Miles Ornette Cecil -- Jazz Beyond Jazz
an excerpt from:
What is the avant-garde?
Seattle jazz journalist Paul deBarros, in a lively discussion we had on the way to the Portland Jazz Festival in early 2007 to hear a weekend full of musicians who recorded for the ECM label -- including vibist Gary Burton with pianist Chick Corea, saxophonist Charles Lloyd's quartet with pianist Geri Allen, and a 12-piece ensemble of Norwegian musicians performing a lengthy, subdued, through-composed work by young clarinetist Trygve Seim -- sagely suggested it is art that "shifts the paradigm," providing a concept that requires us to reconceive or at least review everything, with fresh awareness if not necessarily more truth or greater clarity than we had before.
Poet Jayne Cortez, who I ran into walking out of a drug store on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village near my office, when I mentioned the topic of jazz beyond jazz immediately offered that "the avant-garde is that in art which didn't exist before. It's always hard to introduce, because the avant-garde has to make a place for itself where there wasn't one, where there wasn’t anything." This left the image of the avant-garde in the shape of a wedge – maybe with a single, driven artist at its point -- forcing open obdurate culture, widening its incursion as its broader base pushes forward, shattering a placid plane as an earthquake brakes the ground.
Composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, at the end of an interview she submitted to in spring 2007 for Down Beat, was maybe too quick to agree with my assessment that her music, while beautiful, isn't "avant-garde." In her most recent recording, Sky Blue, which Schneider had previewed for me, her orchestra members created a forest of birdcalls using only vocalisms and little toy instruments. She told me she’ d heard conductor Marin Alsop in a National Public Radio broadcast say that new music can require human brains to rewire themselves, which was why the audience rioted at the premiere of Stravinsky's "The Rite Of Spring.”
Some people I spoke of this book to shook their heads sadly, or with dismay – seldom with glee -- announcing "there is no avant-garde anymore," though I think the truth is there are many artists innovating in every medium, and the problem in what we've called jazz is that the audience base has deteriorated so dramatically that most of those on the commercial end of exploiting are trying to hold on through consolidation, rather than turning attention to what's usefully refreshing or jarringly new.
Musical avant-gardists who have emerged in the wake of Miles, Ornette and Cecil, for instance, are as daring as ever – I am thinking of AACM musicians Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis and Roscoe Mitchell, whose all-improvised album Streaming (2006, Pi Records) projects a cinematic excursion through improvisations, casting motifs produced on piano, trombone, saxophone, computer programs and percussion instruments together so as to excite a reconsideration of basic ways we organize sounds into music. Their work encourages us to abandon questions of what pitches harmonize and how different rhythms intersect for matters relating to sonic scale, to foreground and field, to the conjunction of non-associative elements and the role listeners play in pulling disparate noise into meaningful music.
Now those three musicians aren’t brand new – nor are their AACM compatriots Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill and Fred Anderson, That’s right, the avant-garde currently includes notorious elders: big band leader and soloist Sam Rivers and composer-theorist George Russell, both age 84, and saxophonist Yusef Lateef, age 87, as well as youngsters like psychedelic microtonal guitarist Gabriel Marin, 20-something, of the “ethno-fusion” band Consider the Source – a Hendrix-like trio that sends Middle Eastern-derived riffs way over the top – and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, also in his early 20s, breaking up a blues shuffle into Elvin Jones-like polyrhythms. And no one, known or unknown, owns the sole direction the avant-garde takes today. There must be thousands of musicians trying to find personal ways to awaken us to life through sound.
I think of some of my favorites: pianist Myra Melford, most recently with Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson in Trio M; electric guitarist Nels Cline's band playing pianist Andrew Hill's compositions; John Zorn blowing raw alto sax over and through the ocean-bottom basslines of Bill Laswell and Afrological drums of Hamid Drake, Elliott Sharp raising brilliant, bristly musical thickets and New Yorkizing the blues, keyboardists Anthony Coleman, Wayne Horvitz and Annie Gosfeld, saxophonist-storyteller Roy Nathanson with the Jazz Passengers, improvising conductor Butch Morris, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba -- maybe not giants on the order of Miles, Ornette and Cecil, but devoted to getting to the jazz beyond jazz -- breaking ground rather than solidifying it.
Oh, they’d like what they do to take root, too -- they hope as much or more, though, to sow what's not been sown before, something new that not only promises insight and/or efficacy, but makes good on the promise by sprouting forth and disseminating more life. What's avant-garde almost certainly evolves out of what we bring with us – its our rearrangement, adaptation, expansion or emendation of what we’ve known before, or some combination of those processes -- as there is nothing completely new under the sun, but only recipes blending different proportions and emphasis of timeless elements.
There will always be an avant-garde waiting to spring at us or waiting for us to delve into it, as long as humans have the life to walk around a new corner or turn a new page, though the means of support of avant-garde activists may currently be at risk. As Tuli Kupferberg, self-described "Jew peddler, anti-capitalist anarchist-pacifist" and co-leader of The Fugs, a notorious folk-rock-agitprop band dating from the mid '60s, mentioned in a 2005 interview, "An avant-garde depends on cheap rents," and in New York City, among several other municipalities in the United States, real estate has gotten too pricey to allow a concentration of low-income artists to live or work within close proximity, where ideas can be quickly shared, debated and tested. But the warp-speed and global reach of communication now available through the Internet may mitigate that condition, even as the multi-media capacities of the 'net promote the avant-garde impulse to new, previously unsuspected forms of art, leaving real-time improvised musical collaboration an activity of the past.
Concepts can be lost, examples forgotten, but the germ of ideas, once born, have all the strength they need to remain in this world. Consider how impossible it has proved for people of great good will to banish even the most nefarious theories. Ideas stick, and the ideas that artists arrive at, however they do so, pass from their works to their audiences, who convey them, however consciously or unconsciously, however diluted or corrupted, until the ideas are so fully assimilated as to be assumed as a priori fundamentals, present since the inception and incapable of being overturned.
Then, of course, those ideas gain a new status, not as the avant-garde any longer but as the established order of things, which must be questioned, examined and rebelled against – expanded upon even if the adventurer who takes on that task speeds off in the opposite direction than the original idea set forth. Opposite ends of a spectrum are still poles of a single spectrum, after all. Fanatic control by a composer over every musical element formerly improvised by an ensemble of improvisers taking advantage of exorbitant freedoms might stretch the bounds of music – what we hear and how we hear it – to encircle the same entirety.
Because there is, after all, only one entirety, only one same river in time and place, beginning to end. We are all in this together, extreme conservatives and unrepentant avant-gardists, those vociferously adhering to the legacy of the past and those forging, however heedlessly, paths into the future. A greater unity, much fuller comprehension, the contemplation and embrace of everything must be the ultimate goal of even the most disparate and fractious avant-garde.
Jazz may get us there. But even if jazz – that is, jazz-jazz -- and the jazz beyond jazz become cultural artifacts, the notions Miles, Ornette and Cecil (among many others) made manifest will not die. Once an idea is proposed and propagated, it remains in the air; there is no stuffing it back into Pandora's box and forgetting about it, no way to contain its dominion if people find it attractive or efficacious, even if the gods chain its chief proponents – poor Prometheus! -- to rocks and send birds to eat their livers every day.
What's called avant-garde may be mysterious, daring, even threatening as it challenges functional customs. The initial expression or realization of this avant-garde idea or substance may burst open the door to a world beyond it, changing how we view ordinary matters by introducing the perspective of he/she who created whatever's avant-garde and making it so persuasive, appealing and/or useful that it is taken up wholeheartedly. Or it may have no effect: the proposed new perspective may be too radical (or inherently flawed) to be deemed appealing or efficacious upon its introduction or later.
Indeed, people may be put off by what's avant-garde completely. But maybe not everyone. Maybe a few people will be intrigued and try it on for themselves. Maybe they will identify with it, re-craft it to their own uses or disseminate it even in adapted, diluted or errant form. Maybe they will come to worship it as it is or misunderstand and misrepresent the original intent of its proponents or its true import. Yet they will keep it alive. Maybe, eventually, a constituency will accumulate for this avant-garde.
That is what has happened around some of the most ostensibly improbable works of Miles, Ornette and Cecil. Against high odds, the three remain potent beyond the scope of music, bearing significantly on fashion, film and video, dance, painting, poetry and other arts. Throughout their careers they've triumphed over random heedlessness and pointed hostility by drawing on resources of swing and bebop, yes, also of rhythm 'n' blues and the latest advances in equipment and processes, African retentions, Western European classical heritage and American experimentalism -- besides their own on-the-job/in-the-ear-training, insights and resolves.
In unforgettable performances and recorded oeuvre, Miles, Ornette and Cecil cast off assumptions that traditionalists cling to like security blankets in favor of perhaps starker or more ungainly yet defiantly beautiful evocations of music as they’ve conceived it, before the rest of us have. They’ve brought this music to us. Their concepts and crystallizations seem destined to remain vital, controversial, alive, for decades to come.