Sun Ra etc. Astro Black
Impulse! : 1973
Ra, Moog synth; Danny Davis, Marshall Allen, alto sax; Danny Thompson, baritone sax; John Gilmore, tenor sax; Charles Stephens, trombone; Akh Tal Ebah, Lamont McClamb, trumpet; Eloe Omoe, bass clarinet; Pat Patrick, clarinet; Alzo Wright, violin; Ronnie Boykins, bass; Tommy Hunter, drums; Atakatun, Chiea, Odun, congas; Ruth Wright, “space ethnic voice”; June Tyson, “word melody vocal.”
Sorry we called so late last night. We didn’t mean to wake you and throw a fright into your slumber. The skies were so unusually clear that we spent the entire evening laying on the roof, cataloging the constellations, and blasting vintage Sun Ra sides. We became obsessed with his 1970s Impulse! album Astro Black and put the title track on repeat and soon enough we started receiving some serious wisdom from the combination of decaying starlight and Saturnian tones.
Now, of course, we can’t quite reconstruct it. The particulars have slipped through our fingers along with the smoggy dawn. And to address the question you were too groggy to ask last night, we stopped taking mushrooms (of all kinds — we won’t even look sideways at a portabello) years ago. Though we have to admit there’s something about the flow of “Astro Black” that transports us to, let’s say, another plane of there.
You could say that about many Sun Ra tracks, but this tune captures the man’s many moods in a scant 10 minutes. There’s June Tyson singing about strolling through outer space with the vamping big band behind her; the way the track decays and morphs into abrasive bass solos, skittering percussion, Ruth Wright’s otherworldly “space voice,” and gonzo swirling synth passages; and how the singing finally returns, couched in an utterly alien soundscape, June singing as if she has finally reached home, perhaps a little worse for wear.
There’s some deeper meaning in all that, we’re sure of it. The next clear night, we’ll be up on the roof with a blanket trying to recreate the experience and reclaim our lost revelations. You’re more than welcome to join us.
John Tchicai died a year ago last week; October 8th, to be exact. We were reminded of this sad fact by drummer Ches Smith, who submitted the following guest post reflecting on Tchicai’s influence, and Smith’s own time playing with the tall Congolese Dane in his later days. We thank Ches for allowing us to post his words, and the sweet tune above. Thanks, too, to Stephen Buono for facilitating. By the way, for those in the NYC area, there is a memorial concert tonight (Friday, 18 Oct) honoring Tchicai, taking place at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, at 7pm.
Take it away, Mr. Smith…
When I was 17 or 18 and living in Eugene, Oregon, my metal friends and I decided to hear John Tchicai play a concert at the local hall. Our curiosity was piqued because his association with John Coltrane was advertised. After a solo set by Derek Bailey, Tchicai took the stage, playing duo with a Bay Area-based drummer named Spirit. A few minutes into the set my friends were at the door, frantically motioning for me to leave with them; worn out by the Bailey set (no metal riffs there), they couldn’t deal with this at all.
I decided to stay. It sounded much different from the only reference point I had that was even close to what I was hearing — John Coltrane’s Om. Tchicai would accentuate the multi-directional rhythms of Spirit in a simple and direct way; often diatonically or even pentatonically, picking out elements of the storm of rhythm to match up with, or creating riffs. It stood apart from a cathartic “energy music” approach.
Perhaps this is what makes him so identifiable on seminal recordings in creative music. On both John Coltrane’s Ascension and the Albert Ayler-led New York Eye and Ear Control, Tchicai employs a sparse, melodic approach (not without humor) that stands in sharp relief to Coltrane and Ayler’s religious fervor, and the visceral noise-sonic textures of Sanders, Shepp, and Brown. The recent Triple Point box set, Call it Art, which contains largely unreleased material of the New York Art Quartet, shows the powerful alliance of Tchicai and Roswell Rudd: together they show what a succinct approach such as Tchicai’s can mean for an ensemble if developed by like-minded musicians dedicated to a unified aesthetic.
Tchicai insisted on fully exploring the options of the moment. At that Eugene, Oregon, concert described above, he noticed someone dancing in the audience, and spent the next 5 minutes of his set exclusively accompanying her. When I played with him for the first time, in a trio with Mary Halvorson, he walked over and, in a whisper, asked Mary if she sang. He then asked me, in front of the audience, if I spoke French. At the end of the great recording Willi the Pig (a 1975 Willisau date co-led with Irène Schweizer), Tchicai, seemingly in a state of great alarm, instructs the audience to refrain from clapping — it is clear they really want to. He then humorously berates them in German for a minute, finally allowing them to applaud — which they do, vigorously. Exploration of possibilities could even mean recalling his own history: on a gig by his working NYC-based sextet Six Points, he and I slipped into a sax/drums duo, and I immediately felt the historic weight of a sound-energy that was coming directly from an original source — given my previous experiences listening, I was surprised to find he also possessed a firebrand tenor sax player’s intensity that would rival the energy music of the best of the 60′s “new thing.”
When Tchicai formed what I think was his last working group, Five Points (with Alex Weiss, Garrison Fewell, Dmitry Ishenko, and myself, soon to be Six Points with the inclusion of Rosi Herlein), he chose a diverse group of improvisers without an abundance of renown, who were open and friendly as people and players. Each member was encouraged to bring in compositions, giving us insight into each other as musical thinkers, and also fostering a sense that the group belonged to us all. Many compositions of John’s stood out. The tune above was written as a drum feature, but I like how it works as a melody — it’s a good example of his melodic sense. And this is the score for a quite economical piece of John’s called “One of Those” (copyright 2010 John Tchicai):
1. Fast (tutti) pp
2. Slow (tutti) mf
3. Solo/s: _______
4. Fast (tutti) + main soloist ________
5. Solo/s: _________
6. Slow (tutti) decrescendo
In rehearsal he specified that we should loop material in the “tutti” sections, leaving the pitch and rhythm content up to us. After 45-plus years of Tchicai composing plenty of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material, this piece stands out for its open-endedness. It is also notable that you can immediately identify it in a set, given how little is on the page. Coming as I was out of the early 2000’s SF Bay Area noise scene that placed a premium on cathartic repetition, this was, to me, what music was supposed to sound like. This late piece in his repertoire makes me wonder what was to come next for John Tchicai.
We recently came into a huge cache of adventurous Japanese jazz recordings from the 1970s. We thought we had a pretty good handle on this whole out jazz thing, but now our apartment is stacked with old records featuring strange covers and unfamiliar personnel. We feel like we’re 16 again, but not always in a good way. It’s been exciting but baffling. How do all these musicians relate to one another? What was the cultural context?
In the meantime, we’ve been listening back to the big acts on the scene — you know, everyday household names like saxophonist Kaoru Abe and our main man, guitarist Masayuki “Jojo” Takayanagi. We knew him more for his abstract noise constructions, but we recently broke out one of his earlier recordings, Free Form Suite, and were surprised that it opens with a fairly straight blues and cover of “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” So it must be true: everything comes from somewhere.
The album gets progressive weirder from there and you know we’re always jonesing for the freaky shit. “Sun in the East” offers gorgeous, soaring, Coltrane-inspired action, filtered through Takayanagi’s insistent six string strum and made entirely his own. The album is considered super-rare collector’s bait, but we swear this tune could be a jazz standard in another context — or maybe better yet, on another continent. Play it for your deaf nephew and see for yourself!
“Free Form Suite” is, as advertised, a probing selection that shows off Takayanagi’s ensemble in exploratory mode. It’s a gaseous shape of things to come, a scrawl in the margins writ large. Its wild spirit evokes those heaping piles of Japanese LPs that we really ought to move so we can properly vacuum.
So darling, if you don’t mind, hit your rolodex and send some of your Japan-o-phile jazz friends our way to help us decode our beautiful mess. We’ll welcome them with open arms.
DO YOU WANNA BE SAVED? CHRISTINE
Amina Claudine Myers The Circle of Time
Black Saint : 1984
ACM, piano, organ, vocals; Don Pate, bass; Thurman Barker, drums.
For a while now, you’ve been scolding us, exhorting us to spend some serious time in the soundworld of Amina Claudine Myers. But even in this day and age, her solo work is damn hard to track down. Like you said, she’s a triple threat — jazz musician, African American, and a woman. Plus it’s clear that her multifaceted music doesn’t comfortably fit into any one genre. Like her AACM compatriots, she draws her own damn musical map.
The past few weeks we’ve been spinning her Black Saint album The Circle of Time and thinking about you. The whole thing is impressive, but we keep coming back to “Christine.” Maybe it’s because the bright tones and major chords initially seemed slightly cloying to us, a bit lightweight. But the deeper we got into Myers’ incantatory rhythms and sly pianistic attack, we realized how much emotion was packed into her repeating motifs and how much balm it provided. We’d underestimated both the tune and the artist. We’re sure we’re not the first.
Then there’s “Do You Wanna Be Saved?” with Myers on organ and vocals, putting her own stomp [sic] on a combination of gospelized soul and funky jazz. It’s fantastic and full of yearning. Amina keeps asking if we want to be saved. But from what exactly? If she means from this this apartment full of half-digested records, books, and films, from a high rent that’s devouring every loose dollar, and from the nagging sense that we’re operating a site that’s slowly become a ghost of itself, then… yeah, maybe, maybe so.
It makes us think about Cynthia Carr’s essay about artist David Wojnarowicz: “No one person can create the gesture that changes everything for everybody. And unfortunately, the only life art can save is your own.” Maybe so, but Myers’ music suggests you can light the passage for those who might care to follow. However badly they stumble after you.
VI, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums.
We’re thrilled that longtime friend of the site Vijay Iyer just won a prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant! To mark this incredible honor, we’re re-upping one of his guest posts where he shared two exclusive live tracks from his trio. We were bowled over by these pieces at the time and they still startle. They show his trio stretching out and transforming two older tunes. A small taste of why Vijay’s a deserving winner.
Your hosts invited me back for a guest post, and in celebration of our album release I am pleased to offer some exclusive live tracks of my trio with longtime colleagues Marcus Gilmore and Stephan Crump.
Roscoe Mitchell once observed that one’s music should contain opposites. Somewhere between that observation and James Brown’s infinitely extensible “bridges,” I was inspired to compose diptychs like the two pieces offered here.
“Questions of Agency” and “Cardio” were both composed early in this decade. “Questions” appeared in quartet format on Blood Sutra (2003) and is featured on a 2007 Youtube clip as well. The piece was written after Henry Threadgill had shown me some parts of his toolkit: first you permute a seed chord or cluster to produce a closed family of chords; then you enumerate the intervals that appear in this family, yielding an “intervallic mode,” a set of intervals that form the basis of improvisation. This piece is my misreading of those tactics. I built a bridge section around a cycling bass line as a moment of relief, but in this version that bridge engulfs about half of the track, almost gaining its own autonomy.
“Cardio” first appeared on Reimagining (2005). I’ve never really been able to play it right. In fact, we tried to record it for Blood Sutra (hence the title) but I just couldn’t master that recurring odd cellular run. I still get it wrong most of the time. But this piece lets us achieve other things: a contrast between a light diatonic space and a murky chromatic one, a velocity of cross-rhythms, an arc of intensity finally coming to a boil.
These versions were recorded during the group’s pivotal European tour last February. I won’t call it the birth of this trio; that would put a too-sharp point on a development that had already been in process for years. However, I think it is evident that we are arriving at something in these versions, some newfound understanding of the ground rules: the use of extremes, the awareness of texture and dynamics, the abrupt shifts and systematic expansions – the containing of opposites.
I hope this music gives you something you can use. Thanks for listening.
As the tunes above attest, Vijay’s trio has recently hit its stride. They continue that hot streak with Historicity, which includes reworked originals alongside stirring covers of “Galang” by M.I.A., “Smokestack” by Andrew Hill, “Dogon A.D.” by Julius Hemphill, and “Big Brother” by Stevie Wonder. For more info on the album, check out this YouTube clip.
The cover art for Historicity is Anish Kapoor’s model for “Memory” (above). It’s a fitting image for music that both stops you in your tracks, and encourages looking both forward and back.
OVER THE CLIFF
Jack Bruce Things We Like
Polydor : 1970
Dick Heckstall-Smith, saxophones; Jack Bruce, bass; Jon Hiseman, drums.
We’re pleased to host this guest post by bassist and composer extraordinaire Ron Brendle. A while back, he introduced us to this surprising and adventurous jazz album by Jack Bruce. We hope you’ll enjoy it as well. Take it away, Ron….
About 25 years ago, I was checking out an old vinyl store in Charlotte, N.C., The Wax Museum, when I found something I’d never heard of before: a Jack Bruce album called Things We Like. The big difference with this recording is that Bruce plays upright bass, not electric, as he was well known for with the rock trio Cream.
The other musicians on Things We Like are noted British jazzers Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxes (sometimes two at once!) and drummer Jon Hiseman. They are joined on several tunes by then pre-Mahavishnu guitarist, John McLaughlin.
Cream was still fulfilling their commitment to perform a final series of concerts when Jack booked time at BBC Studios to record the jazz record that he had always wanted to make. It’s a freewheeling set of very Ornette Coleman influenced jazz that illustrates the depth of Bruce as a musician and the creative thread in his bass playing that runs through the different genres with which he has always been involved. Check out the bass, sax, and drums trio track for “Over the Cliff”, and this youtube link to the same tune played live.
The session was recorded and mixed in less than a week during August 1968, less than three months prior to the Farewell Concert of Cream at the Royal Albert Hall on November 26, 1968. Thankfully, now it’s on CD. Check it out.
Ron Brendle is a freelance bassist with recordings on the LoNote Records label that range from more “out” fare to progressive instrumental rock. Check out ronbrendle.com for more information.
When Milford Graves was being honored with a special night at this year’s Vision Festival, back in June, we knew it was a must-see event. We also figured that Vision’s new home, the recently refurbished and relocated Roulette, in Brooklyn, would hold all comers, including us, and then some. No need to buy ahead!
Well, as those of you who might’ve been following our anguished tweets of that night already know, the event was filled to capacity before we even got there. And, really, we should have known: any night that features Milford Graves on the bandstand is going to be an event, and you’d best get your tickets as early as possible. Lesson learned.
Sort of. Coming a day or two late is this birthday post — Milford turned 72 on Tuesday, 20 August. (We seem to keep very bad time when it comes to Prof. Graves.) Better late than never, here’s a favorite track from the under-heard Meditation Among Us. It features a remarkable assemblage of Japanese jazz figures — including Kaoru Abe and Toshinoro Kondo — led by Milford.
The group recorded two side-long cuts in 1977, at a time when Graves was not really actively recording or releasing LPs. He had, by the mid-1970s, already started his teaching tenure at Bennington, while also beginning his research into healing methods and rhythms in the human body. We’re fortunate this fertile collaboration was captured on wax at all.
“Response,” ranges widely, beginning as a percussion workout spurred by Graves’ gripping ululations. Graves then moves to the piano for an open, searching episode, suggesting echoes of Alice Coltrane’s spiritual pursuits. Not surprisingly, Graves has a highly percussive approach to the piano, and gradually leads the horns to moments of abandon, before the concluding cool down. This is exactly the sort of meditation we can get behind — one that finds beauty in quiet moments as well as the storms life throws at us all.
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