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What a privilege to hear Anthony Davis play two sets of solo piano at the Western Front last night. His performance—a return to Vancouver after thirty years—also marked the release of past – piano – present, an LP anthology of audio recordings from the Western Front’s archive featuring tracks by Anthony Davis, Paul Plimley, Al Neil and John Kameel Farah.
In her sleeve notes, pianist Dana Reason notes how, in his 1985 performance of “Behind the Rock,” Davis’s “ease mobilizing and maximizing the piano . . . suggests a careful study of Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral tradition.” Not that Davis’s playing sounds studied or academic; his aesthetic – his performance style and his method – seems to offer an idiosyncratic mix of (what George Lewis has called) Eurological and Afrological sensibilities, blurring composition and improvisation, chamber music and blues, Olivier Messiaen and James P. Johnson, recital and gig, to generate a vital, kinetic music of layered possibilities. He played two sets lasting almost an hour each. The first set opened with a piece built from variations on cascading intervals, which Davis later identified as fragments from his composition Wayang No. IV. The second piece, which Davis did not identify, spun magisterially through components of what felt like a 32-bar song, unpacking and reassembling melody with a recognizably Ellingtonian grandeur. The third piece was a version of “Ankle and Wrist” from his 1997 opera Amistad; built on shards of a blues motif, the music surged in swathes gathered and propelled by Davis’s powerful sustain pedal, while his strong left hand offered up lines recalling Sir Roland Hannaor Earl Hines. Davis’s touch is fierce and firm, but he also has a keen capacity for tenderness, as the concluding piece of the first set, a gently deconstructed jazz waltz, suggested.
The second set opened with what he called his “Goddess Variations,” improvisations developed around the “orchestral material” from the aria “They come as if from the heavens (Goddess of the Waters),” also from Amistad. He followed with an extended wordless version of “Five Moods from an English Garden,” a work he described composing when he found himself stranded in Munich – after touring with violinist Leroy Jenkins – sleeping on a studio floor; on a snowy May morning, he said, he walked through the city’s English Gardens – listening to birdcalls – and into an exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky paintings – “moods” – at a gallery there. The composition draws onthese two palettes to create a vivid tone poem. The closing piece from the second set involved a return to Wayang No. IV, extending Davis’s exploration of the material in intense overlaid chords to produce what felt like kinetic densities, a powerfully mobile aural weave. As an encore for an enthusiastic, deeply engaged audience, Davis played a remarkable meditative version of “Monk’s Mood,” a suitably elegant and resonant conclusion to a brilliant concert.
I only met Fred Ho once, when I was asked to introduce a talk he was giving — “Identity, Music and the Asian-American Struggle” — in the afternoon of Saturday, February 2, 2002, at the Western Front here in Vancouver. His presentation was highly charged, as full of strident compassion and of life-energy as his music. After the talk, he asked me if he could have a copy of the introduction, and I gave him mine, which had some handwritten notes and corrections. Later, I was contacted to contribute to an anthology of writings about his work, a kind of Festschrift for him, but I never managed to get anything properly together enough to submit; in 2007, I presented an abbreviated version of my work on him as a paper at the academic colloquium attached to the Guelph International Jazz Festival, “Improvising Diaspora: Fred Ho, John Coltrane and the Music of Radical Respect,” the text of which I have posted on my other blog, Frank Styles. This past week, I have been digging through my files to find the text of my introduction, and have finally come across it today. I’ll reproduce it below. I mention how Julie Smith, then the director of educational programming at Coastal Jazz, was working to create a symposium alongside the Time Flies music festival. Now defunct, Time Flies was modelled on Derek Bailey’s Company, an aggregating of free improvisors for a week of performances in ad hoc groupings and ensembles at the Western Front. The symposium eventually led to the Creative Music Think Tank and then, in 2007, to the first of a set of yearly colloquia in Vancouver produced collaboratively by Coastal Jazz and the Improvisation, Community and Social Practice research initiative (ICaSP). Here is the text of my introduction for Fred Ho. I remember him well.
It’s a great pleasure for me to introduce Fred Ho today.
This presentation is the first of the Time Flies Talks, a series of lectures and panels that we hope to develop into a fully-fledged symposium on improvisation and cultural theory next year, during the Time Flies Festival of Improvised Music. This year, to help inaugurate the series, we will also have a panel discussion on “How Time Flies in Improvisation,” featuring musicians Marilyn Lerner and Torsten Muller, and CJBS Artistic Director Ken Pickering, and moderated by me. It will take place here this coming Friday, February 8, at 2:00 pm; admission to the panel is free. Special thanks should go to Julie Smith, who has put these events together.
Fred Ho’s music has been described both as “politically charged,” brimming with “slashing energy” and fierce ironies, and as delicately lyrical, organic, graceful, life-affirming. His work offers a provocative mixture of idioms, drawing on — among other influences — free improvisation, traditional Chinese music and what Rahsaan Roland Kirk once described as “Black Classical Music.” His artistry seems to me to embrace both contrariety and multiplicity. Titles such as “Contradiction Please! The Revenge of Charlie Chan” signal his oppositional political stance, his keen awareness of the fraught dynamics of racial and ethnic identity among North American listeners, as well as a darkly comedic recognition of the exclusive and proprietary nature of cultural and musical stereotypes (not to mention a pun on one of bebop’s most famous pseudonyms). But his music and his thought are not simply directed at resistance to racial and social hegemonies; he is also deeply concerned with, as he has put it, “creating revolutionary aesthetics and changing the relations of cultural production”: with affirmation, with liberation, with creation. Fred Ho’s work seeks out a formal connection between the demands of musical form and the politics of gender, race, and class in a difficult and marginalizing world. The excluded, the marginal, the unacknowledged, sing back and sing out in Ho’s music, laying claim to agency, to presence, to immediacy — making themselves heard. His goal, he has written, “is a radical unity of form and content.” By this he means, I think, that the material lived conditions of social and cultural oppression can be engaged, countered and overcome in radical cultural forms, such as improvisation, that insist on a political dimension in the very substance of their articulation: in sound, in rhythm, in tone — in shout, cry, and caress. Fred Ho is a major artist, and a significant force in the emergence of a multicultural aesthetics. His many recordings and performances with his Afro Asian Music Ensemble, with the Monkey Orchestra, with the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet, among other incredible ensembles, as well as his numerous publications, lectures and academic residences testify to his formidable energy and dedication to the political work of making music. Fred Ho is a performer, composer, pedagogue, political activist, in short an artist to be reckoned with, who calls us to reckon with ourselves and the world we inhabit. He will speak today on “Identity, Music and the Asian American Struggle.” Please welcome Fred Ho.