Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Art’ Category

Jazz Abstraction

evan-parker-at-raAs I was on the way to see the blockbuster Abstract Expressionism show at the Royal Academy the other day, it was pointed out that jazz and AbEx seem to share a special relationship. I suppose that has something to do with synchronicity. Franz Kline and Mark Rothko were creating their revolutionary canvases at the same time as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk were making the music that changed everything, and the two developments seemed to share a sensibility. It’s easy to imagine Kline or Rothko playing “Ornithology” or “Well, You Needn’t” while working on a canvas in a Greenwich Village studio.

Easy, but probably misleading. I seem to remember reading that Jackson Pollock listened to Brahms while working on his drip paintings. Yet when Nesuhi Ertegun, the producer of Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, asked the collector and gallerist Sidney Janis for permission to reproduce Pollock’s “White Light” on the cover of Free Jazz in 1961, he was establishing a link that seemed to contain an emotional truth, if not a literal one. And Coleman’s double-quartet recording was by no means the only modern jazz album to make use of abstract expressionism on its cover: see the art of Martin Craig on the pianist Herbie Nichols’ two 10-inch LPs for Blue Note in 1955, The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vols 1 & 2, for example.

At the RA, the breathtaking Pollock rooms are the strongest part of an exhibition that also gave me a greater appreciation of Robert Motherwell and Sam Francis. The much-vaunted assembly of giant Clifford Still canvases left me curiously unmoved, and the round space devoted to Rothko resembles an oligarch’s car-boot sale. The final couple of rooms are curiously incoherent. But of course it has to be seen.

The link with jazz was reaffirmed last night when, as one of the opening events in this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, Evan Parker gave a short solo concert and a conversation with David Ryan under the heading “Jazz Abstraction”– a title adapted from that of a 1961 Atlantic album by Coleman, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and others (and which, come to think of it, also has an abstract expressionist painting by John Jagel on the cover).

Parker’s improvisations were as astounding as ever in their combination of fine detail and hurtling momentum. Later he remarked, non-judgmentally, that one difference between the AbEx painter and the free improviser is that in the case of the music, the process is the work.

The conversation also produced a couple of self-deprecatory gems. If La Monte Young, while still playing sopranino saxophone, had discovered circular breathing as a means of tying together the repeated motifs with which he was working, the world might never have heard of Evan Parker (who then gave us a demonstration of practising the breathing technique). And had the artist Alfreda Benge not introduced Evan to John Stevens one night in 1966, he might, as he put it, “still have had my nose pressed against the window”. Or so he claimed.

What the painters and the jazz musicians of Parker’s generation and slightly earlier had in common was not just the reassurance of an environment in which they could afford to live cheaply but a powerful belief in the value of their work, whatever valuation the world initially placed upon it. It’s just a pity that today’s commercial market doesn’t view them in the same light.

* Abstract Expressionism is on at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1 until January 2. Evan Parker’s latest album is As the Wind, with Mark Nauseef (percussion) and Toma Gouband (lithophones), released on the Psi label. The photograph is of Parker (right) and David Ryan at the RA.

Advertisements

Moses Boyd at Frieze

moses-boyd-at-tt-bwIt’s Frieze week in London, meaning that the streets of the more fashionable quarters of the city are thronged with art people. Last night some of them made their way to a party thrown by the Timothy Taylor Gallery in a Soho basement beneath the Phonica vinyl record shop on Poland Street, where the music was provided by a quartet under the leadership of the drummer Moses Boyd.

I’ve written about Boyd’s much-praised duo with the tenor saxophonist Binker Golding and, more recently, about his contribution to Orphy Robinson’s salute to Bobby Hutcherson, but this was something very different. Completing the quartet were Golding, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh and the keyboardist Niji Adeleye, and they started as they meant to go on: with Moses setting a groove that got the room moving, and the others joining in at full throttle. That’s where they stayed for the best part of an hour of unbroken music, with the groove shifting gears a couple of times but the volume and the intensity staying high.

If you can imagine a cross between the wildly distorted noise of the early Lifetime and the sophisto-funk of those Grant Green albums recorded live in 1970-71 at down-home joints like the Cliché Lounge in Newark, New Jersey and the Club Mozambique in Detroit, you’ll be part of the way to imagining what they sounded like. There were rough edges all over the place, but in a good way. Shirley Tetteh’s playing sound like it might be heading towards an interesting blend of Green’s plain-spoken bluesiness, the fluid rhythmic stutter of Hux Brown from Coxsone Dodd’s Studio One rhythm section, and the floaty lyricism of King Sunny Adé’s guitars. It’ll be interesting to see where she takes it.

Anyway, they blew apart any notion of what a conventional Frieze week social occasion organised by a high-end Mayfair gallery might be. “Party” is what it said on the invitation, and a party is what they made it. If the four of them can get the sense of unstoppable energy on to a record, you’ll be able to have that party in your very own home.

William Kentridge’s long march

William Kentridge 1 copyMany hours after leaving the Marian Goodman Gallery this week, the sound of William Kentridge’s More Sweetly Play the Dance continued to fill my head. Kentridge is a visual artist, but in this piece — a film combining animation and live action projected across eight continuous large screens in the gallery’s first-floor space — music plays a particularly important role.

The work depicts a long procession, its composition reflecting the artist’s South African upbringing (his father was a lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and represented Steve Biko’s family) and the time he has spent in Paris and Beijing. Skeletons, ballet dancers, invalids, priests, bandsmen, bearers of votive objects and other human flotsam and jetsam move through a blasted landscape scratched and washed in Kentridge’s Indian ink.

A kind of preparation for this has taken place in the rooms on the first floor, containing Kentridge’s striking works in ink on paper — some of it torn from Chinese newspapers, or facsimiles of the broadsheets published by the short-lived Paris Commune in 1871 — and by a smaller but wilder three-screen film made up of images reflecting the Commune, the Cultural Revolution and the anti-apartheid struggle.

More Sweetly Play the Dance combines visual echoes of the Long March, the toyi-toyi dances originated by Zimbabwean freedom fighters and later used in anti-apartheid uprisings, the funeral processions of New Orleans, the netherworld of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, and John Singer Sargent’s famous painting of gassed and blinded soldiers being led through the craters of the Western Front. And refugees, of course: refugees of all times and places, including our own.

The figures — limping, cavorting, striding — are accompanied by the sound of a brass band playing the sort of hymn tune familiar from the repertoires of Abdullah Ibrahim and Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes: a melody carried to Africa by Methodist missionaries in the 19th century, subsequently bent and enriched by the phrasing and intonation of musicians brought up in the Zulu and Xhosa cultures. The music is the work of Philip Miller, a South African composer who has worked on several of Kentridge’s earlier projects. For this one he takes the universal sound of the town brass band and adds a semi-synchronised overlay of calliope and accordion, as though all the sounds of a Saturday night in the pre-electronic age are being heard at once. Charles Ives would have loved it.

So did I. It does what art is supposed to do: combining the familiar and the strange, stirring the emotions, collapsing time, going beyond words. It’s one of the highlights of the year.

* William Kentridge: More Sweetly Play the Dance is at the Marian Goodman Gallery, 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1F 9DY, until October 24.