Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On Returning to Jazz

All of a sudden, I find myself listening to a lot of jazz again. I posted before about my exhaustion with jazz, which resulted in my not buying a lot of it anymore. This is still true, though I retain the habit, wherever I go, of looking for recordings by certain musicians (usually Anthony Braxton, Paul Bley, Joe McPhee, and William Parker); for the most part I can count on nothing being available, so I'm safe. But, as previously mentioned, I've been digging the stuff posted over at Destination: Out. Recent posts about Marion Brown, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Don Cherry, as well as Sunday's on Sam Rivers, have been illuminating and a lot of fun. And besides, I have a bunch of recordings that I've barely absorbed, so there's plenty to investigate in my own collection. The other night, I dragged out my copy of Ornette Coleman's Beauty Is a Rare Thing, one of the cooler box sets I own, and listened to that classic stuff for the first time in a few years. Always an enjoyable experience.

So, that's been part of it. As it happens, though, I did buy a few jazz cds when we were in France. I'd compiled a short list of record stores in Paris before we left, but it turned out that I didn't bother seeking any of them out. However, I did pop into the monstrously massive Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysees. I didn't really have a lot of time to kill there, and the pop/rock section was completely overwhelming, so I gave up and moved on to the jazz room. The selection was not as deep as I would have expected, and anyway price was an issue. Nevertheless, I walked out with four cds:
  • Paul Bley, Homage to Carla
  • Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips, Time Will Tell
  • Joe Harriott, Genius
  • Max Roach, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.
This was pretty much all the music we had to listen to as we drove around the country-side and up into the mountains in Provence. We listened to each cd five or six times or more. I recommend it: It was a great soundtrack to a great trip.

Anyway, the four cds. They're all good.

We Insist! is a classic, from 1960, with Abbey Lincoln on vocals and a band that includes, aside from Roach on drums and as bandleader, Coleman Hawkins, Booker Little, and Julian Priester. I'd read about it in Robert Cook and Brian Morton's Penguin Guide to Jazz, in which it was one of the few records to be awarded their coveted crown rating (is it wrong that I've tried to get as many of the crowned records as I could? I know they're supposed to be idiosyncratic choices, but I haven't really been steered wrong yet...), but I'd never been able to find it. The record is an explicitly political statement, with lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr.. It's certainly of its period, but it never feels dated. The band burns, and Abbey Lincoln is excellent. I've never listened to her before, but I like her voice and the power and emotion of her singing. I'll have to keep her in mind in the future.

I first heard of Joe Harriott when Ken Vandermark released his tribute album a few years ago, then I looked him up in Penguin, but I'd never seen his own records anywhere (admittedly, I did not look very hard), so I snapped this one up, even though I knew it wasn't one of "the ones to get", which I understand to be Free Form or Abstract. Genius is kind of a hodge-podge of stuff. Put out by the UK label Jazz Academy (which appears to have specifically educational goals), it gathers various performances from two different sets with Harriott and his 1961 quintet, as well as two other performances featuring Harriott as a sideman in bands led by Michael Garrick (about whom I know nothing). The Harriott groups play nice versions of "Moanin'", "Round About Midnight", "Love For Sale", and "Body and Soul", as well as some of Harriott's own compositions, which he introduces as "abstract". It's an enjoyable recording. (One weird thing about it: in the second grouping, comprising tracks 5-9, the bass was over-dubbed in 1999.)

Then there's Paul Bley. My interest in Bley came about entirely by way of reading the Penguin Guide. Bley has a huge discography, covering more than 50 years (!), and Cook and Morton are fans. I quickly compiled a sizable list of Bley albums to look out for. Probably the first Bley performance I actually heard was "Ramblin'", his lone song on the excellent Jazzactuel box, compiled by Thurston Moore and Byron Coley. The first Bley cd I bought was a reissue of the fantastic ESP album, Closer, not covered in my edition of the Guide. Over time I have assembled a decent cross-section of albums from throughout his career (though this still amounts to only like eleven cds), including the absolutely essential solo piano recording, Open, To Love.

Of the two new ones, the solo Homage to Carla was the first one we listened to, and it's quite good. Right away we were treated to Bley's characteristic clustered notes and melodic structured-yet-free playing. As might have been guessed from the title, here he is playing songs written by his ex-wife, Carla Bley. I'm not familiar with much of her work (I have one LP), so I can't say anything about how the interpretations stack up against the originals or other versions.

Time Will Tell was the true gem, though. Of all of the cds, we listened to this one the most. I'd already had the later Sankt Gerold cd featuring the same grouping, and the setup is the same: several trio performances, with the members of the trio splitting off into duos for a handful of tracks, as appears to be common in recent ECM sessions. As with Sankt Gerold, the album is more mellow than a freely improvised record featuring Evan Parker might lead one to believe. There are a few instances of Parker going off on one of his circular-breathing exercises, by they don't last too long, and are anyway typically virtuosic. There will be moments where it sounds like the music is falling down a hill (perfect for driving in the mountains!), or Bley's piano sounds delicate, like wind chimes, which mixes with Parker's sax and Phillips' often-bowed bass to create some truly spooky atmospherics. At times the music will sound chaotic, with the musicians trying to find each other, then Bley will seem to erupt into a beautiful melodic figure--I'm always amazed by this with Bley, what I perceive to be his ability to produce spontaneous melodies, melodies that stay with me. Time Will Tell is a great, great modern jazz album.

Elsewhere, I came across this guest post by Destination: Out's Chilly Jay Chill over at Marathonpacks, an mp3 blog that is new to me. He is there to talk about the recent Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid collaborations, but along the way the takes the time to offer up a brief primer and needed corrective on people's expectations of "free jazz", including the idea that it's all just "cacophonous noise":
Well yeah, some of it is really noisy. That’s the strain of the music that’s influenced Sonic Youth, Black Dice, The Boredoms, Wolf Eyes, The Stooges, Lightning Bolt, MC5, and the like. Think of it as ecstatic freak-out music. The sort of thing that will peel back the lid of your skull and rearrange your atoms. BUT that’s only one small part of the music. Free Jazz spans 50 years and numerous countries and includes music that’s so delicate it’s practically ambient as well as tunes with a funk beat strong enough to shake the dance floor. Not to mention the pieces that showcase echoes of melodic folk music, Indian rhythms, minimalist repetitions, gutbucket blues, Hendrixian squalls, orchestral grandeur, big band exotica, electronic beats, proto-punk swagger, and much more. It’s an entire continent of sound represented by tens of thousands of albums and approaches. Once you start digging, you’ll be amazed by the sheer variety and vitality of the genre. There’s something for just about every taste – all you need is a slightly open mind.
An excellent read. I'd like to suggest that the music of Paul Bley, particularly as represented on these two cds with Evan Parker and Barre Phillips, is a great way to approach some of this music, especially if you're wary of saxophone skronk and marathon noise sessions.

In the course of writing this, I came across another blog that's new to me, Different Waters, which has had two recent posts on Bley, specifically on Open, To Love and Sankt Gerold (this one mostly quotes from a Pop Matters review). Also, moving away from Bley, I am grateful to Carl Wilson at Zoilus for linking to this wonderful interview with Joe McPhee from 2000.

The New Standard

Just popping in here to say if you're at all interested in alternatives to mainstream news sources and in supporting independent news media, please consider supporting The New Standard, if you don't already. In recent years, it has been an exemplary model for alternative media. They do great independent reporting on many issues not usually presented in the normal outlets. And they are in trouble. They have been trying to raise money in order to stay in business, and it's only just now occurred to me to post about it. This Friday is their deadline. Please go here to take a look at their archives of news articles and to see how to pledge a modest monthly amount.

Update: Apparently they have reached their goal and will be able to stay afloat for another year. Excellent news. But of course they are still operating on a very tight budget and could still use any available help.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Pathological Music Consumption

Another exemplary passage from Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard, pp. 139-140:
The present generation, curiously enough, no longer makes the highest demands on music, those which were made on music a mere fifteen or twenty years ago. The reason is that listening to music has become a trivial everyday affair as a result of technical progress. Listening to music is nothing out of the ordinary any more, you can hear music wherever you go, you are practically forced to hear music, in every department store, in every doctor's surgery, on every street, indeed you cannot avoid music nowadays, you wish to escape from it but you cannot escape, this age is totally accompanied by background music, that is the catastrophe, Reger said. Our age has witnessed the eruption of total music, anywhere between the North Pole and the South Pole you are forced to hear music, in the city or out in the country, on the high seas or in the desert, Reger said. People have been stuffed full of music every day for so long that they have long lost all feeling for music. This monstrous situation of course has its effect on concerts you hear nowadays because all music all over the world is out of the ordinary, and where everything is out of the ordinary there, naturally, nothing out of the ordinary remains, indeed it is positively touching to see a few ridiculous virtuosi still taking pains to be out of the ordinary, but they are so no longer because they can be so no longer. The world is through and through pervaded by total music, Reger said, that is the misfortune, at every street corner you can hear extraordinary and perfect music on such a scale that you have probably blocked your ears long ago to stop yourself going out of your mind. People today, because they have nothing else left, suffer from a pathological music consumption, Reger said, this music consumption will be driven forward by the industry, which controls people today, to a point where everybody is destroyed; there is a lot of talk nowadays about waste and chemicals which have destroyed everything, but music destroys a lot more than waste and chemicals do, it is music that eventually will destroy everything totally, mark my words. The first thing to be destroyed by the music industry are people's auditory canals and next, as a logical consequence, the people themselves, that is the truth, Reger said. I can already see people totally destroyed by the music industry, Reger said, those masses of music-industry victims eventually populating the continents with their musical cadaverous stench, my dear Atzbacher, the music industry will one day have the population on its conscience, it will most probably ultimately have the whole of mankind on its conscience, not just chemicals and waste, believe me. The music industry is the murderer of human beings, the music industry is the real mass murderer of humanity which, if the music industry continues on its present lines, will have no hope whatever within a few decades, my dear Atzbacher, Reger said excitedly.

Old Masters, Thomas Bernhard

In his preface to Correction, George Steiner, while judging it to be Thomas Bernhard's masterpiece (a fairly common assessment, it seems; I haven't read it yet, but I can think of at least one person who disagrees), says that, "[t]oo often, notably in his later writings, Bernhard succumbed to a monotone of hate (hate for Austria, for modern man, for the soiled materiality of being)." Old Masters is late Bernhard (published in 1985 four years before his death), and readers could be forgiven for describing it as indeed often seeming little more than a "monotone of hate". As with Concrete, published a year earlier, we are subjected to a steady stream of negativity directed towards, yes, Austria, modern man, critics, artists, art. In this case, most of the opinions are held by Reger, a music critic who writes for The Times of London, who for more than thirty years has visited the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna every other day to sit across from the same painting, Tintoretto's White-Bearded Man. Reger's pronouncements come to us through Aztbacher, the apparent narrator, who has been invited by Reger to meet him at the museum. Aztbacher gets to the museum early, and takes the time to observe Reger and recount, it seems, nearly everything that Reger has ever told him.

We are drawn into the world of Reger's opinions, many of which seem perfectly reasonable, and had me either nodding my head or enjoying the ideas, for example in this early passage:
The perfect not only threatens us ceaselessly with our ruin, it also ruins everything that is hanging on these walls under the label masterpiece. I proceed from the assumption that there is no such thing as perfect or the whole, and each time I have made a fragment of one of the so-called perfect works of art hanging here on the walls by searching for a massive mistake in and about that work of art, for the crucial point of failure by the artist who made that work of art, searching for it until I found it, I have got one step further. In every one of these paintings, these so-called masterpieces, I have found and uncovered a massive mistake, the failure of its creator. For over thirty years this, as you might think, infamous calculation has come out right. Not one of these world-famous masterpieces, no matter by whom, is in fact whole or perfect. That reassures me. It makes me basically happy. Only when, time and again, we have discovered that there is no such thing as the whole or the perfect are we able to live on. We cannot endure the whole or the perfect. We have to travel to Rome to discover that Saint Peter's is a tasteless concoction, that Bernini's altar is an architectural nonsense. We have to see the Pope face to face and personally discover that all in all he is just as helpless and grotesque a person as anyone else in order to bear it. We have to listen to Bach and hear how he fails, listen to Beethoven and hear how he fails, even listen to Mozart and hear how he fails. And we have to deal in the same way with the so-called great philosophers, even if they are our favorite spiritual artists, he said. After all, we do not love Pascal because he is so perfect but because he is fundamentally so helpless, just as we love Montaigne for his helplessness in lifelong searching and failing to find, and Voltaire for his helplessness. We only love philosophy and the humanities generally because they are absolutely helpless. We truly love only those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.
While Reger is finding fault here, it doesn't seem wholly negative, nor merely an attempt to knock artists or other famous people down to size. The notion of art as a record of failure is not ridiculous, and there are echoes, of course, of Beckett's "Fail Again. Fail better." dictum. But Reger goes further than that. It quickly starts to seem as if he despises nearly all art, all life, as much of what follows is a negation.

Old Masters is subtitled "A Comedy". Why? For one thing, there is Irrsigler, the guard at the Kunsthistoriches Museum who has enabled Reger to occupy the space in the museum for more than thirty years. We learn early on that Irrsigler had "wanted to join the police because the career of a policeman would...solve his clothing problem" and became a musuem guard for much the same reason, and even thought of joining a monastery "because there too a person's clothes were provided". Irrsigler is a comically stiff figure. But, in the manner of Bernhard's other work, most of the comedy comes about through Reger’s pronouncements themselves. They become so repetitive as to often be ridiculous, to be comical; are so often objectionable; so often so encompassing, so absolute, so far over the top, so apparently assured and negating of everything they come into contact with; at times Reger is so obnoxious as to be repellent, yet it’s funny; the re-statements from every conceivable, every tedious angle of the same proposition, which is then modified with an “except”, which is then re-stated itself from seemingly every possible grammatical angle. More than once I grew exasperated, tired of plowing through yet another permutation of yet another outlandishly absolute negative opinion, finding myself wondering why. Then there are those rants that are simply hilarious. He rants about Vienna's cleanliness and then intones solemnly: "The lavatory question and the tablecloth question are still unsolved in Vienna". Good point. Also: has been scientifically established that a Viennese uses a piece of soap only once a week, just as it has been scientifically established that he changes his underpants only once a week, just as he changes his shirt at most twice a week, and most Viennese change their bedlinen once a month, Reger said. As for socks or stockings, a Viennese, on average, wears the same pair for twelve consecutive days, Reger said.
On average! Over time, through all of this, we learn about Reger. He is physically weak, elderly. His wife has recently died and he considers himself a coward for having stayed behind. He looks to art but it fails him in his time of need, and yet, finally, it appears to be all he has, and he clings to it. There ends up being something strangely affirming about this. And, in Bernhard's perverse way, the book has what I am going to call a happy ending. Aztbacher finally learns why he has been invited to meet Reger and it is wildly anti-climactic, in one sense, but thematically consistent. The final sentence of the book is hilarious and perfect.

I am unsure which I liked better, Old Masters or The Loser, my previous favorite Bernhard (and, oh yeah, source of this blog's name). Either way, Bernhard is uniquely Bernhard, even with the echoes of other writers (Beckett, I guess, and more than one place has compared the form to Notes from the Underground, which makes sense, given the rant or confession, though it escaped my notice I have to admit, and seems more specifically relevant to Concrete). His enormous paragraphs (again, there are no breaks here) and the interspersed "Reger said", "I considered", "said Reger, I thought", etc, and ranting and re-ranting through grammatical reconstructions, make for a reading experience that is by turns thought-provoking, infuriating, hypnotic, and often quite funny. If you already like Bernhard and haven't read Old Masters, of course you're going to want to, and if you haven't read him yet, I imagine this is as good a place to start as any. For myself, in France I was able to find Correction and Gathering Evidence, his childhood memoir, both of which I look forward to, as well as finding the rest of his fiction, Extinction in particular.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Something more human, more survivable

Jodi Dean on feminist elitism, in response to this article at Alternet, about Linda Hirshman's book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World:
The overall argument is against 'mom-ism' and the general backlash culture that puts elite women back in the home, seemingly by their own choices. It's a shame that the author was compelled to reassert and validate elitism in her argument against this current view, not least because it damages the feminism she claims to support by reifying rather than challenging the class distinction between women with Ph.D.s advancing ideas in the lofty heights of public debate while poorer women are arm deep in shit as they change the diapers of these women's children.

But why accept the opposition between ideas and diapers? Don't we encounter a lot of shit in each sphere? And, might not energy in one sphere cross into the other? For crying out loud, something like three hundred years of feminist thought has challenged the public/private distinction and here this philosopher is re-installing it, this time in terms of elite privilege, a privilege here linked to a kind of moral duty. In so doing, she limits the potential of feminism to challenge basic social structures, to try to transform these structures into something more human, more survivable.

Lesson in Charisma

In the wake of his unceremonious firing, a lot of people have linked to and discussed Robert Christgau's final major Villiage Voice feature, in which he relates his experience of taking in 32 shows in 30 days. I just read it the other day, and this passage jumped out at me, about Robert Plant's appearance at the Arthur Lee benefit concert, in part because it sort of surprised me, and because it gave me a weird unearned sense of pride, as a long-time Zep fan:
But the big-ticket house, which wasn't full, had come for Robert Plant. Plant owns any room he enters. He could have fobbed off three Loves, three Zeps, a solo promo, and "Danny Boy." Instead he spent two days with the pickup band, rehearsing a set that honored Lee personally and culturally. The Zeps were early, the Loves exquisite. "For What It's Worth" led to a Hunter-assisted Everlys tune (the Elderly Brothers, Weitzman called them) and "Can't Help Falling in Love." Highlighted was "Hey Joe"—a perfect Zep-Love link, misogyny and all. And into the middle of a psychedelic fantasia—based on his own 2002 revival, not Love's peppy single or Hendrix's psychodrama—Plant inserted "Nature Boy," an inspired evocation of Arthur Lee the L.A. eccentric even if you didn't know its composer was an L.A. longhair when there were no longhairs and its hit version a turning point for black pop pathfinder Nat Cole. At 57, Plant no longer had his high end. But because the music was new and the occasion felt, he was singing fresh. This wasn't the somewhat automatic mastery of great Springsteen or Stones. It was a lesson in charisma full of near misses and intricate meshes, the most life-affirming thing I witnessed all month. My daughter and I fought through the rain at 1:30 a.m. just as if we weren't exhausted.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The things you are prepared to apprehend

I've started reading William Empson's 7 Types of Ambiguity. This is from early in the first chapter (and is another item related to the issues raised in this post, in which I quoted from Ezra Pound):
...there is a sort of meaning, the sort that people are thinking of when they say 'this poet will mean more to you when you have had more experience of life,' which is hardly in reach of the analyst at all. They mean by this not so much that you will have more information (which could be given at once) as that the information will have been digested; that you will be more experienced in the apprehension of verbal subtleties or of the poet's social tone; that you will have become the sort of person that can feel at home in, or imagine, or extract experience from, what is described by the poetry; that you will have included it among the things you are prepared to apprehend. There is a distinction here of the implied meanings of a sentence into what is to be assimilated at the moment and what must already be part of your habits; in arriving at the second of these the educator (that mysterious figure) rather than the analyst would be helpful. In a sense it cannot be explained in language, because to a person who does not understand it any statement of it is as difficult as the original one, while to a person who does understand it a statement of it has no meaning because no purpose.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Pre-Honeymoon Music Round-Up

Ok, one final, brief post before closing up shop before we leave for France.

John Darnielle has a very nice, if quite short, piece on Souled American's Flubber album. I first heard of Souled American about seven or eight years ago. For the first time in years, I'd bought an issue of Spin magazine--I have to admit that it was the cover story "What the World Needs Now Is Axl Rose", or something, that had caught my attention. Oddly, the Axl story was not worth the time it took to read it, but in the back of the issue was a story set aside in a box about this strange, elusive, sort of country rock band called Souled American. I immediately felt that, somehow, this was a band I needed to hear. I happened upon their Frozen cd in a Borders, of all places, and snapped it up. A bizarre, lovely, low-key record. I set about finding their earlier stuff, ordering tUMULt's two double-cd reissues of their first four albums, the second one taking months to get to me. Completely worth it. I go through periods where I listen to Souled American obsessively. I've yet to hear anything else like them.

Louis Menand's article in The New Yorker on Bob Dylan is excellent. (I'll be buying Modern Times fairly soon after returning home.)

Speaking of The New Yorker, I also liked Sasha Frere-Jones' column about the Boredoms a few weeks back. We caught their show in Philadelphia at the end of June, and it was utterly fantastic. It was hypnotic and trance-inducing and also made us dance.

I've been enjoying Destination-Out, my favorite free jazz mp3 blog. If you have any interest in free jazz or out-jazz or whatever you might prefer to call it, and you haven't already been checking in on them, please do so now (the links don't last long). I've especially appreciated recent posts about Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Alice Coltrane. Their most recent subject is Muhal Richard Abrams. Good stuff.

And, from just this morning, John at uTopianTurtleTop on the Beach Boys, a group I've never been able to get. John's blog is usually a thoughtful read, and this post is no different. He makes me want to spend some quality time with the Beach Boys, which is quite a trick, and he almost makes me think I'll actually make the effort to do so. From the end of the post:
I don’t mean to say they’re better than the Beatles. There are no comparatives in music you love. When you’re in the music, nothing else matters. There’s nowhere else you’d rather be. I realize that the Beach Boys are the height of rock nerd-boy sensibility, but I can’t help myself. I love those melodies and countermelodies and blends. And, you’ll note, the words are often poignant, almost always humane, often witty and playful. Sometimes I think that Brian and his team of lyricists were Chuck Berry’s truest heirs in the ‘60s -- so many songs detailing social life in little vignettes and narratives. From a more youthful, simpler, less critical perspective -- not saying the lyrics are as deep as Chuck’s, but they’re often surprisingly excellent.
Ok, that's about it. So far, since compiling my year-to-date list, I have acquired only two more albums released this year: Herbert's Scales and that Burial cd. Both are excellent, and will place fairly highly at the end of the year. Scales is gorgeous, and I've been listening to it continually on the iPod. My response to Burial is not as enthusiastic as, say, k-punk's, but it's a grower. (One problem becomes more and more evident. I need to listen to more dub and its offshoots, but I am not sure where to go, who to listen to. My main frames of reference for this cd are Massive Attack and Tricky.) Other albums I anticipate getting include (some of which are already out), aside from Dylan's: the Mountain Goats, Yo La Tengo, Junior Boys, E-40, Masta Killa...

I'll be back in two weeks. Enjoy!