Monday, 17 June 2013

Jazz Enlightenment, Approximate Classics and Psychedelic Suites

I’ve begun recently to tentatively tweet on behalf of the Oxfam Music and Art shop in Exeter, alongside its manager, Jane. I’m highlighting some of the more notable items that come our way, whether they be classics, sought-after rarities, intriguing oddities, or just have nice covers which I can take a picture of and post. And, let’s face it, some of them are simply things which attract my attention because they’re part of my personal canon – I just like them.

Such is certainly the case with John Mclaughlin’s My Goals Beyond and Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing At Baxters, both of which are long-term favourites of mine. Mclaughlin’s 1970 LP turned down the electric riffing he’d unleashed on his 1969 sessions with Miles Davis (notably for the Bitches Brew LP), in the Lifetime power trio with Tony Williams, Larry Young (with Cream bassist Jack Bruce joining for the follow up) and on his debut as bandleader, Devotion (with its timelocked Ira Cohen mylar-mirror photo and enthusiastically phased Alan Douglas production). My Goals Beyond picks up from delicate, contemplative acoustic track at the end of Extrapolation album (which otherwise is more reflective of the British free jazz scene at the time), Bill Evans’ lovely Peace Piece, whose mood of stillness Mclaughlin translates perfectly to the guitar. A number of short solo acoustic guitar numbers (with some overdubbing) take up the second side of My Goals Beyond, including versions of Bill Evans’ Blue In Green, his contribution to Miles Davis’ perennial favourite Kind of Blue, and Charles Mingus’ elegiac Goodbye Pork-Pie Hat. The first side is taken up by two loose and lengthy group improvisations, Peace One and Two, which unfurl around steadily circling bass lines and humming tambura drones.

Many of the musicians involved were associated with Miles Davis’ late 60s bands, or would go on to play with him in the early 70s. Mclaughlin himself had stumbled into playing with Davis on the In A Silent Way sessions almost as soon as he’d set foot in New York, and percussionist Airto Moreira and drummer Billy Cobham turned up on the Bitches Brew sessions, even if their efforts didn’t surface on the album as originally released (of course, every note Miles and his cohorts ever breathed, hit or plucked has now been issued in some form or another). Cobham went on to provide the swinging, jabbing percussion on Miles’ tribute to boxer Jack Johnson, whilst Moreira can be seen in the film of the Isle of Wight festival performance, in which free interpretations of the Bitches Brew material were aired before a slightly bewildered audience waiting to hear The Doors and The Who. Badal Roy, playing tabla, provided the rhythmic template for the Indian influenced linear improvisations, allowing them to soar free from set harmonic patterns. Dave Liebman’s lyrical, Coltraneish soprano sax and Jerry Goodman’s singing violin rise together into the wide blue yonder like twin larks ascending. Goodman, originally from jazz-flavoured psych-rock band The Flock, would play alongside Mclaughlin again when he plugged in and launched his spiritual explorations with full, twin-necked force in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Both Liebman and Roy would go on to join Miles for his On The Corner album, whose world fusions may well have been influenced by Mclaughlin’s pioneering ventures. Bassist Charlie Haden also launched explorations outside of the usual jazz borders (and well beyond his Midwestern origins), having initially expanded the music’s boundaries with Ornette Coleman. He would play with Alice Coltrane and Don Cherry in the 70s, both of whom introduced significant world music elements into their sound (occasionally to such an extent that the question might be asked ‘is this any longer jazz’?), and his own commitment to progressive international politics led him to record arrangements of the African National Congress anthem and Spanish Civil War and anarchist songs with his Liberation Music Orchestra. Haden is a great lover of the jazz tradition too, however, as displayed in his Quartet West LPs, one of which we also have on the shelves (unless someone nabbed it over the weekend). Appropriately enough, this 1980s reissue is pressed on clear vinyl, so that Mclaughlin’s far-off goals can be dimly made out through its groove-frosted disc (like a thin sheet of ice lifted from a small pond).

The sessions for After Bathing At Baxters found Jefferson Airplane let loose in the RCA recording studios, where they built up its song ‘suites’ from scratch, learning how to use the equipment (the studio as instrument) as they went along. The melding of songs into unbroken, discrete sections, no doubt drawing on Sergeant Pepper, works particularly well on the opening trio (subheaded Streetmasse). The Ballad of You & Me and Pooneil’s psychedelic free association, with burning acid guitar lines from Jorma Kaukonen and a rhythm which is both foursquare and woozily wonky, leads into the tape splicing and manipulating musique concrete goonery of A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly, the sound of people messing with the machinery and having a great deal of fun doing it. Perhaps this is what caught Zappa’s ear, and led to his collaboration with Grace Slick the next year, Would You Like A Snack, which appeared as an extra on the Crown of Creation CD reissue a while back. After a strange, giggling distortion of John Donne (‘no man is an island…is a peninsula’) we launch into the irresistible opening guitar lick of Young Girl Sunday Blues, the San Francisco sound encapsulated. Marty Balin’s yearning vocals, given little leeway on the rest of the album, are allowed their full emotive rein, the catch in his voice giving them a slightly countrified air. Elsewhere, Paul Kantner’s delicate, folkish portrait of a free spirit runs into his celebration of the spirit of the age, Wild Tyme, and Grace Slick forcefully sings two of her fiercely literate, provocatively confrontational compositions, rejoice (that’s James) and Two Heads. The cover, by Ron Cobb (who would later work as a designer on Dark Star, Star Wars and Alien), is great too. The colourful Airplane Haight Ashbury house, trailing balloons, flies with triplane wings over a monochrome America choked with the detritus of the industrialised, consumer society. Its prescient view of an ecologically devastated wasteland was later reflected in Cobb’s designing of an Ecology Flag, an alternative stars and stripes used as a symbol by the nascent environmental movement in the 70s. For those record collectors amongst you, for whom fine detail is all important, this is the UK stereo repressing with the orange RCA label (so no gatefold sleeve). For others less concerned with matrix numbers and label design, this has the advantage of making it a lot cheaper.

Another interesting record which has just gone out on the shelves is the 1974 LP Hallelujah by the Portsmouth Sinfonia, which documents their sell out concert at the Albert Hall. The Sinfonia were renowned for mangling popular classics such as Also Sprach Zarathustra, the William Tell Overture and the Blue Danube Waltz. Their spirited but woefully inaccurate renditions brought tears to the eyes produced by a mixture of laughter and wincing pain. Although they appeared to be a mere novelty comedy act (albeit an extravagant and populous one), and were by and large received and written about on that level, there were more interesting and musically exploratory ideas active beneath the surface. The Sinfonia drew on Cornelius Cardew’s idea of the scratch orchestra, an ensemble which aimed to democratise music making by removing the emphasis on virtuosity. Cardew used graphic scores and emphasised free group expression and improvisation within the loose structures they provided. The Sinfonia was founded by the composer Gavin Bryars in 1970 whilst he was teaching at Portsmouth Art College. He too emphasised a non-technical, intuitive approach to music which eschewed virtuosity and pitch-perfect notated score-reading. By applying this approach to the classical music world, however, he challenged the elitism inherent in its structure and in the education system which produced its performers from such a narrow range of society. Widely familiar pieces from the repertoire were chosen so that the members of the orchestra would already have an idea as to what they should be playing. They were all earnest in their desire to create music, otherwise the whole enterprise would have descended into intentional, exaggerated amateurishness.

In fact, some of the people involved were more than competent musicians (including Bryars himself). It wasn’t long before Brian Eno, himself an avowed non-musician, became involved, taking his place on the clarinettist’s stool. He appears in this unlikely guise on this LP, which he also produced. His would continue to have a fruitful artistic relationship with Gavin Bryars, giving several of his compositions (including The Sinking of the Titanic) their premier recordings on his Obscure Records label (now gathered together over at Ubuweb). The Orchestra’s position within the diverse world of British experimental music in the 70s, and its sharing of some of its ideological concerns, is reflected in some of the other musicians and composers taking part. Simon Fisher Turner sits next to Eno in the clarinet section. He would go on to provide the soundtracks to several of Derek Jarman’s films, including the sublimely drifting mix of sound, speech and music for Blue. Michael Nyman bravely takes up the euphonium, having apparently joined the orchestra mid-concert, such was his immediate enthusiasm. He went on to provide the driving, baroque-meets-minimalism soundtrack to The Draughtsman’s Contract, as well as many concert pieces. He also had a more experimental work, Decay Music, released on Eno’s Obscure label. Kate St John is definitely not an amateur oboe player, having recorded as a session musician with many top pop and rock acts, as well as in her own right and in collaboration with Bill Nelson and the other Eno, Roger. Steve Beresford, playing trumpet, represents the improv and free jazz scenes, whose ideals of non-idiomatic playing which avoids preconceived patterns or reflexive riffs he imports into the gleeful warping of classical forms and notions of perfect reproduction. And there’s a more straight ahead jazz player, tenor saxophonist Phil Woods, who left America for France in 1968 and moved into more exploratory, free waters. His marriage to Charlie Parker’s widow Chan provides a direct link with jazz aristocracy. Perhaps its not such a leap from Parker’s nimble bop lines (a different kind of virtuosity) to the Sinfonia. He always did dream of playing over a string section.

Another interesting oddity (with a simple but graphically striking and colourful cover by Jim Fasso for this UK release) which has just turned up is vibraphonist Gary Burton’s album of Carla Bley compositions A Genuine Tong Funeral, billed on the back cover as ‘a dark opera with words’ (those words don’t seem to extend beyond the evocative titles and Carla’s liner notes, however). Arranged in the form of a suite which documents imaginary, exotic death rites, this is a blend of jazz and Bley’s early compositional style, which draws on twentieth century chamber music. The music is far from the lugubrious experience the overarching concept might suggest, however. Bley’s answer to the question ‘does humour belong in music?’ is always an unequivocal ‘yes’. The Gary Burton Quartet under whose banner the record is released includes electric guitarist (and sometime John Mclaughlin collaborator) Larry Coryell, bassist Steve Swallow (a longtime personal and musical partner of Bley’s) and ‘Lonesome Dragon’, more prosaically known as drummer Bob Moses (later to play in a trio with Dave Liebman – there are always connections to be found in the companionable world of jazz - and on Pat Metheny’s debut LP on ECM, Bright Size Life, featured on this week’s Freak Zone). There are musicians beyond the core quartet on this record, however, and a distinguished group of guests they are, too. Steve Lacy was always an adventurous collaborator in whatever context he found himself, and here he plays his signature instrument, the soprano saxophone. Gato Barbieri blows hard tenor saxophone, as he would do on the soundtrack of Last Tango in Paris a few years later. Jimmy Knepper plays trombone, as he did for several years with Charles Mingus, until the irascible bassist punched him in the mouth whilst they were preparing for the fraught 1962 Town Hall concert in New York, which was to have showcased his large scale compositions. It was a blow which seriously affected Knepper’s ability to play for a couple of years, landed Mingus in court on an assault charge, and unsurprisingly ended their personal and musical relationship for many years. Knepper’s fully recovered and in fine form here, though. Michael Mantler, personally and musically attached to Bley for a number of years, plays trumpet. He’s perhaps better known now as a composer who blends jazz and modernist music and literature. His 70s albums No Answer and Silence were based on the words of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter respectively (and we’ve got a hard to come by double CD release which paired them both on the online Oxfam shop at the moment).

In fact, we’ve got something of a golden hoard of great modern jazz at the moment: Art Pepper, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Jim Hall, and the funky flute of Jeremy Steig, and a whole lot more. Do come and plunder it if you’re passing by.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Great post, Jez - Typically wide-ranging and informative. Will make me look out some of these again (and probably some for the first time) - Steve