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Joseph Jarman 1937-2019

joseph jarman

By a coincidence that seems extraordinary, at least to me, Joseph Jarman’s death on Wednesday, at the age of 81, took place two days after a group of London-based artists had performed his 1966 poem-with-music “Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City” to a packed audience at Cafe Oto. Dante Micheaux read Jarman’s words beautifully, sharing the stage with the singer Elaine Michener, Byron Wallen on trumpet, Jason Yarde on saxophones and electronics, Alex Hawkins on piano, Neil Charles on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. It was a surprising and welcome choice in an unbroken two-hour set that also included works by Jeanne Lee, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp and Jayne Cortez. (Here is Mike Hobart’s excellent FT review of the gig.)

Jarman, who died in a New Jersey home for actors, spent his last decades as a teacher of Shin Buddhism, having significantly reduced his involvement in musical performance from about 1993 onwards. He’ll be best remembered as a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which evolved in the mid-’60s out of Roscoe Mitchell’s quartet and Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, in both of which he played. This made him an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, now into its sixth decade.

Like many other great musicians — including Gene Ammons, Bo Diddley, Johnny Griffin, Dinah Washington, John Gilmore, Nat King Cole, Richard Davis, Eddie Harris, Freddie Below, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Hartman —  he had been taught at DuSable High, on Chicago’s South Side, by the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, the school’s music instructor from 1935 to 1962. His instrument at that time was the snare drum, which he played in the school band.

He began studying the saxophone and woodwinds while stationed in Germany with the US Army from 1955 to 1958. On returning to Chicago he met Mitchell and Malachi Favors, and his course was set. He became part of a music that absorbed, metabolised and reimagined everything from the country blues to John Cage, breaking down the conventions and creating new approaches. The impact of their arrival in Europe in 1969, together with Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith and others, has yet to be properly assessed.

I was fortunate enough to hear the Art Ensemble on several occasions in what I suppose we think of as their classic incarnation — notably in Central Park’s open-air Wollman Auditorium in 1973, their first New York concert, when they played the epic “People in Sorrow”, and at the Roundhouse in London later in that decade — and on both occasions I had my consciousness rearranged in a very fulfilling way. With their slogan “Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future”, they took ownership of what they were doing with a visionary confidence that continues to exert an influence on new generations.

In her book As Serious As Your Life, Val Wilmer describes Jarman as “poet, philosopher and polemicist as well as musician.” On his last studio recording with the Art Ensemble, Sirius Calling (Pi, 2004), he opened a saxophone-and-drums duet with Don Moye by speaking these words:

Every day is a perfect day

Every moment a perfect moment

Every second a perfect second

We can see complete darkness simply by closing our eyes

We can see complete light by truly opening our eyes

* The photograph of Joseph Jarman is from the cover of his first album, Song For (Delmark, 1967), and was taken by Joe Banks.

Mark Lockheart’s ‘Days on Earth’

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Most of the interesting new big-band music these days tends to be of the experimental variety, from Darcy James Argue to Ingrid Laubrock. Too much is the kind of warmed-over bombast you get from people steeped in the tradition of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich and the University of North Texas Lab Band. So it’s always welcome to come across someone using the established language to say new things, as Mark Lockheart does with great success in Days on Earth, a large-scale work for sextet and orchestra premiered at Milton Court in London last night.

Lockheart (above), the saxophonist and composer who first attracted attention with Loose Tubes 30 years ago and has since played with Polar Bear, Perfect Houseplants and others, was leading the distinguished core group, which included John Parricelli (guitar), Liam Noble (piano), Tom Herbert (bass), Seb Rochford (drums). John Ashton Thomas conducted the 33-piece Guildhall Studio Orchestra: 14 violins, four violas, three cellos, harp, four woodwind, six brass and percussion.

Normally I don’t like doing that jazz-critic thing of describing a piece of music by triangulating it with a couple of other things it resembles, but I don’t see the harm in mentioning here that Lockheart, whether he meant to or not, has drawn together aspects of Eddie Sauter’s work behind Stan Getz on Focus with Gil Evans’s setting for Wayne Shorter on “The Barbara Song”. Which is not to suggest that Lockheart’s seven-part suite is a concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra, which it is not, or that it reflects the early 1960s, the time when those works were made. The infectious grooves alone — and there are many of them scattered throughout Days on Earth — are definitely contemporary.

The use of his resources to create new textures, however, would do credit to Sauter or Evans. I heard some imaginative groupings; two examples would be bass clarinet and double bass repeating a staccato motif as an undercurrent, and a clarinet against harp and plucked cellos . The big ensemble passages were perfectly integrated and, thanks as much to the skill and enthusiasm of the students in the orchestra as much as the pros in the rhythm section, swung like mad. That wouldn’t have happened half a century ago.

Days on Earth was conceived as a big statement: “a defining moment for me,” the composer says, “not just in the scale of the instrumental forces but also the culmination of many musical (and life) journeys.” Without burdening the listener, in both live and recorded forms it feels like a thoughtful outpouring of human emotions, choosing to deploy beauty as a response to confusion, carefully channeled through great artistry. Lockheart’s own tenor solos were exquisitely formed and perfectly flighted — it’s no news that he has a singularly beautiful tone — and some of the students, including the violinist Nicole Petrus Barracks and the harpist Lise Vandersmissen, made striking individual contributions.

Before the interval, Lockheart led nine other student musicians through five of his earlier pieces, showcasing the powerful bass of Joe Lee and the alto of Asha Parkinson, whose quietly intense closing solo — a moment of wonderfully understated drama — reminded me of how impressive she was in the Guildhall School’s concert presentation of Donald Fagen’s Nightfly a couple of years ago.

Pretty much a five-star evening, then, which really deserves to be repeated. And in its CD form, recorded at Mark Knopfler’s British Grove studio and released next week on the Edition label, Days on Earth is definitely a five-star album, demanding a place at the forefront of Britain’s extremely active contemporary jazz scene.

Herbie Nichols at 100

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This week the Stone in New York City is hosting a four-night celebration of the centenary of Herbie Nichols, the composer and pianist who remained in obscurity during his lifetime but has since, thanks to the enthusiastic advocacy of such admirers as Roswell Rudd, Misha Mengelberg, Buell Neidlinger, Steve Lacy and George Lewis, been acknowledged as one of the most interesting figures of his era.

I read about Nichols before I heard him, as one of the figures profiled in A. B. Spellman’s great book Four Lives in the Bebop Business, published in 1967, four years after his death from leukemia at the age of 44. By placing his story alongside those of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Jackie McLean, all of them much better known, the author granted him a certain standing. In career terms it was a tale of woe, very largely, but it seemed clear that public neglect never dimmed the light of Nichols’s creativity.

Then I got to hear his music — which wasn’t so easy at the time — and, like everybody else who “discovered” him for themselves, immediately recognised his great combination of complete originality and total accessibility. He was kin to Thelonious Monk, quite evidently, and also to Elmo Hope and Dick Twardzik, but with a different outlook.

Here are “23 Skidoo”, “Step Tempest” and “Shuffle Montgomery”, all from the two-volume set of 10-inch LPs recorded for the Blue Note label in 1955, titled The Prophetic Herbie Nichols, with Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums (and great abstract cover art by Martin Craig, proving that there was visual life at Blue Note before Reid Miles). And here’s “Love Gloom Cash Love”, the title track of another trio album recorded for Bethlehem three years later, with his old friend George Duvivier on bass and Dannie Richmond on drums.

So that’s Herbie Nichols, born on January 3, 1919 to parents who’d come to New York from St Kitt’s and Trinidad. These pieces are typical in that their characteristic jauntiness seems to be a light disguise for more nuanced feelings. He was great with titles — “House Party Starting”, “Terpsichore”, “S’Crazy Pad”, “Hangover Triangle” — but even better at coming up with combinations of melody, rhythm and harmony that sound completely fresh but also like something that’s been there all your life.

According to Spellman, he wrote a lot of poetry, too, particularly in hard times. I’d love to read that.

* The photograph of Herbie Nichols is by Francis Wolff.