beyond, are not thought experiments, but real people for whom real action must be taken. The speech expressed frustration with the idea of creating ‘space’, of creating ‘community’. Sure, we need to do those things. But what about flipping the terms, and instead seeking to create ‘density’—a thickness, a concatenation of actions, of people, of poems? Such density must of necessity reach beyond poetry, poems and poets. As the PHF founding statement has it: “The problems we’re seeking to address extending far beyond any discernible ‘poetry community’—we see this fund as, at least, ‘a start’. The premise is simple: give when you can and take when you can’t.” In a variation on ‘from each according to his ability...’ giving and taking balance each other out: equilibrium is dynamic, against the entropic process by which the means and the will to live are steadily drained out, “like the use medieval use of leeches as a cure for leukaemia”, as someone remarked. Again, this doesn’t just happen in poems themselves—as condensed concentrations and containers of social energy—but in the social life around them, into and out of which the poem releases that energy.
Over the course of the afternoon, in the concrete courtyard outside the 56a infoshop, an audience of around fifty people, coming and going, arriving and leaving, made up of poets, but not just of poets, raised £700 to keep the fund going. £700 might not sound like all that much money, but it will be a lifeline for many. The Official Poets whose names you might see in prize lists and newspapers offer a specialism in ideologically vague poeticising—poiesis redefined as “activity in which a person fails to brings into being anything that did not exist before”. These poets won’t donate, won’t care, won’t be aware. The world that flares into existence at events like the benefit outside the infoshop is not their world. This is a world created by poets for themselves and for those who tread into its orbit; not a clique, not an elite, not a coterie, but a collective in its truest, and thus in its most fragile and most provisional sense. Reading last, Luke Roberts said something along the lines of—to paraphrase: “I’ve been doing this for a while, and over this time, many people have told me what poetry is or isn’t or should be. But if there’s any definition of poetry, what it can be and what it can do, perhaps about it’s this.” This gathering, this spirit, a mutual aid organised around words, a community that’s come together around poetry, poems, and poets, but that, in doing so, seeks to extend itself beyond the fractures that keep people apart, to overlap, to survive.

Later that evening, I went to see Eddie Prévost perform the second in a series of eightieth birthday concerts he’s giving every Saturday this month. Prévost grew up in a bomb-blasted Bermondsey. In the film Eddie Prévost’s Blood, he remembers going to a school with his single parent mother who said “you won’t get in here because you don’t have a dad with a top hat”. Prévost had never heard of John Cage when he began making music with AMM in the mid-sixties: instead, he was looking for sounds he hadn’t heard before, channelling his social experience, his sense of a world within and beyond that experience. In the years since, he’s devoted his life to an art form—that of freely improvised music—that, like experimental or avant-garde poetry or whatever it is we call whatever we’re doing, receives almost no funding, no recognition, and whose social value is dismissed out of hand. But as Prévost said from the stage, the practice of free improvisation is not about knowing per se, but about knowing by doing, knowing through practice. The senses are theoreticians, we know what’s to be done, though that knowledge isn’t easy, though it’s imperfect or awkward or broken or fractured. There’s a beauty in process, in the operations of the dialectical, though there’s a danger, too, in valorising process over endpoint. If all we have is process and all they have is an endgame—including control over the means of production of death, that ultimate endgame—then we’re fucked. Well OK, we’re fucked. The process is constant. We keep having to begin again, to build it up from a diminishing set of resources. Well OK. We keep going. It’s a start.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Some Other Stuff: Grachan Moncur, III (1937-2022)

Image above: Grachan Moncur at New York's Vision Festival

Trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur, III, has passed away, the latest loss from the New Thing generation who came of age in the sixties, whose music opens up a world, worlds yet to be attained, makes them open and transparent, brilliant and glittering. Moncur’s work exemplifies the compositional—or, to put it more specifically, the structural: it’s ‘free’, in that it dispenses with, or at least treats as optional the logic of chord changes, but it’s not ‘energy music’; it’s focused on writing, on a composition as an atmosphere to be inhabited, rather than mere structure for blowing, but it’s infinitely more flexible than the stiffness of self-conscious ‘Third Stream’ experiments with the compositional. Brooding and filled with space, constructed on suspended drones or simple vamps, Moncur’s pieces are far from the stereotype of free jazz as energy, ecstasy, and volume. This is a music constructed around space, around absence, in which the careful, and often calculatedly askew placement of notes replaced a logic of momentum and virtuosity of bop, the functional drive of soul jazz, or the decorative restraint of Third Stream and cool jazz. Like the playing of Alan Shorter, of Andrew Hill, or of Mal Waldron—their interrupted vamps and riffs, their calculated mistakes and inscrutable equations—like the spaces between Thelonious Monk’s notes or the dissonant bur of his striking adjacent keys on the piano, Moncur’s music above all contains a core that refuses to reveal itself, an absent centre or central absence, a form of inner or hidden knowledge that initiates an inoculates and protects, that enables survival. Listening to Moncur, the ‘inside-outside’ binary has to be reconfigured: this is music that at one moves ‘out’, in terms of harmonic possibility and liberation from fixed changes—while by no means rejecting them per se—and moves ‘inward’, in the sense of a contemplative inwardness. Moncur, as William Parker would later say, looks for the centre of each note, looks for the silence around it, too: plays only what’s necessary, no filigree, no decoration. Destination...Out! proclaimed the title to a Jackie McLean album for which Moncur’s contributions were pivotal. But outness—McLean’s destination, Sun Ra’s outer space, Dolphy’s Out to Lunch—had its corollary in Moncur’s work in inner space—Inner Cry Blues, as the title to a later album had it. 

Moncur came from the same thriving music scene in Newark, New Jersey, that produced the Shorter brothers, organist Larry Young, trumpeter Woody Shaw. He grew up in a musical family, of Caribbean heritage: his father, Grachan Moncur, II, played bass with swing ensemble The Savoy Sultans at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom; his mother’s best friend was Sarah Vaughan. Low sounds drew his ear: he began on cello, then switched to trombone. He began playing as a teenager, studied at a private musical school, and moved onto Juilliard before having to drop out due to high tuition fees, subsequently touring as Ray Charles’ music director for three years. Energetic hard bop groups were in vogue thanks to Art Blakey: fellow Newarker Wayne Shorter would join Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and push Blakey further out as he took his first steps towards participating in the reinvention of the music. Moving, like Blakey, Larry Young and other fellow Newarkers, to New York, Moncur’s first post-Ray Charles gig saw him part of a Blakey-like sextet, the Jazztet, co-led by Art Farmer and Benny Golson, Moncur contributing compositions including his trademark ‘Sonny’s Back’, a celebration of Sonny Rollins’ return to playing after his infamous retirement. Within the Jazztet, their music a balance between the sound and fury of Blakey and the more measured, distanced sounds of cool jazz, Moncur can be heard finding his voice: the trombone precise and limber, in the manner of J.J. Johnson, but with a pensive openness to it even at higher tempi.


The Jazztet had offered efficient, pleasing post-bop—a kind of synthesis of existing trends which offered structure and balance. The real breakthrough, however, came when he joined forces with altoist Jackie McLean with whom he’d played as a teenager sitting in with touring groups in Newark. McLean, of an earlier generation, was coming out of bebop into freer-influenced playing and Moncur was there with him. In 1963, they recorded three albums together: One Step Beyond and Destination...Out appeared under McLean’s name, Evolution under Moncur’s own. To this day there is nothing quite like these albums. As well as its more profitable line in soul jazz and boogaloo stylings, Blue Note Records had become the home for what would be known as ‘free-bop’ or ‘inside-outside’ playing: Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, Andrew Hill’s Black Fire and Point of Departure, the first records of the teenage Tony Williams, the mid-sixties work of Larry Young. This music took an emotional quality found both in cool jazz and hard bop—the melancholic, even mordant sounds of a McLean or a Mal Waldron, in which melodrama and emotional insularity are each other’s mirror reflections, the astringent manoeuvres of a Sonny Rollins—added the spaciousness of Thelonious Monk, and went somewhere else again. But it wasn’t so much a synthesis of trends as an opened fissure in a world of certainty, genre, categorisation—a world suggested even by the coordinates of names and references I’ve just outlined. It’s a music that lends itself to adjectives: brooding, melancholic, mysterious, even minimalist. Such work didn’t oppose bop, didn’t oppose cool jazz, though it went beyond the limitations into which both sets of stylings had arguably by this period moved; likewise, it supplemented and contrasted the more ecstatic stylings of the post-Ayler continuum as a necessary undercurrent, sidestepping down an alternative path, though deriving from the same source. 

At the turn of the decade, Ornette Coleman had removed the piano, opening up the harmonic possibilities beyond the changes; McLean and Moncur replaced piano with vibraphone, its combination of shimmering sustain and percussive attack, in the hands of Bobby Hutcherson, offering another set of possibilities: a cushioning and probing at once rhythmic as harmonic or melodic, and a timbre at once crisper and more ambiguously floating than that of the piano. One Step Beyond—for which I named a student radio show a decade or so ago—has two compositions apiece by McLean and Moncur. McLean’s ‘Saturday and Sunday’ and ‘Blue Rondo’ suggest one vibe—exploratory, cool, open—Moncur’s ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Ghost Town’ another: the clipped medium temp of ‘Frankenstein’, a kind of swinging march or lope towards the unknown, ‘Ghost Town’ radically slowed, inward, lugubrious, sinister. A simple descending scale, blown in Moncur’s attack-free legato over Hutcherson’s vibratoed vibraphone descends to a bass burr or leaps up an octave in a kind of contained panic. Eddie Khan’s bass carries the rhythmic weight, Tony Williams’ drums are barely there: before the tempo shift for McLean’s oddly jaunty solo, he offers little more than single cymbal strokes, a playing conspicuous by the absences its leaves as the presence it fills. On Destination....Out, recorded at the year’s end, all but one of the tracks—Mclean’s dedication to Kahlil Gibran, ‘Kahlil the Prophet’—are by Moncur: ‘Love and Hate’ opens the album, followed by ‘Esoteric’, and closing off with ‘Riff Raff’, a piece he’d play onstage in the production of James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie. ‘Love and Hate’ remains to this listener perhaps the group’s greatest ever recording, a lengthy melody played with exquisite slowness over a simple chordal figure in vibraphone, the spacious setting allowing the contrast in styles between the two horns to reveal itself to the full. Moncur plays the melody first, from the core of its inward focus, before McLean’s alto produces a sour blaze of light: inside-outside, shadow-light, chiaroscuro. ‘Esoteric’ is more self-consciously maze-like, something from The Twilight Zone, ‘Riff Raff’ jaunty, defiant, swinging, its march-style dynamics suggesting the lope of ‘Frankenstein’ or Andrew Hill’s ‘Les Noirs Marchant’. The following year, the piece would make its way to the stage as part of Moncur’s contribution to James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, on which more presently.


Evolution was Moncur’s first record under his own name, adding Lee Morgan to the basic quintet format. It’s an album of two halves: misterioso tone pictures, in the first half, a move somewhat closer to post-bop in the second. The opener, ‘Air Raid’ is not exactly programmatic, despite its title: the vibraphone trills with which it opens suggesting a generalized figure of suspension, waiting, pause, over which Moncur blows inscrutable truths in light-dark, dialectical relation to the B-section’s double-time swing. ‘Evolution’—its title suggesting Mingus’ tone poem ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’, on which McLean had participated the previous decade—opens with droning, gently dissonant held notes punctuated by more suppressed martial rolls on the snare; the sound of the three horns getting inside the sound, interrogating what ensemble sounds like. McLean comes in over the top, somewhere between preaching and questioning; by the time Moncur’s solo comes round a few minutes later, it’s unclear if what’s offered is consolation, desolation, or some other affect entirely. The other pole comes on the closing track, the joyously sideways march of ‘Monk in Wonderland’: through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole, bop surrealism as cohesion, moving ahead, together. The feel of Moncur’s music at this time is suggested by the titles to his piece—‘The Intellect’, Gnostic’, ‘Nomadic’, ‘Esoteric’: an intellectual otherness, a pursuit of knowledge by other means, in other directions, Some Other Stuff. This is a music that moves between places without fixed abode, the mind wandering, errant and introspective, moving in to go out. Monk had opened up the spaces in the music with his sparsely placed notes and pungent dissonances; players like Moncur followed further down that route; tempos were often slow, notes placed into the space like stones in a rock garden, in expansively condensed dramas of scale and shade whose contours were, deliberately, closed to the fetishized world of performance and display. This music refused to let out all its secrets; this was the ‘cool’ that had given the name to ‘cool jazz’ but unlike the stereotyped image of tragic glamour associated with the likes of white musicians such as Chet Baker, this was about a kind of strength rather than a performed weakness, a quiet resolve and inward satisfaction; the inwardness, as Moncur suggests in the liner notes to Some Other Stuff, necessary to survive in the city, on the move; but also a space of discovery, of an alternative—perhaps even utopian—to society as it was and is currently constituted. In this time of struggle, musical and political ,people would need all their inner resources as well as their external ones in order to survive. But, despite its introspection, it was also a music about communication. Moncur perhaps worked best with a more exuberant musicians to play off: the telepathic interplay and contrast between Moncur and the sweet-sharp alto of Jackie McLean; or, later, his contrast to Roswell Rudd in Archie Shepp’s band. Moncur’s music of this period was so effective because the musicians he played with were equally interested in opening up the idea of how a jazz group worked, of the lines between ‘frontline’ and ‘rhythm section’, of how you built space, constructed narrative, moved from straight line to ellipsis. 

In April 1964, Moncur III took an acting job in the Broadway production of James Baldwin’s provocative and today neglected play Blues for Mister Charlie. The acting gig in the three-hour production meant that he could use the time between his appearances to go backstage and rehearse the pieces he’d written for an upcoming studio session for Blue Note, the results of which would be released the following year as the album Some Other Stuff. Moncur also played an important role in the play, serving as understudy for minor parts, and playing a townsperson who delivered a solo performance on trombone. An interview feature in Down Beat early the following year fills in the details: 
“When I got the call to audition,” he said, “my emotions were mixed—a jazz musician, being confronted with a situation on the Broadway stage. I assumed that I’d have to play something ‘stiff’ for the audition, but to my amazement, they wanted to hear my own music. I played for [director] Burgess Meredith, and he was quite receptive. First I played Frankenstein and laid back a little...He liked it but asked to hear more. When I played Riff Raff, I really opened up, and he was gassed...I had expected a stiff, professional job—nothing more. As it turned out, my judgment couldn’t have been more in error [...] The show really involved me and became my most serious obligation” [...] 

Underlying almost all Moncur’s reflections one notices an almost compulsive need to come to grips with the everyday world. For this the tragic insight of Baldwin's play served as fertile ground. The challenge to create music about a deranged social action became more than a mere mechanical exercise; it had a therapeutic effect. 

Blues for Mr. Charlie was a demanding job because I was playing alone,” Moncur said. “If I goofed, there was no rhythm section to pick me up. I had to blend with the mood and pitch of the actors—every nuance—every inflection. 

When the theatre was empty, I would go there and practice. I’d try to project my tone to every point in the house—inch by inch. The acoustics were my only support, and I had to know every phase of the reverberation... The mood of the stage was always changing, and if I wasn’t absolutely flexible, the whole performance could be ruined. If you don’t think that’s a responsibility, try it.” 

[‘Flexible Grachan Moncur’, Down Beat, Jan 28, 1965: 15] 
This aloneness suggests something of Moncur’s music: music as reflective supplement to the social action dramatized on the stage in the next-door theatre, honed and sharpened within the sound-proof space of the rehearsal room, constructing spaces for and around itself. The play itself opens with the sound of mourning from the church, Baldwin writing, in his words, to the accompaniment of “my black ancestors, who evolved the sorrow songs, the blues and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place”. Songs from Moncur’s former employer Ray Charles and Rufus Thomas played from a jukebox, along with Folkways recordings of work songs; Moncur played onstage as a kind of choric figure, his music swelling underneath the memories of the central, martyred Richard, and his love for the music he plays. The music speaks for what cannot be spoken, the trauma of memory and the possibility of future action. Black music here is memory and defiance; communal repository, the “mighty witness” that enabled Baldwin to find a new language befitting he demands of his first play. 

No recordings exist of the 1964 staging, though a playbill notes that he played the pieces ‘Riff Raff’ and the otherwise unrecorded ‘Carissima’. We can, however, hear the record date for which he rehearsed. Though often neglected in comparison to the McLean collaborations, Some Other Stuff may turn out to be Moncur’s greatest work. As Moncur later told Adam Shatz
“That whole record was inspired by the hard times I was having in New York. I’d just fallen out with the first young lady I’d met in New York, and I’d moved out of my apartment in the Diplomat Hotel opposite Town Hall, which was the biggest mistake I ever made since I had a room there with a private bath and telephone for only $27 a week [...] I was a nomad after losing my room, and I was a gnostic because I had to survive in the streets by my own wits.’” 
The Down Beat profile commented on Moncur’s combination of “free acoustical structure”, with “specific harmonic design” as “an intimate extension into a new language”, and Some Other Stuff marked another step beyond even the music of the previous year. Blues for Mister Charlie marked a new departure for Baldwin—a turn to the public environment of the stage, influenced by his personal grief and fury at the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and by changing political currents. So, too, Moncur would soon participate in a wave of New Music that drew on but extended the music of bebop, often in avowed connection to political militancy. As well as that intellectual otherness I’ve named above, the names of Moncur’s pieces—‘Frankenstein’, ‘Riff Raf,’ ‘Space Spy, ‘New Africa’—suggest the confluence of a working-class identity and a conscious ‘weirdness’ or ‘outness’, or sense of dread, that Amiri Baraka noted as a key propensity in be-bop, and that also characterises the work of fellow Newark Alan Shorter, of Sun Ra, Earl Freeman, and many others. The pieces recorded on Some Other Stuff—‘Nomadic’, named for Moncur’s shifting housing situation, and ‘Gnostic’, the secret knowledge required to survive on the street—suggest at once a personal, introspective language and a common, classed experience. The ensemble might seem more conventional than that on the McLean records, with Hutcherson replaced by Herbie Hancock, but the album in fact radically extends their sense of space, in large part due to the astonishing flexibility of Tony Williams—then in his avant-garde phase, thanks to early work in Boston with Sam Rivers—and the openness of Hancock and Wayne Shorter, whose proclivity for free playing has gone too little remarked in surveys of his career. ‘Gnostic’, as Don Heckman’s liners note, “eliminated a pulsating meter”, Moncur’s questioning melodic fragments answered by doomy unison figures with Shorter’s tenor doubled by Hancock’s left hand as his right maintains a constant tolling, in a kind of desolate version of call and response. It’s an astonishing piece: a music that could go anywhere, in which contemplation also means expansion, a world in a grain of sand. ‘Thandiwa’ gestures toward new-found Afrocentricity, taking its name from Bantu language: Moncur’s jaunty, walking-marching pieces are given a sharp, joyful twist, ironized yet at peace. The solos invariably play with that melodic earworm; Shorter’s sharp keens and caresses, Moncur’s melodic musings, Hancock’s swirling triplets and single line, notes opening out like strings of pearls, Cecil McBee elegant and to the point. Opening the second side, ‘The Twins’ plays off a single chord: like Shorter’s later ‘Schizophrenia’, it plays with mirroring, doubleness, dialectic perhaps. Along with ‘Nomadic’—which predates Miles Davis’ ‘Nefertiti’ in serving as a feature for Williams’ drums—the focus here is on rhythm: not the propulsive, Afro-Cuban inflections of a Blakey or a Roach, but a kind of thinned-out, clipped maintenance of a constant tension. Hancock’s chords on ‘The Twins’ suggest the harmonic vocabulary of his own neglected Inventions and Dimensions; McBee, who at periods plays repeated notes in a high register, extends his bass like a high- or a live-wire. Rather than resolution, the point is a constant opening: to inhabit the space of the in-between, up and down, side to side, to sustain a dissonance and see where it goes, remain in the looping ambit of a rhythm; single lines, single notes, a sparse dialogue, an enigmatic conversation of elliptical exchange and give and take. 


Moncur was not overtly political as some of his peers, but had at least some involvement in the emergent Black Arts Movement activities of fellow Newarker Amiri Baraka. In March 1965, he led a group at New York’s The Village Gate, as part of a benefit concert for the newly-founded Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School (BART/S): also on the bill were Sun Ra, Betty Carter, the groups of John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Charles Tolliver. One track per group was included on the original Impulse! Records release entitled The New Wave in Jazz, Moncur’s entitled ‘Blue Free’; a second, much-longer piece, ‘The Intellect’, was first released on the Impulse double LP The New Breed: The Dedication Series Vol. VIII: Cecil Taylor/Charles Tolliver/Grachan Moncur/Archie Shepp (1978). To my knowledge, no other recordings of this group exist: the combined tracks, recorded in impeccable sound, represent almost a lost album. In some ways, we might see it as representing the ultimate stage of the ‘introverted’ tendency in Moncur’s playing represented, say, by the piece ‘Gnostic’ on Some Other Stuff: a hidden knowledge found deep inside the self through a press of isolation and contemplation, a defensive retreat into the self that is also a social affirmation of what it takes to survive in tight spaces and what expansive resources can be found there. Moncur’s music is the still centre of the swirl of sound around it: Ra’s Arkestra, entering its most experimental phase; Coltrane and the New Thing saxophonists; the life-force of Betty Carter’s post-bop vocal extensions. ‘The Intellect’ lasts over twenty minutes, and throughout is extremely slow, grave, engraved: a pause, an interlude, a call to arms, to peace, or to the abyss. With Cecil McBee spending much of the piece ruminative arco lines, Joe Chambers’ drums are often barely there, a perpetual flutter on cymbals with brushes like a kind of tremulous breathing. Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes offer a crisp counter-commentary, acidic and icy or shimmeringly lyrical, lights emerging from the haze; and Moncur solos with a sense of space rarely heard until the “silences big as a table” of the AACM, each note—often the same note repeated—considered from every angle, every possibility, before being sounded out again; like Coltrane’s polyvalent ‘sheets of sound’ but with the additional notes shorn away.The combination of a kind of static or stasis, of inscrutable gloom or wisdom, of brooding introspection—not the romantic openness or blueness of the traditional ballad, but something deeper, darker, existentially freighted and inscrutable, as if conveying or searching for some hidden meaning lost as soon as it’s uttered--as when the audience begin applauding too early, at least a minute before Moncur’s restatement of the main theme takes things out with the beautiful, solemn, terrible pace of a glacier; the soloist playing as if speaking alone, yet always in conversational tandem with the other musicians—it refuses to be anything other than it is. 


“These musicians change what is given and hopefully understood. What the normal feeling of adventure is [...] show you the music is changing before yr very ears,” wrote Amiri Baraka in the liner notes. Steve Young, music co-ordinator at BARTS, was more dramatic. For Young, the music conjured up: 
“the lands of Dada-Surreal a la Harlem, South Philly and dark Georgia nights after sundown, night-time Mau Mau attacks, shadowy figures out of flying saucers and music of the spheres [...] This music, even though it speaks of horrible and frightening things, speaks at the same time so perfectly about the heart and to the heart. This music, at the same time it contains pain and anger and hope, contains a vision of a better world yet beyond the present and is some of the most beautiful ever to come out of men’s soul or out of that form of expression called Jazz.” 
Following the Village Gate Benefit, Baraka remembered Moncur as one of the musicians, alongside Coltrane, Ayler, Ra, and McLean, who participated in the outdoor music programme the Black  Arts Repertory Theatre/School ran in Harlem that summer, in which the musicians would “play in playgrounds, housing projects, parks, vacant lots, along with four other trucks we sent out Summer of 65, carrying Poetry, Drama, Graphic Arts, Dance into the Harlem Community”. Moncur himself was not politically outspoken, but his next major collaborator was amongst the most politically outspoken of all the New Thing musicians: Archie Shepp. From around 1966 onwards, Moncur formed Archie Shepp’s phenomenal two-trombone band alongside Roswell Rudd: Rudd extroverted, satirical, Moncur a brooding heart at the centre of the storm. The albums from this period, with studio ensembles of various sizes, are unparalleled—Mama Too Tight, The Way Ahead—but it’s the live album from a European tour with a disgruntled Miles Davis, later released as One for the Trane: Life [sic] at The Donauschingen Music Festival where the music really takes off. (Radio broadcast recordings also exist of a gig in Rotterdam the same month, October, 1967, and a December gig in France, released as Freedom on a 1991 bootleg). While Shepp’s early work with Bill Dixon and the New York Contemporary Five emphasized sparse, Ornette Coleman-style heads and improvisations, exacerbated by the absence of chordal instrument, and his work with Bobby Hutcherson on New Thing at Newport and On This Night imparted a kind of sardonic cool to his flurries, his new music, likely under the influence of Roswell Rudd, now turned towards timbres more reminiscent of pre-swing jazz than of bop. The band’s key feature was its unusual two-trombone timbre—Rudd’s raucous upper-register blares contrasting with Moncur’s propensity for dark-toned, melancholic and menacing shades—and for its suite-like form, as Sousa marches, blues and standards emerged and disappeared from extended improvisations in long pieces that flowed without a break. Shepp later recalled the kinds of reception the band encountered. 
"We performed [...] one time in Paris at a big hall called the Salle Pleyel, where we followed Miles Davis. Now, Miles had gotten a standing ovation. This was in 1967, [soon] before the student rebellion in Paris. And so we came on, and we were shocking to look at: Roswell was wearing a baseball cap; I was wearing a dashiki. And there was this explosion of sound, cacophonous, and we only played one song, one long piece for about an hour and a half. [...] 

When we finished, contrary to Miles, there was an outcry of boos – oh, it was terrible. But up in the balcony — where all the young people were seated, in the cheap seats — everyone was cheering. So there was a standoff for about ten minutes between the boos and the cheers. And finally I was asked to do an encore; it was amazing. And the following year they had that student rebellion, so I guess it was an indication of things to come." 

Moncur in rehearsal with Archie Shepp, 1966. Photograph by Guy Kopelowicz.

In the summer of 1969, Moncur accompanied Shepp to the more conducive environment of the Pan African Festival in Algiers. Anticipating the trip, Moncur had written a piece entitled ‘New Africa’, which Shepp had recorded for an expanded group that February. Though the recordings would not be issued for another five years—eventually appearing on the unjustly-neglected Kwanza—they’re among Shepp’s finest, Moncur’s enormous spaces turned to the expanded future so many saw unfolding on the African continent, calling across to those other cities of Algiers from the inner cry of New York’s inner city with clarion certainty and turbulent purpose. In Algiers, Moncur played with Touareg musicians, on the streets and on a boxing ring converted into a stage: though he can often barely be heard on the lo-fi recordings of Live at the PanAfrican Festival, the experience was crucial to all involved. Interviewed by Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, Shepp affirms jazz as a weapon in the popular struggle. For Moncur, though, music is just music. “Music and politics are two very different things. Music is spiritual, politics is, if you like, material. There may be some rapport between them, but they are two distinct things”. (My translation) Afrocentricity and a wide-open experimentation both the atmosphere of Algiers and of post-May ’68 Paris nonetheless suffuses the recordings the members of Shepp’s group would make for BYG Records on departing Algiers. Recording everyone and everything, while hardly paying anyone, the BYG sessions are an invaluable document, despite the business practices of the label’s owners. Moncur appears amidst the dense ensemble textures of Alan Silva’s Luna Surface and Dave Burrell’s Echo, two of the loudest free jazz recordings ever made; by contrast, his featured role on Burrell’s La Vie de Boheme, an instrumental adaptation of Puccini’s opera, sees his trombone replaces operatic voices with a kind of measured, mournful cool, and contains perhaps the sweetest playing of his career. 


 The two albums recorded under his own name are fresh takes on the introspective spaces from earlier in the decade. For the first of the sessions, Moncur’s New Africa, three members of the Algiers quintet—Moncur, Silva and Burrell—are joined by Andrew Cyrille and Roscoe Mitchell, with Shepp appearing on the final track. The pieces tend to operate on vamps, repeating figures, slowly pulsing ostinatos, over which Moncur teases out and develop simple, leisurely melodies, their cast suggesting something of the various ‘folk’ musics he might have heard in Paris or Algiers. His second BYG album, Aco Dei De Madrugada (One Morning I Waked Up Very Early), would indeed, feature Brazilian singer/pianist Fernando Martins and drummer Nelson Serra De Castro, the record divided between Moncur originals and arrangements of Brazilian traditional songs. Mitchell, meanwhile, functions in a kind of update of the Jackie McLean role: his alto thinner and, if anything, even more sour than that of McLean, his playing relatively restrained compared to the stream of notes he would unleash with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, he offers tonal contrast to Moncur, the lyricism of his playing delivered with a timbral sharpness that gives it a piquant clarity. The title track, here recast as a suite, again bursts with the sense of possibility, of wide-open space; hard, concise and lapidary, ‘Space Spy’, by contrast, conveys an impression of relentlessness, seriousness, a brooding and oppressive atmosphere in which repetition is the spur of tension and uncertainty rather than familiarity and comfort, as Burrell stabs out a two-note motif, like rumbling morse code, while Moncur explores gnomic, fragmentary dissonances. ‘Exploration’, as its title implies, is the ‘freest’ track on the record; another menacing low-end melody gives way to a period of collective soloing that finds Moncur and Mitchell initially, elusively, suggesting clock-tower chimes. The horns and Burrell then proceed to riff off each other, picking up, varying, developing and discarding each others’ melodic figures in a sometimes sprightly, sometimes deliberately lugubrious fashion. Another unison melody opens ‘When’, this time more simple, song-like and hopeful, the sort of material that could easily be turned into a collective chant. The temperature boils up when Shepp joins on tenor: the extension of pauses to create tension and uncertainty; the sudden re-entrances in a blurring, blarting blast; the use of particular forms of tonguing, slurring, notes trailing away after that initial fortissimo impact; the combination of languor and passion, romanticism and fury, sometimes within the same phrase; the timbral reminiscences of Ben Webster or Jonny Hodges tied to the multiphonic innovations of John Gilmore and John Coltrane, sliding between smoothness and acidic sharpness. Moncur follows, blowing some delicious, voice-like high notes that seem to pre-echo Mitchell’s bleats, trills, and smooth melodicism, and Shepp ends the piece with fluttering harmonics that seem to momentarily transform his tenor into a flute. 


As well as playing in Shepp’s live group, around this time, Moncur and Burrell joined with drummer Beaver Harris and saxophonist Roland Alexander to form a group entitled the 360 Degree Music Experience. Though they wouldn’t record for several more years, footage of an early live appearance with poet-vocalist Bazzi Bartholomew Grey has recently surfaced online the humour in Moncur’s music illustrated by his exchanging duck calls with Grey on ‘Blues for Donald Duck’. Here was the ‘inside-outside’ sound of the time: repetitive vamps, extended solos, a steadiness and optimism more extroverted than the earlier, ‘gnostic’ recordings.


Moncur’s playing still had that burnished tone, that sense of space, but to different means. The results can be heard to the full in what was perhaps the summit of his achievement, the album Echoes of a Prayer, one of a series made by the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and released on the JCO label in 1975. Opening with a trombone prelude, Moncur’s album-length suite is organised on that repeat: ‘Reverend King’s Wings’, ‘Medgar’s Menace’, ‘Garvey’s Ghost [Space Station]’, ‘Angela’s Angel’, and ‘Right On’, separated by a drum transitions, featuring Congolese drummer Titos Sompa alongside Harris. The cycle plays twice, ending with an ‘Amen Cadence’ and a bitter coda, featuring Bley on piano, pointedly entitled ‘Excuse Me, Mr Justice’. The circling structure offers an analogy both for the lack of progress made—the deaths of martyrs—King, Medgar Evers—the attempted silencing of figures of resistance—Garvey and Angela Davis—and for the recurrence of collective resolve—‘Right On’, while also suggesting a rejuvenative notion of the cyclical, the figure of ‘sankofa’, of ancestral return and inspiration as a means of moving forward. The operative mood of much of Moncur’s earlier music was brooding, minimalist, melancholic: but what stands out above all is the joy of the music, as often wide-open and celebratory as ominous and questing, with storm-clouds averted for a blazing sun. This is often connected to the consciously diasporic heritage of the music and to the insistence on a group sound, with soloists embodying certain aspects or moods within an overall texture: much of it is riff driven, and the drums that boil up in the transitions are a central part of the music. The album packs a wider variety of moods, textures, feelings into its running time than some manage in an entire career. Moncur’s solo over rising, choraled brass chords and fluttering cymbals on ‘Garvey’s Ghost’ is like the sun rising: checking the time, it’s hard to believe that only eight minutes have passed. The up-tempo drive of ‘Angela’s Angel’ is another highlights: in the first version, Moncur follows Pat Patrick’s flute with serene confidence, in the second, Hannibal Marvin Peterson blows to the heavens. The album has never been reissued and remains almost never discussed. One day someone will analyse together the JCOA recordings made in the 70s—Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill, Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, Roswell Rudd’s Numatik Swing Band, Leroy Jenkins’ For Players Only—as a necessary chapter in the history of jazz, ‘free’ or otherwise. For now, seek out the music while you can.


Through the seventies, Moncur continued to work with the 360 Degree Music experience, to work with Shepp on live tours, and to participate in New York’s Loft Scene, where Dave Burrell recalls him bringing the likes of vocalist Eddie Jefferson over from Newark. In general, though, he recorded far less. His obscurity was in part to do with health issues, included dentistry, as well as artistic control of the music. As his widow, Tracy, remarked to WBGO:
“After he made the albums for Blue Note, he wanted to own his own music. He wanted to not only get royalties as a performer but also as a composer. He was told that he was never going to work again. Basically, he still worked, but he was one of the first to get out there and actively try to own — and did end up owning — his own music.”
Shadows, released under Moncur’s name in 1977, features strong performance from vocalist Andy Bey on a set of standards and ballads, and is not what one might expect given Moncur’s previous work. The determined strangeness of the album lies, not, as on Evolution or Some Other Stuff, in the spacious inscrutability of playing or compositions, in its balance of the straightahead—swing, chord changes, ballads—with the textural oddness of Bey’s vocals, treated at times as a kind of instrumental third horn alongside Moncur’s trombone and Marion Brown’s alto. Dave Burrell’s typically expert composition ‘Teardrops for Jimmy’ is meltingly traditionally, beautiful, Bey entering half way through and channelling a higher-pitched, more emotionally extroverted, Johnny Hartmann, Moncur offering sweeping, lilting cadences in glorious tandem. 

I’m less familiar with the later work than the earlier, though there are fine turns on albums like Butch Morris’ debut, In Touch...But Out of Reach, from 1978, merging with Morris’ dark-toned cornet on lengthy explorations, and, in particular, on Frank Lowe’s Decision in Paradise (1983), its crisp bop edge contrasting Moncur’s burnished tone with Don Cherry’s bright trumpet and Lowe’s rough-edged tenor—the tone and placement of notes within a ‘freebop’ context suggesting an airier version of the work to come of the David S. Ware quartet—and with an early feature for the late Geri Allen. On the heads, alternately jaunty, sardonic, lushly intellectual, long phrases spool out with a post Ornette-Coleman feel; Allen offers smoothness, doubling, a variety of voicings; Lowe breaks things up in truncated riffs and melodic fragments; Cherry pitches and sails; Moncur discloses his hidden knowledge with inspiring steadiness. He knows! Throughout his late recordings, Moncur’s playing maintained its qualities, adding layers of emotional expansiveness that brought it closer in line with ‘inside’ playing: up-tempo joy, balladic serenity. More important than technical terms is the feeling or quality of the tone: it’s there, you know it. In 1995, Moncur’s trombone graced William Parker’s In Order to Survive. My favourite cut is the ballad, ‘Anast In Crisis Mouth Full Of Fresh Cut Flowers’, in Parker’s words, “written about a poet named Anast whose words cannot get out to the world, so the words turn to flowers. Anast cries out but no one hears her because her words are now flowers”. This paradox of communication and non-communication, the offerings the musicians make. “From the infinite number of sounds available”, writes Parker, “[Moncur] chooses the right notes, and places each note in the middle of its tone centre. His sound is full of hope and is laced in the tradition of change.” 'Laced' is a lovely metaphor: flowers, lace, delicacy, the blooming richness of his sound in tandem with the other horns, Lewis Barnes’ trumpet and Rob Browne’s alto, words that become flowers, in and beyond crisis, resplendent.


In his final years, Moncur recorded a couple more albums as a leader, returning to his classic earlier compositions in new arrangements with Mark Masters on Exploration (2004) and on Inner Cry Blues (2007). Sporadic as they were, his relatively few appearances were always welcomed; his sound now opened up to a more straightforwardly swinging joyousness that leavened the intensity of his early work, within a relaxed, post-bop idiom. His real legacy, though, remains that work of the sixties and seventies, a time when anything was possible: the inner explorations of Some Other Stuff, of Evolution and Destination...Out, the wide-open spaces of New Africa and, above all, the cleansing collective propulsion and catharsis of Echoes of a Prayer. Moncur’s music emerged at a time whose implications are still little understood. His work and life open up a gnostic possibility, dismantling illusion, going the way of the hidden, pursuing knowledge by other means, opening onto new vistas, “a vision of a better world yet beyond the present”.