Tag Archives: Ran Blake

ESCAPING THE BOX

William Carlos Williams: “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet—gosh, how I hate sonnets—is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through, you don’t have a crab any more.”

Robert Frost: “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

Younger, I would have sided with Frost: too much freedom leads to chaos. But I celebrate Williams’ position (even though his metaphor makes me wince) more as I age, feel, and listen.  Tidiness is a wonderful thing in the kitchen cabinets, but it might lead to the slow death of creative improvising.

In that spirit, I present the latest works of saxophonist / composer / historian / scholar / seeker Allen Lowe, a four-CD set of original compositions with one exception, a spoken-word piece by the novelist Rick Moody.

field recordings cover bc

JAZZ LIVES readers will be familiar with many of the names on that cover; others will provide engaging and sometimes quizzical surprises in listening and emotion.

Lowe’s works don’t seek to present snapshots of particular eras; they don’t offer “styles or schools.” Rather, his imaginations are intense, deep, yet unfettered. FIELD RECORDINGS, Lowe says in his liner notes, grew out of an argument he had with Wnton Marsalis — during Lowe’s attempt to interview Marsalis.  Disagreeing about “minstrelsy,” Marsalis characterized Lowe — in Lowe’s words — as “merely another in a long line of deluded white academics.”

Lowe spent the next six years immersing himself in “early entertainments of every racial persuasion,” which led him to compositions — song forms — that reflected what he had heard and experienced.  He also plays and improvises on many of these performances heard in this CD set.  More details here.

Lowe writes, “There is a tradition in certain kinds of writing in which the writer takes past works and puts them to his own use for very specific philosophical and artistic reasons. Brecht called this copien, as in the use of older texts as a means to something new and different, as a method from which to challenge prior ideas and forms. This project was done in exactly this spirit, as a way of altering certain received ideas of popular and jazz song. It is also a challenge to certain formal and intellectual assumptions.”

I haven’t heard more than one quarter of the set, but found the music so inspiring that I wanted to spread the word about it.   The performances weren’t always easy to listen to — Lowe, as composer and player, doesn’t shy away from improvisation’s rough edges, but he doesn’t run into harshness for its own sake.

What I appreciate most about the music — I was listening both with and without the benefit of Lowe’s commentaries — was its depth of feeling and innate ability to surprise.  The surprises weren’t ones I could predict (I know that sounds like an illogical paradox, but listening to many of the great musicians, I feel I know “where (s)he might be going” in the next chorus).

Rather, I felt the ground shifting under me in the best sense of the metaphor. Over and over, I felt beautifully startled, gently lifted out of my expectations and planted somewhere else, experiencing the sounds from a different perspective.  Each voyage was a fascinating series of what Emerson calls “zig-zag tacks.”  I heard echoes of New Orleans polyphony and street parade, dark unrequited blues, ensemble questing that echoed Mingus and freer improvsations, with searching, winding melodic lines, unpredictable harmonies that felt good as soon as they found my ears.

Language has a hard time describing music in the best of circumstances, and words are particularly inadequate here. One must be a creative listener to feel Lowe’s many musics, but they are well worth the investigation.  He is honest, inquiring, and sly — as is his work on these four CDs.  But beware!  This set is not ear-cushioning, to be listened to in conjunction with household chores, nor is it meant to be heard as one hears some discs: seventy-five minutes of supple protection from the world.  I predict that the listener wise and brave enough to purchase the FIELD RECORDINGS will approach the music as one does a new book of poems: a poem or two at a time, rather than as an artistic devouring of it all.

As a measure of the breadth and often witty depths of Lowe’s imagination, I would list some of the names he calls in his notes and compositions: Bunk Johnson, Tony Jackson, Roswell Rudd, Ernest Hogan, Mantan Moreland, Willie “the Lion” Smith, Lennie Tristano, James Reese Europe, Wilbur Sweatman, Thelonious Monk, Zora Neale Hurston, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Varese, Dave Schildkraut, Bud Powell, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Melrose, Paul Whiteman, Bill Challis, Harry Barris, George Bacquet, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James P. Johnson, Albert Ayler, Ran Blake, Henry Mancini, Sun Ra, Mezz Mezzrow, Pete Daily, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Bill Triglia, George Gershwin, Frank Teschemacher, Jess Stacy, Bix Beiderbecke, Arizona Dranes, Bert Williams, George Wheeler, Barbara Payne, Clyde Bernhardt, Ma Rainey, Anthony Braxton, Joe Jordan, Jaki Byard, Fess Manetta, Lester Young, Duke Ellington . . . and more.

The curious — and I hope there are many — will listen to samples here and then plunge in — this set costs less than two CDs and is wonderfully lively. You can also learn more at Allen’s website and blog (called EVERYTHING ELSE IS POST MODERNISM) — where Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon and Norman Mailer, compelled to share a subway seat, eye each other with suspicion.

I admire Allen Lowe’s courage, range, and audacities. The music is often, on first hearing, “weird,” but that’s a compliment. A little weirdness is like good seasoning: so much missed in the music we are sold, so richly enhancing in the right proportions.

And to return to the austere Robert Frost.  My letter to him, unsent and unread, is as follows:Dear Mr. Frost. If you removed the net, you might not have tennis, but you certainly would have an engaging dance.”

May your happiness increase!

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QUESTIONS OF “TASTE”

Once upon a time, I was a very eager student in Miss Golab’s middle-school music-appreciation class.  She knew I liked jazz and introduced me to another student who was similarly obsessed.  He was much hipper.  He had a chin tuft.  He asked me, “Well, who do you listen to?” and I said “Louis Armstrong!” (my unspoken “of course” hung in the air).  Quizzically, he replied, “What about Archie Shepp?”  I said, “That stinks.  I say to hell with it,” and he, indignantly, said, “And I say to hell with you!” and stalked away.

Two jazz critics in the making, I point out.

A few years later, I still couldn’t hear Archie Shepp . . . but I also had little patience for Charlie Parker, late Lester Young, and a thousand others.  If it didn’t sound like the 1937 Basie band, Louis, or the Blue Note Jazzmen and their modern heirs, my ears were closed.

It has taken me forty years to be able to listen to a much wider variety of musics, and I am happy that my horizons have widened: if you can find beauty in Ran Blake as well as in James P. Johnson, aren’t your delights multiplied?

But not everyone feels that way.  One JAZZ LIVES reader told me that I was a traitor to the real jazz, which he defines as happy music played by “Negroes” in New Orleans.  All I can say (having calmed down) is that I hope he gets much pleasure out of the music he loves — as much as I do in listening to what I love.

This brings me to the question of what we call taste.

“I have good taste,” we say to ourselves.  “I know what I like.  What I like is really good.”

Others, we think, have slightly less reliable taste.  And we gossip about them in jazz terms.  “I can’t hang with him at the festival.  All he wants to do is go hear the Roly-Poly Piranhas play AT THE CODFISH BALL.”  Or, in more intimate terms, “I could never sleep with a (wo)man who digs the Roly-Poly Piranhas.”  I understand this sharp-edged perspective, but I am working hard to tame the snobbish divisiveness in my personality.

For whatever reasons, we grow attached to certain artistic expressions early in our lives.  Dr. John Money, an eminent medical researcher on the subject of sex (based at Johns Hopkins) said that our erotic attraction was based on childhood experiences we might not have been conscious of — not Freudian so much as experiential and genetic.  He called it a person’s “lovemap.”

Before I was able to vote, I heard records by Louis Armstrong (with Gordon Jenkins and the 1947 All-Stars), Vic Dickenson, Jack Teagarden, Eddie Condon, Sidney Catlett, Pee Wee Russell, James P. Johnson, Jimmy Rushing, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Lee Wiley, Jo Jones, the Boswell Sisters . . . so they are part of my musical “lovemap.”

And still — for all the ecumenicalism I am encouraging about “taste,” which, after all, is just something we make up to make ourselves feel better about our visceral reactions — if you tell me that you find Louis Armstrong boring, if the Basie rhythm section irritates you, I will feel pity . . . and think, “Wow!  That is WRONG!”

If you say “I do not like the way Hot Lips Page plays the blues,” I will try not to look at you as if you had just said, “I dislike breathing.  Breathing bores me.”  I might ask you, “What don’t you like about his playing?” and then we could get into a discussion.

But the word “like” is important here, because it shows that Hot Lips Page’s essence is not really in question; what is up for discussion is your subjective visceral reaction to it.

If you say to me, “I prefer the way Tony Fruscella plays the blues to the way Hot Lips does,” at least I can understand this, although I may still be surprised.  However, if you say, “Hot Lips Page is a bad trumpet player.  He can’t play,” then I must take my leave, because you have raised your subjective assessment into a statement of what you consider to be factual evidence.  I would say, as I go away, “You might want to ask a professional trumpet player if your assertion is correct.”

Ultimately I think that such “expressions of taste” are about what moves us deeply.  Does Connee Boswell’s singing of IN A LITTLE SECOND-HAND store make you want to weep?  Does Sidney Catlett’s STEAK FACE solo make you want to get up and dance around the room?  (Please insert your own examples here.)  Are they the only musical expressions that move people to tears or joy?  I think not.

But maybe we could back off a little.

mushrooms

I don’t like the flavor of cooked mushrooms.  Too dark, too earthy.  I will eat them to be polite, and I don’t wrinkle my nose, gag, or toss my plate on the floor.  But if you think mushrooms are the most delicious thing in the world, and you pity me my culinary myopia, we could still go out to dinner.  And while you are thinking, “Michael doesn’t like mushrooms?  What is WRONG with him?” I would give you all the mushrooms on my plate so that you could enjoy them.

It holds true for music.  To my ears, there is little better than art of the musicians I hold dear.  But if you really want to go off and hear a band I don’t like, perhaps you hear something in them I do not.

Back to food.  If we are going to go out to lunch and you want me to join you for a paper sack full of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, I will not only say NO but I will tell you what I know about processed genetically modified food from animals that have never been allowed to live.  I might even say, “Hey, do you want to die?  Have you ever had real roast chicken?”  And we could not dine together, at least not at the Golden Arches.

However, should I think you are evil or stupid?  I think the most rancorous I should allow myself — in an echo of CASABLANCA — is to say, “You were misinformed.”

But if you want to spend all your time at the festival listening to the RPP, I hope you get a chance to walk in and hear a lyrical cornetist take a beautiful solo on a ballad.  Only then can you say you want to be exclusive.  Telling me that the lyrical cornetist “would put you to sleep” is true for you, but it makes me sad.

The principles of criticism stand solidly here: what are the artists attempting to do, and how well do they accomplish those goals?  If a band proposes to swing in a certain manner, to improvise on themes in ways that are melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically varied and skillful . . . we should judge them on those criteria.

For me, if the tempo drags or races, if the band is not in tune, if they rely on crowd-pleasing volume rather than shadings of dynamics, then I feel sad for the people who are hollering joyously in that room.  And also I feel sad that such displays of enthusiasm often shape the decisions of festival promoters.  I once talked with someone who ran a New York City jazz club, who told me, “The only way I know if a band is good is if they fill the room.”  That was understandable in economic terms, but not always so artistically.

I will hold on to my set of experiences and loves and I hope you will allow me to.  And I will try to be gentle.  If you tell me that the RPP is THE BEST BAND YOU HAVE EVER HEARD.  I might say, “Gee, have you ever heard Louis and Lonnie Johnson on HOTTER THAN THAT?” but I will try to disperse my unspoken scorn.

Want some mushrooms?  (Could I have those olives you aren’t eating?)

May your happiness increase.