US Release Date: 2001-12-04
Think with Your Heart
US release date: September 2001
Place of Resonance
(Consolidated Artists Productions)
US release date: September 2001
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In The Tradition, Across the Borders -- Jazz in 2002 Part One
A year ago there was suddenly a great amount of discussion about jazz, thanks to the Ken Burns series and the various critical responses to it. The popularity/notoriety of the project generated a number of direct results, some of which were very positive. Sales of jazz doubled and a younger generation was made to reassess the figures of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. However, as was pointed out with vigour and no little rancour, the series pursued a fairly narrow agenda and produced a very linear reading of history -- jazz as a series of handings on of the sacred baton. It was less sensitive to the diversity of post-1945 jazz than it had been to early years, was actively dismissive of most post-'60s work and tended towards an American isolationist position in its analysis.
For myself, I think the documentaries were impressive and much-needed, though I fully share the criticisms. The main fault, I think, was that Burns has re-imposed a very traditional concept of jazz just at the moment when a whole swathe of new connections and cross-fertilizations are taking place. This is not an insuperable problem, anyone interested can fill in the gaps and catch up with those alternative threads. What is more worrying is that the "image" of jazz that was put across is essentially one of a story that is over. "Jazz" might be more popular and its importance to American culture better understood but in the course of the programs it somehow mutated into something that all happened a long time ago with little to say to today's world. Nowhere did it really invite you to be curious about the future of jazz.
It is salutary to see who have been the main beneficiaries sales-wise. Armstrong more than Ellington, in the oldies department. Miles Davis and John Coltrane among the moderns -- both artists who hardly needed a boost to their position. Lesser names have benefited very little. Of figures actually working now, Diana Krall has become the media's darling and while her success is due to several factors unrelated to the documentaries, it seems to me to be no coincidence that her immaculately performed but very safe and conventional repertoire of standards should be for the general public the acceptable face of jazz in the new millennium.
Taking a few records, all pretty much on the main thoroughfares of modern jazz (none of my favourite hybrids of nu-jazz, club jazz and jazz house), I want to suggest that even a limited and fairly arbitrary selection of new releases from the last six months demonstrates the freshness and diversity of the contemporary scene. Variety, innovation and excellence are much more abundant than a Marsalis-Burns position would have us believe. Furthermore, for a form which is so ancient it is showing both a surprising robustness in its traditional strengths and an emancipatory openness to new influences, which far from destroying a vital set of core values will actually ensure the form's survival this century.
PART ONE -- Modernisms -- Old and New.
The Classic Album -- Mingus' Tijuana Moods
Such is the wealth of re-issued material now available that it is a wonder that anyone ever finds a new release in among the piles of compilations and remastered classics that come spewing out every month. This trend -- part of the CD and jazz collectors culture for many years now -- certainly has received a boost from Burns' project.The mass recycling comes in many forms. 200I saw a tendency towards monster size reissues (John Coltrane in Europe at seven CDs is more than enough for most but what about the monumental Jazz in Paris set? 75 CDs! Who buys that kind of thing?). More is not always better but it seems churlish to complain and foolish to talk about a demise when there is more jazz available now than at any time in recording history.
Apart from those connoisseur overdoses there are the legion of budget compilations and Best Ofs. Their function is simple but even they have a duty to do more now than simply repackage familiar product. The English label Proper has shown the way forward with a series of cheap four-volume sets that come with almost book-length sleevenotes -- it can be done. The ideal re-release is one that presents older work in a way that reinvigorates it and adds to our knowledge -- both with new material and careful annotation. In this the benchmark has been set by RCA's Bluebird imprint (their 1930s "Race" records title -- reawakened). Outstanding within that endeavour is the enhanced edition of Charles Mingus' Tijuana Moods.
Mingus, whose minor role in the Burns series in no way matched his status -- particularly his posthumous influence on composition and group arrangements, had always claimed that it was the best record he ever made. Most fans demurred, citing such gems as Ah Um, Black Saint . . ., Mingus,Mingus, Mingus, etc. With this lavish two-CD set (plus booklet and essays) we may have to concede that the master was right. The original album, recorded in 1957 but only emerging in 1962, was the first full flowering of the definitive Mingus sound, featured some criminally underrated players and was built upon a dazzling and breathtakingly daring fusion of jazz and Spanish influences (the first world jazz set?). Mingus evoked both a physical and psychological landscape and produced a series of aural images of sexual desire, excess and emotional chaos.
Almost as a luxurious afterthought the disc happened to contain five of Mingus' greatest compositions. All of this brilliance lasted just under 36 minutes.Those same five songs, along with all the out takes, now run to over two hours, and the result is genuinely a revelation. I know of no re-issue set that shows so well the creative process at work while still being coherent and all-conquering in its own right. If you want to be almost physically overwhelmed while intellectually marvelling at what the creative impulse can achieve, look no further.
Perhaps most significantly, the sessions completely gives the lie to any simplistic view of the role of spontaneity in the jazz performance. Mingus was one of the first musicians to use what we now term post-production techniques. Bits of tunes were spliced together, numbers were stopped at their breakdown point and then picked up again at a predetermined moment. The supposed non-cerebral flow and "naturalness" of black expressional forms will never be quite so easy to argue once you have followed the elaborate processes of selection, fragmentation and synthesis as evidenced by these takes. Yet it it is no technical, obsessives-only thing. You really do leave with a heightened respect for the music as a work of art. Whether it's the bebop infused "Dizzy" (a tribute to the man who really brought the potential for Latin-jazz fusions to light, an achievement as potentially important as any of bop's technical revolutions) or the (better even than Ellington's) Ellingtonesque take on "Flamingo" -- these extended and alternate versions all stagger in their poise, energy and inventiveness. The three Tijuana pieces "Ysabel's Table Dance", "Los Mariachis", and "Tijuana Gift Shop" are the crowning glories and these now show themselves to be the major 20th century compositions we always suspected they might be. The interplay between modern jazz inflections and Mexican, Spanish and Caribbean folk forms, the collective improvisation and the sheer beauty and intelligence of the solos all gain from the full session's new availability. Lost musicians like sax player Shafi Hadi and trumpeter Clarence Shaw take their place in the first rank, Jimmy Knepper and Bill Triglia never played better and Danny Richmond's down-to-earth swing shows why he was essential to the Mingus conception of group performance. The bass-player and composer, is of course magisterial throughout. The archetypal auteur, certainly, but one who always knew where the best in his co-performers lay and how to draw it out. In many ways he was an Ellington for the latter half of the century, but with a personal vision so fierce it burns into us even now.
The cross-cultural influences, the function of studio techniques and the conceptual clarity (none of which were exactly stressed in the Burns documentary) make this a key work not just for jazz fans but for anyone interested in recorded music. It is still mystifying as to how such a full orchestral sound emerges from six musicians. That trademark black church quality still adds richness and excitement, and the hipster cool that acts as counter-balance has not dated. At the heart of it all is a sense of emotional and spiritual turbulence that no-one has even dared attempt to emulate. This is the re-issue as living art -- historically contextualised of course -- but no heritage or museum piece. New? In a sense yes, since we are the first to hear the music in this complete (well, for the time being) form. Relevant? One Hundred Per Cent. No jazz project that seeks to integrate individual tunes into a larger organisational framework can ignore this pioneering work.
Group Jazz today -- Avital and Garcia
Just how relevant can be seen by looking at one of last year's strongest group releases. Coltrane may have been the most influential role model as player for the succeeding generations, but in terms of collective performance the template for group sizes above a quintet has mostly been provided by Mingus. Omer Avital will be sick of this comparison, as must all bass players who lead outfits, but there is no denying that, while in no way a copyist, his excellent debut, Think with Your Heart, owes much of its group dynamics to the Mingus blueprint.
Avital, an Israeli now resident in the States, is one of several distinguished Knitting Factory stalwarts. Myron Walden and Greg Tardy are two others and they also feature strongly on the album. This New York venue cum laboratory has been home to some of the most gifted soloists and composers of the '90s and their approach to improvisation and the Factory's collaborative ethos continue the late '50s Jazz Workshop concept that Mingus inaugurated. The texture of the record is made up of that combination of raw muscularity and delicate melodic lines that a work like Tijuana Moods exemplified. A post-Coltrane (rather than post-Parker) Ellingtonia is also a key factor. The use of non-Afro-American forms is now part of the make-up of jazz language rather than the novelty it once seemed. Avital has a few additions of his own. He visits a number of places -- Cuba (the stunning "Flow"), Spain ("Andaluz") and North Africa (most of the other tracks). All serve as inspiration and a platform for ideas. It is not however world-music as exotic garb but enriched-jazz that is the aim. A barely recognisable but very effective version of Marley's "Redemption Song", fashioned a la Mingus as a bass solo, offers an opening statement to that effect.
This album will be classed as high modernist, as indeed it is. Serious music with serious intentions. Yet that modernism has a solid tradition built into it -- indeed for this generation of players is a tradition in itself. There is less a sense here of a new cultural form mining older ones simply for source material than a recognition of the validity of those forms as productive matrices themselves. The mixture of exploratory impulses and well organised structures can be said to be another Mingus echo but because of the difference in temperament and reference points the resultant moods and musical shades are very different.
Here Coltrane does enter the picture. For Mingus, jazz was a vehicle for political and psychological expression -- for Coltrane the spiritual element was foregrounded. (Spiritual is not an adjective you exactly over use when describing Mingus' oeuvre). Throughout this set, although there is an urban/New York feel to much of the playing, a sense of a search for the "higher state of consciousness" is always present. Not just on numbers like "Marrakech" with its nods towards North African mysticism but in an aching, other-worldly take such as found on the one jazz standard, "Stella by Starlight". This is performed as a meditative set of questionings. The ballad structure remains but its usual connotations are absent. Jazz and non-western musics/religions have been playing off against each other since Randy Weston and Yusef Lateef started their own paths to an African based enlightenment in the late fifties. Think with Your Heart offers a more multi-cultural, multi-racial version of the same.
The result is musically rich, stylistically diverse and at times incredibly complex. It is challenging (as opposed to the hippy-mystic sleeve notes which are merely intellectually challenged) and will be dismissed as pretentious or too way out by some, specifically those absolutists to whom jazz is either too atonal or too bland and noodly. For those willing to engage with the material, the rewards are great and, if I were to pick some candidates for jazz longevity, then this set and Greg Osby's recent work would be among my first choices. The cutting edge of jazz may not be as jagged and snarling these days as in the heyday of free jazz but it is still in the worthy business of refiguring the old forms and giving them new contexts.
Avital has obviously a big future and is already garnering great critical praise. Another group project, similarly charged with spiritual concerns, is Rob Garcia's mellow yet compelling Place of Resonance. This has appeared on a little known label and will barely make waves even within the jazz world,yet it is as confident, accomplished and, in its less flamboyant way, as individuated as either of the above big guns.
Suitable to its local rather than global scale, the spiritual journey here uses more home-grown signposts. Garcia's brand of mysticism depends largely on Western New Age values (his musical reference points are also more Euro-American). Perhaps Resonance wears its intelligence a little too professorially -- the songs have irritatingly twee or cryptically post-modern subtitles -- but then again its landscape is recognisably Post-Fordist Contemporary so there is a logic to this conceit. Resonance finds us in the kingdom of the Inner Child and is full of the musical equivalent of a self-healing program. Modern improvisation as a place of sanity and safety in a dangerous and soulless culture. Garcia is a practitioner of various holistic therapeutic methods, of which he perhaps sees jazz as one important element (if you can have a separate element in a holistic system).
Fortunately, he is also a drummer of great subtlety and, incidentally but not coincidentally, another regular Knitting Factory player. He is a composer of considerable talent as well and though this is the most soothing set of the three, he can rough it up a bit when the mood takes him. As a drummer he has learned his trade in a variety of bands and his knowledge of radically different styles is put to good use in the shifts in tempo and emphasis that prevent the set getting too ambient.
His choice of flute (Michel Gentile) and violin (Miri Ben-Ari) to augment a more conventional piano/sax lead is a fortuitous one. The phrasings may be orthodox, the sound textures are less well worn. The arrangements are modern but unthreatening to anyone at all familiar with post-Mingus scores. I am not suggesting any conscious debt still less a similarity -- merely indicating the terrain in which the players operate. What links Garcia to the other two band leaders is a sense of purpose and thematic unity. He is no iconoclast, the occasional dissonant flourishes are part of a stable and staple language rather than barricade clambering symbols.
All the band are excellent, and in Dave Kikoski Garcia has the services of one of the finest pianists on the circuit. He sensibly lets the instruments with the capacity to produce notes carry the melodic load -- and it is a very melodious record. It is a drummer-led, rather than a drums-led, project you will be relieved to hear. This is perhaps the most genuinely whole group project of the three records. There is also more of a chamber-classical tenor to the pieces, and though a sense of calm is produced -- the dominant emotion is a quiet, reflective melancholy. Intended or not it is very evocative and conjures up an a gentle world of park spaces away from traffic or conversations over coffee as the city rushes by.
All three recordings share this strong sense of mood and place. Mingus, it is now generally forgotten, was rather frowned on for such deliberately pictorial and impressionistic tendencies. Jazz was taking its critical lead from the art world and abstract expressionism was the favoured mode. That none of these records is in the least way "abstract" is telling. These days Mingus' multi-cultural clashes, his pseudo-confessional style and his genre-crossing find a readier audience. The same is true of his fondness for referentiality and location. Avital has set up his own cultural space in an aesthetic triangle, whose three sides are Israel-New York and the Northern Sahara. Garcia gives us the modern city with its anxieties and "coping strategies". Who needs lyrics? All the albums use musical form to explore geographical,social and personal environments. What both Garcia and, particular, Avital have demonstrated is that jazz's own, superior version of the dreaded "concept album", introduced by Charles Mingus over forty years ago, appears to be alive and well.