Reading music: jazz + prose
I’ve always had a soft spot for jazz and poetry: Jack Kerouac with Zoot Sims, Kenneth Patchen with the Chamber Jazz Sextet, Langston Hughes with Charles Mingus, Christopher Logue with Tony Kinsey, LeRoi Jones with the New York Art Quartet. It must be the beatnik in me, or the hopeless optimist, because not much of it has outlived its time. But here’s something new: jazz and prose. Or, to be more precise, jazz both with and without prose, at the same time. The Moss Project’s What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?, just released on the Babel label, consists of five pieces of music written by the London-based guitarist Moss Freed and a sixth by his colleague Ruth Goller, recorded by his group, and then given to half a dozen writers to produce short stories or poems inspired by what they’ve heard. A handsome hardback book contains the CD and the printed words (which can also be heard, read by the authors, on a download from the artist’s website).
The writers who responded to Freed’s invitation are Naomi Alderman, Colum McCann, James Miller, Lawrence Norfolk, Joe Dunthorne and Hanan al-Shaykh. The musicians, apart from Freed, are the members of his quartet (pictured above) — Ruth Goller on bass guitar and double bass, the drummer Marek Dorcik and the singer and violinist Alice Zawadzki — plus a guest, the near-ubiquitous Shabaka Hutchings, on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet. The six pieces are bookended by an brief instrumental prelude and a song for voices and instruments with words and music by Freed.
On a purely musical level, the CD gets better as it goes along: after a somewhat self-conscious beginning with “The Bubble”, the first full-length piece, and the gentle pastorale of “Anniversary”, to which Goller’s double bass makes an outstanding contribution, the blood starts flowing and the playing seems to loosen up. (This may have nothing to do with reality, in the sense of bearing a relationship to the order in which the pieces were recorded, but it happens to be this listener’s experience.) The fourth and sixth pieces, the intricate title track and an adventurous slow invention called “The Angel”, on which Freed explores various instrumental effects, are the picks for me. These are carefully constructed compositions that sound entirely contemporary while generally avoiding the tricksiness — usually expressed as a perversely wilful angularity — that can afflict the current generation of young, conservatory-trained jazz musicians (Freed studied at Edinburgh and Berklee). The blend of the leader’s guitar and Zawadzki’s violin is an extremely happy one, subtly enhanced by the addition of bass clarinet on “Caravans”, while Goller and Dorcik keep the music’s sinews taut (their handling of irregular metres on “What Do You See…” is as calm and frictionless as their switching between time to no-time in “Postscript: Lose Ourselves”).
And the written words? Freed suggests they can be read at the same time as the music is playing, or before, or after, or just listened to in the writers’ recitations (find them at http://www.mossfreed.com). I can’t honestly say that reading them greatly affected my response to the music, but I enjoyed McCann’s meditation on a woman’s visit to an old church (“Anniversary”), which really does fit with its music, and Norfolk’s miniature account of two characters on a slightly tense road trip (“Caravans”). A worthwhile experiment, attractively presented.
* The photograph above is by Barbara Bartz. Left to right: Ruth Goller, Marek Dorcik, Moss Freed and Alice Zawadzki.