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Breakfast, Nearly, with Pharoah Sanders

I think I’m more than a fan, much more than a fan, of what people in my various small circles of friends and fellow listeners would call The Music. Not just music, but The, with a capital T. What my colleagues and I usually mean to indicate with this definitive and emphatic article is a certain lineage or a set of lineages in recent jazz, lineages that can trace their origins to consciousness-raising performances and recordings in the mid 1960s around the civil rights movement and the emergence of Black cultural nationalism in the United States. I am neither Black nor American, but I know that I have had a powerful personal investment in this music since my mid-teenage years, when, and I have no idea how to explain this objectively, my friends and I started buying jazz records. The Music has – again, powerfully – helped to shape who I feel I have become, who I think I am and how I think. For some reason, across a number of tangible cultural and social boundaries, this music came to speak to me: it’s an experience that’s not unique to me, but it does seem a bit strange that this feeling of connection occurred in small-town Nova Scotia in the late 1970s, in a place that still feels remote from the contexts out of which this music came. The Music was not in the air very much, at least not where I come from. But that’s not exactly true, either: there were people around us who knew things, there were kids like me who wanted to know, and there was the odd record that arrived in the bins of Kelly’s Stereo Mart that we could buy. The first jazz-like record I ever bought – copying what my friend had done – was The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer that appeared in 1979 two years after the death of Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It was an album that would change everything for me, or at least cause as much change as any one record can. The sense of tradition as well as of extemporaneous experimentation that vitally energize the tracks on that compilation epitomize what Mr. Kirk called “Black Classical Music,” and help me to consider the collisions and intersections of the creative and the critical, of music and poetry, of history and innovation, that seem to me to make cultural performances of all types come to matter.
         Listening to Rahsaan and to Miles Davis and others soon led me outward – tracing the networks of connections and sidemen they deployed – to John Coltrane, of course, and especially to his later, more tumultuous post-1964 music: recordings that had become established, by the time I could have encountered them, as touchstones of The Music, fierce beautiful classics. In the summer when I was seventeen, I bought a copy of Meditations. The opening track on that album, “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost,” with the stuttering, surging and entwined tenor saxophone lines of Mr. Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, was transformative for me, at once devastating and profoundly moving. I don’t know how many times I have played that first side over; I can hear it in my mind’s ear even now. There is nothing like it. I think I read an interview some years ago with Carlos Santana, where he said that he tries to listen to Coltrane every day – for “spiritual nourishment” – and he mentions “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” in particular. I know what he meant, what he means.
         I have been in Guelph, Ontario, for the past week, attending at the university there an academic colloquium about, among other things, The Music. The colloquium is tied to an ongoing research initiative called “Improvisation, Community and Social Practice,” and to a yearly Jazz Festival, programmed for twenty years now by Ajay Heble, who is both its Artistic Director and the Principal Investigator for the grant-funded academic initiative. Because of the relatively small size of Guelph, many out-of-town attendees end up staying at the Delta hotel there, which is where most of the musicians playing the festival stay, too. So you tend sometimes to cross paths. This year, the festival headliners included Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, performing a scaled-down version of his Pulitzer-nominated suite Ten Freedom Summers, and Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with an amalgam of Rob Mazurek’s Chicago and Sao Paulo Undergrounds. (I’ll say something about these performances in another piece.) I was returning alone to the hotel by taxi after a wonderful concert by the Indigo Trio on Thursday night. As I came through the sliding glass doors into the lobby, there in front of me, leaning over the front desk trying to check in, was Pharoah Sanders. I knew him immediately, from photos on LP jackets I had poured over and scrutinized while I listened, headphones on, in front of the stereo downstairs in my parents’ house years ago. It was Pharoah Sanders. And for a moment, I had no idea what to do.
         Of course, I didn’t have to do anything. I felt as if I ought to approach him, ought to say something. I have been immersed in his music for decades, and feel a kinship, because of the effect that it has had on me over those years, that of course he couldn’t have shared. He has no idea who I am, or how his music has changed my life, the way Rilke once said all great art ought to do. My impulse was to try to walk up and tell him something then and there about my own story, the story of my love for his music. But, it would have been pretty rude to bother Mr. Sanders while he was trying to sort out his arrival. So I got into the elevator, went up to my room, and put up an excited jazz-nerd blurb on Facebook and Twitter about having just passed The Pharoah Sanders in the lobby.
Along with Mr. Smith, he was doing a public interview the next morning, which I was going to attend, so I would get to see and hear him anyway. And I had my ticket to the concert the following night. Great.

Wadada Leo Smith and Pharoah Sanders, after  the interview Friday morning, 6 September 2013
         At the interview Mr. Sanders wasn’t especially voluble. (A video recording of the interview ought to appear on the ICaSP website sometime in the near future.) What might appear as reticence in that interview could also be an after-effect of all of this public adulation and esteem, this spiritual fandom. Not that he shouldn’t be rightly and justly praised for what he has done, for the lives his music has affected, but he may have been a bit wary of the kinds of closeness that listeners like me seem to need to claim and to feel. It’s easy to forget to accord the person, the human being, the dignity and the respect, the personal space, that they deserve – and that every human being deserves. Listening, even as closely as many of us do, needs still to be kept at a remove from entitlement. And this distance, around historically significant and culturally transformative artists such as Mr. Sanders, can sometimes present a very difficult line to walk. (“He became his admirers,” says W. H. Auden of the passing of W. B. Yeats: such appropriations have a moribund aspect, I think. They objectify the living, and reify their creative energies, often without intending to, as real people get turned and admiringly calcified into their own self-representations, their myths.)
         There was another great concert Saturday morning, by KAZE. I was up a little later that morning, but still had some time, so I decided to treat myself to a warm breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I stood by the please wait to be seated sign, waiting, Pharoah Sanders was suddenly there, coming out of the restaurant towards me; he had obviously been eating breakfast. Okay, I thought, now was my chance to say something, anything. “Mr. Sanders,” I said, “I’m a great admirer of your music.” And I held out my hand to shake his. “Thank you,” he said, and then put his own hands together in a gesture of prayer.
“My hands,” he said. “Of course,” I said, though I didn’t know exactly what he meant. (I have spoken with musicians and others who have to shake hands with strangers often when they’re on the road: they tell me that folding your hands this way is a good practice to keep from having viruses spread to you.) And then a waitress showed me to my single table, at an extended curved bench along the restaurant’s far wall.
Someone had been eating at the small single table next to me. I looked down at the menu, to figure out what I wanted to order, and then looked up again. Pharoah Sanders was coming back into the restaurant towards me. I had been seated beside his table. It turned out he hadn’t been leaving at all, but had been making a second visit to the breakfast buffet, which was located just the other side of the please wait to be seated sign. He sat back down next to me. I was becoming a little concerned he might think that somehow I was following him, so I didn’t want even to try to pester him with small talk. We ate side by side quietly at our separate tables, together. I took no photographs. I don’t know why it would even have occurred to me as something I could so, and it’s embarrassing to admit that I even considered it, so intrusive, so disrespectful of someone else’s space. When I left, I did manage to wish him a good day, and to say I was looking forward to his concert that evening. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”
The concert was tremendous. As I said, I’ll post something more detailed about it soon. It ended around midnight, and I managed to flag a cab back to the hotel, amid what turned out to be masses of partying students newly arrived in town for the University’s boozy Frosh week. (None of them had anything to do with the music, with The Music. It’s a coincidence that the Jazz Festival and the academic colloquium happen simultaneously with the first week of classes.) I got back late, and went to bed.
Pharoah Sanders (and Chad Taylor) performing at Guelph on September 7, 2013
I had to be up early the next morning to catch a shuttle van to the Toronto airport. I came down to check out at 6 am, and the desk clerk asked if I had got the message that the shuttle was postponed until 6:30. (I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter.) The idea, it turned out, was to fill all seven seats on one shuttle, rather than have to send two vehicles. So, fine, I took my bags over to the hotel foyer, where coordinated brown and beige couches had been arranged to look something like a furniture showroom at The Bay.
As I sat down to wait, someone else appeared at the desk to check out. It was Pharoah Sanders. He did what he needed to do at the desk, and then came over to join me on the couches. I thought at this point that if he realized I was this same guy who kept appearing wherever he was, he might have started genuinely to worry. But he smiled and nodded at me, and started to chat. Like me, he was headed to the airport to catch a flight west. He asked where I was headed. He said he found it a bit cold in Guelph. He told me he’d had trouble with the air conditioner in his room, which kept coming on at night, and I told him I’d had exactly the same trouble, which was true.
Others arrived who were taking the same airport shuttle, all of them musicians who had performed the night before, including Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Davis, both of whom are indisputably major composers and performers in contemporary music. The shuttle arrived; I told Mr. Sanders it was here, and he went to stand over in front of the sliding glass doors at the hotel entrance.
The doors opened, and the shuttle driver, clipboard in hand, came through, and walked right up to Mr. Sanders. “Who are you?” he asked bluntly. Mr. Sanders gave his name. “Right,” said the driver, “one of the jazz musicians.” I thought, oh, maybe I’m not on this shuttle, so I went up and asked. It looked like there wasn’t going to be enough room. “Nope,” said the driver, “this is your shuttle too. You’re the one non-musician.”
He managed to load all the bags, and told us to climb in. I ended up in the front pair of passenger seats, sitting next to Pharoah Sanders, again. I hope he didn’t mind. There was some confusion about airlines and paperwork. Pearson airport has three terminals, each of them linked to different domestic and international carriers. The driver got in, turned around in his seat to face Mr. Sanders and the rest of us, and said: “Don’t worry. I have a master plan.” I thought I heard a few chuckles, though maybe not. I don’t think the driver was deliberately making a kind of joke – he genuinely had no idea that one of Pharoah Sanders’s most praised and beloved recordings is called “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” But in that moment, what started to emerge was a troubling irony, one that creative musicians such as these must have to confront on a fairly regular basis.
“Say,” the driver said, as he started the engine and pulled away, “I’ve got the radio tuned to the jazz station.”
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. “No music.” It was still really early, and no one had had more than a few hours of sleep.
“I thought you might want to hear some jazz,” the driver kept on. “You know, I like Billie Holiday.”
“We all like Billie Holiday,” said someone from the back of the shuttle. The driver tried to play the radio a little lower.
“No, please,” said Mr. Smith. The driver finally obliged.
The 40-minute drive east along the 401, with a fine reddish sun emerging from the clouded horizon in front of us, was silent. Most people just dozed in their seats, the way people do.
When we arrived at the airport, the first three let out included Mr. Sanders. He said goodbye, and wished everyone and was wished a safe journey.  He smiled and waved, and that was it. When the driver climbed back into his seat, he turned around and asked those who remained – except for me, the one non-musician – what kind of music they played and what clubs in Guelph they’d been playing in. (I don’t even think Guelph has a jazz club: the downtown as I’ve experienced it seems to be full of bars catering to students.) “Clubs?” said Mr. Davis. “It’s been a while since I have played in a club.” “No clubs,” said Mr. Smith.
The driver seemed mildly surprised that their performance had taken place at the city’s opera-house style concert hall, the River Run Centre. I asked if they liked the venue, and both of them said yes, and talked a little about acoustic space, about spatial acoustics. Then it was my turn to go. I wished them a safe journey, too.
After we pulled up at the terminal, the driver came around to help me unload my bag. Out of earshot of the musicians, and feeling some kind of mistaken kinship with me, he told me: “I expected this trip to be more hilarious, more fun, with, you know, those kind of . . . jazz musicians.”
Why was it, I wondered, that he waited until we were both outside of the van to tell this to me, like some kind of secret. Like I might understand him.
And then realized I knew why.
And then I knew: when he said “non-musician,” I don’t think he was talking about music. He may not have known himself what he intended. But I think I hear it now.
Pharoah Sanders, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Davis, and the others who happened to be on that shuttle, are among the most forward-thinking and brilliant musical geniuses of their, of my, generation; they perform and compose, for those who want to hear, a life-altering, profoundly moving music, coalescing jazz, art music, folk, and other styles and practices into their own idioms and sound-worlds, but all drawing on the creative impetus of the wide African diaspora. “If you have to ask,” Louis Armstrong is purported to have said, “you don’t need to know.”
Maybe so. But at the end of their interview on the Friday morning, Wadada Leo Smith made a point of encouraging listeners, simply, to try to speak to our neighbours, to connect with other human beings. “Consider the fact,” he said, “that someone else is important, and make that work in your life.” And it’s hard work, for sure, to overcome even a few of the complex barriers presented by ignorance and, strangely, by adulation, and instead to try to find the human gesture, both besides and beside ourselves.

Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part Two (Yard Sales)

Two days ago, pianist Matthew Shipppublished a blog entry at The Talkhouseessentially excoriating Keith Jarrett: “I have always felt a tremendous amount of pretense surrounding his whole universe. Of course he has some real skill, and sometimes sounds inspired. But I just can’t get past the layers and layers and layers of pretension.” One of the points I’m aiming to make in this extended take on Jarrett and “the commodification of genius” is to evaluate the materiality of what Matthew Shipp understands as pretense: how is the reception of Jarrett’s music and of his image tangibly shaped by the production and dissemination of his music? What privileges his work? Pianist Ethan Iverson (who has interviewed Jarrett, and is an admirer) yesterday offered something of a rebuttal to Shipp’s critique – defending Jarrett’s virtuosity, for example, but also admitting something of Jarrett’s enmeshment in American capitalism and marketing hype: “Jarrett owns too much real estate and is too abrasive a personality not to be taken down a peg once in a while,” he writes. My aim in this series of posts – culled, as I mentioned last time, from an extended book chapter on Jarrett – is to assess how the spectre of value, its genius, attaches itself to his recordings, especially his much-lauded and best-selling Köln Concert. In the first part, I tried to set up an approach to the commodification of culture and of cultural artifacts. In this section, I’m focused almost exclusively on the concoction of value at yard sales, a site of vestigial counter-capitalism. I don’t really mention Jarrett directly in these particular pages, but my acquisition of an LP of his lies behind the whole essay. In the third part, I’ll deal directly with buying the album and with Jarrett’s relationship to American capitalism. In the fourth and final part, I’ll offer my own analysis of The Köln Concert, and its transcription. Here is part two, then, on yard-sales.
Saturday ought to be a day of rest. Instead, we used to get up as early as if it were a workday, but to shop. And not ordinary shopping: Saturday morning early is prime time for hitting yard sales.
It had become an early-stage addiction with us. We rarely missed a weekend, and had started to turn into what yard sale vernacular calls “early birds.” Usually a label applied to unscrupulous junk-dealers and avaricious collectors, the moniker comes from the obvious cliché about worms. Get to someone’s stash soon enough, you’re liable to unearth the dusty treasure you’d imagine you’ve been searching for your whole life, though you hadn’t realized, some personal grail of cast-offs; apocryphal stories of lost necklaces mistaken for costume jewelry and sold for a dollar, or of an unknown Van Gogh unloaded for five bucks, keep buyers motivated, anxious, hawk-eyed. You never know.
Most people, however, aren’t in it for big scores, but for everyday bargains. And what we find isn’t necessarily worth anything to anyone else; we have tastes and preferences, although those tend to be fluid, depending on what we think we need, or what we happen to like that day. I like old and weird records. Most people sell boxes of warped lps that have been in their attics for a decade: not usually a source for anything good. But every now and then I get lucky. Mostly it involves pawing through stacks of mildewed Billy Joel, Boney M. and Barbra Streisand, hoping for odd gems. It’s important to keep yourself open, since you have no real way of knowing ahead of time what might be available at a given sale. Some people — maybe half on a particular Saturday — run ads in the classified section of the Friday paper, but those are vague at best (“furniture, clothes, other good stuff”), and often misleading. One time we headed for a sale advertising a “HUGE [all caps] selection,” only to find four men smoking on a concrete patio around cardboard box that contained (no lie) a broken toy fire-engine, one badly dog-eared John Grisham paperback, and a crumpled flowery blouse still on a wire hanger. We asked no questions, left quietly. So, while its possible to go with specific objects in mind — and at our own garage sales I’ve been queried for everything from toy trains to Limoges (“no harm in asking”) — chances are you won’t find it. Personally, I like to let the sales shape my interests; often I never even knew I wanted something until I saw it.
Early birds sometimes get into trouble. Some people don’t like bending the rules. If they say a sale starts at nine, then no one gets to buy anything at 8:55. Ads say things like “No early birds” to ward us off, although in practice it usually doesn’t work. Some try to make “early birds pay double,” which seems like a more effective strategy. At a recent sale, the homeowner was adamant, and refused even to let potential buyers touch what he called his “merchandise” until the hour had come; he pulled clothing, pottery, frames, even cross-country skis from out of people’s hands, bellowing “No fair! No fair!” as he grabbed each article back. Naturally, the buyers were affronted (even if they were technicallyin the wrong). One woman muttered she wasn’t going to bother to wait, this idiot had lost a sale; but she didn’t actually leave, and ten minutes later owned a framed imitation Group-of-Seven print.
What Walter Benjamin once diagnosed as the “helpless fixation on notions of security and property deriving from past decades” (Reflections 70) — a vestigial psychosis haunting the proprietors and capitalists of his Weimar Germany who clung to the slippery and indeterminate commodities as if values, both economic and moral, could somehow be stabilized, fixed — ghosts itself into the present day yard sale in the guise of rules and standardized “value.” This necklace or that vase, we’re be told, must be valuable, rare, worth something. Play fair or pay double — or maybe you won’t be allowed to buy at all. Such resolute assertions of order and such fixations on worth suggest much more than grubbing for extra cash, since the sellers at garage sales have no hope of recouping anything remotely close to the price they paid for an article, or, in the case of “antiques” and “genuine” curios, whatever they might sell for at a dealership. Money isn’t exactly the issue here, and has little to do with value. What comes into play through ascriptions of worth, in the process of reselling, is personal history, largely unreadable but nonetheless tangibly present. I am selling an object no longer of use to me, but at the same time continue to attribute value to it based on the history of its possession, what I got out of it and what I invested into it over the course of my time. What I did with it makes it valuable, not in Marx’s sense of “use-value,” since the person buying it has no direct relationship to whatever I might have done with it, and may never use the thing in the same way. (We once bought an old pail, for example, which we polished and painted and now use as an outdoor planter.)  Nonetheless, clinging to that object as a sort of aura, imperceptible to the buyer but colouring the object visibly for the seller, is the private history of its presence: a tack-hammer I used to hanging wedding photos in our old apartment, a t-shirt I bought five years ago at a jazz festival, a collar my first cat wore. The buyer isn’t necessarily purchasing these associations, and in many ways they vanish once the object is sold. (We have no idea who had our pail before us, where it might have been.) But a vestige of someone else’s nostalgia, a hopeless gesture toward fixity, assigns its price, even as it dissolves into the a-historical moment of the sale itself. Prices (and rules, and formalities) at yard-sales are temporary stays against confusion, an essential but futile attempt to cling to an un-archived past in the process of being released, unknit, let go. 
Garage-sale manuals and guide-books I have come across almost unanimously recognize the tug of what they call “sentimentality” in establishing prices, but they argue for the virtues of “objectivity” in pricing:
Emotion Has No Place in Pricing. It is vitally important that vendors not allow their emotions to affect pricing decisions. Completely objective judgment is necessary in order to arrive at prices within market range. Sentimental ties and family history of a sale item have no relevance to the price that buyers may be willing to pay. Stand back and ask yourself, “If I were a purchaser, how much would I pay for this?” Analyze the practical use of the item, then draw on your sense of what price might be reasonable and fair, not on your recollection of how dearly the item cost you. (Stratas 44)
Pleas for rationality and abstracted detachment such as this one necessarily appeal to what they call the “market” for a sense of both fairness and order, but the problem is that the market value of what this particular guide calls “clutter” (defined as “usable, practical surplus goods” as opposed to “junk . . . broken ugly decrepit stuff” [Stratas 23]) is far from simple to determine, and becomes — as this paragraph suggests — an impressionistic judgment call, hopelessly inflected by the discriminations of history and past uses that the author wants us ostensibly to avoid. How much would I pay for this? The full price, of course: I already paid just that. There is no yard-sale collectivity in a “market” like that of commodity trading or even retail sales. Setting a so-called reasonable price is an impossible task, since the structure and form of the rationality to which one appeals is far from determinate or stable. Even the idea of practical “use” offers no real standard, since, as Marx sagely points out, use-value is differential at best, at once flexible, indeterminate and local (cf.Keenan 125). How I use an object, how I value it, cannot be transferred to another buyer; uses do not coordinate, except in abstract exchange, at which point, as Marx writes in Capital, the only “objectivity” has become “phantom-like,” unrelated to the specific use or dinglichaspect of whatever it is I own (Capital1.128). (My wife and I had been looking for colanders. We already owned a good one, stainless steel, but heard they make good planters for geraniums.) We trade in spectres. Despite attempts at regulation and order that these guide and manuals tend to impose on the yard-sale, it tends to remain unruly, irrational; the only traces of fixity, the only determinants of value, are those trivial and personal emotions which paradoxically, as books remind us, have no “real” part to play in value itself. In practice, in our experience, all of these factors — what someone paid for a thing, how much it means to them — come forcefully into play during any driveway sales-pitch.
So, how are these rules for yard sales, as sets of conventions or accepted forms of conduct, laid out? A number of books in circulation have codified them, but in my experience they tend to be a fluid etiquette, situationally determined. “Listen” to buyers, says one book; adopt “a cheery enthusiastic voice that communicates enthusiasm and fun”; “watch the eyes of browsers and buyers for reliable hints about their desires for sale merchandise”; don’t be offended by haggling, but also don’t give in too easily; “[d]emonstrate the excellent value that your prices represent by drawing comparisons with current retail prices. . . . Remind [buyers] that if they don’t buy the merchandise in question, the next person will” (Stratas 98-101). A garage-sale is a discursive formation, structured by conventional interchanges. Imagined values are traded, reinforced. A sale involves more or less a mutual bolstering of subject-positions, ensuring that the respective desires for a fair price and for some cool, semi-useful junk are both satisfied. “Negotiation,” exclaims one guide book, “must appear to be a win-win situation for you and the buyer!” (Williams 58). We need to “feel,” the authors remind us, that we’re getting a bargain, or that we’re receiving enough cash for our precious clutter. In most cases, haggling is socially acceptable at these events, even expected. Usually, things are priced with magic marker on bits of masking tape; we usually price our things a little high, anticipating some bargaining so that we’ll get more or less what we want for the stuff. (I never trust sales that have no pre-set prices on things. Often these types will turn to their friends, asking what they think something’s worth, or will give different prices each time you ask. Or else they’ll say, “make me an offer,” which is only infuriating. A lack of a price suggests a little too much self-serving fluidity. Sellers ought to know at least roughly what they something’s supposedly “really” worth to them.) With that general rule in force, price slightly high, the outcome can only be good. Either someone will be shy, and give you what you’ve asked, or else they’ll bargain with you, and you’ll get what you wanted anyhow. Plus, they’ll think they got a deal by talking you down, so everyone’s happy. We usually add at least a dollar or two, expecting to deal. Decorum wants maintaining.
Certain sellers can’t stand haggling, and are insulted if you try, as if their precious discards could possibly be worth anything less than they imagine. Typically, such types will insist that for (let’s say) a vase they paid three times what they’re asking in some exclusive Kerrisdale shop, or that since they’re grandmother knit the sweater they couldn’t take less than ten dollars. These always seem bathetic – rhetorical excesses – always implicitly posing the same question: if it’s worth so much, why are you trying to sell it at a garage sale? The discourse has its limits. Personally, I prefer people willing to undersell themselves, and not simply because I don’t want to spend much. The whole point of these sales, it seems to me, is to clear out your mess, to put the bruised and broken goods back into circulation, to re-cycle. Yard sales are interchanges, not profit-making enterprise. Like I said, you will never get anything close to the amount you paid for a thing, so why bother trying? Let things go. Experience bears out a peculiar truth: the sellers with the lowest prices often make the most at the end of the day, because they sell in volume. You keep your prices high, and you won’t sell much, and then you either have to cart all your dear crap back inside, or else call the Sally-Ann truck and give it all away to charity.
Yard-saling — and it is a verb, at least in this vernacular — also involves a form of interpersonal circulation. It isn’t only money or stuff that moves, but also people. The night before we’d go through the paper, copying out sale times and locations: we’d usually budget about 15 minutes per garage. After breakfast the next morning, usually by 8:30, we’d load our baby daughter into her car seat, and head out. (Her schedule sets our time-constraints, since she has to nap by 10:30. The baby actually enjoys these outings more than we do; she gets an inordinate amount of attention from all types of smiling strangers.) Using a map-book of the city we bought at the grocery store, we’d plot a rough course, coordinating start-times and locations. Usually, you have to choose a particular neighbourhood on the east or west side. Trying to do too many dispersed sales is only frustrating. And there are plenty of people who don’t advertise in the papers, which means you have to keep on the look-out as you progress around your circuit. Half the time, we don’t make it to the majority of the sales we’ve plotted, since our course has been interrupted and diverted by other possibilities: bristol-board posters on corners, clusters of balloons. There is a semiotics of garage sales, a code: certain kinds of signage catch your eye and draw you along. Come and buy, they plead like Christina Rossetti’s goblins, we’ve got good stuff cheap.
What happens, however, over the course of several weekends is that a certain spatial formation develops, a sense of the various negotiable routes through urban geography. You get to know the city, but not its landmarks, not at least in the touristy sense. What you start to acquire is the feel of particular areas, the network of lanes and alleys, driveways and paths that weave the place together as lived and living. Yard sales grant permission to cross property lines, to walk temporarily over someone’s lawn, through their gate, to traverse backyards and porches — some even let you into their houses, especially if they’re moving and want to clear out furniture. You meet people, certainly, and briefly discuss where a thing came from, or who made it, or what makes it nifty. But more significantly, you circulate yourself: you don’t have to buy anything, but you do have to cross boundaries, park in people’s back driveways, trample (oops) their flowerbeds, paw trough their junk. The semiosis here, as a sum of meanings generated, isn’t necessarily commercial, although it does hinge on the promise of goods exchanged; rather, what is produced, what’s signified, is a kind of subcultural spatiality, a sense of movement and arrangement that exists in the interstices of official channels (roads, storefronts, malls), rather than properly contained and demarcated by them. There are junk stores aplenty, and I have even seen a “garage-sale store,” which set itself up as a big garage sale, though nobody was fooled: this is where the stuff goes that the “early-bird” dealers buy; these are cast-offs converted back into goods, commodities, proper fare. Yard sales inhabit the space behind, around, between these sorts of operations, a harmless black market (since nobody would be silly enough to charge GST in their back yard) which tends to turn city blocks temporarily inside out, making the rear alley into an ephemeral store-front, and to re-map the ways in which the urban space is zoned, gridded, understood.
Urban planning is being temporarily upset, though not finally disturbed; it is subverted ephemerally from within by a species of consumption which it cannot quite recognize as proper, or reconcile wholly to the mechanisms of value and exchange that bouy up the urban economy. In One Way Street (1928), Benjamin commented on what he called “the decay of aura” in the contemporary world, a loss of immediate contact with originality or what he called the “cult value” of objects like works of art: “Just as all things, in a perpetual process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character while ambiguity displaces authenticity, so is the city” (cited and translated in Caygill 130-31). However, for Benjamin the urban experience, described here as loss, involves not so much a lamentable nihilism as a call to embrace a new fluidity, “the possibility of a new experience of space and time” (Caygill 131). When one attempts to apply a century-old analysis like Benjamin’s to the yard sale, however, one finds the terms curiously reversed: what these fly-by-night (or day) sales create is an unstable counter-urban space, one which sets itself against the fixities of urban commodification and the relatively stable networks of commerce represented by the grid of the city in our map-book or by the five or six day work-week to which we all adhere. Paradoxically, as we have seen, the yard sale also holds out the promise of a contingent and ephemeral aura in its pricing and sales practices, as the spectres of domestic and personal history dissolve into the exchange of used goods for a little cash. Homey sales offer a vernacular alternative to the false rigidities of urban consumerism and capitalism by simultaneously subverting that rigidity and offering the figments of a longed-for authenticity long since purged from the city’s form.
Sometimes the weather matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sales will have “rain dates,” just in case: usually the Sunday. But for those of us with garages, a little precipitation means nothing. It may keep a few customers away, but then again the dedicated yard-salers will brave almost anything up to a gale. Your sign is your promise: if you advertise, people will expect you to sell, and will turn up whether it’s raining or not. Once, we held a sale in our friends’ kitchen, since the yard was too wet. I think more people trapsed over their linoleum than might have shown up if the sun were shining (in which case many would likely have gone to Jericho Beach instead of to our sale). Benjamin offers a little allegory of rain and money in One Way Street, the text I’ve been citing:
Money and rain belong together. The weather itself is an index of the state of this world. Bliss is cloudless, knows no weather. There also comes a cloudless realm of perfect goods, on which no money falls. (Reflections87)
Benjamin’s perfect world is a realm where goods may be exchanged, acquired or traded without the intermediary of money, without the bothersome abstractions of exchange values, trying to decide what is worth what, and how you might even form such equivalencies in the first place: a central and vexing problem for Marx. Bliss is plenitude here, but in his and our fallen world, the world of ambiguities, inauthenticities and tarnished auras, exchange takes on the chaotic uncertainty of weather. The “rain or shine” promise of the yard sale, however, proffers perfected exchange that disregards weather, and ignores the complex objective variables of commodity trading; values are assigned not on the basis of what Marx might call “abstract human labour,” the universal “spectral” standard by which, for instance, we can determine how many hammers are worth a shovel, and so on: – the leveling quantification of money. In the Grundrisse, Marx gestures toward this universalizing property, which at the beginning of the first volume of Capital he was later to hone into his theory of “abstraction” in commodification and exchange:
the proportion in which a particular commodity is exchanged for money, i.e. the quantity of money into which a given quantity of commodity is transposable, is determined by the amount of labour time objectified in the commodity. The commodity is an exchange value because it is the realization of a specific amount of labour time; money not only measures the amount of labour time which the commodity represents, but also contains its general, conceptually adequate, exchangeable form. Money is the physical medium into which exchange values are dipped, and in which they obtain the form corresponding to their general character. (Grundrisse 167)
What you pay, for Marx, is determined by how much work, quantified by money or pay, goes into that object, roughly at least. But yard sales detach themselves from such quantifications; money is still used, and still obtains its value on some level from human labour, but what is being exchanged has nothing to do with the production or exchange of manufactured goods. The second-hand objects are wholly detached from their making, and value emerges somewhat arbitrarily from the sense of what an object might be worth, not in terms of its use or its cost or the labour that produced it, but (as I have been trying to claim) through the personal, domestic, dissolving history which that object momentarily signifies. Michel de Certeau refers to this individual imaginative reading of places or objects as a “poetics” which cuts against the “technical rationalities and financial profitabilities” which corporate structures and institutions tend to reserve for themselves (Certeau 106). This is a private form of association, a creation of value that cannot be subsumed by the absolute equivalences and the leveling abstractions of Marxian exchange value, since if it were shared it could possess no tangible value as a commodity. (The commodity, Marx writes, is a “born leveler and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself” [Capital 1.179].) My “stuff,” as George Carlin notoriously joked, might be your “junk,” and vice versa. Personal value is relative, fabricated, poetic. Only at the moment of exchange itself do such values, as they dissolve or evaporate, become luminous. You can have no access to what an object means or has meant to me, but at the moment it changes hands, the object bodies forth that unreadable history, which makes it worth something. For a series of instants, in other words, as each purchase takes flight, the yard sale offers what Benjamin calls bliss, the ephemeral moment of pure exchange, unmediated even by abstract constants of value like money: uncommodified. It is interchange prior to the economies of value, outside those terms. And it is fiercely imaginary.
In Marx’s terms, the yard sale appears to operate as a return to early, pre-capitalist forms of barter and exchange, where money is only phantasmagorical or imaginary:
The first form of money corresponds to a low stage of exchange and of barter, in which money still appears more in its quality of measure rather than as a real instrument of exchange. At this stage, the measure can still be imaginary . . . . From the fact that the commodity develops into general exchange value, it follows that exchange value becomes a specific commodity; it can do so only because a specific commodity obtains the privilege of representing, symbolizing, the exchange value of all other commodities, i.e. of becoming money. It arises from the essence of exchange value itself that a specific commodity appears as the money-subject, despite the monetary properties possessed by every commodity. In the course of development, the exchange value of money can exist separately from its matter, its substance, as in the case of paper money, without therefore giving up the privilege of this specific commodity, because the separated form of existence of exchange value must necessarily continue to take its denomination from the specific commodity.  (Grundrisse166-7)
The yard sale, however, need not be understood as a historically displaced feudal economy, or as a throwback. Rather, the symbolic form entailed by monetary exchange in these contexts has simply shifted away from the notion of labour central to Marxian conceptions of value. Instead, the symbol becomes detached, slippery, personal. Value is ascribed and exchanged not as a function of the universal constant of money, but in fact traces out the symbolic formations that give rise to money in the first place. In other words, what yard sales represent is the process of commodification itself rather than the interchange of preformed commodities leveled by a particular monetary scale. The yard sale returns us to the imaginary fabrications that underlie the valuing of money, the emergence of its symbolic power; money, Marx argues, cannot be if it is to have value merely a “symbol” or “the arbitrary product of human reflection” (Capital 1.186), not an “imaginary” value (185), but must encrypt “the direct incarnation of all human labour” (187). Yet despite his work to objectify that labour, to shift from mere arbitrary symbolization to a kind of direct embodiment, Marx remains, as Thomas Keenan points out, at a loss to identify that universal object materially, and must fall back on abstraction: “Nothing —  at least, no thing —  is left, it seems, certainly not the fact that things are the product of labor” (Keenan 112). Marx himself confirms this reading in the first pages of Capital: “[The concrete forms of labour] can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract” (Capital1.128). But what this means is that (again, as Keenan points out, echoing Derrida, Laclau and others) a “phantom-like objectivity,” as Marx himself writes, is all that remains to ground the objectivity of exchange (1.128): “In the rigor of abstraction, only ghosts survive. The point is to exchange them” (Keenan 115). But such an interpretation, fostered by Marx’s own rhetoric, undoes the possibility of objective value, and converts value itself into purely imaginary work. What happens at yard sales, against the grain of the objective values traded as commodities on the actual marketplaces of the city —  malls, institutions, stores —  is an intensification of that ghosting, whereby value itself becomes purely spectral (as if such a thing were possible, since spectres are by definition liminal, impure, creatures neither here nor there, bodies which both are and aren’t). The process of re-symbolizing value, of remaking commodities in the different imaginations of trader, buyer, seller, participant.
It seems appropriate then to defer to the jumbled notes of the Grundrisse in this case rather than to look to the more chisled political economy of Capital. Marx’s earlier work, as Thomas Kemple points out, has a kind of garage sale style: “It is by now a commonplace for readers of Marx’s writings to remark upon their fragmentary, scattered, and condensed aspects, their overall roughness and incompleteness, and thus the difficulty of making sense of them” (Kemple 11). Marx himself wrote to Engels as he was in the midst of composing his notes that “The devil is in that manuscript (it would be a fat volume in print) everything is jumbled up together like beets and cabbages. . . ” (53). The point is not that the Grundrisse is a failure as a treatise, though it most certainly does not cohere, but that it traces out a process of philosophical formation. It is a negation of the economy of the book itself, writing across and against conventions of economic logic even as it acknowledges and accepts them. Garage sales offer parodies of commerce; one garage-sale manual even concludes by suggesting that monthly sales could be held in unrented spaces at local malls, as if to convert the domesticated detritus they feature into renewed and renewable consumer goods (Williams 88). At garage sales, real money is exchanged for real goods, just as in malls or on commodity markets; but the nature of the value attached to those goods and the symbolic worth of that money are far from clear-cut. Value itself is thrown into question by the arbitrary, imaginative jumble of the sale table. What yard sales offer, like Marx’s manuscript, are themselves what Kemple calls “mediatized fictions of the market,” an exchange which foregrounds the mediating contrivances of its own making. Yard sales turn commodification against itself, even as they revel, sometimes playfully, sometimes frustrated, in its contingencies and pretenses.


A negative commerce, a form of commodification that resists the reifying pressures of the commodity, flourishes in the front lawns and back lanes of our Saturday neighbourhoods, as we go to rifle through cartons of musty, useless textbooks and card-tables stacked with mismatched cutlery, dust-bunnied macramé and broken ceramics, elbowing among the shifting gaggles of neighbours and strangers, scrums of hawkeyed second-hand dealers and ravenous bargain hunters, who mass in yard after yard, trampling shrubs as they rummage through cardboard boxes. After a few weeks, we even begin to recognize certain faces. Garage-sale people appear to be creatures of repetition and habit, making their rounds in vague community, drifting with apparent abandon through the same restrictive orbits, a cloud of chaotic particles loosely bound by their strange attractors. (I know one guy named [withheld], but I “know” him only because he seems to like the same sort of records I do, and so I’m always trying to beat him to sales. When we meet, we eye each other a little suspiciously, though I try to be friendly. “Hey [withheld],” I say, and then I show him the cool electro-acoustic John Cage LP I just found, or he shows it to me, if he got there first. Then we nod and try not to scowl.) Some oddly competitive instinct seems to nudge me gently into the fray of single-minded, full-blooded consumers jammed around a picnic table of used books, a feeling that I’m missing something over there, amid that pile of coloured glassware, that everyone desires, the thing at which I really ought to get a better look. Whether I actually need it is immaterial; the need is always generated in the hungry, gently seething morass, as we mill through piles of hand-me-downs; you have to listen carefully, pretending to be considering a moth-eaten shirt while actually cocking an ear to catch the sotto voce asides of some couple whispering about a cookbook, or someone admiring a broken Victrola, or two children pawing a carton of figurines for the really good ones, whatever those might be. Keeping your ears open is crucial; you have to hear what’s hot, and you have to be fast. Garage sales are pure desiring; possessing isn’t really the point, since most of what you buy is junk anyhow, and will probably end up in your own sale a few months later. What seems to matter is the chase, the process, the act of exchange. The experienced garage-saler, suddenly seized with want, spotting across the grass a kitchen gadget he or she just has to have, keeps silent — saying anything would alert everyone else to the desire, and the object could easily be lost — and, firmly but quickly, strides over and stakes a claim. I have watched many times how subtly such need arises: objects of no consequence become ardently wanted as soon as someone else simply hints that he or she might buy it. For me, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s inevitable: I begin by feeling detached, but soon lose myself in the general drive to acquire whatever it is, a dozen different and tacitly-coveted objects for a dozen potential buyers, to fill that uncertain lack that can never really be filled since it inevitably can’t say precisely what it wants. It only knows that it does.
I have plenty of first-hand true-to-life takes about the value of holding your tongue. I like, as I said, to buy old records. 78s, in my experience, usually run a dollar or two, no more, and people generally have no idea who the artists are. Most have, justly, faded into obscurity, and many scratched lacquer discs of Scottish marches and third-rate big bands are hard to see as worth much at all (unless you don’t care, and simply like the look of “old” discs). So, if you’re sharp, you can sometimes find things people don’t know they have. I bought a Hot Lips Page record for a dollar, which remains one of my prize finds to this day. And I almost had a few others, but for my big mouth. A man was selling an old Victrola: it still worked, and he’d had it refinished, so he was asking a hundred dollars for it: not exactly yard-sale pricing, but you never know. In the cabinet, however, were about ten old 78s, which he said he wanted to keep with the player but was willing to sell separately. “How much?” I asked, not really looking at what they were. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “what do you think they’re worth?” Replies like that, as I said, are always annoying: he ought to have known what he wanted for them. (If ever asked such a question, always reply “fifty cents,” or less. The seller will react by letting you know what he or she really expected.) And then came my big mistake: I looked at the labels. They were original pressings of Albert Ammons and James P. Johnson, and a late Louis Armstrong with Sid Catlett on drums. “Wow,” I said, foolishly, aloud, “these are amazing. Originals.” A cult value of which the seller hadn’t even been aware suddenly kicked in, and the price became ten dollars each. I couldn’t afford them, and we left. Never show your hand.

Short Live Take on Tim Berne Snakeoil

[A headnote: I’m coming back to this post a day later to do a little revising and correcting. My intention with these “short takes” was to do as little revising or reworking as possible, but in this case there were some small issues that really needed to be fixed. I had the titles of the compositions wrong in my first pass, so these needed to be amended. (Thanks to Matt Mitchell for kindly letting me know the real titles.) I’m also sure that I misperceived some of the music, hearing Berne’s new pieces as versions of older work on the issued recording. Such misprisions are a hazard of being less than intimate with the scores, and of hearing this music for the first time. But the fact remains, as well, that – given what I hope is a genuine effort to map out my own auditory affect, to explain and to frame as cleanly as possible what I thought I heard and about how I was hearing it (and given, also, the challenges of the adjective, of being as descriptively accurate as I can) – that a mistaken listening seems to me as potentially interesting to think through as an attention that’s either distracted or that falsely claims acuity or expertise. I’m no music reviewer, and don’t want to pretend to be. But writing through and about the situated reception of music, particularly the immediacy of an improvised performance, which is inherently non-repeatable or, as Vladimir Jankélévitch suggests, irreversible, strikes me as a possible practice, if it works, of an active “cultural memory in the present” (a phrase I’m lifting from Mieke Bal, who repurposed it from others). So, okay, here is the revised piece.]
Tim Berne‘s quartet Snakeoil (with Oscar Noriegaon clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electric piano, and Ches Smithon drums, vibes and hand percussion) played a four-tune, 75 minute set at Ironworks on the final evening of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Berne announced the first three compositions as something like “Lamé #2,” ” Lamé #3″ and ” Lamé #1″ (in that order), but he was also slightly, well, mumbly and off-mike, so I could easily have misheard. “Don’t judge me by my titles,” he told us. It’s not that the titles had any obvious meaning for me (Berne’s music is hardly proximate to flashy pop or disco, and I’ve never seen him dress in gold lamé), but that Berne was indicating how each of the pieces formed part of a larger conception, and there was definitely a sense in which all four fit together rhythmically, harmonically and texturally. As with his earlier Bloodcountbook, his compositions tend to use long, sinewy lines — angular, deliberate meanders often taken in unison or at least in parallel paired horns and (in this band) piano. They are also constructed — again, as far as I can make out, as a listener  in sections that, like shifting puzzle pieces, seem to lock together in various kinds of timbral juxtapositions and sequences. He counted in each piece in four, but as the quartet joined in the music instantly became more metrically dense and polyrhythmic. Overlapped sonorities created fluctuating densities, an alternately thickening and winnowing counterpoint. With his move to ECM for his latest recording (by this quartet), his open-form compositional style — mixing structural exactitude with free improvisation —  seems to me to draw at times on the work of Jimmy Giuffre, although the performances leave aside any latter-day chamber music feel in favour of harder edges and more aggressively articulated extemporizing. The fourth and last composition was announced as “OCDC” (maybe?), but listening back to the Snakeoil CD it felt to me – wrongly, as it turns out – that it was an expanded, roomier version of “Spare Parts”; I thought in retrospect (again, mistakenly) the third piece they played was also a re-arrangement of “Scanners” from the same disc. (The bass-line in Matt Mitchell’s left hand sounded remarkably close to what I can hear on the recording.) I’m sure that this sort of musical re-purposing was not really what was going on (and I’m not at all asserting that this music is somehow recycled), but what my perception of these echoes does suggest to me is not only the continuity, the organics, of Berne’s concept but also that the audience was hearing not so much product as process, compositions built from predetermined cells and segments that also relied on formal elasticity and focused improvisation to expand, to animate and flesh out a given set of sounds into new and immediate music. I was very impressed by the unthrottled drive of Matt Mitchell’s playing, by the rough ecstatic energy of Oscar Noriega’s solos, by Ches Smith’s expansive and propulsive sense of time, and by Tim Berne’s own brilliantly knotty phrasing. Berne’s group offered us an object lesson in colliding composition and spontaneity, the made and the making, to intensify a performance, and to bring it creatively, with measured noisy poise, to life. 

Mary Halvorson, "Songs that Get Stuck in My Head"

Just come back from an hour-long afternoon public workshop with guitarist Mary Halvorson at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, part of the last weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It was a real privilege to hear her talk and play. She was personable and articulate, taking questions and playing a handful of brief solo improvisations. 

She confessed that she was in the midst of “working on solo guitar music,” and that she hasn’t really performed solo up until this point in her career as an improviser. She said that she had decided to base her nascent solo work on “songs that get stuck in my head,” which at this point were principally jazz standards, although she was also looking to various “compositions by other people” as source material. She admitted that she tends to focus on melodies and has a harder time “remembering the chords.” But there was nothing diffident or self-effacing in her aesthetic or in her performing; her spotty memory seems to offer creative opportunity rather than impediment. Or, as she put it, “I’m going to make up my own chord changes to these existing melodies.” She offered a foreshortened but compelling version of “Beautiful Love,” laced with pitch-bent burbles, halting twangs and lyrical turn-on-a-dime redirections. She likes, as she said, “weird left turns and falling off cliffs” in music–her version of the “sound of surprise”– but her playing also drew out a gently fraught lyricism in each of her lines. If this really was a hint of what’s to come, her solo work is going to be beautifully unsettling and eclectically brilliant. She talked at some length about some of the challenges she feels she is facing combining her own idiosyncratic approach to the instrument with a more idiomatically “jazz” approach to playing and to musical form. (In fact, before she began talking, she played us a track from her iPod, Johnny Smith doing “Moonlight in Vermont,” and admitted her love of Smith’s sound. Smith had passed away a little over a week ago.) She also played a track from her yet-to-be-released septet album, roiling layers of horn and guitar.

When asked about connections between her styles of band leading and composition, she said she tries to enable and to support the members of her group, and is keen “not to be too controlling.” She pointed to her experiences with Taylor Ho Bynum‘s sextet–the example was suggested by someone in the audience–as a possible model for relinquishing control and instead creating democratic interactions among the players. At the same time, referring to her studies with Anthony Braxton (whose music she said helped her decide to drop her courses in biology and pursue music) and with Joe Morris, she said she felt that “the teachers you have really shape who you become,” noting that both of these mentors encouraged her to follow their example in seeking out her own idiom, her own ways of making music. A brief improvisation built from cascading pulses closed out the workshop.

Julian Arguelles Quartet at Ironworks: a Live Short Take

The Julian Argüelles Quartet played a warm, uplifting set at Ironworks last night, the second of three North American jazz festival dates. This new group, which has yet to record, features a rhythm section of emergent next-generation British improvisers: pianist Kit Downes, bassist Sam Lasserson and drummer James Maddren. (Maddren is also a member of Kit Downes’s current trio, and plays on Downes’s recent quintet record, Light from Old Stars, just out on Babel.) The quartet instantly demonstrated their responsiveness to each other from the get-go; the first tune, “Mr Mc,” had a calypso-like feel loosely reminiscent of Sonny Rollins, and, although Argüelles’s approach to tenor seems to me a little more angular and restrained than the colossus, his improvisations clearly drew on the thematic tactics that (according to Gunther Schuller’s reading) Rollins pioneered in the 1950s. Argüelles dedicated the piece to South African expat Chris McGregor, which might also explain what sounded like its (again, loosely) Afro-Caribbean leanings, but it also showcased Argüelles inclination toward odd meters (11/8?) and off-kilter phrasings. The quartet negotiated complex, prime-number pulses with alacrity, and teased out vamps and grooves that drew their audience in and held them, heads nodding, feet tapping. The music was thoughtful and sophisticated, but also contagiously dynamic, and I don’t think the drummer stopped smiling through the entire eighty-minute set. The second number, which Argüelles said was a “twelve-tone piece” called “A Simple Question,” started with Downes playing solo reminiscent of Paul Bley (whom he name-checks on his own CD’s second cut, “Bleydays”); Argüelles also offered lyrical and measured solo playing, but as the quartet entered the music took on a Phrygian feel and things morphed into what he described after as something “half Spanish” – his composition “Unopened Letter.”

But it was the fourth tune – called “Redman,” he said, and dedicated to “what could only be one of two saxophone players,” who turned out to be Dewey not Don – which clarified the influences on Argüelles’s conception of this group. I was hearing what I thought were echoes of Kenny Wheeler’s melodicism and – especially in the piano – of John Taylor’s latter-day harmonies, but “Redman,” both in the composition and in the improvisations that followed, hearkened directly and unabashedly to Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. The resonances were almost uncanny. I’m not charging Argüelles with derivativeness, but rather suggesting that Jarrett’s quartet music presents a lineage, and a potential, in quartet music that rarely if ever gets taken up by recent players. The groundwork laid by Jarrett’s group in the early 1970s brilliantly drew together groove and edginess, form and freedom; Argüelles seems to me, at least in part, to be taking up the provocations offered by the American Quartet in ways that are musically compelling and still, even this many years later, forward reaching. (Both “Mr Mc” and “Redman” were recorded in 2009 with an NYC trio – Michael Formanek and Tom Rainey – but those earlier versions seem to echo less the Jarrett group than Redman’s work with Ornette Coleman. The addition of Downes’s piano makes a huge difference in the overall texture of the music: Downes is among a youngish set of British pianists, including Liam Noble, Gwilym Simcock and Nikki Iles, who seem to me variously to have appropriated and repurposed some of Jarrett’s more open – and more polydirectional – musical trajectories, an inside-outside conception parallel to and even filtered though the work of longer-established players such as Paul Bley, John Taylor and perhaps even Stan Tracey.)
Of the remaining numbers in the set, “Phaedrus” seemed to draw on the idiom of Steve Kuhn’s ECM quartets with Steve Slagle, while the waltz-like ballad “A Life Long Moment” was affectingly lyrical. The alternately falling and lifting cadences of the oddly-monikered “Lardy-Dardy” produced a sinewy, organic swell and flux. “Triality” was built around a Dave Holland-like freebop line, while the quartet’s encore – called “Pick It Up,” I think – offered a floaty, looping shuffle. The concert felt like witnessing the emergence of a historically savvy, formally propulsive and musically progressive ensemble. It was a warm, involving and affirmative performance.

What John Coltrane Left Here for Us to Learn

Listening to jazz, to improvised music, changed my life, and for the better. The music started to matter to me early on, when I was still a teenager. It wasn’t that I had a particularly difficult life, but in the struggle through late adolescence to articulate myself as someone I hoped might become a coherent human being, the music was there, impelling. And I don’t exactly mean making music, since I was never a player. But for some reason, it presented me with a calling that has remained more or less insistent throughout my adulthood. Listening — actively, deliberately — to this music continues to offer me what feels like meaning. This kind of listening wants to be proactive and deliberate, a willful focusing of the ears and the mind. A concentration you have to work at. A version of this imperative, the call to pay attention, famously takes poetic form in the disjunctive closing line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (hardly a jazz poem, I’ll admit — it doesn’t even mention music, but dwells instead on the visual and the spatial), where a broken classical sculpture conjures the capacity to look (or to perceive, to attend) back through its viewers — its shoulders curve down, Rilke says, “durchsichtig,” which means translucent but also, literally, through-sighted — and to invite if not to demand, as the poem finishes abruptly addressing both onlookers and its own readers in the second person, that “Du mußt dien Leben ändern”: “You must change your life,” you must other your life, live otherwise. Illusions and delusions aside, I always knew I was never going to be much of a musician myself. But I still hear it, and write about it. It’s the experience of listening itself that continues to impel me, as what I hope to become as some sort of a creative maker, a poietes.

One of the metaphors that attaches itself to this music is curative; it’s good for you because, as Albert Ayler puts it, “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.” This kind of music makes the world — or at least my small corner of it — a better place to be. In “The Sick Man,” one of the poems gathered in Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa’s first Jazz Poetry Anthology, Wallace Stevens explicitly associates Southern Black American music — a mishmash of folk blues (“mouth-organs in the night or, now, guitars”), gospel choirs and jamming bands — with a capacity to heal an epigone (“late, late”), dispirited and ailing North, a cure that takes on a specific form of attention, a form of listening:

And in a bed in one room, alone, a listener
Waits for the unison of the music of the drifting bands
And the dissolving chorals, waits for it and imagines

The words of winter in which these two will come together,
In the ceiling of the distant room, in which he lies,
The listener, listening to the shadows, seeing them,

Choosing out of himself, out of everything within him,
Speech for the quiet, good hail of himself, good hail, good hail,
The peaceful, blissful words, well-tuned, well-sung, well-spoken. (206)

There’s an uncomfortable raciology here that needs to be acknowledged. Still, the seclusion Stevens describes as the generic solitude of the sick-bed is also uncannily analogous to the situation of the music fanatic, headphones on, volume turned up, listening to recordings. The poem attends, in the dual senses of waiting and listening, but it also promises to overcome in an imagined ideality the bifurcations of race, geography and history that both inform this music and mark its distance. What Stevens describes as healthy listening — betterment signaled repeatedly as “good hail” — is not musical imitation, trying to appropriate this music as his own, but verbal response, a mode of speech that wants to find its answerable style. The sort of listening that I find myself aspiring to practice, a listening invited and even provoked by jazz, impinges on the writing, critical or otherwise, here and elsewhere, that I’m trying to do. I aim to write out and to write through acts of listening, and to suggest how, in a number of crucial ways, we can come to recognize the temporal drive and the vitality of literary language — of the intensified, musical verbiage of poetry — by digging into the heft and flux of the improvised as it intersects with words, lines, periods: and by trying to feel, in some measure, the pull of its moment, the “choosing” for which Stevens’s poem calls.
On the back cover of Echoes of a Friend, a 1972 recording of piano solos of compositions by and dedicated to John Coltrane, in whose great quartet he played in the 1960s, McCoy Tyner cites an old Calvinist adage: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” His intention is clearly to honour Coltrane’s genius, to affirm the saxophonist’s singularity and to acknowledge with careful humility his own part in Coltrane’s legacy. But what emerges in this brief statement is a figuration of the instrumentalist not so much as co-author of the work, which Tyner clearly was, but as listener, as student, as apprentice: the passive voice — “are chosen” — suggests both a sidelining of artistic ego in the service of greater things and an erasure of artistic agency in favour of a more romantic notion of the artist as passive receptor, as Aeolian harp. Stevens, in a subtle but deft move, refigures the listener as an active presence, as hearing becomes a forging in the consciousness of the listener not just of sound but of aural form, and of meaning. Heartsick and passive though he — or she — may initially appear, the listener for Stevens intervenes in the music, which transforms from “singing without words” into a plenitude of speech. The change, the healing that jazz — that Black Classical Music, as Rahsaan Roland Kirk called it — affects in this outsider, is not a case of being called or chosen, but of choosing, of taking up that call and making it speak back, a form of existential call and response.

So then, here is a story about how I once missed my own calling. In junior high when they announced over the PA that anyone who wanted to be in the school jazz band was to come down to the auditorium, I must have been talking, because I missed the announcement. And it never occurred to me, naive and acquiescent as I was by nature, that I might have still been allowed to join up after that. When I found out after school about the call for the band, I figured that was it, I’d missed my big chance, although looking back now I can’t really blame anyone else, since I was probably just more interested in other things — other than music, I mean. (I was in the drama club that year, and worked on the yearbook.) I’ve always liked brass, and used to imagine myself with a trombone, an instrument my younger brother picked up two years later. (He was clearly the kind of guy who paid attention during home room.) Years later, at graduate school I used some of my scholarship money to buy a student-style Yamaha trumpet at a pawn shop; I still take it out of the closet about once a month, squeeze out a few awkward clams, then wipe it down and put it back in its case. If you don’t practice every day, you lose your lip. Like I said, I am no player. And, all things considered, I must never really have wanted to be one, or I’d have joined the band, somehow, long ago.

Taking part in improvised music, for me, hasn’t meant playing music so much as playing along, enacting a certain kind of participatory audience, of actively listening and responding, of aural interaction. Writing about jazz and improvisation, writing alongside, through and even against it, marks off some of the traces of that interaction, and also gestures at a language of enactment, of improvising critically and verbally, a form of what Ken Nordine and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, in different contexts, once called “word jazz.” (Reflecting on his 1957 LP Word Jazz, Nordine defined what he does as “a thought, followed by a thought, followed by a thought, ad infinitum, a kind of wonder-wandering”; essentially, as a precursor to the surreal monologues of Spaulding Gray or the transcribed monologues of David Antin, Nordine improvised serial text over a hard bop background, his first two records featuring a jazz quintet led by cellist Fred Katz.) What this meant, for me, was that there could be a viable intersection of language and music, of the written and the performative, of script and improvisation.

Things started, and kept on, with record collecting, a habit I acquired at fifteen from my friend who lived down the road from me and who had a good stereo. We used to hang around in his basement after school or on Saturdays, listening to his records and, later, some of mine. He got me into jazz. I don’t know where he heard about it. We lived in a small town in Nova Scotia, where the local AM station played a mix of country, the hit parade, and MOR rock. We were both pretty well-behaved middle-class fellows, but we were secretly hooked on punk, which was still around (this was about 1979 or 1980), though nobody knew Much about our two-person subculture, since we never actually dressed the part. But even if we never really walked the walk, we still tried to talk the talk. And we weren’t all that exclusive in our tastes, and would listen to anything with a bit of a rough edge: the Rolling Stones (Some Girls and earlier, none of that disco), the Who (anything with Keith Moon — and Pete Townshend loved the Sex Pistols, which was cool), Bruce Springsteen (The River was new), Elvis Costello (everything, which at that point amount to four records), and especially The Clash. And then, maybe out of boredom, maybe out of curiosity, we both bought some jazz. Well, I bought what he bought, which started out with two records. My Dad had some old albums by Dave Brubeck (Jazz Impressions of New York) and Al Hirt (On Broadway), but we disdained them as too mainstream and too tame — too middling white like us. We wanted something sophisticated, something unique. Something that didn’t fit. And I think in our own restrained way we wanted to rebel, we wanted out. So, we each got a copy of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue — ironically, one of the best selling and ubiquitous jazz albums of all time. And a copy of The Vibration Continues, an Atlantic two-fer compilation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk — an album that hardly anybody had, or ever would, although Rahsaan’s music, it turned out even more ironically, was even more closely in touch with mainstream pop, from Marvin Gaye to Burt Bacharach, than Miles Davis’s dressed-up “social music” of the 70s and after.

More often than not, that Rahsaan record was, to my ears, just plain weird, some of it to the point of being unlistenable. (There was a three or four minute meander on the nose-flute — Rahsaan Roland Kirk had a notoriously huge and abnormal instrumentarium, most of which he wore dangling from halters around his neck when he performed — called “Rahsaanica” that I could never get into, no matter how hard I tried to force it: Joel Dorn’s liner notes said it was genius, but I just heard noodling. It took me a long time to connect with what he called his “natural black inventions – root strata.”) Not too many people outside of aficionados and devotees, even now, have likely heard much of Rahsaan. (Most of the liner notes to recent issues and reissues of Rahsaan’s recordings used to be by Dorn, on whose independent labels these recordings often later appeared; in almost every one, he cites listeners who have experienced epiphanies — what Rahsaan himself might have called “bright moments” — at one of Kirk’s concerts: “I was blind until I experienced Rahsaan,” one listener rethinks the saxophonist’s disability into his own version of an amazing grace: “blind to the infinite potential of the human spirit.” Interestingly such insight, such personal revision, comes from Kirk’s auditory presence, his sound. Rahsaan, Dorn notes, “wasn’t given his due during his lifetime. He died frustrated, but he knew that someday people would get it.” Enlightenment, getting it, has been closely tied to jazz listening since its beginnings, even when it was essentially a popular dance music; the apocryphal story of Louis Armstrong’s response to a reporter asking him to define jazz — “If you have to ask, you don’t need to know” — implies a closed, cultish elitism that both informs the trope of “getting it” we hear circling around Rahsaan’s unjustly neglected music and runs counter to its fiercely loose populism, its imagined capacity to reach out to anyone and everyone.

Rahsaan’s music did reach me, however. I know this, because when I listened to one track in particular from that double album — a medley recorded live at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival, which originally appeared on the second side of his Volunteered Slavery record — something was to break in on me: and not just for the first time, but every time I’ve played it on the stereo since then. The recording itself is pretty low-end. Rahsaan is backed by a great trio of pianist Ron (later Rahn) Burton, bassist Vernon Martin, and drummer Jimmy Hopps, but the piano is tinny and remote, the bass nearly inaudible, and the drums a slurry wash. But the technical quality, it turns out, didn’t really matter, and may even have pushed up the intensity of my bright moment, since Rahsaan’s flutes and saxophones are (in contrast to his band) miked so closely that the sound sometimes overloads with wow and flutter. He gets right in your face. While some might hear aggression in this performance, I hear energy, intensity, and explosive vitality. It’s next to impossible to describe what happens in the mere twelve minutes that this track takes, and it seems to me you need to hear it to believe it. Not because it’s transcendental in some naive sense, transporting us to realms of consciousness beyond words, no. But because it marks an intense collision of form and content, of tenor and vehicle, of signifier and signified that simultaneously informs and defeats what Roland Barthes once called being “condemned to the adjective” (180) in music criticism. It’s meaning, for me, consists in an iterable and nearly infinitely reproducible overwhelming of the break between act and description, a break that — if you think about it — actually forms the necessary gap across which meaning in language always occurs; this performance produces meaning both for and in the listener by closing the hiatus that requires language to mean in the first place. But I also need to be clear that I’m not talking about music itself, whatever that might be, but about a kind of affect, a response in and by a listener. About the ways in which the music enables and even contains a practice of audition, of audience.

On the recording, Rahsaan announces to his audience that he wants to play “a memorial and a short medley of tunes that John Coltrane left here for us to learn”; this particular Newport Festival happened almost two years to the day after Coltrane’s death, and the anniversary may have been on Kirk’s mind, although he also makes it clear that he “was playing this before [Coltrane] split, so I dig him very much.” It’s noteworthy that Kirk positions himself as a somewhat epigone synthesizer, a latter-day traditionalist who gathers and configures even the immediate musical past, demonstrating important continuities and influences; he gives his audience a lesson in jazz’s living history. Only one of the compositions Kirk chooses is actually composed by Coltrane, so the idea that the saxophonist “left” these tunes behind might at first appear odd. (The songs are Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Mongo Sanatamaria’s “Afro-Blue” — which has at times been miscredited to Coltrane — and Coltrane’s own “Bessie’s Blues.”) These tunes become Coltrane’s, however, not only in as much as he recorded them and put an almost indelible interpretive signature on them, so that they would be associated with him from that point on, but also because the first song in particular points to a continuity between Duke Ellington, from whose band book “Lush Life” comes, and Coltrane. Ellington and Coltrane recorded an impulse! album together in 1962, a session for which the pianist composed the infectious blues “Take the Coltrane,” its title signifying on another famous Strayhorn composition. The blues, as the basic idiom of an African-American folk tradition — Rahsaan called jazz “Black Classical Music” — also informs each of the compositions Kirk chooses from the Coltrane canon, but the blues is also variously skewed and rearticulated. Joel Dorn writes in his liner notes to The Vibration Continues that “Rahsaan was interested in preserving the music and reinterpreting it,” but his performance creates and sustains a more radical form of musical history than such banal statements indicate. Kirk invokes a complex network of associations and resonances that extend from New Orleans through swing and bebop to Coltrane’s avant garde output of the last years of his life; furthermore, he doesn’t simply replicate, as repertory, Coltrane’s style or sound, but reinvents this music as his own, accounting for Coltrane’s presence while freely — and even sloppily — adding in his take. Rahsaan’s classicism is neither staid nor fixed, but a renovation, an amicable and lovingly rough scouring of what has come before.

If his aim in revisiting Coltrane is pedagogical, if we are meant to learn something from this music and from Kirk’s revisionary re-performance of it, what we are taught, both by example and by participation, is how to listen. Kirk’s reworking of Coltrane is an act of directed listening, of “digging” what Coltrane played, but a listening that is also a musical performance to which we — the “us” Kirk invokes is both the audience at the live performance, who scream more wildly as his performance continues, and, because this is a recording, a more general evocation of his rather fallen and decrepit America (“Can you hear that yet?” Kirk asks Dorn, and, according to Dorn, also asks all of us) — are listening. His record becomes an occasion to relearn how to hear.

This insertion of the listener into the potential sound-space of the performance, the way in which the music makes room for response, for a kind of audience participation — or really, for audience as co-participation — emerges on the recording as the Coltrane medley gives way to a Kirk composition, “Three for the Festival,” which Kirk had originally recorded in 1961 for the album We Free Kings. Writing or playing himself into this medley might seem an act of egotism, working himself into the canon by attaching his own career retrospective to that of Coltrane, but “Three for the Festival,” as various bootleg recordings of Kirk’s performances demonstrate, was a staple of his live set. Nevertheless, Kirk clearly and unabashedly does write himself into that history, not only as an exponent but also as a living presence, its embodiment. This intervention is not, however, a form of hubris so much as a delineation in performance of that history, a lived iteration of the past not disguised as immediacy but reworked in a dynamic, present-tense, active mediation. “Three for the festival” is a show-stopper, which begins and ends with Kirk blowing a simple melodic line through three saxophones simultaneously. (Kirk continued to be charged by critics with mere gimmickry for showing off his multi-horn technique, but he was also clearly more interested in the musical potential of this kind of makeshift polyphony than in empty grandstanding.) This riff frames an extended solo on the flute, while the band double-stops behind him. The effect certainly centres the performance on Kirk and foregrounds his instrumental voice (as does the extremely uneven live mix of the recording, as I’ve already pointed out), but what happens during this solo has little to do with self-aggrandizement. Kirk customarily sang or hummed into the venturi opening of his flute, creating slightly detuned unisons or harmonies; the roughness of the collision between instrumental and vocal sounds isn’t so much a failing as a roughening designed to highlight what Barthes named “the grain of the voice.” Barthes’s essay focuses on operatic baritones, and on the demystification of a perfected tonality that essentially dehumanizes the voice itself. What we hear in Kirk’s tone is just the opposite, almost all grain. Breath, vocal cords, even musculature seem to sound across the mouthpiece of his flute, and because of the close-miking what we hear is the impact of air and lip on the surface of the microphone itself. As his solo continues, Kirk refrains from letting the flute sound, retracting his breath rather than blowing into the opening. Instead, a audible set of grunts, as he sings with his mouth nearly closed, along with the clicking of his fingertips on the flute’s pads, creates a species of musical mime, a refusal that sounds as music. The notes, held back in this way, become nearly pure percussion, rhythm without melodic content: we hear, in other words, the liminal background noise of the performance — the clicks and thuds of body and breath against metal that are usually covered over by the proper sounding of the instrument — now brought to the aural foreground. We hear the grain of his voice, as the voice holds itself contingently in abeyance; the grain, Barthes writes, is “the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue” (182). “The grain,” he asserts, “is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs” (188). But there is more to this idea than a temporary reification of sound mechanics in Kirk’s solo; within seconds, the tension caused by holding back his breath leads to an explosion of sound, a slurry of spittle, ululation, laughter and unmusical noise into the flute. Kirk clearly loses control at this point in the solo, and as he works to find a tonality again, he starts speaking — well, cursing — into the flute. Here, not just sound but extramusical commentary enters into the performance; when we hear him stutter “god damn da da you [unclear swearing]” into his instrument, we also hear his struggle to reformulate his playing on the fly, and to acknowledge his failure to keep his music on track, in line with his intention. But that failure, importantly, also is his music at that moment: it’s still integrated into the solo, which never loses momentum, despite itself. Importantly, along with this collision of performance and commentary is a simultaneity of language and music, a simultaneity that Barthes (again, in a rather different musical context) suggests is the outcome of attending to “the grain of the voice, when the latter is in a dual posture, a dual production — of language and of music” (181). That grain, however, is better understood as friction than cohesion, “the very friction between the music and something else, which something else is the particular language (and nowise the message)” (185). Barthes posits a new kind of criticism that becomes immanent to the object or performance that draws its attention, that catches its ear: the engaged listener doesn’t decode a message from the musical performance so much as experience, in this duality of word and sound, a rethinking of the structures of message-making themselves.

This doubling is what (via Rahsaan) “word jazz” is all about. This kind of critical practice, in as much as its calls for a newness, still depends on the delivery of a message, however, but it is not a content in the common sense of meaning or message. What listening to this music delivers, its message, is essentially a pedagogy, a mode of apprehension that wants to be learned, and relearned, rather than unquestioningly or casually regarded. You have to hear it, rather than just listening to it; you have to listen instead of merely hearing it. Such imperatives cling to this music, and form the core of what it not only invites but even requires from its audience. On his 1963 album Mingus Plays Piano, the bassist and composer Charles Mingus has a brief tune entitled “Roland Kirk’s Message.” (Kirk had played with the Mingus’s group that recorded Oh Yeah the previous year, with Mingus also on piano instead of bass.) One of my own responses to Kirk’s music was published in Descant in 1995, and takes up this idea of content, of message in the music, pace Barthes. It’s called “Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Message,” and it goes something like this:

Forget the word-jazz; tell it like it is.
Most people sleepwalk through their custard lives,
then waste what little snatch of breath remains
trying to talk their way out of waking up:

volunteered slavery. The world wears its chains
like a badge of honour. Nobody gives
a damn about nobody else. Who says
the blind’ll see? Darkness fills my cup.

Somebody tell me why. Charles Mingus said,
“Maybe someday they’ll hear,” but I doubt it.
The black and crazy blues pass on. We have
to bear the cross before the cross bears us.

The poem (I need to admit) is a tissue of quotations and intertexts from Kirk — including the titles of several of his compositions, as well as a modified line from his “word jazz” version of “The Old Rugged Cross,” which forms the last sentence of the poem. The lightly inflected African American idiom isn’t and can’t ever be mine, but remains an off-kilter ventriloquy of Kirk’s voice. This is my attempt, in a far more muted and formally constrained manner, to do something like what he did to Coltrane: not imitation, but tribute. The effort, as I know it, involves finding an answerable style; not trying to sound black, for example, but to collide my sense of my own subject position with Kirk’s to produce a tension between idioms, positions, languages. That tension, for me, also manifests itself as a refusal — again, ventriloquized through my imaginary, reconstructed Rahsaan — to accept the idiom in which the poem, as quotation, tries to cast itself; the call to forget the word-jazz, that is, is actually an instance, perhaps as best as I can contingently muster, of word jazz. The imperatives, miming Dorn or Kirk, also belie the demand for honesty, a demand that characterizes the canon of Kirk’s music and its interpretation quite thoroughly. An honest speech would, in at least one sense, be an embodied language that inheres in the grain of the voice, into which meaning collapses and from which it emerges as an undifferentiated manifestation of aural plenitude, as fullness. However, such a poem, as a demand, can never lay claim to any such completion. It opens a space, perhaps, but can never fill it, depending instead — whether as invitation or imperative — on the co-presence of another listener, to inhabit that gap.

One last note: the original publication of this poem carried an unattributed epigraph that I want to explain. When my friend first got The Vibration Continues, he played the Coltrane medley for a guy he knew, a trombone player from the school band. (Again, unlike me, he had paid attention during home room announcements.) After the trackfinished, my friend asked his buddy what he thought. “Well,” came the response, “I guess he made a few mistakes.” “Mistakes?” my friend said. “Man, that’s perfection.” The imperative, and even a certain elitism, in this statement sticks with me. Some people — well, all of us, really — have to learn how to listen, and listening — if anything can be said to be absolute about it, as an act — requires a renovation of expectations, and a willingness to open oneself to the possibilities of sound or text that isn’t necessarily cleaned up, even, rectified or fixed. “Perfection,” in this sense, names a phenomenology that is neither passively acquiescent nor egocentrically overbearing, but that seeks out a openings in structures of attention where self and other are held, contingently, in tension, as the technologies of making meaning, of meaning itself, are both produced and interrogated.

Short Take on John Coltrane, Sun Ship: The Complete Sessions

I have it from a reliable source that at one point during his speech at the ACRL conference in Indianapolis this past March, Henry Rollins re-emphasized the significant impact on his life of the music of The Clash and of the music of John Coltrane. The latter might be a bit surprising, although Rollins did record Everythingwith Charles Gayleand Rashied Ali in 1996, so Coltrane has been with him all along. He has said that he first heard Coltrane from records his mother owned, but that what he took from Coltrane’s music wasn’t spiritual or even musical, but a kind of directness, a fierce honesty that models intense communication: “I am not a musician. I have written a lot of songs but it’s just to get the words out. I always admired Coltrane for his truth and his purity. He was really going for something. He is inspiring because you can tell every moment he plays is sincere. I have never heard anything like it.” (The same thing might even be said for Joe Strummer’s gruff, insistent, committed vocals.) As far as my own listening goes, I think I have been struggling (or maybe something less agonistic: aspiring) to reconcile the collisions of Coltrane and The Clash, conflicted aesthetics aimed at what I tend to divide into the transcendent and the world-bound, the excessive and the mundane, contemplative restraint and expressive intensity. One conceptual trajectory that might bridge such bifurcations is the idea, and the practice, of what I’d call commitment. It became a key word in my Embouchureproject, and it makes a kind of sense, for me, to re-invoke it here. One of the reasons I have picked up on what Henry Rollins has to say about Coltrane’s music is that his tastes, his preferences, seem to coincide with my own: he says he is most drawn to late Coltrane, post 1964. And he’s consistently skeptical about any all-too-easy professions of enlightenment or poetic transport: he’s no mystic, but a demystifier. That doesn’t make his work any less searching, any less committed to honest, hard engagement with a will to truth, to truthfulness. But it does depend on how you understand what and when and how that truth might be.

The recent release of the “complete” studio recordings for John Coltrane’s Sun Ship – first issued in edited form posthumously, in 1971 – aims materially toward full disclosure of historical and music fact, to paint a vivid, truthful sound-picture of the improvisatory collective creative process of the Coltrane-Tyner-Garrison-Jones quartet by offering for public issue every listenable scrap of music and studio chatter extant on tape. This is definitely a music of plenitudes: the huge swathes of saxophone, the dense piano, the rolling bass-lines and the surging drums characteristic of the quartet’s last days together, and of the music Coltrane made from 1964 until his death in 1967. The session that produces Sun Ship takes place on 28 August 1965, and, apart from a first pass at the “Meditations” suite on September 2 (issued later as First Meditations), this is the last time the “classic” Coltrane quartet will record together as a unit. (McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones will leave in November, replaced by Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali: all of this information is well-known, and well-circulated.) So in so many respects, this music has immense historical value and interest, and every detail is worth hearing. Even the fragments and outtakes can be heard as stunning performances unto themselves. The false starts and apparent missteps overflow with powerful, potent music. Everything happens.

         It’s tempting to want to hear what Walter Benjamin might have called a messianic totality in these recordings, a vital archival gathering of historical minutiae – the digital imprint of every essential sonic particle – into an absolute and audible present. We can imagine ourselves there, as we listen – or can imagine the “there” of those searching performances now here, relocated in our own immediate moments. That’s how recording works, sure, but the idea of a “complete” package such as this one is to seem to place us, aurally, in close proximity to the music’s realization. And it works, of course: McCoy Tyner’s solos on both versions of “Sun Ship” are astounding instances of extemporaneous dynamism, but more than that they refuse to settle even on repeated listenings, re-creating the sound of surprise – at each return, they still never sound the same, even though they must be. Historical value collapses into what feels like an exploratory, unsettled present tense. Hearing Jimmy Garrison patiently evolve and re-shape his solo prelude to “Ascent” reaffirms his careful attention to depth of tone, to the rounded resonances of his instrument; in his ensemble work, too, I can hear foreshadows of William Parker’s elastic sense of time and line (in his recordings with David S. Ware or his In Order to Survive quartet). But that influence also seems to dissolve in the palpable immediacy of Garrison’s playing.

   What strikes me most about this session both works against and strangely reinforces this idea of a reanimated plenitude, of a musical Jetztzeit. A little of the studio banter was included in the original release of Sun Ship, but now most tracks contain extended snippets of “studio conversation”; rather than mar the music in any way – they don’t, of course – and rather than merely let us hear bits of the musicians’ speaking voices, as if they are with us again in our own sound-spaces, the loose fragments of casual chatter present a stark contrast to the intensities of the performances. The quartet can shift on a dime from chuckling about a track title to overwhelmingly powerful improvisation. How is it, I keep asking myself, that a music of such depth and wonder can co-exist so unproblematically with the casual and the mundane? Though maybe, maybe, that seemingly effortless coexistence is exactly what this music can teach us, can let us overhear.

What This Thing Is Called Love: Helen Merrill, Part Two

I have heard Helen Merrillperform live twice, on two nights bookending a week-long gig at the Bermuda Onion in Toronto in August, 1990. If I’m remembering right, I was there for the first night of her run, which I think was Monday, August 20. The Bermuda Onion was a pricy dinner club, located upstairs above a few high-end shops, its floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto Bloor (somewhere, I think, near Bay); I believe it had a garish purple neon sign in the shape of an onion flaring out over the street. It had maintained a jazz booking policy, but with only moderate success. On opening night for Helen Merrill, the place was practically deserted. I went with my friend Peter Demas, who lived in the city, and we sat at a table close to the bandstand. There might have been five or six others in the restaurant. I don’t think we ordered much food – the price-point, as they say, was prohibitive – though we might have got a plate of fries, and maybe a drink. But we weren’t there to eat, anyhow.
The Sunday Star had run a picture of her in headscarf and sunglasses, leaning on the restaurant’s piano beside her husband and accompanist, Torrie Zito, “American jazz great Helen Merrill, “ the caption read, “is weaving her wonders at Bermuda Onion until Saturday.” (I clipped it out.) That Monday night I remember her wearing basic black with pearls. Not that it matters too much how she was dressed, but my sense is that she had downplayed appearance, the show-biz aspects of a performance, because music came first, always. To drive this point home, her closer for each of her two sets that night was “Music Makers,” a tribute she had composed with Torrie Zito for her 1986 collaborative album of the same title (on Owl) with Gordon Beck, Steve Lacy and Stéphane Grappelli that speaks directly and with unadorned, faux-naif candour to the affective value of jazz, its weave: “Music makers / thanks so much / for the joy you bring.” 
The other few faces in the restaurant that evening, who I would have assumed were dedicated fans like I was, must actually have been jazz reviewers; brief pieces on Helen Merrill appeared in the Star and The Globe and Mail in the next day or two. Geoff Chapman linked Merrill’s selective audience to the accomplished subtleties of her singing – even after so many years, not everyone had heard her or heard of her:
Helen Who? The one whose 1954 album with Clifford Brown was rated by one magazine the best jazz album ever made? Or is she the one whose recording 35 years later with Stan Getz was voted jazz album of the year?
Right on both counts. And thus it’s a matter of serious wonder that Helen Merrill is so lightly regarded in North America, save by jazz musicians, while European and Japanese fans can’t get enough of her.
[. . .]
Last night, overcoming a late arrival, a bothersome air conditioner and minuscule rehearsal time with the local bass-drums combo of Gary Binstead and John Sumner, la Merrill weaved wonders with a moody “Round Midnight” and a big, rangy version of an enjoyable tune that you realized, later, was good old “Autumn Leaves” in new guise.
[. . .]
The small, enthusiastic gathering, more aware than most perhaps of the thinning ranks of the great jazz singers [. . .] will treasure what they heard. (“Helen Merrill Weaves Wonders” Toronto Star21 August 1990: E2)
Mark Miller was a little less enthusiastic, but still drew attention to Merrill’s astounding handling of ballad form:
Some jazz singers have made their names by the number of notes they can squeeze into the four beats of a bar. Some have made a style out of the number of bars they can squeeze into a note. . . .  The long notes are the ones to wait for, the ones that draw the whistles, in a Merrill song – there was a note in You and the Night and the Music that simply turned transparent as it drew out in mid-air. They give her interpretations a quietly dramatic, sultry quality and lend a variety of softened textures and subtle shadings to the most familiar standards. The good effect in Monday’s second set, however, was often undermined by the bruised quality of her voice, a voice apparently “sabotaged” – that was Merrill’s word – by the club’s air conditioning. (“Revival Act” The Globe and Mail 23 August 1990: C3 )
I was there, so I can confirm that she did complain about a problematic air conditioner; her voice remains a sensitive instrument, and the ways in which she re-shapes a melodic line, slowly unfolding notes like delicate origami blooms, means that her breath and her pitch are closely responsive to their immediate environment. In some ways, her style is more suited to the rarefied immediacy of a recording studio than exposed to the unpredictable elements of background and stage noise. Her performance that night was, indeed, much less subtle and nuanced than those I’ve heard on record, although there were moments – like those mentioned in the reviews, but also in her version of “Lilac Wine” – when you could feel your heart stop beating, when the room seemed briefly suspended in time.
         Given that Peter and I were almost her whole audience, and the only ones sitting up close, when she left the stage after her first set, she came over to our table. Her manner was a bit wry and ironic; I think she asked us if we had a cigarette lighter, but neither of us smoked. I think I bungled saying something complementary, about how much I enjoyed her albums. She cocked her head a little,  as if unsure as to whether or not I was putting her on, looked me in the eye, and asked: “Do you have the one with Thad Jones?” I didn’t. I think she told me I should try to get hold of a copy, though it was probably out of print (which it was).  He was great, she said. “A Child Is Born” is a beautiful song. And then she left us for the back of the club.
         Years later, Emarcy France would reissue not one but both of her albums with Thad Jones – The Feeling Is Mutual (1965) and A Shade of Difference(1968), although they soon dropped out of print again, until Mosaic Records put them together on one limited-edition CD as The Helen Merrill–Dick Katz Sessions. It’s not just the presence of Thad Jones, but the gathering of two groups of musicians’ musicians – Jim Hall, Ron Carter (with whom Merrill would later record an incredible duo album), Pete LaRoca, Richard Davis, Elvin Jones, Gary Bartz, Hubert Laws – makes these sessions astoundingly special. Alongside her albums with Gil Evans, Bill Evans and John Lewis, I think it isn’t a stretch to call The Feeling Is Mutual her masterpiece. In the liner notes to the second record, pianist and broadcaster Marian McPartland suggests that what makes these recordings so brilliantly alluring is a lyrical tension, both within Helen Merrill’s voice and in her subtle interactions (I’d suggest) with the other musicians:
I remember vividly the first time I heard Helen Merrill sing. It was some years ago, and I was listening to the radio, late at night, while driving to New York. Suddenly I heard a voice with an unusual timbre and such poignancy that I pulled over to the side of the road to listen more closely. [. . .] The contrasts in her voice are most intriguing: on the one hand, like eggshell china, and on the other a heartfelt cry, a depth-of-the-soul moan of deep feeling.
She was right, of course, about “the one with Thad Jones”; while her performance that Monday night might have been a bit marred, a bit “bruised,” there is something even in that heartfelt late effort that partakes of the idea of the cry, of crying: a grainy emollient pathos. A few years later, I tried to write about it, in a small lyric tribute of my own to Helen Merrill, which appeared in Descant in 1997; strangely, I used the same metaphor as Mark Miller, the bruise, although for him it was a fault, while for me, it is the essence of what Helen Merrill does. Late recordings, such as her duet on “My Funny Valentine” with Masabumi Kikuchi, only heighten the subtly attenuated grain of her voice, its lovely expiring.
         The second gig I attended was the closing night of her Bermuda Onion run, the Saturday. My parents had come to town, to visit the CNE, and my dad offered to take us all out to dinner, so I suggested we go see Helen Merrill. He paid, which was pretty nice. The club was packed that night. She was great, a bit more showy, a bit higher energy, a bit less nuanced. Afterwards, I asked my mother what she thought. “Great legs for sixty,” she said.
         Last year, I bought an autographed copy of a Japanese album, a session Helen Merrill did with Teddy Wilson – another significant pianist in the music’s history. (Helen Merrill produced a handful of solo piano albums in the seventies, including significant recordings by Tommy Flanagan and, my favourite, Roland Hanna – playing Alec Wilder.) 

The signature, presumably for a couple she likely doesn’t know, reads “with much love always, Helen Merrill.” The thing is, I think she means it. What she does, what she gives, on these records and in those performances, despite whatever conditions there might be, is a genuine moment of feeling, a pathos that makes you pull your car over and listen. A kind of love.

Lilac Wine: Helen Merrill, Part One

This past week, I discovered one of the remaining records on my wish list of almost impossible-to-find music: Helen Merrill’s American Country Songs, from 1959. My find wasn’t on vinyl, though, but that’s still fine by me. I’ll take what I can get. Worn copies of this never re-issued LP have appeared occasionally on eBay in the last decade, going for fifty bucks or more, and I’ve never managed to come out on top of the bidding.  I have found the occasional Helen Merrill disc at my local used record store, but American Country Songs has eluded me.  (A few months ago, I came across another one on my list, the triple-LP version of Keith Jarrett’s 1979 Concerts, so it’s been a pretty good year for the collection.) Atco WEA-Japan put out American Country Songs on CD in mid-January, and iTunes followed suit with a download. And there the music finally was, widely accessible again after more than fifty years of relative obscurity.
         This record’s a peculiar genre hybrid, and it’s certainly not Helen Merrill’s best album. But its rarity has made it hugely alluring for me, and anything, anything, by Helen Merrill is going to be revelatory, never short of pretty much excellent, so I’m happy to have access to it, and to hear it. Helen Merrill has defined herself for more than half a century as a quintessential jazz singer, so country-and-western isn’t going to be her forte. A few country-jazz hybrids were emerging at the turn of the sixties, notably guitarist Hank Garland’s recordings with Gary Burton; Sonny Rollins’s Way Out West (with its famous William Claxton cover photo and its versions of “Wagon Wheels” and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m an Old Cowhand”) had appeared in 1957. But I’m not aware of any vocalists melding idioms; Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” had been a country-pop crossover hit in 1957, and the arrangements for strings (by Chuck Sagle) on American Country Songs draw overtly on contemporary country-pop style. Guitarist Mundell Lowe, who had notable associations with Sarah Vaughan and recorded third-streamish arrangementsof Alec Wilder, performs on the album, along with George DuVivier, Milt Hinton and Jo Jones, lending the music an artful legitimacy, although there are no searching improvisations; as the title suggests, the record aims to link jazz and country as forms of Americana, styles rooted in the same musical loam.
The record starts off with a string-rich arrangement of “Maybe Tomorrow,” with Merrill’s smoky lines overdubbed in stereo harmony.  (“Devoted to You” gets a similar vocal duo treatment later in the set, but with a small backing band – vibes, guitar, bass, drums – instead) The effect is to draw a light but palpable resonance from Merrill’s voice: a barely breathy, gently grained texture that had become a hallmark of her own style. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” stands out, with its half-speed vocal (“when time goes crawlin’ by”) set against warbling electric guitar and a double-time steam train shuffle, the drum-line falling somewhere between Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” (no kidding) and a C&W version of “Cherokee.” She works with and against time, threading it like tensile gold, attenuating its viscosities like taffy. On the whole, the album sound is playful, the arrangements mostly commercial and a little kitschy (“I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” is plain goofy, but cute): a bouquet of late 50s MOR, mostly sweet and lonely ballads swaddled in strings. But Helen Merrill’s syllable-by-syllable melodic craft, feeling her way along the purr and pull of each note, makes this music work.
         The string section also gestures back (though not formally, merely as a kind of auditory trope) to her more sophisticated Mercury albums, particularly Helen Merrill With Strings(1955) and her collaboration with Gil Evans, Dream of You (1956). The opening track on the 1955 record is “Lilac Wine” – a song she was still performing when I saw her live in 1990 (which she described as “unusual”) and which was the title track of her 2004 album (which, unusually, also includes a cover of Radiohead’s “You”).  The lyrics describe lilac wine as  “sweet and heady, / like my love,” which also suggests about the timbre of her voice, its veiled headiness, its honeyed closeness. In an interview with Marc Myers for his Jazz Wax blog, in 2009, she recalls working with Gil Evans in July, 1956:
JW: Your phrasing on that session sounds like the basis for Miles Davis’ approach with Gil a year later in 1957 on Miles Ahead.
HM: I have no idea. Miles used to love my sound and always came to hear me sing. We were dear friends. He told me he loved my whisper sounds. That’s a technique Iused by getting up real close to the microphone. I’d sing almost in a whisper, which created a very intimate sound. I developed this by listening to my voice and trying different things with the mikes.
JW: Do you think Miles learned from your whisper technique?
HM: Miles learned from everyone. He was incredible. He took the best from everyone and threw away the rest. He was brilliant. One of the things he told me he loved about my voice was how I used space—both in music and between my voice and the mike.
This is a pretty big claim, and it seems a little suspicious to call Miles Davis a “dear friend.” But the comparison of their articulations is also deeply apt; their ballad styles are strikingly similar, with an attention to the delicate surges, the intimate breath-pressures within each note. And while American Country Songs can’t achieve the layered depths of a Gil Evans record (or of a Gil Evans-Helen Merrill record), the seductively undulant sound-space that Helen Merrill can and does create makes it an album so worth hearing.

A Short Take on Barry Long, Freedom in the Air

Freedom in the Air is a powerful suite for quartet, improvised to accompany a projection of iconic, historic photographs (by James Karales and others) of events in the American Civil Rights movement. A group led by trumpeter Barry Long, and including saxophonist David Pope, bassist Joshua Davis and percussionist Phil Haynes, performed the music at the Campus Theatre of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, on 23 February 2012; the performance was recorded on video, which can be viewed online through the university’s website. The compact disc or download is available for purchase from bandcamp.com. It’s a great recording, well worth buying.
The music is ekphrastic; sounds are keyed to visuals, sometimes providing auditory allegories – as in the fifth section, “Fifteen Minutes in Birmingham,” when the racial violence depicted in the photographs draws discordant, harsh responses from the players – but more often acting as reactive contemplation, a kind of aural commentary. For musical source material, Long draws on spirituals and protest songs, many of them from African-American religious and social traditions from the southern states, many of them performed by participants in the marches and protests to which the images bear historical witness. (Two pieces come from elsewhere than the American public domain, but both are deeply enmeshed in the civil rights soundscape: John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” – posthumously issued on his album Cosmic Music – and the song that provides the suite’s title, “Freedom in the Air” by Bernice Johnson Reagon.) Watching the video, you can see how attentive to and how focused on these images the members of the quartet remain, throughout the performance. The photos act not so much as score but as timbral palette, setting the tone. 
Without the visuals, the music still works incredibly well, but as a meditative rather than a contemplative tone-poem. Things open with Long solo on flugelhorn, intoning Reagon’s melody as an autumnal taps, framing what follows from the quartet in a largely elegiac register. The music on the whole is consistently measured and self-aware, rarely venturing beyond a medium tempo, but it’s also deeply evocative, entrancing, awash in genuine pathos. I have been trying for a few days to think of an analogue for this group’s sound, and the closest I can come is, perhaps, Paul Motian’s trios with Charles Brackeen (whose firm, deliberate tenor saxophone tone David Pope sometimes seems to echo). Phil Haynes’s drumming can occasionally be subtly unruly, gently but firmly disrupting easy agreements. Collectively, the quartet tends to refuse sentimentality or nostalgia in favour of a lyrically incisive and open-eared historicism, giving difficult episodes in a shared national past a present-tense relevance, a contemporaneity. Improvisation creates a set of contingent segues between what’s been done and what still happens, and invites us to consider, to reconsider, how negotiating these cultural challenges can vitally matter to us even now, especially now.
The manoeuvres between the contemplative and the meditative, between the reactive and the expressive, that this performance undertakes can be better addressed, I think, by looking at the video, and paying attention to the intensity of the musicians’ focus – how they themselves look at the on-screen images. Three of the four members of the quartet are academics, and two hold doctorates: I mention this fact to suggest that, if this music is to be understood as scholarship, there is no sense of clinical detachment or analytic objectivity here. The historical engagements they undertake are, instead, consistently creative, vital and moving. It’s also worth noting – although it’s a bit presumptuous on my part – that none of the musicians appears to have a visibly African-American heritage; given that they are playing through such thoroughly racially-inflected terrain, they might tend to be positioned as outsiders or onlookers. But Long’s point in presenting this music, I’d say, is to suggest that we are all – regardless of where we might think we come from or how we look – implicated in this cultural history, and that we need not only to be self-aware of that enmeshment, but also to actively negotiate our social subjectivities, building communities not necessarily through unproblematic identifications – such as similarities of appearance or background – but through our encounters with difference, with our own inherent differences. Barry Long’s music makes one such set of encounters sing. The video ends with a minute-long spontaneous silence that the CD can’t include, but it’s also one of the most powerful musical moments in the performance: a space of thoughtful, respectful exchange onto which this fleetingly profound music opens, helps us open.