a column by
Stuart Broomer

As I pull together one of these columns, I rarely feel incursions from mass media and social media. This time, though, things are a bit different. I’d been reflecting on a series of CDs that had appeared in the past few months and which for me drew a particularly pointed line between roots music – most notably country blues – and the methodology of free jazz. The CDs had formed a small pile, music by Roots Magic, Do Tell, Noah Preminger, Cécile and Jean-Luc Cappozzo and Jeff Lederer’s Brooklyn Blowhards, and they all had something in common.


Then, last week, parallel and relevant materials started to be referenced on Facebook. There was an article on J.D, Allen and his CD Americana from The Atlantic and another post with a quote from Dewey Redman: “A lot of people think that avant-garde jazz music came out of the blue, but actually it came out of the blues” (sourced to W. Royal Stoke’s The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990, Oxford, 1993). Then came the weekly news compendium from Jazz Institute Darmstadt (a fine service available at www.jazzinstitut.de). The Atlantic article is paired there with an article from The New York Times with Wolfram Knauer’s usual knack for synoptic clarity:


“David A. Graham talks to the saxophonist J.D. Allen about the research which went into his latest album, Americana, about the blues’ role at the center of modern jazz, about not just being interested in the blues scales but in “the intent behind it”, about the flexibility of musical form, about the freedom he feels within his trio, about lack of blues feeling making jazz sound “high intellectual,” while in reality the “blues is in every part of American music” (The Atlantic). Nate Chinen hears J.D. Allen’s “Americana” as well as saxophonist Noah Preminger and links their performances to the work of centenarian Albert Murray (New York Times).”


So, in a sense, the blues are back. In linking the return to Albert Murray’s thought, Chinen (who also discusses Jamieo Brown’s Work Songs) emphasizes the idea of elegance, citing the first line of Murray Talks Music (University of Minnesota Press), a conversational rejoinder to Wynton Marsalis: “‘Well, the objective of the blues musician is to get rid of the blues,’” Murray answers, “‘and of course you stomp the blues not with utmost violence but with elegance.’” That theme continues: “‘Resilience, or swinging, is the ultimate achievement,’ Mr. Murray said then, in 2003. ‘The achievement of elegance is the highest thing that a human being can do.’”


It’s hard to stress the relationship between blues and jazz more than Murray does; in fact, he doesn’t distinguish. His interest in jazz is tremendous, his interest in the music that many would regard as blues limited. His interest in “fine art” over “folk art” is explicit. In the index to his Stomping the Blues, Charlie Parker gets 18 references, Charley Patton, Blind Willie Johnson, Booker White, Blind Blake and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup – deficient in elegance – none; Lonnie Johnson and Leroy Carr, those most elegant of early blues singers, get one reference each, in the same negative list of “artificial” folk artists that also includes the only references to Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins (the same number of references as John Cage and Jasper Johns).


When Murray gets to stomping the blues, he does it all kinds of ways. He also uses the phrase “blues musician” to describe everyone up to and including Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, who is “essentially a post-Charlie Parker instrumental extension of the traditional hard-driving blues shouter. Such Coltrane compositions as ‘Blue Train,’ ‘Locomotion’ and ‘Traneing In’ also represent post-bop avant-garde elaborations and refinements of traditional blues idiom railroad onomatopoeia.” (p.229, Quartet Books, 1978 [British reprint])


My own key to the tradition – call it blues, ambiguous but convenient – is another text, Sidney Bechet’s autobiography Treat It Gentle. Bechet has a lexicon of his own as well, referring to his music as “ragtime” and musicians of his own style as “ragtime musicianers.” The ancient source of his music is something he calls a “remembering song,” one that he associates with his grandfather Omar, a freed slave who was later murdered:


“You tell it to the music and the music tells it to you. That’s the life there is to the musicianer ... if they was real good, that’s what their life was; it was a way of telling, a way of remembering something that has to be remembered.


“It was Omar started the song. Or maybe he didn’t start it exactly. There was somebody singing and playing the drums and horns behind Omar, and there was somebody behind that ...


“I met many a musicianer in many a place after I struck out from New Orleans, but it was always the same: if they was any good, it was Omar’s song they was singing. It was the long song, and the good musicianers all heard it behind them. They all had an Omar, somebody like an Omar, somebody that was their Omar ...


“no matter where it’s played, you gotta hear it starting way behind you. There’s the drum beating from Congo Square and there’s the song starting in a field just over the trees. The good musicianer, he’s playing with it, and he’s playing after it. He’s finishing something. No matter what he’s playing, it’s the long song that started back there in the South.


“It’s the remembering song.” (p.202, Da Capo reprint, 1978)






If jazz history can be constructed on a progressive model, it has a kind of double. The artist who extends the music (harmonically, rhythmically, etc.) also restores it to its roots. For Murray, Charlie Parker is a Kansas City blues musician. One of the freedoms in Ornette Coleman’s free jazz is the elemental wail of the country blues that’s beyond any tempered scale. For those who can’t see the roots in the revolution, there is a complementary reaction. Bunk Johnson emerged as a source of fascination at precisely the point that bop came into being. For Bechet, reminiscing about the senior trumpeter, he “was a great blues player”(90); “I think he was about the best blues player I ever heard.” (173) Not a “ragtime musicianer,” you’ll note, but a “blues player.”


There’s a double dream of tradition in jazz: one is tradition as authenticity; the other is the tradition of innovation. To be wholly meaningful, one must simultaneously reassert the language of the past amid the possibility of the new. No one did this more explicitly than John Coltrane, whose forward drive may also be read as the music’s greatest remembering song, from the pathos and clarity of the named blues – “Blue Train,” “Blues to Bechet,” “Bessie’s Blues” – to the great onslaught towards meaning of another blues, “Chasin’ the Trane.” This notion of jazz as remembering song, as recovery project, includes Ornette Coleman’s wail and Eric Dolphy’s laughing and crying, Albert Ayler’s vibrato and marching band and Cecil Taylor’s Ellingtonia.


A few recent recordings suggest how strong the impulse to blues and gospel and traditional patterns and inflections is, and it takes multiple forms, from actually playing classic blues to approaching modern musicians whose own roots were particularly explicit, notably Charles Mingus and Julius Hemphill.


The band that tied together these threads for me is an Italian quartet called Roots Magic. Their debut CD is called Hoodoo Blues (Clean Feed CF337CD) and its repertoire comes largely from free jazz, but what ties it together is an allegiance to the blues. The driving funk of Julius Hemphill’s “Hard Blues” (a tune that sounds like both a manifesto and the last word on a subject) opens the CD and defines the band, bare-bones free jazz with a heavy pulse generated by bassist Gianfranco Tedeschi and drummer Fabrizio Spera, the blues-inflected wailing from alto saxophonist Errico DeFabritiis and some much more reflective playing from clarinetist Alberto Popolla that reaches back to New Orleans “ragtime musicianers” like Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard. The CD is a compendium of both country blues and roots-based music from Hemphill’s contemporaries. Charley Patton’s “Poor Me” stands beside John Carter’s “The Sunday Afternoon Jazz and Blues Society,” the Afro-Futurist trance of Sun Ra’s “A Call for All Demons” and DeFabritiis’s own “Blues for Amiri B.,” commemorating the author of Blues People, a book to put on the same shelf as the contrarily titled Stomping the Blues and Treat It Gentle. The most powerful music here is a version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night” from Tedeschi’s guitar-like introduction to the incantatory playing of DeFabritiis at the conclusion.


“Hard Blues” and “Dark Was the Night” are key connectors here. The former figures in Hotend: Do Tell plays the music of Julius Hemphill (Amirani 043), already reviewed in PoD53 by John Litweiler. Do Tell is the trio of cornetist Dan Clucas, tubaist Mark Weaver and drummer Dave Wayne, and they achieve through their minimalist instrumentation a kind of absolute reduction to brass band fundamentals, a quality that further emphasizes the elemental quality in Hemphill’s music, a kind of free jazz that’s simultaneously alert to the press of blues, New Orleans, swing and bop.


In the past year, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger has released two CDs devoted, remarkably, to the repertoire of country blues. The first of these was Noah Preminger’s Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar (noahpreminger.com). Preminger’s influences range from the laconic abstraction of Warne Marsh to the honk of Sonny Rollins, but here his quartet plays two songs by the Delta blues singer Booker “Bukka” White: “Parchman Farm Blues” and “Fixin’ to Die Blues.” Each of these primordial blues provides a launching pad for a 32-minute exploration that will recall both the Ornette Coleman quartet and, more specifically, the Sonny Rollins quartet of 1962-63 with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. The band, which includes trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass and drummer Ian Froman, has a certain raw vocal quality, a sense of detailed dialogue and a drive that distinguish them, achieving in these long exploratory forays the feel of living tissue.


The same quartet approaches similar material with brevity in place of scale on the studio recording Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground (noahpreminger.com) Along with Blind Willie Johnson’s title song, there are pieces by Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and Skip James, among others. White’s “I Am the Heavenly Way” has the band in celebratory flight, from the bouncing theme statement and sprung rhythms to Preminger’s charging solo and Palmer’s rapid-fire, splintering lines. Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan” has elements of a New Orleans parade band, while Robert Johnson’s mournful “Love in Vain” is reduced to an ever-resolving melodic fragment, at once litany and cry.


Preminger seems to be taking a dual route to meaning through his mixed historical sources. It’s as if that conversational piano-less quartet is a point of access to the expressive wellspring of country blues and the country blues reauthenticate the music of the ‘60s. It’s as if Preminger and company seek the emotional and spiritual heart of jazz through the grain of its primal melodic figures, journeying into the past to achieve a rare presence.


Julius Hemphill is clearly one of those figures most clearly a conduit to the music’s roots, but he’s not the only one. The notion of an inter-generational remembering song is explicit in a daughter and father recording by Cécile and Jean-Luc Cappozzo called Soul Eyes (Fou Records FR-CD 15 [www.fou.records.free.fr]). Though he once played with Dizzy Gillespie, Jean-Luc is best known as a free improviser, having played in formats ranging from Globe Unity Orchestra to duos with Joëlle Léandre, Paul Lovens and Axel Dörner. Here he turns to an essential modernism. The duo recording is devoted to two composers who particularly embody notions of blues and remembering in their work, Charles Mingus and Mal Waldron.


The music is essentially reflective, a series of reveries that emphasize both the lyricism and the blues roots of the composers, one melody sometimes flowing into another. The first track is a 25-minute medley of Waldron’s “No More Tears” and Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat” and “Nostalgia in Times Square;” the second Waldron’s Soul Eyes” and Mingus’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus”; the third a luminous trip to visit Waldron’s “Seagulls of Kristiansund.” Jean-Luc moves from melodic variations to sudden free flurries while Cécile can suggest Waldron and Monk in a CD that must be one of the year’s most movingly beautiful recordings.


There may be no other musician who has embodied this double vision of past and future as singularly as Albert Ayler, whose work was regularly assaulted as both primitivist and far-out noise. It was, of course, to its immense and eternal credit, both. As a teenager Ayler had toured with Little Walter, learning the blues up close, and the roots of his music, always apparent, are announced at the outset, whether it’s the extraordinary wailing ensembles with trumpeter Norman Howard on “Witches and Devils,” (available on Spirits) suggesting recordings of New Orleans’ Eureka Brass Band, or the full program of gospel tunes, entitled either Swing Low Sweet Spiritual or Goin’ Home, recorded with Call Cobbs (like Waldron an accompanist to Billie Holiday) at the same February 24, 1964 recording session.


Ayler’s special song has been taken up by one of the most intrepid of  archivists, Jeff Lederer, a tenor and soprano saxophonist whose wit and research have previously given us Shakers & Bakers, a band bringing free jazz treatments to a program of hymns created by Shakers, a small religious sect better known for their minimalist furniture. Lederer has now put the whale in Ayler’s wail with Brooklyn Blowhards (little(i)music), exploring both Ayler’s approach and some of his repertoire along with a collection of songs that belonged to the great enterprise that was whaling. He’s joined in this by a crack band made up of tenor saxophonist Petr Cancura, cornetist Kirk Knuffke, trombonist Brian Drye and accordionist Art Bailey. Percussionists Matt Wilson, Allison Miller and Stephen LaRose are credited with: concert percussion, ship’s bell, chum bucket and chain. Mary LaRose adds vocals to some tracks and Gary Lucas contributes some guitar.


From the opening treatment of Ayler’s “Bells,” it’s an explosion of joy and life, Lederer getting closer to the complexity, vibrancy and sweetness of Ayler’s tenor sound and line than I’ve heard others manage, and the level of energy flows throughout the band along with a certain sense of wonder at the very strangeness and appropriateness of the project. While people have stretched for particular analogues to the diatonic joy of Ayler’s compositions, Lederer’s trip to the sea shanty library seems wonderfully fitting, even if one makes the grim connection with Ayler’s own watery death. Here, at least, he rests in a community. The sea shanty “Haul Away Joe,” a feature for Drye’s trombone, and Ayler’s keening “Dancing Flower” together suggest the combination of emotional outpouring and exuberance that characterizes a New Orleans funeral parade, the accordion at once a stand-in for the sailor’s traditional concertina and Call Cobb’s tinkling electric harpsichord. Ultimately the tunes and the lives of Ayler and the whalers merge in a circular ghost of a narrative. The final “Insular Tahiti/ The Seaman’s Hymn” combines the traditional hymn with a reading from Herman Melville.

Stuart Broomer © 2016

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