Saturday, January 2, 2010

Healing force music of the past decade

It is the time of year for "best of" lists and, not surprisingly, this year these lists are often attempting to identify the best albums of the past decade. Although many folks pan the usefulness of these lists, I do like to see what albums other folks have really enjoyed, and they serve as a great starting point for discussion and exploration. So, here is my attempt at listing the albums of the past decade that I have found particularly inspiring. This is not meant to really be a "best of" or anything so grandiose, as I am certainly not qualified (or presumptuous) enough. It is just a bunch of albums released during this past decade that were more than merely enjoyable for me. Healing force music....inspiring with high emotional impact. These albums, like all good albums for me, have become intertwined with this time in my life, and will likely forever evoke certain memories and feelings...

My only other criteria for inclusion was:
1) Limiting the list to music that was created during the past decade.
4) In keeping with the spirit of this blog the music falls somewhere within or along the periphery of this thing that some folks call "jazz."

Some healing force music of the 2000's

Scrapbook. 2003. William Parker Violin Trio - William Parker, Billy Bang, and Hamid Drake. Folksy melodies that at least for me evoke the spirit of Ayler. Truly beautiful and uplifting music. I am surprised that more people don't talk about this one, and I have yet to see it on anyone's "best of" list. I've certainly played this one more than any other release of the past decade.

Beyond Quantum. 2008. Anthony Braxton, Milford Graves, and William Parker. Vibrant, sophiscated, and virtuoso - yet highly emotional. Stunning free jazz that demonstrates how relevant this sort of music is today. The disc has made it into the player almost weekly since I picked it up.

The All-Star Game. 2001. Marshall Allen, Hamid Drake, Kidd Jordan, Wiliam Parker, and Alan Silva. Searing free jazz. I enjoy anything with William Parker and Hamid Drake together, but this one has been particularly inspiring for me. Not for the timid, there isn't a lot to hold on to during this ride. Great for long runs.

Born Broke. 2007. Peter Brotzmann and Peter Uuskyla. Peter Brotzmann can be a bit hit or miss for me, but this duo release contains some breathtaking music. Passionate and full of an array of emotions, this is another one that commonly found its way into my ipod for long runs. A two-disc set, I have yet to run long enough to listen to the entire thing during one run...but perhaps in 2010.

And now... 2004. Revolutionary Arts Ensemble - Leroy Jenkins, Sirone, and Jerome Cooper. I've just discovered the Revolutionary Ensemble this past year, and I'm still digesting their 1970s output. Telepathic, emotive, and uplifting stuff. This one has closed out 2009 for me...

Spirits. 2000. Pharoah Sanders, Adam Rudolph, and Hamid Drake. Actually recorded in summer of 1998, this meditative live date was released in 2000. Both hair-raising and serenely beautiful, Pharoah improvises over a wonderful percussive backdrop. For anyone familiar with Pharoah's early work, this one is definitely worth repeated listens.

On a different day, I'd probably include a few more, and there is plenty of music from this past decade that I have yet to hear. I'd love to hear any recommendations....

Bring on 2010.....back to the Ayler exploration shortly...

Friday, September 4, 2009

A concert of the year two thousand

George Stell sent me a copy of Michael Zwerin's review of the February 25th, 1967 concert by Albert Ayler and his group at the Village Theatre. The review is quite humorous and, in my opinion, more informative than other Ayler concert reviews of the period. It was quite possibly the source of the "Stell" misspelling as well (see previous post). Since I have been unable to find it posted elsewhere on the internet, I am providing it below.

Space Friends

---by Michael Zwerin---

the village VOICE, March 9th 1967

"Public relations has come to the avant-garde. Last week, I received two press releases in the mail. The first, under the letterhead, “The Ornette Coleman Trio—Ornette Coleman, violin, alto and tenor saxophone, trumpet; David Izenzon, bass; Charles Moffett, drums,” announced a “major presentation of the current season. The Ornette Coleman trio will appear in a joint concert with the Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet…at the Village Theatre on March 17th.” The other proclaiming “For Immediate Release—from the New Music Feature Service,” invited me to a concert, also at the Village Theatre, on February 25. It was signed, via Xeroxography, “Albert Ayler.”

I went. Public relations, however, ended with the release because the concert looked like a total economic disaster. The theatre was maybe 10 percent filled and a good deal of those seemed to be the Ayler family. The 25th was a very cold night and the prices were an absolutely frigid $3, $4, and $5. There had been little advertising other than the posters in front of the theatre, which has a capacity of about 2500. Whoever booked it was an optimist with a poor memory because only two months ago, when Ayler played the Village Vanguard, even that little room was far from packed. Audiences seem to stay away from Albert Ayler—a shy, sad-looking little man who has something to say.

The Albert Ayler Octet—Albert Ayler, alto and tenor saxophone; Donald Ayler, trumpet; Michel Sampson, violin; Beaver Harris, drums; Bill Folwell and Alan Silva, basses; Joel Friedman, cello; and Call Cobbs, harpsichord. Beforehand, in the lobby, Cobbs said he wasn’t playing because he had just found out there was no harpsichord in the place. “The music wouldn’t sound right on a piano,” he explained. So strike him, and add George Steele on trombone.

Also add Mary Parks on MC—an avant-garde chick. “Good—evening—space friends,” she said, her golden gown sparkling reflections no doubt from Venus, “tonight—we—will—hear a—concent—of—music—of the—year two—thousand.” With free punctuation she got the concert started 45 minutes late, not apologizing for the delay either. I thought of John Cage’s line about “the importance of being on time for anyone involved with the art of music.” But there’s a logical unreality to Albert’s music—kind of like a Ray Bradbury story—which seems to penetrate people even before he starts playing and the waiting was perfectly okay with everybody.

The tunes, all written by Albert, have names like “Light in Darkness,” “Heavenly Home,” “Spirits Rebel,” and “Truth is Marching In.” They are fiercely tonal, resembling primitive marches or folk songs, and use only three chords, if that many. Improvisation is abstract, spaced by recapitulation of the theme, usually played Germanically by Don Ayler’s trumpet along with a Liszt – cadenza – gone-wild on Sampson’s fiddle. Albert solos most of the time—on some tunes the others do not play at all other than behind him or on the ensembles.

Scot LaFaro revolutionized the jazz bass before he was killed in an automobile accident in the late ‘50s. Instead of just walking , he played swift, complex, melodic obligatos and since then many bass players have delusions of violins. They began using the bow more often and, whether arco or pizzicato, forever lean way over the instrument, both hands near the bridge, eeking the most unlikely harmonies from their instrument. Truly astounding. The only trouble is that, with the increased importance of percussion in the new jazz, the audience usually can’t hear their cascades of notes. At the Village Theatre, though, the trouble was stupid balance, unfortunately common with the avant-garde, because Beaver Harris is one of the better free drummers, keeping a pulse, no matter how abstractly, and keeping it with sensible dynamics.

Anyway, Folwell and Silva made a hell of a visual impression, scooting all over their instruments. I’m pretty sure they were playing some impressive stuff. As a matter of fact, a couple of duets between them, with everybody else tacited, were very lovely and exciting. And one tune featured Albert plus only the cello and two basses. It was cloud-like and dewy music. Albert, who did not squeak on this one, was brilliant in his abstractions, instinct supplying all of the criteria needed. And the three strings were empathetic to perfection.

Now, about Albert’s squeaks…Squeaking is nothing new of course. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips did that years ago. It’s a way of transmitting energy—but it’s too easy a way and I mistrust it. Besides, it hurts my ears. Albert’s squeaking is the low point of his playing. He starts doing it without continuity and stops abruptly without form—an insert, out of context. Few tenor players can get around up there as he can, but if he wants to hear those sounds, why not take up the piccolo or something.

Donald Ayler’s trumpet playing impresses me as being pure chance—no choice—a random combination of fast-flipping valves and embouchure adjustments. Every solo sounds alike. He rarely holds a sustained note. When he does, however, a pleasant sound comes out (I mean that as a compliment). More of that would be nice.

Albert’s music is strangely warm and loving. The freneticism I once minded so much seems less pronounced now than two years ago. Maybe I am better tuned to him—or possibly he has matured some. Either way, I was wrapped up in the music and stayed until the end of his concert, something I’ve never wanted to do before.

But without more artistic handling, Ayler will continue to be only the obscure underground hero he now is. That’s a shame too, because, given the chance to hear it, a lot of people could find his music important."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Science, jazz, and the “unknown” trombone player

I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning.  I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind.  Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in.”  - George Stell

And the rest was history.  Well, not exactly.  Pick up a copy of Albert Ayler's "Live in Greenwich Village" album or read a review of the February 25th, 1967 concert at the Village Theater and you will probably find “George Schnell" or "George Steele" credited as the trombone player.  Both are incorrect.  The trombonist was George Stell, now an emeritus professor of physics at Stony Brook University.  The errors appear to have originated in the initial reviews of the concert and have been repeated through the years; in fact, to my knowledge the misspelling has not been corrected on any release of the material.  However, Revenant did get the spelling correct in their "Sightings" section of the wonderfully researched book that was included in the Holy Ghost Box Set; so rest assured that the truth is slowly marching in....  

A few examples collected from reviews and comments on the Village Theater performance highlight the uncertainty that seems to have existed at the time regarding the mysterious trombone player:

  • “At the end was a piece involving all the afore-mentioned musicians plus an unannounced trombone player, whom I was not able to hear because of lack of amplification.” - Elisabeth van der Mei in Coda, May 1967, p. 28-30 (see entire review here)
  • “Two-thirds of the concert was actually performed by a septet. The harpsichord player, Call Cobbs, listed on the program, failed to appear. For the last three numbers, trombonist Steele joined the group.” - George Hoefer, Down Beat Vol. 34 No. 10, 1967 (see entire review here)
  • “The group, including a trombonist named either George Schnell or Steele (depending upon the source), Freedman sitting in for Sampson, and Alan Silva in for Grimes, also played the Village theater in February.” – Todd Jenkins, Free Jazz and Free Improvisation, 2004.

George Stell contacted me last week.  He thanked me for getting his name correct in my review of the Greenwich Village album.  Admittedly, I unknowingly got his name correct because I used the credits listed at the superb discography over at  Patrick Regan, the studious caretaker of that comprehensive web site, noted the incorrect spelling of George’s last name back in 2002 (follow this link and scroll down to August).  Below is a brief excerpt from an interview that George did with Ben Young at WKCR back in 2002, where Ben explains the mistake and then George and Steve Tintweiss go on to discuss another mislabeling problem common to Ayler's music - the taxonomy (to use an appropriately scientific term) of his songs.

George and I corresponded a bit via email last week, and he was nice enough to answer a few of my questions about his life story, his experiences with Albert, and his life before and since those interesting times in 1966-67.  I am fascinated by his story, as his life is an interesting mix of passions – including both jazz and science.  He has had a highly successful career as a theoretical physicist, educating students and performing pioneering research on the molecular structure and mechanics of fluids; in fact, the photograph at the top of the post is from an issue of the Journal of Statistical Physics that was dedicated to him back in 2000 (Journal of Statistical Physics, Vol. 100, Nos. 1/2, 2000).  
With his permission, I summarize and reproduce some of his responses to my questions below:
How did you meet Albert?  Care to share some memories of your time with him?
I was an avid listener to an FM radio program that disk jockey Ed Beach had every morning.  I tuned in one morning in the middle of a Gary Peacock chorus, which caught my attention, and then Albert came in on the recording and it blew my mind.  Found out where he was playing and went there with my trombone, introduced myself, and sat in. Perhaps it was at the Judson Memorial Church?  Probably.  I played with him there a couple of times – can’t quite recall.  Albert said he had a show coming up at the Village Theater that he would like me to play.  We ‘rehearsed’ in a nightclub in Brooklyn the day before the 2/25/67 show after meeting at Mark Parks’ apartment – Albert, Don, Alan Silva, Beaver Harris, and me.  We just blew freely for a couple of hours.”
“I have strong memories of Al’s conversations at that rehearsal.  He remarked that despite the very positive reception he had gotten in Europe, he felt he had to return to NYC to be at the center of things.”
I played the 2/25/67 Village Theater show, at which Al played magnificently, as you can hear on the recording.  For me it was a mixed bag.  I got to meet and talk with Joel Freedman, and chat more with Don, but there was no microphone set-up that I could use, and I felt ill at ease, standing between Sampson with his microphone and an adjacent microphone that someone else was using—I can’t recall whom.  You can tell by listening to the few tunes on which I was recorded that I am part of a rather muddy-sounding background rather than one of the well-recorded instruments.”
By the way, Don was reserved but very friendly.  I learned years later that he was said to have deep emotional problems, and that Al worried about him, etc., but that wasn’t at all apparent during the times in 1967 that I saw him
How many shows did you play with him?
“Probably a total of only 4 or 5 times.  I was teaching and doing research full time as a faculty member of the Physics Department at Brooklyn Polytech, and I had started making preparations for a year’s leave-of-absence as a visiting professor at the University of Paris during the 1967-68 academic year.  Busy, busy, busy.”
What did you do before and after your work with Albert?
“I left Ohio after graduating from Antioch College in 1955 to spend an academic year in Chicago teaching at the Chicago division of the University of Illinois.  I did that because I wanted to play jazz with Marty Grosz and Frank Chace there. In the summer of 1965 I came to NYC to begin my Ph.D. work in mathematics at NYU, where I graduated in 1961.  I hung around NYU as a staff mathematician for a couple of years, and then, in 1965, joined the faculty in Physics at Brooklyn Polytech.  In 1969, I became a faculty member at the state University at Stony Brook, where I taught engineering and chemistry.  I still have that affiliation, although I retired from classroom teaching a few years ago.”
Are you still making music?
“Yes, both free jazz and mainstream, but have no steady gig.  I sit in with friends in NYC groups to keep my chops up, drop in at “ABC No Rio”, played with Gene Janas for while, etc…”
While doing the research for this post, I stumbled on a portion of the 2002 WKCR interview that I excerpted above.  Much more information related to George's time with Ayler is discussed in this fantastic interview; hopefully WKCR will eventually post their archives online so that this becomes widely available.  However, until then, below are a couple of excerpts of George talking about how he played his trombone in the context of Albert's music.    
(direct link to audio files if above players do not work: file 1, file 2)
Of course, George's comments in the above interview prompted me to listen to "Universal Thoughts," from "Live at Greenwich Village"  several times this week - the one track on the album where George Stell was recorded.  Although the trombone is clearly part of the "muddy-sounding background," it is audible and George's contribution is undeniable.  A close listen (headphones recommended) even reveals the "chattering" sound that George discusses in the first clip from the WKRC interview above.  I certainly hope that I have the opportunity to hear more of George's playing in the future - perhaps the annual Vision Festival in New York should extend an invitation to him?  
The note from George also prompted me to spend some time this week digging a bit more into the history of Ayler's music, and the additional knowledge of the human elements and interactions that led to such powerfully emotive art lends an additional richness to the way I experience the music.  Interestingly, it also has led me to some introspective thinking about music and science, and general thoughts regarding the balancing and intermingling of multiple passions in one's life.  Finally, it caused me to revisit some of Ayler's music with fresh ears and come away with something new.   I sure am glad that I accidently spelled George Stell's name correctly....
"Music has always fascinated me.  On the one hand it is devoid of information in a certain sense.....of objective information.  Yet it carries this powerful, powerful message that is quite mysterious and wonderful." - George Stell