Gary Peacock 1935-2020
Where did they come from, those jazz bassists who appeared in the 1960s, transforming not only the way the instrument was played but also its role in the music? They were the children of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, and they were legion: Reggie Workman, Richard Davis, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Henry Grimes, Chuck Israels, Steve Swallow… and Gary Peacock, whose death at the age of 85 was announced today.
I suppose the first time I heard his playing was on Don Ellis’s Essence and Prince Lasha’s The Cry, both recorded in Los Angeles in 1962, then Tony Williams’s Life Time in 1964 and Albert Ayler’s epochal Spiritual Unity in 1965, followed by a host of albums — not least with the pianists Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Marilyn Crispell and Marc Copeland, and in Keith Jarrett’s long-lived Standards Trio — that secured his place in the music.
To a superlatively agile technique, an almost voice-like tone, a gift for phrases that sang in the ear and an adventurous spirit he added a subtly poetic sensibility intensified by a spell in Japan that began in the late ’60s and lasted two and a half years. During that time he became a student of Zen Buddhism and a sense of meditative calm began to suffuse his playing, even when it was at its most active.
He made a few albums while he was in Japan, and one of them has long been my favourite of all his recordings. Titled Silver World, it was made in 1970 under the leadership of Hōzan Yamamoto, the great shakuhachi player and teacher, with Masabumi Kikuchi on piano and Hiroshi Murakami on drums. Somehow a copy found its way to me soon after its release, and it was one of those recordings that made me aware how jazz could be open to collaborations with all kinds of music from all over the world.
As far as I know, it has never been released outside Japan. But here it is. If you have the time, listen to the 12-minute title track, and marvel at the delicacy with which intense emotions are conveyed — and, of course, at Gary Peacock’s genius for finding the right notes, the right weight, the right attack all the time. And for understanding the value of silence.
Another of his Japanese albums, the almost equally wonderful Eastward, with Kikuchi and Murakami, included a sleeve note in which he wrote:
“No art form can be unaffected by the environment it lives in. The spiritual, social, political, scientific, technological Renaissance of today, exrpessing itself on all levels and in all societies, has been and continues to be the dominant theme in much of today’s music. The increasing use of electronic devices, accentuation of loud raucous sounds, lyrics suggesting a spiritual Utopia in one case, or denouncing war, government, tradition, show this influence. It is at the same time a testimony of the inseparabilities of music and environment. They are dependent one upon the other. They are expressing one another. They are one.
“The music on this album does not claim immunity to such environmental influences. It does however lack a certain degree of aggression, violence, or a special message. It was not conceived with the purpose of making a strong spiritual, social, scientific or musical statement. It was, on the contrary, conceived with no specific purpose in mind. Therefore it may lack some ‘excitement’ for the listener, but perhaps they can sense a certain spirit of joy and humour which we had in producing it.”
I think I understand what he meant: in a sense, in this instance, “purposelessness” is the highest state the creative mind can achieve. Not at all times and on all occasions, of course. A sense of purpose can be the driving force of the greatest art. But the Zen mind lets go and allows it to happen. And when the mind was that of Gary Peacock, what happened needed no other justification.
* Hōzan Yamamoto’s Silver World was released on the Philips label in Japan in 1971. Eastward was released on Japanese CBS in 1970. The photograph of Gary Peacock was taken by Bob Gwynne and is from the cover of Peacock’s December Poems album (ECM, 1977).