Listening – playing – writing continuum
Something became clear to me nearly three years ago, as I discovered that some writing I was doing about the Mwandishi band was actually turning into a book. Here it is: thinking about this music was going to require not only listening to the recordings and to band member reminiscences, but also playing the music.
And so, I’ve played a fair bit of the Mwandishi band’s music with my various bands, mostly with my main trio (Michael Bisio or Christopher Dean Sullivan on bass and drummer Dean Sharp, and on two occasions, with drummer Jay Rosen subbing), and on a few gigs with a highly electronic configuration called ‘The Synapse Brothers’, with guitarist John Myers and, from a distance, Patrick Gleeson, who sent sound files for me to blend into the mix. The repertoire has included Sleeping Giant, Quasar, Water Torture, and Wandering Spirit Song (plus Dolphin Dance, an older tune that the Mwandishi band sometimes played). I already knew, from listening and drawing up graphic scores of how the band played the tunes, that some of the tunes were structured sectionally. A graphic score is a depiction of the music created by placing visual images or word descriptions on a time line noting the placement of the various sound events and how they are juxtaposed). Sleeping Giant, the subject of my last post, is a particularly good example. A sectional structure means that the band would have composed sections to work with; with group improvisation unfolding around and in between these sections. Sometimes, this composed material would serve as bookends for the freer improvisation, points where everyone comes together or brings a section to a conclusion.
During the past few months of book writing, I’ve also been engaged in creating my own two upcoming CDs, ‘Something Quiet’ (FMR, January 2011) and ‘Returning’ (FMR, April 2011). The first features a trio including soprano saxophonist Joe Giardullo and bass player Christopher Dean Sullivan; the latter is with the original configuration of my ongoing trio, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Dean Sharp. Neither of these recordings include Mwandishi band material, although the first recording includes a very freely treated piano and bass duet of ‘Dolphin Dance’. As I listened to the completed studio masters, I realized that Herbie Hancock’s sectional way of composing for the Mwandishi band rubbed off on me. This isn’t completely new – in the late 1980s, I composed a piano piece for my dancer-wife that was structured in a similar manner. The idea is not unrelated to Stockhausen’s ‘Moment” form, where something would take place, then something else, then something else. The origins could also be traced to many forms of black music and story telling, where structures, characters, and basic plot lines remain relatively intact, with new side tales, embellishments about (in the case of stories) characters and plot reworkings take place with every retelling. Dave Holland’s ‘Q & A’ from the wonderful recording ‘Conference of the Birds’ (with Anthony Braxton, Barry Alschul – Circle minus Chick Corea, adding Sam Rivers) has an angular theme that everyone plays more or less together and then breaks apart into free improvisation in which phrases from the theme become available material, treated like Playdough, unfold.
One of my own newly recorded tunes, ‘October Song’, quite consciously follows this sectional model; the group improvises relatively freely, always keeping the core motifs or moods of the composed material in mind, treating it rather freely. But then, the players come together at composed markers. The score is to be treated however the band sees fit on a given occasion and not necessarily in sequence. Most of the tunes on that recording, ‘Something Quiet’ in some way shape or form owe a debt to ‘Crossings’ in the free way that the composed material is treated. Composing and performing tunes based upon structures followed by the Mwandishi band (and also by Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Circle, and others) has been helpful in clarifying what I’m hearing when listening to the various live Mwandishi performances.
There are many ways to gain insight about music, but few are as good as actually playing the music. My (or anyone else’s) “take” on the music and its forms are necessarily quite different from the originals, but personalizing them is a valuable route to understanding. It is a route, however, that is only useful when used as one means of knowing, in conjunction with listening closely enough to the originals to get inside the musical head of the original players. That requires repeated listening, comparing different versions, and talking to the musicians. All of this is great fun and I highly recommend it!