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Dave Douglas’s electro-acoustic quartet HIGH RISK offered a dynamic, edgy and intense set at Performance Works (in Vancouver) yesterday evening. Fusing layered, pulse-driven techno with Douglas’s Freddie-Keppard-meets-Freddie-Hubbard, fiercely clarion trumpet lines, HIGH RISK collectively muster an infectiously celebratory and powerful improvised music that’s as danceable as it is creatively provocative. While Douglas has composed a seven-tune repertoire for this new band – which recorded together for the first time on October 10, 2014, in Brooklyn, a session that resulted in their just-released CD on Douglas’s Greenleaf label – and while each member of the ensemble (Douglas on trumpet, Jonathan Maron on electric bass, Mark Guiliana on drums and Shigeto on electronics) contributes heavily to the collaboration, for me the group concept seems to rest on the innovative, wonderfully fractured loops, samples and laptop conjurations of Shigeto, who bopped, leapt and shimmied with joyful abandon behind a tabletop covered in rheostat boxes and circuitry. The sound palette and rhythmic patter he managed to conjure never obscured its synthetic origins but managed amid the electronica to engender a vibrantly zoetic feel: amazing, richly affective sonorities. At one point, he played in duo with Douglas and the intricate immediacy of his approach became apparent, as he built vibrant whorls and cascades of joyful noise. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is brilliantly propulsive, deep in the pocket yet consistently pushing forward; his multidirectional, quickly syncopated incisions through a four-on-the-floor backbeat were nothing short of genius. Jonathan Maron seemed to remain calm and steady throughout the concert, but his bass-lines – by turns warmly lyrical and darkly palpitating – kept the band centred and present. Early in their set, I thought I heard echoes of the bluesy melody of Miles Davis’s “Jean Pierre,” and Douglas definitely quoted the four-note tag from the Miles Davis-John Scofield line “That’s What Happened”: in some ways, HIGH RISK makes a music that might have emerged from Davis’s more progressive or edgy moments in his later years. But this is a music that’s of its own present tense. Some of the most powerful and moving moments came during the last tune, “Cardinals,” an elegiac homage Douglas dedicated to the memory of Michael Brown. “This is a music that’s about love,” he told the audience. Love names the high risk this music wants to take. In the brief liner notes to the CD, Douglas writes that “improvisation transcends barriers between people and genres. Improvisation models the way the world can work.” My colleagues and I in ICASP and IICSI have been thinking, and trying to produce various forms of practice-based research, along these exact lines. The improvised music of HIGH RISK offers one instance of a hugely successful, motivated and engaged co-creativity, laying the contingent and extemporaneous groundwork for a viable human community yet to come.
Sunset on Thursday, August 28, was supposed to happen, according to my smartphone app, at about 8:00pm – although sunsets are attenuated diminishments, not sudden closures of the light, so the timing was no doubt loose enough. But I was still running a bit late, and cutting it close. It was about 7:45. Taylor Ho Bynum had announced that he was beginning his west coast bicycle tour this evening with a sunset fanfare on Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s famously clothing-optional strand, at the tip of Point Grey on the University of British Columbia campus. I wanted to be there to hear him play. Getting to the beach involves descending a fairly steep set of 400-odd wood-framed earthen stairs. I had rushed past some former students at the top, saying hello but that I was headed for what I thought was to be a solo concert of improvised cornet music on the beach that was about to start so I was sorry but I had to go. At least, that’s what I think I said. I took the stairs two-at-a-time as I started down, but that soon proved to be too dangerous a tactic, so I dialed the urgency back a little and settled into a one-by-one descent. Tanned and mellow, loosely garbed nudists and dreadlocked dudes passed by me on their way up from a day of sunbathing in the heavy, bronze August light. The staircase itself is shadowed and cool, snaking along a gully in the cliff-side amid stands of west-coast cedar, poplar and the odd birch. Clumps of oversized ferns open in the various cusps of hillocks a few metres off the south side of the path. As I made my way down, at speed, I was pelted by what looked in the dimness like scissor-winged dark moths, small meandering swarms of them newly airborne, a sign of the oncoming night. One or two clung to the folds of my t-shirt. I brushed them off, and, passing the green plastic Johnny-on-the-Spot, emerged from the trees onto the beach sand at the foot of the stairs.
I couldn’t see anything that looked like a concert. It took a moment to orient myself. Scattered beach-goers were still perched against logs, facing the Georgia Strait, watching the sunset in the west across the water. A naked, deeply tanned old man nodded and passed me. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening. I thought I might have missed Taylor Ho Bynum.
And then I heard what sounded like a Harmon-muted horn, a little faint, off to the right of the stairs. Perched against one of the many driftwood logs that serve as breaks and that define limited privacies amid this reach of open public space, Taylor – shirt off – was playing to some seagulls who had waddled up to him, curious. I came over and sat on the log next to his. There seemed to be a few other people around the space, at their own chosen logs, who were listening, too. Most of the folks around us were couples, however, out for some kind of romantic postcard moment. The seagulls squawked at Taylor’s playing, and he engaged in a little playful conversation with them, before they wandered off. The couple I took for lovers looked over, once, then went back to themselves. The Harmon mute on the cornet gave his sound an intimacy, a hush that was a little swallowed in the rhythmic wash of ocean on sand, and in the wide-open air. You had to be sitting close by to hear.
Taylor finished what he was playing, set down his horn, and put on his shirt. I came over to him and said hello. He’s a very affable, open person, and chatted for a few minutes, telling me how on the very first leg of his bicycle tour – what would probably amount to 1800 miles over the course of five or six weeks, from Vancouver to Tijuana, playing concerts and ad hoc gigs along the way – he had fallen and cut his leg and arm; he had just been washing his cuts in ocean water, which he told me he hoped would work as a kind of natural antiseptic. (Taylor’s own account of his accident, and of playing on Wreck Beach, can be found in his on-line journal for his Bicycle Tour.)
Another listener, whom I recognized from jazz festival gigs this past June and whose name, if I remember right, is Michael, sat down on the log opposite, and joined in the casual talk.
Taylor noticed that the sun was beginning to set in earnest, and said he ought to play some music, like he’d intended. He was concerned that he might be too loud for the thinning community of beach-goers around us, so he placed a soft hat over the bell of his cornet. He improvised an angled fanfare for a little under ten minutes, eventually removing the hat and letting the horn sing out a bit more fully. Michael and I sat a few feet on either side of him as he played, facing the water. The open ocean seemed more or less to swallow up the sound – I don’t think there was a danger of him being too loud here – while the cedars lining the embankment behind us occasionally bounced a cluster of notes back toward us, gently resonant. He was recording himself on an iPad that he had placed to his right, against the log. He put both performances on Sound Cloud – they’re called “Gulls” and “Wrecked at Sunset” (the latter presumably in honour both of Wreck Beach and his crash) – and you can easily make out the ways in which he shifts from counterpointing his lines with the aural textures of the local biosphere through a form of call and response, leaving space for those ambient sounds to overcome his notes before reasserting his voice in tandem with that soundscape, shifting foreground and background, and finally, to my ear, melding his voice into that variegated chorus. You can hear at the close of “Wrecked at Sunset,” if you listen closely, the trees returning his melodies like ghosts.
For those few minutes, it felt like Taylor had begun to initiate a musical ecology: situated and embodied, even a little wounded, this wasn’t a “concert” but a shared auditory space, or better: a temporary entry into the layered networks of place, a kind of sonic reciprocity. The inescapably linear monody produced by the cornet gains depth and polymorphous heft by combining expressive assertion with attentive deference, by concocting instances of responsive, correspondent exchange. A conversing. Not playing for so much as playing along, playing with.
|Actual sunset with which Taylor Ho Bynum was playing on Wreck Beach– including a couple in the right foreground.|
After Taylor finished, and we chatted a little more, one of the RCMP officers who patrol the shore strolled past, and politely suggested that the beach would be closing at dark, and it was time to go. Taylor picked up his horn, and played the Miles Davis outro tag-line from “The Theme,” a light-hearted nod to the historical spectres of improvisers who inevitably haunt our musical memories and an acknowledgement, by quirkily twisting jazz convention, of the ways in which this was no concert, no outdoor club date. He packed up his horn, and picked up his bike, which he had carried down to the beach and which he would have to carry back up the stairs with him. And that was that.
|Always be merchandizing.|
I bought a re-issue on LP of the first Public Image Ltd record a couple of weeks ago, and I have been playing it over and going back to my other PiL records, particularly the key four of the first albums (including Second Issue, Flowers of Romance and Album). I don’t know why, but I hadn’t had these out in a while. Maybe they still have a certain repulsion about them, wanting to push listeners back and keeping them estranged. It’s not exactly likable music. In their specific ways, they also have a raw immediacy and a loose fierceness – not just in the dissonant snarl and visceral whine of John Lydon’s vocals, but in the way the music assembles itself – that shake me every time I put the needle down. Even as each track locks palpably into its particular, febrile groove – and from Jah Wobble to Bill Laswell, these remain definitely groove-based records – you often get the sense that things could also shatter at any moment; songs, particularly on the first album, hang vestigially in scissions and fractures. Sometimes, they sound like the reassembled shards of songs, songs that can’t quite piece themselves together again, if they were ever whole to begin with. Setting the new-age steady on-the-beat pulse of “Public Image” against the unkempt noise of its b-side, “The Cowboy Song,” suggests the antithetical aural tug-of-war in which Lydon and companions consistently engage: centripetal and centrifugal sound. The attenuated slow drag of Wobble’s bass on “Theme” teeters on the verge of collapse, then lurches forward a bar at a time, still locked into its deep rhythmic pocket. These are compelling and unsettling collaborative performances that take aim at the sonic foundations of popular music.
The uncertainties and incommensurables inherent in the collaborative process – that there are differences among performers that can’t be overcome, and instead need to be embraced – seem to me to play a significant part in PiL’s music, in how it unfolds. Still, the track I most want to repeat on the player is “FFF” from Album (1985), and what draws me to it isn’t this uncertainty, but rather a sense of its absolute, unshakeable beat: the confident, driven heaviness of Tony Williams’s drumming, and Bill Laswell’s bass-line. In contrast to the dehiscence that I have been suggesting lies at the heart of PiL’s output, “FFF” and most of the tracks on Album (or Cassette or Compact Disc) feel intentionally stable and powerfully coherent (Lydon’s singing aside, perhaps). Album is famously a Bill Laswell project, assembling studio musicians and colleagues from Laswell’s Material bands, mixing funk players with avant-gardists, to produce a set of tracks onto which Lydon’s vocals could be overdubbed. Lydon’s liner notes to the 1999 compilation Plastic Box admit as much:
In some ways, Album was almost like a solo album, [guitarist] Keith [Levene] and [drummer] Martin [Atkins] weren’t around, and I worked alone, with a new bunch of people. Obviously the most important person was Bill Laswell.
Importantly, Laswell employs a number of forward-thinking – some might even say inappropriate – improvisers to lay down tracks on the record, most peculiarly perhaps acoustic bassist Malachi Favors Maghostutfrom the Art Ensemble of Chicago, although any potentially startling or obvious improvisational work seems to me to be largely lost in the mix here. It’s the idea of employing Favors, perhaps, rather than the quality of his actual contributions, that seems to matter – an instance of artist cred derived from public-image-making, no doubt, although Laswell also withheld the musicians’ names at the time of the record’s release, toying with the weight of notoriety in music marketing. My point is that Laswell’s pool of players offer substantial potential for creative, rule-breaking performances, although he also very audibly, musically, reins every one of them in.
Lydon’s note continues with another significant moment of name-dropping:
But it was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me ands started playing.
Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet which is still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. To be complemented by the likes of him was special. Funnily enough, we didn’t use him.
There isn’t any corroborating evidence that this encounter took place, and it’s not clear what Miles Davis would have been doing in that specific studio at that time. I’m not sure how well Laswell (who had elevated his credentials working on Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock LP, which may have put him in Davis’s viewfinder) knew Davis. (Tony Williams, who would collaborate on Laswell’s Arcana, was one of Davis’s greatest drummers, but the instrumental tracks were done, and only Lydon would have been in the studio that day. Davis may also have been working on Steve van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project around that time, so their paths may have crossed around those recordings in New York.) Panthalassa, Laswell’s “Reconstruction & Mix Translation” of Miles Davis’s 1969-74 music, only happened years after Davis’s death. (Wikipedia offers another account of a fabled unreleased Laswell-Davis session from the period: “Laswell has stated in numerous interviews that he met with Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis’ death, though Laswell’s chief engineer reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.”)
But there are some very real connections that might be worth pursuing about this missed encounter between Lydon and Davis, illuminating something about their respective senses of “voice” and phrasing. Paul Tingen quotes PiL bassist Jah Wobble praising Laswell’s “mix translation” of On the Corner: “The weird thing is that when I thought of On the Corner, I have always heard it in my head the way Bill mixed it. That’s how it really is. Bill’s in the one. That’s the real deal” (Tingen 140). Wobble goes on to associate the music of Davis’s pre-retirement period, the mid-1970s, with the early performance style of PiL:
Dark Magus is my favorite Miles album of that period because it is so raw, with such a hidden power, such a mixture of dark and light. When I first heard it, in 1978, it was one of those magical moments. It had an overall sound that was similar to what Public Image Ltd was about. I couldn’t believe it had been recorded several years before us. I imagine Miles deliberately threw in these new musicians at the last moment because musicians get complacent. I can imagine how he wanted to affect their psychology, and so the music. I also know that musicians can think something is not representative of their best work, and yet it’s actually great and a lot of people love it.
This doubled sense of an improvisationally rough, groove-driven music pushing itself forward even as it seems to come apart at its seams links early Public Image Ltd directly to Davis’s aesthetic, though as (what he called) “social music,” Davis lays claim to a racial provenance that both eludes Lydon and company, and also becomes an ironically appropriated foundation for their work. (“I could be black I could be white / I could be white I could be black” Lydon yawps in “Rise,” rejigging lines from a South African torture victim as a provocation against prejudice; the shock-tactics title of his memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, venomously throws racist signage into its reader’s faces.) But when Lydon recounts Davis saying he sings like he plays, he creates a collision of similitude and difference that results in a species of violent fragility, or fragile violence: an antithesis, a negative identity, that emerges not through or against but as voice: “Like me, / you are unlike me,” Lydon snarls in “Fishing,” recalling Shakespearean manipulations of self-image from Twelfth Night and Othello, in which both Viola and Iago assert that “I am not what I am” – or, perhaps for the latter, “I am what I am not.” Selfhood – as (public) image, as seeming, as performance – consists in its own negation.
And how does that negation sound? (Or maybe better, what does it sound like?) How is it voiced? Lydon may not be much help here, but Davis suggests in his autobiography that he derives his own sense of line, of musical phrase, principally from the human voice:
See, music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings., or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn’t go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed. I learned a lot about phrasing back then listening to the way Frank, Nat “King” Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice. (70)
And later on, near his book’s close, comes another version of the same claim:
I had a chance to work with Frank Sinatra a long time ago. [. . .] But I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t into what he was into. Now, it ain’t that I don’t love Frank Sinatra, but I’d rather listen to him than maybe get in his way by playing something that I want to play. I learned how to phrase from listening to Frank, his concept of phrasing, and also to Orson Welles. (395)
There are some structural ironies here as well, given that the text is principally poet Quincy Troupe’s imitation of Davis’s speaking voice, culled from hours of taped conversations: it isn’t really Davis speaking directly here at all, that is. But, more importantly for my purposes here, is the recognition that Davis appears significantly to mishear his own voice. In practice, his fractured, bent phrases – no matter how lyrical they may be – have very little in common with Sinatra’s mellifluous, soporific baritone or Welles’s theatrical declamations. His connection with Lydon comes through, if at all, in the steely and fragile awkwardness of his lines, their bent uncertainty. The Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke once told me he heard anger and fierceness in Davis’s Harmon-muted horn; this was no soothing balladry. “Anger,” sneers Lydon, “is an energy.” What’s valuable for me in the early Pil sessions isn’t so much the audible anger as this vicious, cutting lyricism, the probing, needy and breaking articulation that, for me, also makes Miles Davis’s bittersweet electric music of the 1970s so vital.
Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Lydon, John, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No
Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs. New York: St. Martin’s P,
Tingen, Paul. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles
Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books, 2001.
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.