Ezz-thetics

a column by
Stuart Broomer

 

I’ve only missed a couple of these columns since launching in February 2009, but the press of various assignments meant that I’d miss this one. As a substitute for the usual essay, I’ve put together a suite of recent liner notes. Liner notes are among my favorite writing activities, as is this column. Sometimes these columns feel like writing liner notes without the requisite invitation, trying to write to crucial aspects of a music’s core.

Reading liner notes helped shape my views of music. It’s absurd, at a 60-year-remove, to remember liner notes, but I recall certain details from a couple, including a particular morsel from the most significant record purchase I ever made, Ornette Coleman’s Ornette!, in February 1962. In his discussion of Scott LaFaro’s opening bowed bass solo on “C. & D.,” Gunther Schuller pointed out a quotation from Darius Milhaud’s La Création du monde. It was then the second most impressive feat of bass playing I had ever encountered (the first, and still standing, was LaFaro’s pizzicato solo on “W.R.U.” on Side A), but just as Coleman and LaFaro (and Don Cherry and Edward Blackwell) were opening a window on a new musical world, Schuller was opening another, a notion of music’s myriad interconnections.

Three years later, I would encounter another record with another liner note, both equally impactful on someone who had, in the interval, become both a fledgling musician and a fledgling writer: Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity. The “liner note” went beyond any expectation to a surreal prose poem cum essay in its own booklet: Paul Haines’ You and the Night and the Music: Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray. There I would read the phrase “foster melodies of my foster mother”, suggesting the Family Foster of “Oh, Susanna,” monsters lurking in the charged background of Ayler’s universe, and a description of Ayler’s tone as “a diseased pearl.” In my page-long Coda review (December 1965), I described the text as “a beautiful document at once expressionistic and expository.” Shortly after publishing that, I met Michael Snow, a close friend of Haines, who told me that it was the first nice thing anyone had ever said about Paul in print. I’m not sure I believed it then or now, but it was good to hear anyway.

Liner notes have lost a lot of their functionality since I read those notes. They’re far less common now, like the physical media and physical record store where one might read them. I feel blessed every time I’m asked to write one, whether I can accept or not. I think of writing liner notes as a kind of collaborative act, an intense and directed form of listening itself.

My thanks to the musicians and labels involved for permission to reprint.
Bandcamp addresses for the recordings appear at the bottom of the column.

 

Joëlle Léandre + Craig Taborn + Mat Maneri
hEARoes
(Rogueart)



The late jazz critic Whitney Balliett called jazz “the sound of surprise”, but the term might usually be less apt for free improvisation, where the very assumption of surprise diminishes its possibility. That’s not the case here, where the music itself can be considered an act of gentle surprise, a continuous blurring of the ideas of improvisation and composition, as three great musicians fuse creativity, intuition and precision into an art that reaches toward telepathy as both tool and goal of collective action.

Meanwhile, there’s something wonderfully traditional about this group. It’s very much a piano trio, not the jazz kind with string bass and drums, but the classical kind, though here a virtuoso bass stands in for cello, and a similarly adept viola for violin. Only the very best chamber musicians playing great chamber music – e.g., the Beaux Arts Trio playing Beethoven or Schubert – sound improvised. Here a perhaps differently gifted ensemble achieves the opposite, improvising music that sounds composed.

Due for brief consideration: one of the twentieth century’s singular works, Schoenberg’s Suite, Op.29 (1925-26). It’s a foundational work for serialism, a suite in four parts, a half-hour of genius, but the number I would focus on is the final (1925-26), itself a slight distortion, overlooking the work’s beginnings in Autumn 1924. I do not suggest any direct comparison with the work here, though one might note resonances in certain energies, interactions, precision of address, of focus, of a line’s delineation, completion, sequencing, and aptness.

But what of the method of creation, the time expended? A composer’s singular concentration, developing an exacting method – in those years an office building might be conceived, designed, approved, the lot acquired, the construction – even the decorating – finished, tenants in, then the looming spectre, slating for demolition, tenants out, the design conceived ... Consider the present trio’s seven pieces, 40 minutes of music, perhaps an afternoon and/or evening’s work from conception to completion, stellar chamber music, years in long-range preparation, perhaps (how much listening and playing might we attach to Léandre, Taborn and Maneri?), but invented and executed in an interval of time that might represent a thorough housecleaning of ... a single room?

The intervening century since Suite, Op.29 is, among other things, a still evolving miracle. We’re recipients of, participants in, witnesses to, the spectacular construction of a broad sonic discourse in which musicians interact with vast and deeply personal vocabularies and responses, finding new territories almost simultaneously or close enough to say so. Sometime during Schoenberg’s intense elaboration of his Suite, Louis Armstrong and

Earl Hines met for the first time in the hall of the Black chapter of the Chicago Musicians’ Union and ended up playing piano four-hands, spontaneous interaction on a single instrument. Somehow soon after, Armstrong, Hines and the clarinetist Johnny Dodds must have found themselves on a stage on Chicago’s South Side, reimagining some then current blues into a masterpiece of musical design at once collective, individual, and spontaneous.

Another miracle of musical time? Joëlle Léandre informs that she has played with Mat Maneri many times over a 30-year period. The surprise may be that they never sound mechanical, jaded or responding by rote. Further, Léandre remarks that before this day she and Craig Taborn had never played together. The surprise, perhaps strongest, is that they never sound like they’re studying each other, laying hints and clues for ready discussion. They just play, not like they’re reading a score, but rather reading each other’s vast, copious, musical mind.

All three are always playing full out, participating wholly, coming from three different spaces, each a master with a wealth of general and specialized musical experience, collectively assembling and sharing a century of improvisatory practice as well as particular dialects: Joëlle Léandre with experience in every form of improvised music as well as special collaborations with Giacinto Scelsi and John Cage; Mat Maneri, long-time musical partner to his father Joe, and thus an indefatigable explorer of microtonal music, composed and improvised; Craig Taborn, a musician so universally informed and adept, that likely no other pianist might have fit so readily into a band called Rocket Science.

What is this strange cross-evolution in which these spontaneous collective composers have come to a terrain in which a real counterpoint emerges, the invention of multiple minds, triggered in micro seconds by the appearance of someone else’s ragged, jagged inspiration, suddenly expanded, multiplied, varied into a compound creation that here might equally resemble those languages of Schoenberg and Armstrong, strangely evolved, ears sprouting everywhere, hearing multiply, monsters for sounds, their nuances and plurality, like one of Cocteau’s Opium drawing of eyes or fingers, those too, but here it’s the ears proliferating. ears everywhere, keening to overload, inviting and directing fingers, breath ... burst from instruments as well as players: spruce and ivory, brass castings, fingerboards, sentient keys and strings and bows ...

“Improvisation,” “free improvisation,” “improvised music” ... any encounter with the higher frequencies of this music makes the terms we employ to name it slightly awkward. “Improvisation” a noun, a thing; “improvised” a past participle; “free” suggests something easy, maybe disconnected. There’s no easy solution, but when listening to this music there should be a name that suggests its dynamism, its enduring reshaping, the way it shifts and grows in depth the more often we hear it, as if the musicians are a secret society, somehow expanding in number and activity within the fixed record of their encounter. What is most striking here is the music’s connectedness. It’s music that’s simultaneously becoming more connected and more unstuck the more often we hEAR it, music of great hEARt and great mind.

Our nuclear appreciation of an instant’s possibility here is also strange pastoral, generous repose and reaction, pietistic workout, a century of composers’ techniques come generously, instantly, to ear and mind. At the end of the interval signalled by the music’s conclusion, there is more than the synthesis of methods and minds as some impossibly complex and learned musical sleight of hand: there is the sheer wonder of collective mind. These three musicians are virtuosi of the collective act, of reading minds, predicting shifts, extrapolating methodologies of shared growth (performers and listeners at once and ultimately alike). Here, we are all somewhere no one has quite been before. More than mere brilliant construction, this is a model of what multiple minds wholly engaged might enact in any sphere. The audience for this music may still be modest; nonetheless, its meaning and relevance are extraordinary.

hEAR, hEAR, these are hEARoes, EAR hEARoes.  

 

Sergio Armaroli + Veli Kujala + Harri Sjöström
Giancarlo Schiaffini Windows & Mirrors: Milano Dialogues Part Two
(Leo Records)



Bel Canto

Windows & Mirrors: Part Two is the eighth in a brilliant series of Leo recordings launched in 2019 by percussionist Sergio Armaroli. It connects directly to the first of them, Duets and Trios, the duets with axophonist Harri Sjöström and the trios adding trombonist Giancalro Schiaffini, and it continues the documentation of Windows & Mirrors (Milano Dialogues), the quartet and sub-groups that added the quarter-tone accordion of Veli Kujala to the trio. If, in our thoughts about music, we create a distinction between the orchestral and the intimate, here that illusion disappears. Armaroli imagines the music as in-built in the character of the instruments, “as a form of the music that was born as a subtle dialogue between dense harmonic schematics (vibraphone and accordion) and even more free melodic profiles (trombone and sax).”

Where does such music come from? We might imagine certain national inheritances, the great Italian tradition in which ethereal sacred music gradually became the extended mythic and historic narratives of opera seria, or the rich musicality of Finland, which likely possesses more symphony orchestras per capita than any other country. Then there is the embrace of the jazz tradition. Among Schiaffini and Armaroli’s collaborations is Deconstructing Monk in Africa (Dodicilune), combining the works of the greatest composer of modern jazz with the sound store of the music’s ancestral legacy. The lighting arc extends to individual collaborations with Cecil Taylor, from Schiaffini’s membership in the Italian Instabile Orchestra that recorded Taylor’s The Owner of the Riverbank (Enja) to Harri Sjöström’s long membership as the sole horn in Taylor’s quartet, a role previously played by Steve Lacy and Jimmy Lyons. Veli Kujala first appeared in an international setting in the permutating band of The Balderin Sali Variations (Leo), an international conclave of improvisers assembled in Helsinki in 2018 by Sjöstrom that had the startling Kujala matching reeds in duets with Sjöstrom and Evan Parker.

The reality is that this music comes from everywhere, from every scrap of technical nuance, errant sound and lyric collocation heard in the couple of hundred years of ears gathered here, listening intensely, assembling instinctively and combining creatively. Those windows and mirrors are openings and reflections, sources and repeaters of light. A musical illumination is palpably present in the brightness of timbres here, the metallic brass and the special sheen of the vibraphone, and that wandering lightness of the quarter-tone concert accordion which moves here with a fluency of timbre and pitch unlike any other keyboard. There is a sense in which every musician was chosen for a potential collective identity that had almost nothing to do with specific instruments but rather to do with a special fluency, a joyous musical discipline. Considering the results, Sjöstrom remarks, “trusting is essential and also the trust that the music has its ways, just like water is flowing and taking its own ways of flowing and so on.”  He also quotes Cecil Taylor: if the music is true, the form will take care of itself.”

Dissonance is rarely heard here and when it is, it’s heard not as dissonant but as proximity, lines closing together, lines spreading apart. If collectively improvised music aims for its own set of values, somehow in embrace with the unknown, these four musicians, as duo, trio or quartet, achieve collective composition of an almost unknown order, individual initiations of material so richly thoughtful, however spontaneous, that we hear music that might suggest Stravinsky, Messiaen, Ligeti or Berio, moments in which two supportive voices will rise in a light crescendo to support a lead voice, or a single voice will rise to contrast and develop another’s theme, or a brief solo interlude might serve to connect one collective passage to another. At times this might feel like a concerto for four voices, but then, where is the orchestra? It’s here, it’s them, just the two or three or four of them: making, pressing, initiating, supporting.

Kujala, new to the group, points out its spontaneous formal richness, no contradiction but the living fabric of instant composition: “What I found wonderful was that everybody was listening very carefully and used imaginatively a plethora of different compositional techniques: the classic techniques like imitations with inversions, retrogrades, etc., occasionally very effective contrasts, experimental sounds. The main focus of the ensemble varied a lot: sometimes it was a dialogue, sometimes small solos here and there, sometimes passages went from one instrument to another, sometimes the ensemble built certain textures collectively, you name it.”

The veteran Schiaffini reduces the process to its essence: “The most important (maybe the unique) action is just listen/ play/ listen/ propose/ play/ silence, and with such friends and in that studio, it happened very easily.” That felicity is the music’s earmark.

 

Lori Freedman + Scott Thomson
AMBER
(Cleanfeed Records)



Lori Freedman is a masterful interpreter of contemporary composers with a recent solo CD, Excess, that includes works by Richard Barrett and Brian Ferneyhough that are almost impossible to play, including singing and playing over a four-octave range. Scott Thomson creates large-scale, site-specific works, including the recent Arborienteering, a two-hour, two-kilometre composition with 15 musicians and 58 duets beginning and ending with different trumpet soloists, all the while meeting Covid-19 distancing protocols. Each has played in stellar small groups, Freedman in the Queen Mab Trio with Ig Henneman and Marilyn Lerner, Thomson in Monicker with Arthur Bull and Roger Turner. Both have been mainstays in long-running Montreal orchestras, the composerly Ensemble SuperMusique and the looser Ratchet Orchestra, as well as one-offs, like the Montreal-Toronto Art Orchestra with Roscoe Mitchell, interpreting orchestrated free improvisations. Both are accomplished solo improvisers.

This is not intended to advertise the history, work ethic, creativity, range, or virtuosity of either or both members of Amber, the Freedman/Thomson duo, but rather to summarize all the things the two don’t have to do in this format. The duo’s formal triangle is not one in which Sisypha and Sisyphus drag or push train cars of musical-historical baggage up opposite sides only to reach the apex and have said cars tumble onto one another and/or expectant listeners.

When do they find time for their 15-year duo project? Hardly ever. The two recorded the CD Plumb in 2007 for Toronto’s Barnyard Records. This is its sequel. How often has Amber performed in public? They played at record launch events for Plumb in 2008 in Toronto and Montreal, then at the 2008 Sound Symposium in Newfoundland, and the Montreal Mardi Spaghetti improvised music series in 2013. The Covid-19 lockdown shifted everyone’s emphases, here bringing a renewed concentration and focus to an essential project.

Amber has an absolute identity of its own, from its unlikely instrumentation, pairing also-ran winds in the improvisation scene (though key voices in early jazz polyphony), to the way the duo actually plays, its dialogues ranging from empathy without imitation to irony without distance. Where does one usually find such relationships? In sub-texts, and that is the particular zone in which they so magically reside, undermining, reinterpreting, questioning, sending-up, lurking – sub-text so rich that it has displaced any conventional notion of a central focus.

Sub-text? Freedman can manage something like Lucky’s last-gasp gospel in Godot, getting so many words/sounds through her clarinets that it can only be done with a simultaneously lost/found voice, channeling the articulate and the disarticulate in a single breath. Beyond an innate lyricism, Thomson might sound like a water drum or an internal organ. Together they can suggest the dynamic abstraction of atomic particles or create compound illusions of fluttering wings and small animals in woodland nests, all simultaneously evoking the processes of amber itself, its million-year transformations of matter hinted at in instants.

One of the things the two manage is to play in unlike-horn ways. Each has a genius for timbre, for variety whether sequential or simultaneous, framing multiply, almost orchestrally, rather than univocally. Either can sound, as Zoot Sims once described Stan Getz, like “a nice bunch of guys.” On a sheer technical level, each can apply a constancy of sound to a legato passage in which difference between clarinet and trombone might disappear, no matter of imitation, just range of technique. 

Amidst this multiplicity of sub-text, where is the central voice, some point of meaning’s assembly? It belongs to the listener, as genuinely present as it is an illusion, heard as hard, lustrous, and translucent as amber, in which an ant trapped millions of years ago is now as durable as any god.

 

Natural Information Society
Since Time Is Gravity
(Eremite Recordings)



Time Dancing ...

There is a phrase in the Dao de Ching (II, 42) which describes
creation ... “out of one two, out of two three, out of three the myriad
creatures” ... it almost sounds like counting time ...

Since first developing Natural Information Society in 2010, Joshua Abrams has been gradually expanding the group’s conceptual underpinnings, its musical references and the sheer number of the group’s members. Its music is, in a sense, an expansive form of minimalism, based in repeating and overlaid rhythmic patterns, ostinatos and modality. Its roots, its scale and its meaning become clearer in time. If Time Is Gravity, it also allows us to carry more. Having begun as fundamentally a rhythm section with Abrams’ guimbri at its core, the versions presented here can stretch to a tentet, including six horns.

Abrams has been expanding his minimalism gradually, but he has long understood a key to minimalism’s potential, the breadth of its roots in the late 1950s and early 1960s, ranging from the dissatisfaction of young European-stream composers with the limitations of serialism and the simultaneous dissatisfaction of jazz musicians with the dense harmonic vocabulary of bop and hard bop. The former began exploring rhythmic complexity and narrow tonal palettes in place of harmonic abstraction (Steve Reich’s Drumming; Philip Glass’s Music with Changing Parts; perhaps above all, Terry Riley’s In C and his late ‘60s all-night organ and loop concerts); the latter reduced dense chord changes to scales (signally with Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, but rapidly expanding with John Coltrane’s vast project). In the 1950s the LP record opened the world with documentation of Asian and African musics, key influences on both minimalists and jazz musicians. If John Coltrane’s soprano saxophone suggested the keening shehnai of Bismillah Khan, the instrument was rapidly taken up by two key minimalists, LaMonte Young and Riley, similarly appreciative of its flexible intonation, the same thing that kept it out of big bands.

If the guimbri, the North African hide-covered lute that Abrams plays with NIS, involves a rich tradition of hypnotic healing music associated with the Gnawa people, Abrams’ music also touches on other musics as well, other depths, memories and healings, different drones, rhythms and modes. As the group expands on Since Time Is Gravity, he has made certain jazz traditions in the same stream more explicit as well. If there is a mystical and elastic quality involved in the experience of time, both in direction and duration, you will catch it here. The parts for the choir of winds expand on the roles of Abrams’ guimbri, Mikel Avery and Hamid Drake’s percussion and Lisa Alvarado’s harmonium: at times, the winds are almost looping in the tentet version, each hitting a repeating note in turn, at once drone and distinct inflection in a temporal sequence. The brilliance of the work resides in the collaborative impact of Abrams’ compositions, the NIS’ intuitive execution and in Ari Brown’s singular embodiment of the great tenor saxophone tradition, including the oracular genius of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis or Yusef Lateef.

The three pieces by the expanded NIS featuring Brown – the opening Moontide Chorus and Is and the ultimate Gravity – have an immediate impact, and together might be considered a kind of concerto for tenor saxophone. Here Brown presses almost indistinguishably from composed melody to improvised speech, getting so close to language that he might have a text. Everything here is a sign. Note the tap of the Rhythm Ace that links Moontide Chorus to Is, the attentive heart always present, even when signed by a machine. There’s a link here to the methodologies and meanings of dub music and the linear and vertical collage of beats, textures and tongues: treated with reverence, a sample or a beat-box can be as soulful, as hypnotic, as a mbira or a tamboura. If those pieces with Brown are heard as a suspended concerto, the three embrace and enfold the other works, like the sepals of a flower. That placement will also touch on the mysteries of our perception of time.

Particularly in Is, but elsewhere as well, a phenomenon of transcendence arises in which time appears to be tripartite, at once moving backwards and forwards and standing still. This is an act of technical brilliance certainly, but also an illumination of music’s ability to represent temporal consciousness through polymetrics. This particular listener has only heard it before in a few places, including the horn shouts and bowed basses of Coltrane’s Africa, in moments of Charles Mingus’s Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, in certain pieces where tapes were literally running backwards, and earlier still in Dizzy Gillespie’s Cubana Be, Cubana Bop, in which the composer George Russell and conguero Chano Pozo found a music that spoke at once in the voices of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the vestigial rites, rhythms and songs of the Yoruba language and Santarem religion in inland Cuba.

In Joshua Abrams’ compositions and the realization of them by the NIS, in the time of one’s close listening and memory thereof, distinctions between the “natural” and the “social,” the “quotidian” and the “transcendent,” are erased, suspended or perhaps irrelevant. Consider two of the ensemble pieces, one named for “nature,” the other “social science.” In Murmuration the repeating wind figures of flute and alto saxophones combine with the interlocking patterns of harp, guimbri and frame drum (tar) to create a perfect moving stillness, not an imitation but a witness to the miracle of the starlings’ astonishing collective art, a surfeit of beauty that might be the ultimate defensive tactic.

Stigmergy take its name and concept from the Occupy Movement’s Heather Marsh, who proposes a social system based on cooperative rather than competitive models, one in which ideas are freely contributed and developed as ideas rather than an individual’s property. In its form, Abram’s Stigmergy is the closest thing to traditional jazz, a series of accompanied solos by each of the wind players. However, the composed accompaniment is a radically collectivist notion: a repeated rhythmic figure, call it ostinato or riff, in which the different winds each play only a note or two of the figure, a concept both more collectivist and individualistic in its conception than any typical unison figure. It suggests another of the underlying recognitions that propel the Natural Information Society, the group as social organism, the teleology of hypnotic anarchy, all parts in place, functioning systematically, evolving and expressing itself, its nature and society, as a transformative organism.

George Lewis has described music “as a space for reflection on the human condition.” This suggests that, rather than a “distraction,” at least some music might serve as distraction from distraction. It’s a focus, a clarity, an awareness, an external invitation to interiority, as if music itself is a model for form and contemplation, an organism contemplating for us or as us. If that is a possibility, and I am sure I have heard such musics, then this music is among them. How many of our rhythms, melodies, and harmonies (cultural, historical, biological, psychic) might such music carry, translate and transform in the particulate ecstasy of our own murmuration?

... “out of one two, out of two three, out of three the
myriad creatures” ... it sounds like the beginning of a history of
the future ... the heart machine of our continuity ... or time itself,
at once remembering or praying ...

 

Bandcamp Addresses:

https://rogueart1.bandcamp.com/album/hearoes

http://www.leorecords.com/?m=select&id=CD_LR_933

https://cleanfeedrecords.bandcamp.com/album/amber

https://eremiterecords.bandcamp.com/album/since-time-is-gravity

 

© 2023 Stuart Broomer

 

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