Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970
By David Toop
Bloomsbury, 330 pp.
Even given the relative expanse of a projected two-volume history of improvised music, David Toop has set lofty goals for himself. In volume one, Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation, and the Dream of Freedom before 1970, he discusses a number of musical figures from improvising communities: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, Keith Rowe, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy are a small sampling of those who loom large. John Cage is a totemic figure discussed from a variety of angles. Such collectives as AMM, MEV, Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Company, and Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza feature prominently as well. In addition, Toop connects improvisation to a panoply of other reference points, musical and otherwise, such as rock, concert music, fine art, film, and literature. Politics and historical events and their influence on musicians is a particularly well-drawn through line.
One would be hard pressed to take a strictly chronological approach to reading Into the Maelstrom. A great pleasure is the oftimes improvisatory feel of its labyrinthine passages. In this sense it jubilantly resembles the Edgar Allen Poe story from which it takes its title. No matter how far-flung a new passage may at first seem, Toop finds a way to integrate it into the fabric of the book. For the most part, Maelstrom is confined to the genesis and development of free playing in the decades leading up to 1970. Digressions from this era, such as transcribed later interviews and personal anecdotes, are used to provide a more comprehensive portrait of particular figures and incidents. Nor does Toop eschew discussion of earlier figures. Indeed, his profiles of musicians such as Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and Stuff Smith trace a lineage of free playing, or at the very least playing on the cusp of free, that is farther reaching than is often enough acknowledged. Flashbacks and flashforwards are also employed to tease out thematic issues, such as audience responsiveness (or non-responsiveness, and occasionally dangerous hostility), interaction between musicians (with its own degrees of responsiveness and even dangerous hostility), and, especially, issues of freedom, both in musical and political contexts. Thus, Into the Maelstrom allows us a glimpse into an ever-changing landscape of varying interactions, all of which contribute to the development of improvisation. I’m eager to read its companion second volume.
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Anthony Braxton: composer, sopranino, soprano, and alto saxophones, iPod;
Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet, flugelhorn, trumpbone, iPod;
Mary Halvorson: guitar, iPod;
Jessica Pavone: violin, viola, iPod;
Jay Rozen: tuba, iPod;
Aaron Siegel: percussion, vibraphone, iPod;
Carl Testa: bass, bass clarinet, iPod
“As a culture, we are slowly moving away from target linear experiences that are framed as stationary constructs that don’t change on repeated listening, to a new world that constantly serves up fresh opportunities and interactive discourse. American people have made it clear that the new times will call for dynamic inter-action experiences.”
Compositions 372, 373, and 377 are the next phase in Braxton’s use of recorded sounds as part of the musical fabric of his work. Each of the musicians playing on the recording is not only responsible for their respective instruments; they are each also equipped with an iPod on which they can call up past Braxton recordings to add to the proceedings. While one might expect a fair bit of chaos from this approach, the results are surprisingly focused. Recorded when Braxton was sixty-five, his skills as a player remain undiminished in their vitality and improvisational acumen. Correspondingly, his collaborators possess, to a person, both strong vantage points and enviable chops.
The compositions on display here are filled with swaths of variegated textures. One of the cool things about the addition of the iPods is that different instruments than those possessed by the live cohort get to take solo turns. Thus, we hear voices and piano interject asides amid the vigorous exertions of the players. As a trope on listening in the digital age, with the dangers of information overload and the distractions of an increasingly saturated environment rife with visual and sonic information competing for attention, this current Braxton project is certainly a successful experiment. But the ability of the players to pace their exchanges, exquisitely varying the saturation level of the discourse, also allows listeners a way to recalibrate that is most musically compelling. Recommended.
Congratulations to composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill, who has won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in music. One of the original AACM members, Threadgill’s recent work has been distinguished by an intervallic approach to improvisation, in which each member of the band has a limited catalogue of intervals that they can perform, with the sum total creating intriguing harmonic and contrapuntal materials.
In for a Penny, in for a Pound, the prizewinning work, features Zooid, the band with which Threadgill has worked for fourteen years, using just such an approach to making music. In addition to two short movements, Threadgill has composed long movements that each successively feature a different member of Zooid.
Threadgill’s latest recording, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, features Ensemble Double Up, the first new band with which he has recorded in fifteen years. It includes pianists Jason Moran and David Virelles, alto saxophonists Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald, cellist Christopher Hoffman, tuba player Jose Davila, and drummer Craig Weinrib. Cast in four movements, it is dedicated to the late Butch Morris, channeling some of his “conduction” style of improvisation.
If you’re a fan of new music, be it “indie-classical” or whatever it’s being labeled this week, then you must check out the music of composer and conductor Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Phillips’ music, composed and arranged for his ensemble Numinous, a large chamber group (or small orchestra?) of woodwinds, brass, strings, tuned percussion, electric instruments and vocalists, is a complex, finely detailed amalgam of classical, minimalist, South American, Asian, and African American influences, with a distinctive “sound” that is instantly identifiable, yet full of surprises. (You know those descriptive terms “Brahmsian” or “the Mingus effect”? It’s like that.) Phillips’ latest album, Changing Same, due out August 28 on New Amsterdam Records, is perhaps his most autobiographical musical statement to date.
While his previous recordings, Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. and Vipassana include notes that detail the inspiration for his compositions, Changing Same has no notes; just a quote from 1966 by writer, poet and playwright Amiri Baraka (then Le Roi Jones) that describes a “post-black aesthetic,” one that unapologetically digs both the down-home and the downtown, the highfalutin and the funky, the Anglo-centric and the Afro-futuristic, the “what it is” and the “what the hell is goin’ on?” The titles for each of the six movements of Changing Same offer some additional clues . . . “Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself,” “Miserere,” “Unlimited,” “Alpha Man,” “The Most Beautiful Magic.” The first track, “19,” which can be streamed and purchased here, refers to November 19, 1970, the date of the publication of James Baldwin’s essay, “An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis,” Arnold Schoenberg’s Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, opus 19, from 1911, and the age Phillips began studying music as an undergrad, after two semesters as a bio-chemistry major.
Changing Same is another intriguing chapter in Phillips’ journey, from growing up listening to both Holst and Prince, to conducting Numinous onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a performance of his score for the 1922 silent film The Loves of Pharoah, to producing this latest release. In the following interview, Phillips provides some details about that journey, and explains how his life experience, be it past, future or present-day-craziness, is reflected in the music of Changing Same.
On the back of your new album, there’s a quote by Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) from his 1966 essay, The Changing Same:
“R&B is about emotion, issues purely out of emotion. New Black Music is also about emotion, but from a different place, and finally toward a different end. What these musicians feel is a more complete existence. That is, the digging of everything.”
So, my first question with regard to this quote is, do you dig everything?
Well, of course, I have my standards. [laughs] There are things I like and don’t like.
In that essay, Baraka is explaining the spontaneous compositional processes of the creative improvisational people at that time, and putting them in a continuum of what had come before in terms of black music. He’s saying look, these guys might seem like they’re acting wild and crazy, But really, this “New Black Music” harkens back to earlier music.
When I read the essay, the quote just jumped out at me. I thought it was a perfect encapsulation of what I’m doing or hoping to have happen with my piece. With Changing Same, I wanted to take the cultural and musical things that I grew up with and incorporate them into piece. When I read Baraka’s essay, I thought, yes, I grew up with the black music continuum, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and Prince. But I grew up with classical music as well, like Holst, Bach . . . like any other composer, I have a potpourri of influences. Sometimes you can hear these influences very specifically. For example, on the fourth track, “The Most Beautiful Magic,” the initial bass line is actually coming straight from Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a friendly and nurturing environment for musicians “without a home” – operating between and outside of genres. For those shut out of the concert halls and jazz clubs, it’s been a haven where non-traditional musicians build non-traditional alliances, and run non-traditional music venues and concert series where they can take risks and create uncompromising work. Over decades of community-building and creative ferment, this lack of formal boundaries has defined the sound and feel of the scene, interweaving free improvisation with elements of noise, minimalism, rock, jazz, drone, chamber music, electronica, and other more slippery sounds which resist categorization.
Imani Winds: Jeff Scott, Toyin Spellman-Diaz, Valerie Coleman, Monica Ellis, and Mariam Adam. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)
(Houston, TX) Since the group’s inception in 1997, the Imani Winds have continued to expand the relatively small-sized repertoire for wind quintet by commissioning several works by such forward-thinking composers as Alvin Singleton, Roberto Sierra, Stefon Harris, Daniel Perez, Mohammed Fairouz, and Houston’s own Jason Moran. Moran’s four-movement work Cane, Moran’s first composition for wind quintet, appears on the Imani Winds’ 2010 album Terra Incognita, along with pieces by two other jazz masters, Paquito D’Rivera and Wayne Shorter. (The Imani Winds appear on Shorter’s critically acclaimed 2013 live quartet album Without A Net in a scorching performance of his 23-minute through-composed work Pegasus.) Imani Winds members Valerie Coleman (flute) and Jeff Scott (horn) also compose and arrange for the quintet. In concert, the Imani Winds present traditional classical fare alongside new works that explore African, Latin American, and the Middle Eastern musical idioms and performance techniques.
On Tuesday, October 15, 2013, the Imani Winds make their Houston Friends Of Chamber Music debut at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, performing arrangements of classic works by Ravel and Mendelssohn, Jonathan Russell’s powerful wind quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, and Scott’s arrangement of Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso Simon Shaheen’scomposition Dance Mediterranea, a piece that requires the quintet to play and improvise with Arabic scales or maqamat.
I spoke with Jeff Scott about the challenges of arranging Shaheen’s piece for the quintet as well as what it means to be a chamber wind ensemble in the 21st century.
Chris Becker: What are some challenges you faced in arranging Simon Shaheen’s music for the Imani Winds?
Jeff Scott: I listened to Shaheen’s piece over and over and over again so I could learn what I could do in the different section to offset it. We are an ensemble with five completely different sounding instruments that can create many different colors. So I listened to each section and thought, “Who could play the bass here? Who would sound great playing the solo line here? Who could really do something percussive on their instrument there to make it sound like an authentic version of the song?”
CB: There’s improvisation in your arrangement? Is that correct?
CB: Can you talk a little bit about the improvisation in the piece? Are you and your fellow winds improvising with scales? Are you improvising over some kind of harmony? Or is it even freer than that?
JS: It’s definitely structured. In that part of the world, the scale is called a maqam. This piece deals with three different maqamat. So for the solo sections, I only wrote out a rhythmic figure for whoever is playing the bass and the scale itself for whoever is playing the solo. The stuff in the middle is fleshed out completely and gives the top and bottom players guidelines they can follow.
In preparation for this piece, we had workshop rehearsals for learning the different maqamat and how to play inflect on our respective instruments the quarter tones and semitones that exist in those scales, so we wouldn’t just be playing a diatonic scale with two half steps and then calling that a maqam. That’s not it at all. The challenge was getting that g half flat just so! (laughs)
What separates people who play with those different scales and people who play Western music and diatonic scales, is that our ears are adjusted. We know when someone is playing a flat seventh, you know? But to be able to play it as part of a scale and know whether or not you’re just flat enough? (laughs) That’s a different thing! We played these scales in workshops for Shaheen almost like we were auditioning for him. We’d play, and he would say, “No, no, no…” and then play the scale with us and show us exactly where they fit. It’s a thing you just constantly have to work on because it’s not a part of our pedagogue. It’s not part of our training.
Before playing this piece, we’ll have our set of rehearsals the week before, and we’ll go through the shed of practicing those scales and testing one another.
CB: Is improvisation a part of your background? Or is it something new that you and the other members of the Imani Winds have explored since coming together as an ensemble?
JS: I’d say for the most part it’s new. Improvising wasn’t a part of our formal training. We all went to either the Manhattan School of Music or Juilliard. And it just wasn’t asked of you, it just wasn’t. Now, post-school? Yeah. You realize that in the 21st century commercial world, if you’re going to survive, regardless of what your training is, you have to be flexible enough to improvise. It was definitely harder for us coming into it, but more schools are requiring it these days. I think that’s really wonderful. The language of music from other countries is now filtering its way into the Western chronicles and as a musician, you have to be able to speak the different dialects. We have embraced it and really went out there and grabbed every possible challenge we could.
CB: What you say about conservatories in the U.S., that more programs are including improvisation and music from around the globe, is something I’m hearing about more and more in my interviews with younger musicians.
JS: It used to be shunned. When I was at the Manhattan School of Music, back in the 80s, I wrote this piece for horn and percussion that I wanted to play on one of my recitals. I remember playing the piece for my teacher and him not wanting me to do it because most of my part wasn’t written down and he couldn’t work with me on it. It wasn’t because the it sounded “bad” or “good,” he just didn’t know how to work with me on it as an improvised piece of music. And that said a whole lot about the institution and my training in general! (laughs) It speaks volumes!
CB: Tell me about the Imani Winds’ collaboration with saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter.
JS: We were asked to come and perform with him at the Hollywood Bowl on his 80th birthday along with Esperanza Spaulding, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas and all of these incredible musicians. We performed a piece that Shorter composed and arranged called Pegasus. It’s a symphony! The piece is written for his and wind quintet. It’s a symphony! It’s a mammoth, epic journey with improvisation from everyone involved, a through-composed piece with many different moods.
The whole thing started when the La Jolla Music Society in California commissioned Shorter to compose a piece for us, which he titled Terra Incognita. It was just for wind quintet, and it was the first piece he’d composed that didn’t involve him as a performer. He’d never written something for someone else that he didn’t intend to perform.
So he wrote this wind quintet and it was way out (laughs) with just as much room to improvise as you could possibly want. We didn’t know what the heck to do with it. So we learned everything note by note, and then played it for him. And he smiled and said, “That’s great. But promise me you’ll never play it like that again. I want you play it different every time. I want you to start from the end. I want you to leave out some parts. You can start in the middle. Just use the piece as a point of departure.”
CB: That’s so great.
JS: It says a whole lot about him. But it also says a whole lot about where I think classical music in general is going when it comes to chamber music and accepting improvisation, jazz and all of the world’s music, and having musicians who are flexible enough and open enough to at least experiment. It’s the only way we’re going to get the patrons of chamber music societies to have that openness and expectation when it comes to who they decide to put on their series. I mean, if we don’t start doing it, they’re going to continually only want the Haydn cycles. (laughs)
So we have to not only accept it, we have to become nimble at it. You have to be able to deliver a good product so the patrons say, “You know what? I want more of that!”
And besides, as a wind quintet, we don’t have the Haydn cycles! (laughs) They just don’t exist. We occasionally play the old stalwarts of the wind quintet, but that stuff runs out in about two weeks. You’ve got to play new stuff and push the envelope a bit, and improvisation is just a normal step along the way for expanding the repertoire for the wind quintet.
Houston Friends of Chamber Music present the Imani Winds, Tuesday, October 15, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Shepherd School of Music, Rice University, performing works by Valerie Coleman, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Simon Shaheen, and Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring arranged by Jonathan Russell.
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On September 3rd Kinan Azmeh CityBand returned to Joe’s Pub for the official release of their new album, Elastic City. The disc, a collection of passionate and virtuosic pieces in the genre of Arab World Jazz, features Azmeh (clarinet), Kyle Sanna (guitar), Josh Myers (bass), and John Hadfield (drums and percussion). Formed in 2006, the ensemble has received critical acclaim in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Judging from the large and wildly enthusiastic audience at Joe’s Pub, they are clearly developing a big following here in New York.
Born and raised in Damascus, Azmeh finished his training at New York’s Juilliard School and has since gained international recognition as a clarinettist, composer, and musical innovator. He’s currently recognized as one of Syria’s leading classical musicians and composers, and also has a well deserved reputation as one of New York’s most engaging composer-performers. In addition to his work with CityBand, Azmeh performs regularly with the Syrian ensemble HEWAR, the Damascus Festival Chamber Music Ensemble (of which he is the artistic director), and also as a solo artist.
CityBand has a captivating stage presence and an interpersonal attunement that comes from years of performing together. They respond intuitively to each other, grooving effortlessly in complex meters, and never getting in each other’s way. Their improvisations are sophisticated and emotionally powerful, each member contributing a distinct individual voice to a seamlessly blended whole. At times Azmeh brings the dynamics of the group down to an almost inaudible level, building it slowly to ecstatic heights.
Azmeh started the evening with a deeply moving solo entitled A Sad Morning, Every Morning, a composition that he wrote in memory of the thousands who have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict. Other memorable moments included Woods, a haunting and transportive work by Kyle Sanna, and Wedding, a raucous piece written by Azmeh that featured the group’s dazzling virtuosity.
Kinan Azmeh: A Sad Morning, Every Morning (art by Kevork Mourad)
(Houston, TX) The music of the Houston ensemble The Core Trio, featuring Richard Cholakian on drums, Thomas Helton on upright bass, and Seth Paynter on saxophones, is an utterly convincing amalgamation of jazz, free improvisation, heavy metal, electronic sounds, and music from across the Asian continent. Their repertoire includes compositions by Helton and Paynter, as well as arrangements of songs by Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio. They often invite guest musicians to join them in performance, including trumpet players Kris Tiner and Tim Hagans, myself on laptop, and pianist Robert Boston. This Friday, Boston, saxophonists Warren Sneed and Martin Langford, and former Houston Symphony clarinetist Richard Nunemaker will perform with The Core Trio at their CD release party at Houston’s the long-standing jazz venue Cezanne’s.
The Core Trio’s new self-titled CD is welcome document of the high level of musicianship and inventive interplay that defines their sound. The album consists of two extended and completely improvised performances, skillfully captured by engineer Ryan Edwards. Boston, a former Houston musician now based in New York City, joins the trio on the new CD.
On both pieces, the classically-trained Boston casts the music into a further relief. His presence opens up the ensemble sound creating the space each player needs to be heard and to play with conviction.
“When I freely improvise with players on this level, something special happens,” says Boston. “No one feels any pressure to play in any particular style. Everyone is listening and responding to what is happening in the moment. When it’s good, the thoughts don’t get in the way, but there is a logic present that follows its own momentum.”
“It’s very similar to a speaking conversation with someone,” says Cholakian of his experience playing with The Core Trio. “If they (Boston, Helton, Paynter) choose a topic, I will converse with them on that topic. If they don’t, I will converse with them on a topic I choose, the bottom line being, what is my point and will it be heard?”
Cholakian is one of the most creative and dynamic drummers I’ve ever heard. He’s always listening, contrasting or complimenting the contributions of his band mates, and often steering the music into unexpected and unpredictable territory. Eleven or so minutes into the new CD’s second track, where the trio plus Boston explore a textural, musique concrète-like approach to ensemble playing, Cholakian brings the music to a crescendo with an almost primal-sounding drum solo that stops suddenly and startlingly at one point for six seconds of dead silence before returning to its bruising ritual.
Paynter possesses a truly original and honest voice on his instruments, which includes soprano and tenor saxophone, EWI, and lots of gongs. The technique and versatility that makes a great jazz and improvising musician is all there but somehow, his playing never strays into what Helton calls “the trappings of licks or patterns.”
“By learning to play with a defined structure, one can then learn how to venture away to new ones,” says Paynter when describing playing a tune verses freely improvising. “Everything has structure no matter how abstract.”
“As soon as I play a sound, that is the foundation for what comes next regardless if I’m playing a tune or not. Its basic function is structural. I can vary it slightly by subtly changing a rhythm or drastically with a timbre or emotional change. And those are just a couple examples of the variables one can employ.”
Helton concurs that being able to play in a traditional manner will allow a musician to be more musical in their free playing. But “tradition” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “jazz.”
“I get something different out of all the different styles I play,” says Helton, who also plays in the Houston metal band Echo Temple. “Whether it is jazz, classical, metal, country, funk, or whatever, there is some payoff personally, spiritually or musically.”
“With The Core Trio,” says Helton, “I get the most satisfaction, since there is a lot of passion, thought, aggression, finesse, communication. It is sort of the sum of all the things I love in music.”
The Core Trio with special guest Robert Boston perform Friday, February 8, 9 p.m. at Cezanne’s, 4100 Montrose Blvd. $10 cover.
Poet and Air Force veteran Lynn Hill performs in Holding It Down Photo by Marc Millman Photography
The most recent collaboration of composer/pianist Vijay Iyer and poet Mike Ladd, entitled Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project, received its world premiere last week (September 19-22) at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse. This multimedia work, epic in scope, yet poignant in its emotional nuance, is the result of three years of interviewing and collaborating with veterans of color from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Holding It Down also marks the culmination of a trilogy of multimedia works by Iyer and Ladd, the others being Still Life with Commentator (2006) and In What Language (2003). Each of the three works examines a different aspect of post-9/11 America, but all three respond to the fear and injustice brought on by what Iyer and Ladd eloquently describe as the “insidiously racialized Global War on Terror.”
Iyer’s through-composed score consisted mostly of highly sensitive and imaginative settings of the poetry of Ladd and two veterans, Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, punctuated by moments of virtuosic improvisation by Iyer and members of the ensemble. The poems (performed by their authors) were moving, powerfully honest artistic responses to war and the challenges of coping with trauma. Tim Brown’s video design contributed an evocative visual counterpoint, and the video interviews, conducted and edited by the project’s director, Patricia McGregor, were particularly well timed and interesting. The ensemble, which consisted of Iyer (piano, laptop), Guillermo E. Brown (vocals, electronics), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Okkyung Lee (cello), and Kassa Overall (percussion), provided an intricate, colorful, and at times surreal musical mindscape. One unforgettable moment was Overall’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful drum solo about two thirds of the way through the piece.
The presentation of a continuous 80-minute piece that brings combines music, poetry, video, and drama is no easy task. Careful attention must be given to the balance and interplay of the various media, and the dramatic flow and experiential continuity. Credit must be given to director Patricia McGregor, who forged the elements of this work into a seamless and deeply moving journey. With the exception of two moments when the balance between the ensemble and voices could have been handled better, the production was basically flawless.
With Holding It Down Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd have offered a model of how artists can present social commentary that is profound yet unsentimental; complex yet focused; provocative yet inviting. While so many multimedia projects these days hurt the genre by dilluting their own impact, Iyer and Ladd have created one in which each medium strengthens the whole. On December 1, 2012, these artists will appear again at The Harlem Stage Gatehouse for a new piece called Sleep Song, in which they will focus on the populace of nations affected by war. Collaborating artists for Sleep Song will include the Iraqi poet Ahmed Abdel Hussein, oudist Ahmet Mukhtar, and guitarist Serge Teyssot Gay.
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