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Posts from the ‘Jazz & poetry’ Category

Hemphill bid’ness

The saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill was born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Texas, where he attended the same high school at Ornette Coleman, who was eight years his senior and said to be his cousin. By the time he reached his early twenties Hemphill was in St Louis, Missouri, where he joined the Black Artists Group. In 1972 he led a recording session that, when released first on his own small Mbari label and then more widely on Arista Freedom, made a lasting impression on many who heard it. On the initial album, called Dogon A.D., Hemphill seemed to have extended the possibilities of the union between the most basic blues and the avant-garde that was implicit in Coleman’s music.

A second album, which he gave the challenging title Coon Bid’ness, contained a track from that first session, titled “The Hard Blues”, in which Hamiet Bluiett’s baritone saxophone was added to Hemphill’s alto, Baikida Carroll’s trumpet, Abdul Wadud’s cello and Philip Wilson’s drums. It had an even more powerful impact on me. Hemphill seemed to have fused the harsh, elemental sound of John Lee Hooker, the warmth and colour of an Ellington small group and the collective exuberance of a Mingus ensemble into something that pointed a way to the future.

Hemphill moved to New York in the early ’70s and immersed himself in the loft scene. He was a busy man between those first recordings and his death in 1995, perhaps most notably with the World Saxophone Quartet, for which he wrote and arranged many pieces. His own albums ranged from solo saxophone recitals to a full big band. Many of them featured the cello of Wadud, with whom Hemphill had a special rapport: as close a relationship between two instrumentalists as any I can think of in jazz. He had a fondness for exposing the music’s overlooked roots, as when he sometimes adopted the name Roi Boyé, or M’Boyé, as a rubric for his projects, harking back to African kingdoms and southern minstrel shows.

The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony is the title of a new box of seven CDs compiled by one of his acolytes, the saxophonist Marty Erlich, from the contents of the Hemphill archive in the Fails Library at New York University. It’s an extraordinarily rich piece of musical archaeology which covers many aspects of Hemphill’s art at satisfying length.

Most of it is culled from live performance, from the 1978 quartet performance with Olu Dara on trumpet, Wadud and the drummer Warren Smith with which the set begins to a coruscating concert by Hemphill and Carroll with Dave Holland on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums in a Woodstock club in 1979 with which it concludes. Other participants in the various small groups include the brothers Nels and Alex Cline on guitar and drums, John Carter on clarinet, the guitarist Jack Wilkins, the bass guitarist Jerome Harris and the drummer Michael Carvin. One disc features Hemphill playing with the poets K. Curtis Lyle and Malinké Elliott.

Throughout the listener is struck by how effectively Hemphill was able to blend free blowing with structured composition. Some of his themes have the intensity of bebop leavened with the humour of Monk, but with a down-home flavour that was Hemphill’s own. Whether on alto or soprano, he was a stunningly fluent improviser who took off from a space between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and headed out into his own territory.

Vigorous and ceaselessly inventive, on alto and soprano he had a marvellously human tone that was most perfectly matched with the sound of Wadud’s cello. What Erlich, in his extensive notes, describes as the “Rosetta stone” of the set is an entire disc of duets recorded in Washington DC in 1989. Somehow Wadud finds a role that combines the functions of bass and guitar while retaining the cello’s own characteristics. He plucks, he bows, he plays double-stops and strums passing chords, while providing a source of energy to match Hemphill’s own. Some of the music is certainly composed, but everything retains the spontaneous urgency of improvisation. On the last of the six pieces, “Downstairs”, which turns out to be a variation on the “Hi-Heel Sneakers”/”Can I Get a Witness” riff, the two men return to the basics they explored on “The Hard Blues” and “Dogon A.D.”.

More unexpected is the inclusion of the arrangements of three Mingus compositions — “Nostalgia in Times Square”, “Alice’s Wonderland” and “Better Git It in Your Soul” — for strings, recorded by the Daedalus String Quartet, Hemphill infusing the ardour characteristic of the composer’s music with an astringency of his own. Recorded at the same Boston concert devoted to Hemphill’s music in 2007 was “Parchment”, a piece for solo piano written for and performed by the pianist Ursula Oppens, his partner in his later years. Two untitled extended pieces for a wind quintet made up of Erlich, the reeds player John Purcell, the bassoonist Janet Grice, the trumpeter Bruce Purse and the trombonist Ray Anderson, recorded in 1981, further demonstrate Hemphill’s interest in classical chamber music and his ability to range between idioms.

Next to the Hemphill/Wadud duets, however, the set’s most valuable disc is the concert with Carroll, Holland and DeJohnette, a decade after the bassist and drummer had first played together, with Miles Davis and then Stan Getz. Throughout three long pieces, Hemphill’s themes trigger ferociously intense playing. The opener, “Mirrors”, contains perhaps the most violent playing I’ve ever heard from DeJohnette, a bold barrage of free creative commentary — particularly under the leader’s long and impassioned improvisation — that culminates in a densely packed solo. Holland emerges in “Dung” with a stunning solo of his own. The final piece, “Would Boogie”, a humorous two-beat exercise in the vein of Mingus’s “My Jelly Roll Soul”, gives DeJohnette an opportunity to take out his melodica, on which he improvises over a noble walking bass.

At $111.93 or £84.99 (see below), this box set isn’t cheap. But its musical and historical value, and the knowledge and care with which it was put together, justify every cent. Julius Hemphill was an important figure in jazz at a time when it was fighting for its identity and its future. His was a voice that reminded us of the enduring potential of the music’s core truths and values, paving the way for the likes of Matana Roberts and Ambrose Akinmusire, and this is a most handsome memorial.

* The photograph of Julius Hemphill was taken by John Begansky Jeffoto in 1980 and is from the booklet accompanying The Boyé Multi-National Crusade for Harmony, which is available from New World Records at http://www.newworldrecords.org and from Proper Music in the UK: https://www.propermusic.com/nw80825-the-boye-national-crusade-for-harmony-7cd.html

In Underground London

Underground London 2

I’ve taken a lot of pleasure in recent days from listening to Underground London, a three-CD set that attempts to recreate, through a mosaic of recordings, the feeling of being a certain kind of person in London in the first half of the 1960s, someone either growing out of, or who had been a little too young for, the full beatnik experience in the 1950s, but looking for similar sensations in a changing time: free speech, free jazz, free verse, free love.

The first disc starts with Ornette Coleman’s “W.R.U.”, ends with Jimmy Smith’s “Autumn Leaves”, and includes Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading “Dog”, Allen Ginsberg reading “America”, a track from Red Bird, the jazz-and-poetry EP Christopher Logue made with Tony Kinsey, and György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères”. The second opens with Jimmy Giuffre’s “Jesus Maria”, ends with Albert Ayler’s “Moanin'”, and includes Ravi Shankar’s “Raga Jog”, Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and the Dudley Moore Trio playing the theme from Beyond the Fringe. The third opens with Cecil Taylor’s “Love for Sale”, ends with Thelonious Monk’s “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie” and includes Davy Graham and Alexis Korner playing “3/4 AD”, Aldous Huxley reading from The Visionary Experience, the MJQ playing “Lonely Woman”, Luciano Berio manipulating Cathy Berberian’s voice in “Visage”, and “A Rose for Booker” by the Chico Hamilton Quintet, with Charles Lloyd.

Add in Stockhausen, Don Cherry and John Coltrane, Annie Ross, John Cage and David Tudor, Sonny Rollins, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy and Joe Harriott, and you get the idea. And to set up the mood for the sort of extended listening session the set deserves, I’d suggest candles in Chianti bottles, something vaguely cubist on the wall, the Tibetan Book of the Dead on the coffee table, and a black polo-neck sweater, or perhaps a chocolate-brown corduroy jacket. And if the party is going well, maybe a Beatle or two, in an adventurous mood, will drop by on the way home from Abbey Road.

But it’s not really a joke, or a caricature. There’s a lot of completely wonderful stuff here, some of it revealing new qualities when isolated from the context of its original full-album setting (an underrated virtue of anthologies or compilations). And practically everything is on the edge of something, some new discovery, some unexplored territory worth taking a risk to reach. How exciting was that?

* The photograph of Allen Ginsberg outside the Royal Albert Hall was taken in 1965 by John Hopkins and was used in the poster for the International Poetry Incarnation held on June 11 that year. It’s included in the booklet accompanying Underground London: Art Music and Free Jazz in the Swinging Sixties, which is on él records, via Cherry Red. 

The state of things

Robert Cray etc 2

One characteristic of despotic governments is an urge to suppress or deride art that does not serve their own purpose; hence Hitler’s persecution of “degenerate art” and Stalin’s enthusiasm for socialist realism. We haven’t quite reached that stage, but the political role of artists of all kinds grows more important in times such as these. Here are four new recordings with something to say.

1 Robert Cray Band: “This Man”

In his excellent new album, That’s What I Heard, Cray and his producer, Steve Jordan, explore a variety of approaches with great success (for example, there’s a gorgeous version of “You’ll Want Me Back”, which Curtis Mayfield wrote for Major Lance in 1966). But one track really stands out. On “This Man” he takes a standard blues trope — a stranger arrives in the singer’s home and tries to steal his woman — and turns it to a different use. The groove is down and funky, the mood ominous. “Who is this man in our house? / Who is this man? Better get him out! / We’ve got a problem, he’s gotta go / If he don’t leave, we can’t live here no more / If we want to save our home, better get him out.” Next verse: “When I come home from work, there he is again / Talkin’ loud, talkin’ trash, and it’s always something about him…” I don’t think it’s hard to identify the connection we’re being invited to make. The refrain goes “Get him out! Get him out! Get him out!” If songs could win elections…

2 Irreversible Entanglements: Who Sent You?

As well as being probably the finest solution yet devised to the eternal problem of how to blend jazz and poetry in a way that satisfies the requirement of both, Chicago’s Irreversible Entanglements are also a great protest band. Camae Ayewa — sometimes known as Moor Mother — rivals Matana Roberts as an eloquent writer and spellbinding declaimer of poetic texts. The musicians — Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), Keir Neuringer (alto saxophone), Luke Stewart (bass) and Tcheser Holmes (drums) — bring the open lines and flexible interplay of Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet and the explicit cultural grounding of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music into the 21st century. Who Sent You?, the collective’s second album, presents the coolly controlled sound of an angry and insurrectionary America that will not be silenced.

3 Pat Metheny: From This Place

With “This Is Not America”, co-written with Lyle Mays and David Bowie in 1985 for the movie The Falcon and the Snowman, Pat Metheny created a piece whose resonance has grown over the intervening three and a half decades, whether you’re listening to the original or to the version by Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra on the album Not in My Name. The undertone of his latest album, even in its most lyrical moments, is one of disquiet. The oncoming twister pictured on the cover looms as the music begins with a long, complex, multi-sectioned piece called “America Undefined”. There is wonderful playing throughout by the pianist Gwilym Simcock, the drummer Antonio Sànchez and — particularly — the marvellous bassist Linda May Han Oh, against discreet and effective orchestral arrangements on some pieces. Grégoire Maret adds lovely harmonica, and the title track features Meshell Ndegeocello singing Alison Riley’s lyric: “From this place I cannot see / Heart is dark / Beneath rising seas…”

4 Jasper Høiby: Planet B

The Danish bassist and composer probably best known for his work with Phronesis assembles a different multinational trio to tackle climate change and related social issues. The British saxophonist Josh Arcoleo and the French drummer Marc Michel are more than ready for the challenge of the exposed format, helped by the inventiveness of Høiby’s compositions and his subtle use of electronics — and by the sparing inclusion of words spoken by thinkers including Ram Dass, Grace Lee Boggs, Charles Eisenstein and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Their speech is incorporated with the lightest of touches, providing a framework within which the music speaks in its own language. “If we could truly collaborate with our fellow man,” Ram Dass says, “there would be enough to go around for the world.” Music that relies on unselfish collaboration has much to teach tyrants, actual and would-be.

* The Robert Cray Band’s That’s What I Heard is on the Thirty Tigers label. They tour the UK from April 30 to May 16, starting in Bexhill-on-Sea. Irreversible Entanglements’ Who Sent You? is on IARC/Don Giovanni. They play the Corsica Studios, London on March 10. Pat Metheny’s From This Place is on Nonesuch. Jasper Høiby’s Planet B is on Edition Records.

Sandburg/Wilson

Carl Sandburg 2

Carl Sandburg

It’s National Poetry Day, and since I have a weakness for the much abused hybrid known as jazz and poetry that goes back to schooldays, this is a good excuse — if one were needed — to write about Matt Wilson’s new album, Honey and Salt, in which he sets the words of the poet Carl Sandburg to music.

Some people don’t like the star system of reviewing, but it was while reading the August edition of Down Beat in Ray’s Jazz Shop the other day that a five-star lead review sent me across the floor to search out a copy of Honey and Salt. It turned out to be a good tip.

Wilson, a fine drummer familiar in many contexts, whom I last heard with Liberation Music Orchestra, recruited an excellent band for this project: Ron Miles (cornet), Jeff Lederer (reeds and harmonium), Martin Wind (acoustic bass guitar), and Dawn Thompson, who plays guitar and sings on a handful of the 18 selections, plus an interesting group of readers better known as instrumentalists: Christian McBride, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Rufus Reid, Joe Lovano and Carla Bley. Oh, and the actor Jack Black.

Sandburg (1878-1967) won two Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry, and a third for a biography of Abraham Lincoln. He was from Knox County, Illinois, as is Wilson. Sandburg’s first cousin was married to Wilson’s great-great-aunt. While researching an essay on the poet during his college days, Wilson discovered Sandburg’s interest in jazz.

The poems are dry, pithy, witty and humane, some of them with a powerful resonance in the new century. Here’s one called “Choose”: “The single clenched fist lifted and ready, / Or the open asking hand held out and waiting. / Choose: / For we meet by one or the other.” And here’s one of his best known, called “Fog”: “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over city and harbor / on silent haunches / and then moves on.” Wilson includes Sandburg’s own recording of “Fog”, accompanying the poet’s gentle voice with mallets on tom-toms.

The arrangements are unfailingly inventive, and the playing of the individuals — particularly the always brilliant Miles — is outstanding. The readers are all terrific, and to Bley falls the privilege of delivering, without accompaniment, the marvellous “To Know Silence Perfectly”: “There is a music for lonely hearts nearly always. / If the music dies down there is a silence / Almost the same as the movement of music. / To know silence perfectly is to know music.” On this evidence, their acute awareness of tone and cadence and expression makes jazz musicians great readers of poetry.