a column by
Stuart Broomer

NOW Orchestra
Xu Fengxia                                                                                                               Andrew Torda©2009

I’ve gotten used to receiving reissues of music I’ve written about in the past. Usually they are CD reissues of LPs, sometimes CD reissues of CDs, even CD reissues of CD reissues. Recently I experienced another variant, an LP reissue of an LP, Albert Ayler’s 1964 Spiritual Unity (ESP 1002), though there have been a couple of CD reissues of it in between. It’s an appropriate gesture for ESP: it was the label’s first recording and its quintessential one. Spiritual Unity was Ayler’s first record to be released on an American label (when the international traffic in sound was much less well-developed than it is today). It’s an iconic object, though significantly altered. The sound may have benefited somewhat from digital remastering, but it’s lost some of its visual power. My original copy of the jacket is in an orange-red on white and the silkscreen is slightly smeared. The new one is black on white: it no longer looks home-made and that’s diminished the power of Howard Bernstein’s art work.

Listening to it for the first time in a few years, and likely influenced by the format, I was struck as much by how far it looked back—its simple diatonic themes and readily resolving triads—as by how far it looked forward:  Ayler’s radical freedom, the great lower-register blasts and swirling, squealing lines. In the original liner essay, a booklet called Ayler-Peacock-Murray: You and the Night and the Music, Paul Haines somehow caught the spirit of the folk melodies perfectly. Referring to “foster melodies of my foster mother,” he suggested both the parallel of Stephen Foster and the difficulty and distance of the relationship. Sadly, the Haines booklet is missing, replaced by a history of the label printed on the inner sleeve. (*see note below)

In the decade preceding Ayler’s emergence there was a kind of creative tension in jazz and improvised music between the lure of folk forms and the impulse toward complexity. You get it in the bop blues, the traditional form and fundamental harmonic movement written over with continuous chord substitutions to make more note choices possible. The dichotomy was evident in the late ‘50s, with composers like Horace Silver and Bobby Timmons regularly combining melodic phrases from blues and gospel with subtle harmonic underpinnings.

That compound quest for simplicity, authenticity and mobility defined much of the work of composer-pianist John Benson Brooks. He announced his interest in jazz-folk fusion with Folk Jazz USA in 1956 with versions of “Shenandoah” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” by a band that included the tenor tandem of Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Two years later he released Alabama Concerto, an under-recognized masterpiece (in its own genre) and one of the strangest manifestations of the Third Stream movement. Brooks developed a classical concerto form with the melodic content drawn from Harold Courlander’s field research in the African-American folk songs of Alabama, then scored it for a quartet that consisted of Art Farmer on trumpet, Barry Galbraith on guitar, Milt Hinton on bass and that avatar of soul jazz, Cannonball Adderley, on alto. It’s important work, not only for its intrinsic merits as music but for the way it articulates the creative dynamics and contradictions of an era when modern jazz and “folk” music worked side by side, the former militantly non-verbal, the latter almost nothing but. (Alabama Concerto is available on Original Jazz Classics, OJCCD 1779; the two Brooks albums are compiled on Lone Hill LHJ10275).

You can find something of the same impulse in the clarinetist Bill Smith’s 1959 Folk Jazz (Original Jazz Classics, OJCCD 1956) with “Greensleeves,” “Go Down, Moses” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” You can find it at some remove, too, in the church modes of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and in John Coltrane’s recordings of “Greensleeves” and “Song of the Underground Railroad” (based on “The Drinking Gourd”) on The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions (IMPD-2-168). ”Go Down, Moses” is among the gospel tunes on Grant Green’s 1962 Feelin’ the Spirit (Blue Note BST 84132). In the throes of the free jazz revolution, Patti Waters would supply her expressionist take on “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (ESP C 1025), since referenced by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

It’s in the midst of this fascination with folk material that Albert Ayler would arrive, combining boisterous melody and sheer intensity to fuse some of the elements that Brooks had crafted with such care. The music possesses a preternatural force as Ayler takes his wide-open, folk-like tunes and blows them to another dimension, smearing folk jazz, free jazz and energy music into a singular presence. The record is about 29 minutes long and half of that is taken up by two versions of “Ghosts,” Ayler’s signature and a tune that Don Cherry called “our national anthem.” So it was the length of a pop compilation LP of the time, but it already had “alternate takes.” No one ever complained about it being too short; usually complaints would run in the other direction. ESP would find stranger packaging for Ayler—the next one was Bells, a single-sided LP pressed on white vinyl with a silk-screened emblem of the cover lettering on the other side, contained in a black sleeve with yellow silkscreened lettering. The packaging made the records seem revolutionary, but it was hardly necessary. They were as revolutionary as any music ever was. And they still sound it.

Ayler’s folk forms are worth exploring, and listening again to Spiritual Unity has triggered a few reflections on some other recently arrived LPs and CDs. It’s interesting how Ayler’s intrusion into history fits into the rise of free improvisation, how it conflicts with the notion of non-idiomatic improvisation, and just how much the “idiomatic” increasingly permeates current improvisational practice. Dan Warburton addressed Ayler’s folk source in his note to The Copenhagen Tapes (issued, coincidently, on an imprint named in Ayler’s honor), mentioning Sunny Murray’s recollection that Ayler had been adapting Swedish tunes, and Jan Ström’s claim that “Ghosts” derives from Gunde Johansson’s “Torparevisan” or “Little Farmer’s Song,” though Warburton can’t hear the connection. This seems to parallel Stan Getz’s earlier adaptation of "Ack Värmeland Du Sköna" as “Dear Old Stockholm,” later a favored vehicle for Davis and Coltrane. Weirdly enough, neither of the tunes appears to be a “folk” song, but rather they’re pop songs. The melody lingers on, but changes proprietorship. The folk song “Goodnight, Irene,” attributed to Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly), appears to derive directly from an earlier Tin Pan Alley song, crafted by a professional songwriter. 

“Ghosts” will turn up conspicuously in a discussion of Derek Bailey’s conception of “non-idiomatic improvisation.” In an account of Bailey’s first Company Week in 1976, Ben Watson writes:
...when [Tristan] Honsinger resorted to a deconstructed concerto and [John] Tchicai referenced Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’, a chasm opened up between the musicians. It was a perfect illustration of the correctness of Bailey’s insistence that ‘idiomatic’ playing has no place in Free Improvisation: it’s actually a break (sic) on the thrust towards musical community, a regress to possessive individualism. (Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, London: Verso, 2004)
Contra Bailey and Watson’s position, though, free improvisation grows more idiomatic all the time, both in the absorption of other idioms as well as its own accumulated gestural vocabulary. For many, the Ayler balance of conspicuous source and freely connected improvisation seems to hold some significant and continuing appeal (the notion of non-idiomatic improvisation may be inconceivable except as a kind of unexpected and unpremeditated silence). I’m not suggesting the wholesale adaptation of set thematic materials (in this sense, I suspect that Ayler’s melodies are not just musical symbols but also symbols of musical symbols—provisional objects to be destroyed as well as varied), but indicating the extent to which prior materials (melodies, timbres, tonal systems) are referenced and integrated in current improvisation.     

Around the same time that ESP released the facsimile LP of Spiritual Unity, I first heard the LP Fiddle and Drum by Sam Amidon and Aaron Siegel (Peacock Recordings 013). Amidon’s violin playing has much in common with that of Ornette Coleman, but with more emphasis on roots, and it’s fascinating to hear a duo that makes effective music from divergent backgrounds, Amidon from the contemporary folk scene (elsewhere he sings and plays guitar and banjo) and Siegel from contemporary composed music, jazz and free improvisation (he plays regularly in the trio Memorize the Sky and Anthony Braxton’s 12(+1)tet). The music that they make together somehow bridges those sources, with Amidon’s fiddle summoning up the energy of Appalachian music but with seemingly random detail. Their music has strong associations with Virginia reels and fife and drum music and its strange circumlocutions will stretch from Balinese Gamelan percussion (a European taste, running from Claude Debussy to Albert Mangelsdorff to André Jaume) to oddly Oriental fiddling. “Kentucky Melodies” sounds as if “My Old Kentucky Home” had turned up in the Han Dynasty, while “Place to Stay” has elements of “Orange Blossom Special.”

The CD Mythology (Kadima Collective KCR20) by the duo of Vinny Golia on a variety of reeds and the late Peter Kowald on bass fits neatly with these issues. It touches on Ayler’s influence, the structure of free improvisation, and the issue of the folk inheritance. The performance from 2000 is about as conversational and spontaneous as you might find, two masters of free improvisation meeting for the first time. What ties the music together isn’t simply the receptiveness of one player to another, though: it’s the vocabulary of sounds and approaches that each possesses. When Golia explores whistling multiphonics on bass clarinet (“No. 3”), Kowald responds with quavering bowed harmonics that are equally elusive in pitch. When Golia gradually builds a baritone improvisation to an  explosive roaring of sound, its Ayler’s vocabulary of whirrs, roars and sputters that’s being invoked, and while it might not be a formal “tune” there are the imprints of chord changes all over the melody before a bluesy figure fully launches Golia. The most “folk-oriented” piece is “No. 6,” with Golia uncoiling a middle-eastern trance of modal melody on a tarogato (getting an almost flute-like sound) while Kowald employs the old singing and bowing technique of Slam Stewart to create a buzzing hive that sounds at some points like the drone of Tibetan chanting with bass trumpets. It’s not non-idiomatic, but approaching pan-idiomatic, putting on and taking off tonal systems and distinctive timbres at will.

The increasing globalization of free improvisation has brought in more and more players who employ very specific materials from their own cultures. There’s Lauren Newton and Park Je Chun, for example, who seem to specifically employ pansori, a kind of Korean folk opera, in their Two Souls in Seoul. There’s a host of improvising musicians who use highly culturally specific instruments, in the sense that a sho, a tarogato, a hurdy-gurdy, or a laudannas is culturally specific in a way that a guitar or a piano no longer is. Perhaps the most curious case among these trans-idiomatic free improvisers is the Berlin-resident, Chinese-raised Xu Fengxia, who before she left China was both a virtuoso of the guzheng (a traditional long-necked lute) and a rock bassist.

Xu was a member of Peter Kowald’s group Global Village that was rooted in the idea of pan-ethnic improvisation, and she’s also worked in the New Flags trio with free improvisers Wolfgang Fuchs and Roger Turner. What’s most remarkable about Xu is how she fits into the community of free improvisers. While she’s clearly adept at improvising, whether generating manic runs or great clouds of throbbing, sliding, just-intonation clusters, relatively orthodox performances of Chinese classical pieces and theatrical songs will blur directly into her improvisations, so that episodes of free improvisation keep shifting places with a recital.

The combination is evident on Black Lotos (Intakt CD 164) a duet program with drummer Lucas Niggli. There are no notes on sources, just the improviser’s practice of crediting all compositions to both performers, but there are songs here with clearly formal melodies and much of the music is developed in the pentatonic scales that are the standard language of most traditional Chinese music. Xu is clearly playing by her own rules, evidently transgressing improvisatory codes as well as Chinese musical traditions. The music here possesses tremendous power (as a singer Xu can approach the wail of Sainkho Namchylak), and it’s interesting to hear Xu with a musician who complements and extends the intensity of her more structured work. Niggli can drive the furious rhythmic attack that Xu favors or simply keep time. The title track is an expressionist vocal taking its text from the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The structured song “Ride over Blue Sky” begins delicately enough, gradually growing in intensity until Xu’s voice takes in shouts and guttural drones and multiphonics. When she turns to the banjo-like sangian, further weird patterns in world music emerge. “Old Tree” sounds like Xu has found the Cumberland Gap in the Great Wall of China, as she revs up a howling vocal and high-speed banjo-like part that sounds like she’s prepping for dueling banjos with Eugene Chadbourne. Stylistic purity is the last thing this music is concerned with; instead, its vitality engages tradition and freedom, pentatonics and atonality, and maybe even possessive individualism.

*Fortunately the Haines booklet is available all sorts of other places: in a facsimile edition in Holy Ghost, the Revenant box of Ayler’s music (RVN 213); in Haines’s Secret Carnival Workers (H. Pal Productions, 2007); in Coda, 318 (November/December 2004), p.21-23. You may also find it online. (back)

Stuart Broomer©2009


> back to contents