SUMMER RE-UP: Coming Through Slaughter

Originally posted 10 January 2007.

Air Lore
RCA : 1979

Henry Threadgill, tenor sax, alto sax, flute; Fred Hopkins, bass; Steve McCall, drums.


Jelly Roll Morton
7″ Single
General : 1940

JRM, vocals and piano.

It’s an old story but bears repeating: The avant garde is intimately connected to the tradition and vice versa. This lesson has been replayed countless times, but rarely as spectacularly as Air’s major label debut – Air Lore. The trio offer up an album of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton covers, refracted through their own modern stylistic prism, along with a Threadgill original written in a similar mode.

Many jazz writers of the day were deaf to Air Lore’s charms and achievements, but rock critic Robert Christgau immediately recognized it as something special. He championed the album in the Village Voice, singling out the pleasure of “hearing Henry Threadgill improvise over an explicit pulse.” He also highlighted one key facet of the music:

Demonstrating not only that Ragtime (Scott Joplin) and New Orleans (Jelly Roll Morton) are Great Art consonant with Contemporary Jazz, but also that they’re Corny. And that both Great Art and Corn can be fun.

Fun – exactly. And modern for exactly that reason. By Corny, Christgau partly means Obvious. Those familiar ragtime and nawlins rhythms, melodies, and changes – the ones that Threadgill and Co. both embrace and subvert in equal measure. Note the way the band tears through Joplin’s “The Ragtime Dance,” shifting gears on a dime, funkifying the beat and then breaking it apart, Threadgill breezing through some ferociously off-kilter solos.

But there’s something deeper afoot here, too. You can hear it in their version of Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” – the tune spooked by the spirits of both Jelly Roll and legendary New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden. We’re not usually the biggest fans of the ol’ compare and contrast. But in this case it’s illuminating to hear Air’s version alongside the original – to hear the well of playfulness, spite, and sorrow the trio is drawing from.

Barely two and half minutes long, Jelly Roll’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” is fathomless. There’s the stately rolling piano and the way it complements Morton’s laconic delivery of such cryptic and haunted lines as “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say / You’re nasty, you’re dirty / Take it away.” He lets the mystery build in the next verse: “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden shout / Open up that window and let the bad air out.”

Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden, the ghost at the heart of jazz, the cornetist of legend who supposedly birthed the music but was never recorded. His mighty sound sizzling in the minds of all who heard it. The progenitor behind King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Born in 1876, worked at Joseph’s Shaving Parlor in New Orleans, played at Masonic Hall on Perdido and Rampart, at the Globe downtown on St Peter and Claude, and Jackson Hill. The music’s Rimbaud who went mad in April 1907 while playing with Henry Allen’s Brass Band. Thirty one years old. Admitted to East Louisana State Hospital with dementia. Died there in 1931. Full of bad air.

You can hear his spirit both evoked and held at arm’s length in Jelly Roll’s voice. He wants no part of Buddy’s madness, but can’t help conjuring other ghosts as well, those from the Storyville scene: not so benign spirits who warn “Gal, give me that money / I’m gonna beat it out.” And you believe they will. The song is one of the great American touchstones and has inspired many thoughtful written reckonings over the years, most recently in The Rose and The Briar: Death, Love, and Liberty in the American Ballad, edited by Greil Marcus.

Air’s version of the song is no less of a reckoning, a musical attempt to come to terms with its mysteries. In some ways it’s a close cousin of Michael Ondaatje’s visionary novel Coming Through Slaughter, which mixes reportage, poetry, fiction, and history to try to conjure Buddy Bolden’s ghost, to hear some echoes of what he might have been saying, what others might have thought they heard him say. Air also use a variety of techniques and methods to work their way into the heart of the song – and the legacy of Buddy.

It’s telling and heartrending how Air winds down the tune, letting the melody grow slower and fainter until the final sighing notes almost evaporate from the grooves. Ondaatje’s novel ends with a similarly wary coda, as a broken Buddy recedes from view: “Thirty one years old. There are no prizes.”

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The Morton tune is currently available on the companion CD for the Marcus-edited book.

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