Thinking about Cecil Taylor

•April 24, 2016 • 3 Comments

It was 1996, maybe July. Cecil Taylor and Min Tanaka were giving an afternoon performance at Jacob’s Pillow dance center. We were living in the region and so of course I went. The performance was terrific, remarkably spare for what I had come to expect from CT. Tanaka’s dance was quite minimal and quiet, he generally moved quite slowly, at times holding a still pose.

I found myself thinking back to his event the morning after an afternoon visit to the Cecil Taylor retrospective at The Whitney Museum in New York City. A large space along the walls and in display cases of an entire museum level was filled with Taylor album covers, concert posters, poetry drafts, and memorabilia. Concert films could be viewed on small monitors and on a large projection, behind which was a performance space. A small room to the side was dedicated to listening sessions, such as the two I attended, guided by Ben Young. Ben explored Taylor’s evolution from playing “tunes” for which he developed his own musical approach, to the small and large ensemble, and solo works populated by Taylor’s “unit structures.” That methodology, of drawing upon a vocabulary of brief modular musical gestures to build larger, intuitively unfolding forms, has been Taylor’s trademark for decades. This approach offers enormous transparency to Taylor’s playing and to the nature of the interactions between musicians within his ensembles. A 1965 Newport Jazz Festival trio sound example (with Andrew Cyrille and Henry Grimes) provided a terrific example of an entry point into Taylor’s body of work. I hear Taylor’s music quite visually, like keenly shaped shapes etched into wood blocks or in metallic squares, endlessly spinning in variations and combinations. The solo and small group recordings allow the listener to easily observe each musician articulating these shapes as well as the dazzling interplay that results of their intersections, juxtapositions, and parallel activities.

Thinking back to 1996, I’m reminded that Jacob’s Pillow is a dance center; thus, the official focus on that occasion was Min Tanaka. There was (oddly to me) little fanfare around the presence of Cecil Taylor. After the performance, the audience walked around the beautiful grounds, finding places to picnic. I found Taylor relaxing at a nearby table. I introduced myself and asked if I could say hello. He welcomed me and we began to chat. I thanked him for coming to Massachusetts and I told him how important his work had been to me over the years. He was charming, relaxed, and charming. I told him that I was a rabbi in the area who had been a pianist, but in recent years only very occasionally played. He responded that everybody needs to find their own path but that I should not give up on being a musician. Maybe it would happen in its due time. We spoke about the challenges of being private people who functioned in the public sphere. He said that this isn’t really how he thinks of himself but that he understood. We spoke about the experience of playing solo piano (“Indent,” recorded at Antioch had a particularly strong impact on my playing. Recently, I have come to use it as a college teaching example). After a while, we shook hands and said farewell.

I walked to my car that afternoon appreciating – more than anything – my experience of Cecil Taylor’s sweetness and, surprising to me, humility. I appreciated the opportunity to witness, minutes apart, the intensity of his performing self and the relaxed qualities of his private self. I was struck by Taylor’s willingness to speak with a complete stranger in such a personal manner. Clearly I was not your typical passerby, but one with an obvious sympathy for and comprehension of his music. It would be another decade before I returned to playing the piano, but in a sense, it was this encounter that helped make that decision possible.

Cecil Taylor recently celebrated his 87th birthday. While he has provided us with a huge recorded legacy, may we have many more years of his physical presence among us.

Some thoughts about improvisation, group process, and communication

•December 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

If improvising involves mining one’s emotional interior, as many would suggest, how does a musician achieve something so intimate, collaboratively, in public? Musicians enter into a process of externalizing inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds. The player projects a trial balloon beyond oneself, as if tossing something against a wall and seeing what returns. Does it bounce back in tact, is it altered through the engagement, does it change form entirely? It is as if one generates a hypothesis and tests it by means of experiments, except that the feedback is instantaneous and the target is moving. The act of creation and response to new information creates a complex feedback loop. The ears of listeners are part of this system. Little of this is obvious because we musicians, even good listeners, pay so much attention to what we ourselves are playing. We want to get it right. We want to sound good. We listen to the sounds we make, we get lost in our playing habits, we sometimes chatter to ourselves. In short, we become caught up in ourselves. A musical performance is after all, a performance, not a therapy session.

Listening while playing is not easy. Schooled musicians are often taught to focus on detail: on notes, on harmonic theory, on accurate execution, on technique. There, the goal is to translate information about a limited number of things—what note, how loud, what chord, what duration… and hopefully also articulation: does a note begin instantaneously or gradually, and does it end by slowly tapering, abruptly ceasing, or something in between. All musicians, at least the better ones, compensate to adjust to one another’s timing and range of volume. To some degree this extends to the actual sounds being made. In a large portion of improvised music, the musicians must listen to a more expansive collection of information, information that is outside of themselves.

Listening is actually a far more detailed and subtle skill than what is implied by definitions of musical technique offered by music educators. Here are some other factors I think about regarding how to listen better:

Learning: flexibility, adjustment & openness to change; how does the sound, articulation, concept, structures and direction of others impact or influence mine?

Empathy: how to show others that you are listening? Knowing something about what one’s own distinctive sound is like; what is it that one’s musical partners are hearing when I play–and then noticing what are the features of the distinct sound of the other people.

Perception: being open to potential multiple perspectives and possibilities of meaning. How can I recognize and affirm the identities of other group members and the group as a whole; above all notice what others may be perceiving from their perspective rather than yours.

Structural concerns to listen for: noticing what are emerging larger musical structures, but also the small details within larger structures (without losing “the forest for the trees,” getting overly caught up in the details). Noticing repeated patterns, variations, musical references, silences as spaces to leave alone—or alternately–fill, invitations to join—or alternately—cues to lay-out, detecting something new, deciding to inject something new.

Surprises: noticing unexpected musical events, opening one’s perceptions wider to inexplicable meanings—momentarily if not permanently remaining unsure of what they represent yet continuing to listen without losing oneself.

Broadening one’s musical vocabulary: treating melodic contour as abstract patterns (1960s Coltrane is a great guide here: up/down, smooth/angular, steps/leaps). Pay attention to details of dynamics within individual notes and phrases, variations of articulation. Exploring how time passes: note or phrase duration; remember that pulse and a-rhythmic treatments of time are not opposed to one another.

Belonging: merging into a group sound, maintaining one’s identity in the group, sticking out/contrariness, “me and them,” isolation-separate from the group; where to assert oneself, join with others, allow space for others. What are some of the myriad ways one become part of a larger whole: is it about sound, shape, texture, pulse, or something else entirely? Creating consonance vs. pushing back or playing against the grain. How to inform rather than impose?

Dialog & Response: call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing and adjusting or responding. There are many options: exactitude, similarity, variety, contrasts; Thinking of unison more broadly (Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic theory addresses this, for instance playing the same line but not starting on the same note). Is there such a thing as quasi-unison; ignoring line entirely but aiming for periodic pitch matching; imitating other players’ sound qualities / timbre.

Going for the ride. Having fun, making mistakes–adjusting to them and building upon them. Being intentional can imply both concentration and abandon. Focus and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Getting out of one’s own way – what can you notice only by paying very close attention? Remembering that the world doesn’t revolve around me.

Story of a recording: “Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band”

•December 5, 2015 • 2 Comments

Story of a recording: “Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band”

“It was playing with Herbie that I found myself.” With those words, jazz master drummer Billy Hart described his three years performing in pianist Herbie Hancock’s formative Sextet during the early 1970s. The band Hart referenced was at the center of my first book, You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Hart and I were chatting in November 2014, contemplating the possibility of re-recording some of the band’s repertoire. Jump seven months ahead and the recording engineer cued us to begin, as we played with Hart and his fellow original band member, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, and another colleague, bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan. That my work on the book could lead to such a session had been previously unimaginable to me, and it was a great privilege to have this opportunity. We were all delighted with the fruits of the session.

The nature of the resulting CD is embedded in the title: Infinite Spirit: Revisiting Music of the Mwandishi Band (FMR Records, release date: January 15, 2016). The goal was to “revisit” in the sense of taking an entirely new look at the music. What was retained of its origins is a flexibly treated framework consisting of the musical forms and melodies, but more important, the band’s exploratory, improvisatory spirit. Also revisited was the band’s blend of acoustic and electronic sounds. The latter were composed by me in advance of the session and could be heard in our headphones as we performed. The quartet of improvisers thus dynamically responded to each other’s playing and also to the pre-recorded musical tracks that were included in the mix.

It is my hope that the results of this “revisit” will be enjoyed by a wide variety of listeners; jazz lovers, and those who appreciate a beat that is simultaneously complex and in a groove. It will be of particular interest to lovers of the musically adventuresome combination of offbeat funk, abstraction, electronic timbres, and empathetic ensemble playing that characterized the original Mwandishi band.

What Ornette Coleman teaches us about civic engagement

•September 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

As I have come to better understand the music of Ornette Coleman, I teach it as an idealized model of the democratic process.

It’s really a civics lesson; in a way not all that different from the one we are taught in kindergarten: be yourself but simultaneously see yourself as part of the greater whole. This is the model of American democracy we learn throughout our school, however imperfect is its realization throughout our history.

As we grow, our task as individuals is to develop our own distinct voice. One thing I love about jazz is the value placed upon one’s individual sound. But this is a useless effort unless we acknowledge that we are interconnected with everyone around us. The notion that any one of us can create things in isolation from society is a folly. We all depend upon the traditions we inherit, the lessons we learn from our elders and peers, the infrastructure (be they paved roads or musical forms like The Blues or song forms) that has been bequeathed to us.

A comment I once heard from drummer Billy Hart continuously resounds within me: Jabali told me that every time he goes out, he hopes to learn something that can enable him to steadily improve. One might respond that Billy Hart already knows more than most of us, so what is there for him to learn. But what he meant is that every moment of playing is an opportunity to take in something we do not yet know – no matter who it is from – without which we operate in a vacuum. Playing within a collective is, to use Hart’s term, co-composing. While we grow from playing with others, so it is our responsibility to help shape the overall effort. Yet our ability to contribute more depends upon our willingness to connect dynamically and musically with our peers.

The best bands are the ones where people listen intently to one another. This is particularly true of bands not grounded in conventional cyclical chord structures such as those I’ve written about: Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Miles Davis’s “Lost” Quintet (and his Quintet of the 1960s) the Revolutionary Ensemble, Circle, and others. Lacking internalized harmonic conventions upon which we can all depend, or to some degree anticipate, players must place a premium on listening, on collaboratively building something together. Without that level of empathetic regard, the whole structure collapses.

Some have claimed that Ornette Coleman’s concept of harmolodics is too complex or confusing to understand. But it really is quite simple. It’s the democratic principle in action. I’ll be fully me and I’ll be fully part of us. Both of these unfold at the very same time. The recorded composition “Free Jazz” was not the unstructured free-for-all that some held back in the day. Its conception was composed in advance and each musician must think structurally throughout. From the opening – which can be mistakenly heard as a cacophony – the close listener can notice that each player is actually articulating the same musical gesture/phrase. But each person is doing so in his (all eight players were men) own distinct way, at his own pace; the starting moment is set, the gesture has been prepared, the finishing moment awaits, but it is up to each individual to determine how each personal version will sound. Unison no longer means the group acting in lock step, nor does it imply individuals going their entirely separate ways. Rather, each member of the collective can play her or his own version of the same idea; a new light shines on concerted, unified behavior.

During the improvisational sections that follow, something quite remarkable unfolds: as individuals solo, their peers are periodically free to comment and intersect with the soloist individually and collectively; to imitate, craft variations, thicken textures – or to desist. Coleman’s conception allows for and encourages moments of intersection, where the individual ceases to operate as a soloist “just” with accompaniment, but expresses oneself in the context of interdependent peers. The individual becomes social. This is a high wire version of Henry Louis Gates’s term “signifying” The solo voice is joined in conversation. Sometimes polite but more often filled with interjections, redirection, additions, calls and response, “parody,” comments, disruption, elaboration, giving gifts and making contributions.

A useful term to describe “Free Jazz,” is “heterophony.” The heterophonic idea implies multiple voices, intertwined, simultaneously individual and collective. Each individual create his or her own version of the same or related ideas, but does so within an engaged, social context. Were each version thought of as being in isolation, its meaning would become diminished when extracted from the whole. This is because the individual voice emerges from within the collective, even as it reflects what the individual may think of as fully her own.

We musicians operate only to a limited degree in cognitive, atomized ways while playing with others; beyond that, our minds dig into the subconscious or we think too quickly to really detect individual thoughts. What we do is equally a reflection of the group mind and the product of unplanned events. This is why playing improvised music can feel so magical.

Collective improvisation shares something in common with the innocent parallel play of young children, where the growing sense of self seemingly emerges in isolation. This unfolding occurs not within individualized boxes but within a collective space. Collective improvisation among adults is far more conversational, like communication between intimate friends, where trust allows the unpredictable to happen. It is in that place where, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term “synergy,” the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I no longer really know the origin of my personal expression because it roots draw – at least in part – upon the collective. At the same time, I learn to assert my own voice in the thicket of others who are equally assertive and self-searching.

During both the solo improvisational sections of “Free Jazz” – and the massed individualized statements of Coleman’s composed phrases – we can view history coming full circle. “Heterophony” brings us back to the earliest recorded jazz of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Harden, and others, in which the individual and the collective were intertwined. Who exactly was playing the melody? Which version of the melody as it simultaneously unfolds –these are multiple – is the actual melody? There is no foreground vs. background as the development of jazz calls for in the following decades – solos and melodies accompanied by rhythm sections, each soloist taking her turn. Hints of the earlier freewheeling democratic spirit reassert itself periodically, most strongly during the late 1930s and early 1940s (“bebop,” even as the solo imagination increasingly takes flight), but most fully within the work of Ornette Coleman. Is Coleman a conservative or an “avant-gardist?” Well, the answer is yes to each.

There is surely a democratic element within all small group improvisatory jazz ensembles. But its fullest expression appears within the creative work of Ornette “and his children,” as I think of all who were influenced by Coleman (and I believe that to be a very expansive group of musicians; maybe everybody). Therein lies a civics lesson that this country sorely needs today. Our individual expressive voices deeply matter; we may even die to sustain them; yet they exist in dynamic tension with our civic engagement. During “Free Jazz,” members of the collective intersect with each soloist, alternating between actively contributing and desisting as they choose to play or not play. We are nothing without the collective, yet the collective is nothing without our distinct voices.

A thriving democracy depends upon the delicate balance between “us” and “me.” We give and we take. Our benefits are tied to our contributions. Our freedoms are connected to our obligations and responsibilities to one another. Truly this is a lesson for our time, as American democracy faces threats of xenophobia and the hegemony of the rich and powerful.

Fingers and arms as improvisational guides

•August 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment

One of the most fascinating conversations had between improvising musicians is the balance act between one’s own “vocabulary” (one’s phrasing, sound, ways one develops motifs or other musical materials) and the musical ideas that we inherit (“traditions,” what one has learned from teachers, previous players, originators of a musical approach).

Less often discussed is another question of balance: between thought, and memory—during the present performance by oneself and by others, references to compositional elements, to history—and muscle memory.

We improvisers prefer to consider what we do as intentional translations of thoughts into sounds. And there is something to that. This year, for instance, I have been thinking more in terms of harmonic structures when I play at home, just for myself. And there are people who imagine, conceptually, what they will play, doing what some have called composing in real time. Previously in these blog postings, I’ve discussed the dynamic of active, close listening between improvising partners. The interplay between those dynamics and issues of the body, our muscles, is worthy of discussion. But its not today’s topic.

Honestly, I think that much of what we improvisers do is unconscious. Often, we play before we are even really cognizant of what we’ve played. Among the modes of improvisatory cognition is muscle memory. Some may define this as “habit,” and sometimes it is. But there’s an element to playing, at least for me, that is substantially physical. It arises in the ways we shape or move our fingers, our lips, mouths, feet, doing so in ways that our body knows are right. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as habit; it is simply another way of intuiting and knowing. I find that what I play is more often what my body wants to do than is usually acknowledged by musicians (including me).

Placing trust in my fingers and arms does not come easily since I was rigorously trained to trust only in sheet music. So much so, that it was hard for me to even trust my memorization of sheet music. Only in mid-adulthood did I rediscover my early childhood free abandon at the keyboard, before ever starting lessons.

One of the gifts I discover when trusting my body’s judgment is that I allow great latitude to making mistakes. By mistakes I mean places where my fingers or hands go when I had intended them to do something other than what they’ve chosen. This can be akin to jumping from rock to rock while walking in the woods, but missing and finding myself on a different rock than I had intended. The results requires me to change how I balance my body, to lean in a different direction, and sometimes, to tread a different path entirely. This is improvisation based upon a chance occurrence. Herbie Hancock often tells the story of how Miles Davis made something musically meaningful from a “wrong chord” that he (HH) played early in his time with the Quintet. The “error,” rather than leading to a disastrous mess, was allowed to lead the way and suggest new possibilities. Such is where my hands sometimes lead me and I am learning to treat these representatives of my body as a guide and teacher.

Where does muscle memory – as guide – diverge in a positive way, from muscle memory-as-habit? Habit can lead one to combining and recombining the same overly-tread motifs. There are musical traditions (for instance, with many rock guitarists) where improvisation is defined as recombining a favorite collection of motifs. I place this on one end of a spectrum, across town from constant invention and non-repetition. But everyone has their vocabulary, their favorite ways to shape lines, to build textures, to craft rhythmic constructions. This is true however freely we understand ourselves as playing. This realization leads me to better appreciate (on good days; feel compassion on bad days) recombination.

It is my body and its, sometimes, unknowable wisdom that leads me away from overly wearing my favorite habits. These are the instincts akin to editing a composition, where our favorite parts can be what most needs paring for the music to really “work.” Isn’t it ironic that the same body can enforce musical habits through muscle memory – that also generates mistakes, leading me to take notice and break those habits? I’ve built versions of software-based improvising partners that operate on various levels of chance. But none of them ever made quite such surprising mistakes as human beings can do, causing me to listen as deeply as my arms demand when they go their own way.

Again, these thoughts sidestep the multitude of fascinating questions about listening to fellow ensemble members. One of the joys of my life is having opportunities to play with terrific listeners. Imagine sitting in a room, playing with abandon while listening closely, realizing that each of the musicians is following their own bodies, leading them to musical gestures they never cognitively intended.

Conversing with Jerome Cooper (1946-2015)

•May 8, 2015 • 4 Comments

Jerome Cooper, wonderful drummer and a totally unique human being, passed away on Wednesday, May 6. The last surviving member of the Revolutionary Ensemble, and not quite 70 years old, Jerome died of cancer. I first saw him play in the early-70s when he was playing with the Revolutionary Ensemble and had the chance to meet him for the first time following a solo concert he gave in New York. Decades later, in late 2011-early 2012, I recorded a series of conversations we had in New York City. Here are some excerpts. Many more excerpts will appear in my forthcoming book “The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and other Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, to be published in late 2015 or early 2016). I hope you appreciate the transparency of the book title. Since these are excerpts, the conversation topics skip around a bit. Jerome was a total delight and will be sorely missed by many.

Jerome Cooper: In Chicago I was working my ass off. I was doing TV shows, I was working with Chad Mitchell at the Happy Medium [Theater], I was working with Oscar Brown Jr. at the Plugged Nickel. I worked all the time. And I just got tired of it, so I moved to Europe.

Bob Gluck: This is the late ’60s? When was this?

JC: I went to Europe in 1968. And I went to Copenhagen.

BG: To Copenhagen?

JC: I don’t know why! [Laughter] The only reason I can think of is, I used to read Downbeat Magazine and they would talk about all these jazz clubs in Copenhagen. You know, Montmartre, Jimmy Drew and Lester Gordon, and all these people.

BG: People were making a living there.

JC: Well what happened when I got there, I saw it was different, then I went up to a place called Aarhus, which is in northern Jutland (Peninsula, Denmark), and I started at the university there. I was just hanging out and luckily Roscoe Mitchell came to town, and he asked me to go to Finland with him, and I went to Finland and did a concert with him, and he said, “Why don’t you just tour with me?” and I did a tour with Roscoe and part of this tour we played Paris, and at that time everybody was in Paris. And so…

BG: Everybody from Chicago, especially, right?

JC: Everybody from Chicago, New York—everybody was there. It was really beautiful. Paris was really happening. And Roscoe said: “When you finish the tour, why don’t you come to Paris? I’ll find you an apartment,” and that’s what I did. I got to Paris, and I’m living with these French students, Maoists; in those days, they were having all these riots in Paris. Roscoe’s gig in Paris was with Clifford Jordan.

BG: So let me just go back to something: you describe yourself as a drummer, as opposed to a percussionist.

JC: That’s my own thing. The reason I say that is this: to me, a percussionist is kind of timid. I know theoretically, a percussionist is a musician who plays different instruments that you hit. But my experience with percussionists is that they were very timid in how they played their instruments. I’m not doubting that, I’m just saying that basically I’m a drummer and I like intensity.

BG: Is part of what you’re saying that a percussionist is somebody who plays certain instruments, and that a drummer is somebody who does something that’s not about playing a certain instrument but it’s about a whole tradition about communication and about things that are beyond…

JC: It’s more mystical. A drummer is more mystical…

BG: Anthony [Braxton] has really strong feelings about not wanting to be called a jazz musician. Obviously, you don’t share that—or do you? Or do you care? [Laughs]

JC: Well, I don’t care. Right now I call myself a multi-dimensional drummer. That’s how I deal. People hear me play they might hear a horn player, a piano player. You know, it’s multi-dimensional. Jazz—it’s all the same. I came up playing rhythm and blues. It was all the same. Music is music. One of the greatest blues musicians to me was Sergei Rachmaninoff. Because his music has so much feeling. And that’s what it’s about—the feeling, and getting the feeling across.

BG: Were there particular drummers who mattered to you when you were coming up?

JC: The only drummer who mattered to me was Art Blakey. That was my drummer. What I loved about Blakey was his spirit. That’s what I hear in drummers—I don’t hear to how fast they can do all this shit, or how loud. You know, really rudimentary stuff. I listen to their spirit, and I listen for the soul. And Blakey had that, and he was my main man. I got a chance to hang out with Art when I came to New York…

BG: So one of the things about Blakey that always struck me, ’cause I’m not a drummer, was that he was like the gasoline that gets the stove going. It seemed that a lot of his drumming was in service of making the band cook.

JC: And the band cooked. He knew what musicians to get. I mean the cat—you got your shit together with Blakey. I loved Blakey’s spirit; his spirit on the drums. I loved his spirit. That’s all I can say, man. I came up listening to Blakey and he was my favorite drummer, although I liked Tony Williams, I liked Max Roach, I liked Baby Dodds, a lot of drummers. Now the only people I play with is drummers.

[About Sam Rivers and Studio Rivbea]

JC: Sam’s house was total love. I used to go at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sam would always be up. I went back into their living area, saw where they lived. I really believed it was the love between him and Bea and their children. The children were really courteous and nice. That’s why the place was so hi

Learning more about music and communication from an unexpected source

•December 3, 2014 • 4 Comments

Max_July2013

Two brief stories: what I have learned from our dog Max
(February 7, 1999-November 21, 2014)

One day, maybe three or four years ago, Max and I were walking on our block. I noticed quite how attuned he was to my stride, as dogs often are, but also how little interest he had in “heeling,” Although we attended his graduation, Max had not been a successful alumnus of dog training academy. His pace was essentially his own, filled with bursts of energy and enjoying to pull and tug. But the closer I paid attention on this particular day, the more I realized how cognizant Max was of the space around him, and of our respective walking paces. What I noticed was that while to me his patterns were seemingly random, they were in fact not that at all. Max closely perceived where I was, where he was, how fast we were each going, and taking all that into account, decided how he wished to proceed. This calculation was constantly changing. What struck me more than anything was that his use of space and time was substantially relational and all I needed to do to relate to him with mutuality was pay attention. From that point I began to listen to musical groups differently, becoming more conscious of how non-verbal and not even obviously musical features played a role in how the players perceived and responded to one another. I began to analyze and describe music in fundamentally relational terms. I noticed how people unconsciously perceive the movement of other people coming up behind them, even when their sounds cannot be heard. There was far more to perceive relationally than what we human beings think that we think about. But dogs know this well. Thanks to Max, that remains my project as a teacher and writer.

More than a decade ago, when Max was sprite and I was recovering from knee surgery, he and I drove to the Adirondacks and hiked Mt. Jo. This favorite spot of mine overlooks Heart Lake. Max walked and climbed by himself when the terrain allowed it, at times running way ahead on flatter spaces and rushing back to be by my side. When the rocks were too steep, he waited for me to lift and carry him up to the next level surface. We reached the top and came back down, returning to our car. I began to drive back towards the highway and suddenly forgetting that Max was a dog, turned towards him to ask how the hike was for him. He looked exhausted but he looked up at me, but of course not saying a word. But what I realized was that Max actually had the capacities to communicate in all the ways that he needed as a dog. He didn’t need anything more than that. Ok, this seems obvious. But what was not obvious was the idea that Max was quite fully communicating throughout the day in his own way, even as we departed from Heart Lake. The adjustment to be made was mine, not his, and I finally and rather fully understood that the line between human beings and other animals is far less distinct or significant than I have always insisted. Hiking with Max has been, over the years, a regular part of my family’s life, in various combinations of Max, Pamela, Allison, and I.

The Rite of Bitches Brew: Miles Davis’s BB in light of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre

•September 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I was introduced to Bitches Brew and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) around the same time, at the same place–at my rabbi’s house. People are surprised when they hear this, but Chaim Stern was one musically and culturally forward-thinking rabbi, and his older son, a guitarist/composer and I played together in a rock band. I sometimes find myself conflating these two musical works. This might have happened because of the juxtaposition in time and place, but the chance experience allowed me to hear some striking resonances.

First there’s the sound of the bass clarinet. Bennie Maupin’s evocative, serpentine lines on this low register instrument are part of what gives Pharaoh’s Dance its distinctive flavor. Often used in orchestral music for textural and sonic contrast and spice, Maupin heard Eric Dolphy playing it as a solo instrument in John Coltrane’s band when ‘Trane came to Detroit, Maupin’s hometown. Bennie Maupin began playing the instrument in 1965-1966 and “was working on it all the time.” Although he saw himself as a saxophonist, he was playing bass clarinet with McCoy Tyner at Slugs in New York’s East Village, when Miles Davis came in to listen to the band. Maupin recalls: “I never did play the saxophone with Miles, only bass clarinet. That was probably one of the greatest things that could have happened to me because what it did for me was set me apart from all the other saxophone players. A lot of people don’t even think of me as a saxophone player, they think about the bass clarinet.[1]

While it is the opening lyrical bassoon passage and the heavily—and asymmetrically–accented strings that Le Sacre calls to mind for most, for me the distinguishing feature was the bass clarinet. The bassoon is what we first hear, as the voice intoning the haunting, opening Armenian folk melody. Eventually a flute picks up the tune and the ensemble becomes multilayered. Melodic variants are tossed between instruments and send it back to the bassoon. The clarinet subtly plays a repeated note figure, and this becomes the grist for that sound – the gravel-like timbre of the bass clarinet, which borrows the clarinet’s stuttered notes, out of which sweep ornamental flourishes, up and down. The bass clarinet returns moments later, its line spiraling melodically downward to cut short a march-like four-note ostinato played by pizzicato strings, right before the first appearance of the heavily accented rhythmic, pulsing motif.

Before either of these musical events, another passage intervenes. Two different textures alternate, back and forth almost like a call and response pattern. One is thinner—fewer things happening at once (and the oboe is prominent)–and the other has a higher density of musical events. The more densely packed moments are where I noticed that Le Sacre, like Bitches Brew, had a “brew” of its own. By this I mean a passage where various instruments are layered, each playing its own line, interweaving or simply juxtaposed with the others. The texture is transparent, so that each individual instrument can be heard with clarity, yet what matters most is the overall sound of the ensemble. And isn’t this exactly a defining feature of Pharaoh’s Dance, most notably its multilayered electric pianos, but also the two basses, and multiple-percussion. All together, they create a distinct but ever-changing overall sound.[2]

The suggestion that Miles Davis or Teo Macero might have been influenced by Le Sacre isn’t all that wild. During his brief period of study at The Julliard School of Music, Davis became acquainted with the work of Stravinsky, Berg, and Prokofiev. In his autobiography he noted: “I wanted to see what was going on in all of music.”[3] Might he have explored this particular score? When in his Autobiography, Davis observes: “I had been experimenting with writing a few simple chord changes for three pianos. Simple shit, and it was funny because I used to think when I was doing them how Stravinsky went back to simple forms,” The reference “went back to simple forms” seems to refer to Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works. In works from the 1920s, Les Noces, L’histoire du Soldat, Duo Concertante, and others, Stravinsky treated short motifs as building blocks. However, Le Sacre also reflects a process of repeating and expanding small bits of melodic or rhythmic material.

Stravinsky’s Le Sacre has certainly captivated other jazz musicians. Only two years after Bitches Brew was recorded, flutist Hubert Laws crafted his own nine-minute interpretation.[4] Others, most recently, The Bad Plus, conductor Butch Morris’s The Rites (with Burnt Sugar and Pete Cosey), and the Mobtown Modern Big Band,[5] have done so on a larger scale. Certainly, while Stravinsky himself showed an interest in jazz during the 1940s, as well as with, ragtime only five years after completing Le Sacre, the early date of the rhythmically driven Le Sacre could not have reflected a relationship with jazz.[6] Pianist Ethan Iverson has noted its “earthy groove.”[7] If Miles Davis might have found inspiration in Le Sacre while composing “Bitches Brew,” the connection would likely have been its textures and sonic palate, not its syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms.

 

Notes

[1] Butters, Rex. 2006. “Bennie Maupin: Miles Beyond.” All About Jazz, September 12. http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=22723. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[2] There is another “Brew” moment in Le Sacre, at the opening of Part Two, where a dense haze of interlocking phrases in the strings and high woodwinds emerges, out of which a melody flows. This melody will figure throughout the ensuing minutes. This second “Brew” differentiates itself because of the intended lack of clarity. It is an effect akin to looking at a flower garden through a strip of gauze.

[3] Davis, Miles with Troupe, Quincy. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, 61.

[4] Hubert Laws 1971.

[5] For a discussion by the arranger see Brenzel, Darryl. 2010. “More 2nd Clarinet, Please,” Stravinsky For Jazz Ensemble [Blog], Thursday, September 2. http://stravinskyforjazzensemble.blogspot.com. Accessed July 9, 2013; Bill T. Jones and theater director Ann Bogart utilize segments of this big band musical interpretation within their dance/theater work “A Rite.” See Macaulay, Alastair. 2013. “Bodies and Voices Riff on ‘Rite of Spring’: ‘A Rite’ Riffs on Stravinsky at Chapel Hill, N.C.,” January 27. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/28/arts/dance/a-rite-riffs-on-stravinsky-at-chapel-hill-nc.html?_r=0. Accessed July 9, 2013. Also see Iverson, Ethan 2011. “Mixed Meter Mysterium,” A Blog Supreme. March 21. http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/mixed-meter-mysterium.html. Accessed July 9, 2013. For a more general discussion, see Jarenwattananon, Patrick. 2013. “Why Jazz Musicians Love ‘The Rite Of Spring,’” National Public Radio blog, May 26. http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/05/26/186486269/why-jazz-musicians-love-the-rite-of-spring. Accessed July 9, 2013.

[6] While Stravinsky’s melodic and harmonic conceptions have been closely scrutinized in depth by Richard Taruskin and others, the same has not been done for his rhythmic ideas. Taruskin 1996. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra, Volume I. Berkeley: University of California Press, 881-966.

[7] ibid.

 

Discography

The Bad Plus. 2014. The Rite of Spring. Sony, audio compact disc.

Brenzel, Darryl. 2012. “The Re-(w)Rite of Spring,” performed by the Mobtown Modern Big Band. Innova Records, audio compact disc.

Davis, Miles. (1970) 2010. Bitches Brew. [Columbia Records] Sony Legacy, audio compact disc.

Laws, Hubert. (1971) 2009. The Rite of Spring, CTI, audio compact disc.

Stravinsky, Igor. 1995. Petrushka, Rite of Spring (Le Sacre de Printemps). Pierre Boulez (conductor), Cleveland Orchestra, and New York Philharmonic. Sony, audio compact disc.

 

Reconsidering Miles Davis Live at the Fillmore East (1970) in light of Miles at the Fillmore (2014)

•May 13, 2014 • 2 Comments

The release of unedited live recordings by Miles Davis’s 1960s Quintet and more recently, his first electric “Lost” Quintet has reopened the discussion about his landmark studio recording “Bitches Brew.” My upcoming book treats the evolving history of that latter ensemble and places the studio recording in that context (as opposed to treating the band in light of the studio recording). Sony’s release of the unedited recordings from the June 1970 Fillmore East shows (of what was by that point the MD Septet) is a treasure trove for people interested in the topic. It also sheds much light on Teo Macero’s methods in addressing the concert recording. What I hear in the new release, particularly in contrast with the original “live” recording confirms my thesis that much can be learned by placing the work of that band in the context of the highly exploratory musical world spawned in part by Ornette Coleman, which includes Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble.

In the 1970 release Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East Teo Macero sought to craft a four-sided double LP from four nights of sets. Within the available twenty- to twenty-five minutes per side, Macero offers a cross section of the compositions performed during the stand. “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles” begin with the usual set-openers, the rapid-paced “Directions,” the slower tempo, “The Mask,” and then “It’s About That Time,” which was a vehicle for freely combining vamp-based playing and open improvisation. Most of the sets conclude with “Bitches Brew” and “The Theme.” “Thursday Miles” includes just the first three tunes. “Friday Miles” and “Saturday Miles” focus on the second portion of the nightly sets, beginning with “It’s About That Time” the only constant across all four LP sides (“Bitches Brew” appears on three) and continuing with the ballads “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary”, concluding on “Bitches Brew,” plus on “Saturday Miles,” “Willie Nelson.” The brief “The Theme” forms a coda to conclude every evening’s set, as was Miles Davis’s general practice.

With the March 2014 release of the complete unedited recordings of the four shows, Miles at the Fillmore, it is now possible to closely examine Macero’s choices and assess the nature of his enterprise as editor and producer. From this point, Miles Davis at Fillmore: Live at the Fillmore East (1970) will be abbreviated LFE1970, and Miles at the Fillmore (2014) MF2014.

In assembling LFE1970, Macero placed at the center of each set an extensive, albeit shortened version of two tunes per evening, using short clips of the other tunes to offer contrast or provide segues between the lengthier segments. The only full tracks are “The Mask” on “Thursday Miles” and “Bitches Brew” and “Sanctuary” on “Friday Miles.” In contrast, “Directions” is shortened from its original ten-plus minutes to 2 ½ and 5 ½ minutes. Thursday night’s “Spanish Key,” unusual in its presence on the road and as a rare encore, doesn’t appear in Macero’s edited version. Miles used the brief ballads “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Sanctuary,” slightly compacted by Macero, as a change of pace between tunes that were improvisationally free-wheeling and often faster (with the exception of “The Mask” and when Miles slowed it down midstream, “Directions”). A recent addition to the set list, “Willie Nelson” closes out the unedited recording (plus “The Theme” forming a coda), with a shortened version ending “Saturday Miles.”

Steve Grossman’s saxophone solos are retained on “Directions,” “The Mask” and “It’s About That Time” (“Wednesday Miles” and “Friday Miles”), “The Mask” (“Friday Miles”), and “Willie Nelson (“Saturday Miles”), with just ten seconds of his solo retained in Thursday’s “Its About That Time.” Grossman’s saxophone solos are removed entirely from “Bitches Brew” on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and from “Directions” and “The Mask” on Thursday (with the slice trace noted remaining in “Its About That Time”). His most extensive presence is his solo on “The Mask” on Friday and “Willie Nelson” on Saturday, both of which are unedited. Grossman also appears on flute as part of a collective improvisation on “It’s About That Time” on “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles.”

Macero’s focus is on beat-driven performances (although if this were his sole focal point, the inclusion of Friday’s “Directions” would have pushed the balance further in this direction; the same would be true of Saturday’s version, also not included, although the dual keyboard solos from 6:26-9:10 display parallel play as much as soloing within a strict meter). Miles Davis’s own solos, changes of pace between tunes, with some (but limited) allowance for the open improvisation that increasingly dominated the band’s appearances. These sonic excursions extended what had become a regular feature of the nightly Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette free-for-alls, now with the addition of Keith Jarrett on electronically processed electric organ. The improvisations often appeared in the midst of a tune, with Miles Davis off stage. They were generally highly textural, moving in and out of tempo and intonation, speeding up and slowing down in tempo, and featuring rapid-fire cascading runs and intricate interconnectivity between players. The extent of the band’s inclination towards open improvisation and changing tempos was more limited on Macero’s splicing block than in the actual live performances, generally retained but abridged in “It’s About That Time” and “Bitches Brew.” Had Macero decided to include “The Mask” (Friday, only on the unedited recordings) it would have provided additional support for the flexibility with which the band moves between open and more conventionally structured improvisation (the keyboard solos tend towards the former).

Macero’s approach to the band’s proclivity on stage to suddenly change tempo or to substantially depart from strict tempo is paradoxical. While he limits what he retains of these features from the unedited performances, he recreates semblances of them in his most heavily edited—or maybe one could say most compositionally-shaped—versions of the shows, “Wednesday Miles” and “Thursday Miles.”

One of the biggest surprises, comparing Macero’s edits with the newly released full sets, is the similarities in approach between the studio version of “Bitches Brew” and its appearance closing out “Friday Miles.” In both cases, an opening section is constructed in post-production by repeating a small unit of material, deleting short segments of the performance, and then repeating the entire constructed section. The result is a whole with a more clearly discernable form yet one that no longer represents the ad hoc spontaneity of the band’s live performances. Listeners have long come to expect the use of post-production as a compositional device for studio recordings, yet there is much dissonance in the idea of its use in something labeled a live performance.

The single performance of the four nights that would best present Miles Davis as a beat-driven, funk-vamp focused, or maybe even jazz-rock pioneer, is “Spanish Key,” played as a Friday night encore. It is not included in LFE1970. It is a rocking, buoyant performance. If there was a single danceable work during these Fillmore East concerts this would have been it (despite the metric and tonal breakdown at the end of Grossman’s solo at 4:42 and continuing through the seven-minute mark with an even more abstract dual keyboard plus Moreira trio). The open improvisation is met with strong audience applause.

More details? I’m hoping to include comparative detailed descriptions of each track in the appendix to my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, anticipated 2015)

Some observations about defining the spiritual in music – An ongoing consideration: 1998 – 2013

•December 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Some observations about defining the spiritual in music – An ongoing consideration: 1998 – 2013 – Bob Gluck – Version III, December 22, 2013

This is a very personal discussion of what I believe to be important musical concerns. It remains in ongoing draft form and is written for my students in memory of my father, visual artist Stan Gluck, who lived his life on the border between art and commerce.

 

1.“Whoever says You (“Du”) does not have something; he (sic) has nothing. But he stands in relation.” –Martin Buber

[- I and Thou, available in many editions, including Walter Kaufman, ed., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons]

More than anything, art is about moving the imaginative or not fully perceivable into view. What can emerge are understandings and experiences that are usually hidden from sight and hearing, awaiting our discovery. Art is like a living being, it exists in fluid interrelation with life. It offers the magic of discovery that cannot be packaged and consumed and yet remain the same.

 

2. “I consider that if I have a purpose it’s not to produce records or concerts, it’s in the process of perceiving more. Since my specialty is music, that perceiving takes the form of sound… The only thing that matters is that at the point when you make a sound you’re living and breathing that sound–and the only way is by living and breathing the silence previous to it.” -Keith Jarrett

[- Interview by Edward Strickland, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987]

Jarrett’s solo concerts during the 1970s and 1980s (and subsequent) accepted as their starting point notions of minimal preparation of materials or pre-conceived ideas. His personal hope was to find some level of communion with his audience. His goal for the audience was to engage their listening to sounds as they exist in the present moment.

When Jarrett’s solo concerts became identifiable as a repeatable commodity with a clear audience base and mass audience expectations, did this value become compromised? In his interview with Strickland, Jarrett speaks of an audience member who was upset that he played a Bach prelude in place of a “Jarrett-style” improvisation after a curtain call.

 

3. “… The decisive question today for anyone who makes music is, in my opinion, whether this planet with its inhabitants is a place of pleasure where people entertain one another in an enjoyable way–for instance, with music–or whether this planet is a school. I am convinced it is a school… You must, however, decide for yourself whether music is used as a means of drawing humanity upwards into higher realms, or whether it merely serves as a way of agreeably passing time.” – Karlheinz Stockhausen
[- Towards a Cosmic Music, essays and talks selected and translated by Tim Nevill. Longmead, UK:: Element Books, 1989]

During the 1970s, Stockhausen’s “Intuitive Music” (Aus dem Sieben Tagen – From the Seven Days) drew upon imagistic poetic texts (“Play a rhythm in the vibration of your body…” “… sound turns to gold, to gently shimmering fire…”) to inspire meditative collective improvisation. The musician was to experience a state of oneness with their instrument, the self, the other players and ultimately with the universe. The line between meditation and musical performance became blurred in a manner unusual in the West.

 

4. “My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
            – John Coltrane [Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews]

On an surface level, at least some of Coltrane’s music of the 1960s can be viewed as a form of worship. His 1964 Quartet work, A Love Supreme is accompanied by a poem expressing, in theological terms, appreciation and supplication. It is often described as a culmination of Coltrane’s recovery from addiction. The poem begins in this way:

“I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee, O Lord. It all has to do with it. Thank You God. Peace. There is none other. God is. It is so beautiful. Thank You God. God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. We know. God made us so. Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. No matter what… it is God. He is gracious and merciful. It is most important that I know Thee. Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts, fears and emotions–time–all related…all made from one… all made in one. Blessed be his name. Thought waves–heat waves–all vibrations–all paths lead to God. Thank you God…” – John Coltrane (1964, liner notes to A Love Supreme)

Some find concrete religious symbolism in Coltrane’s work, particularly tied to the Christianity of his childhood. Yet in the pivotal later years beginning with A Love Supreme, Coltrane did not see himself as a Christian. Price understands the seven-year period beginning with Coltrane’s breaking his drug happen in 1957 as a time when “he also merged his religion and his music, fusing them into an inseparable bond. The religion was nothing without the music and the music was nothing without the religion.”* So far so good. But part of Price’s argument is tied to locating embedded religious meaning in Coltrane’s use of triplet note patterns throughout this period. He may be right, but what connection can we make between an artist’s choice of materials and what is conveyed to the listener?

Music is inherently abstract. When there are lyrics, unless those lyrics lock other musical elements into fixed, even semantic meanings (and sometimes doesn’t the music resist or push back?), one can say: this symbol holds x, y, or z concrete meaning. But music more often communicates highly subjective emotions that are heard differently by each listener. Is there significance, beyond analysis or anecdote, to the use of a particular musical device? Opera composer Richard Wagner sought to embed ideas within his “Ring” cycle, but unless one has memorized the intended meaning of each of these many musical figures, they become just elements within the musical fabric. Remember too that other jazz musicians, including Coltrane Quartet drummer Elvin Jones used triplets throughout their work.
[*Emmett G. Price II, “The Development of John Coltrane’s Concept of Spirituality and Its Expression in Music”]

 

5. Coltrane titled the four sections of A Love Supreme: “Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” “Psalm.” But what relationship can we draw between what may (or may not) have been Coltrane’s original intention behind these titles, and what the listener receives or perceives? Is the value of the religious impulse relevant largely to the composer’s own internal experience? Maybe this is sufficient. Is it possible that Coltrane’s own relationship of meaning changed between conception and performance–particularly when involved other musicians are involved? Can the meaning change?

Might the titles describe Coltrane’s “spiritual transformation or ascent” as some have suggested? If so, what is the significance of this deeper meaning or narrative for the listener? All listeners today experience this work outside of the original recording studio and club settings. Those were not places conducive to religious experience! What then if the listener’s intention is specifically to attempt to re-experience Coltrane’s religious journey? Or to treat the recording as impetus for personal religious experience…? How does this affect the relationship between the titles (or the music itself) and what the listener experiences?

 

6. “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being… When you begin to see the possibilities of music, you desire to do something really good for people, to help humanity free itself from its hangups… I want to speak to their souls.”
– John Coltrane [from an interview, quoted in Lewis Porter: John Coltrane, His Life and Music. University of Michigan Press, 1999]

Being a musician is personally useful in a deeper way once one moves beyond technique or literal realization of a score. The act of playing can then reveals aspects of oneself that you do not otherwise know. Often this occurs during trance-like moments, when one becomes less conscious of what specifically one is playing. What does Coltrane mean when describing his music as a “spiritual expression of… my being?” If Coltrane were mining his inner self, what would he be looking for? What would he see, learn, or know? What do you the listener sense of your own self in what you hear? If this were your own performance–can you imagine that while listening–what might you learn about, expose, hide… about your own self?

Coltrane suggested on several occasions in the 1960s that a deeper search is what his music was about, not about playing tunes! What the musician can discover-if one pays close enough attention-can be the pretty, the ugly, the embarrassing, the source of pride, the celebration, the mourning, the loss, the surprise discovery… about oneself. Making music becomes a kind of meditation. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition referred to as Vipassana, at least as translated into American culture, teaches that when one is silent, one can notice the contents of one’s thoughts. Instead of stillness, one can experience the chaotic activity and confusion of what actually goes on within our heads, the stuff from which we usually distract ourselves.

Among the sources of this approach might have been Coltrane’s reading of Jiddu Krishanmurti’s writings. You can find a wide assortment of these here:  http://www.jkrishnamurti.org/krishnamurti-teachings/index.php

Krishnamurti used the term “meditation” not in the usual manner—as a technique—but as a way of being. Listen to Krishnamurti (many of his writings were actually delivered as oral discourses and then transcribed):

“Meditation is to be aware of every thought and of every feeling, never to say it is right or wrong but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching you begin to understand the whole movement of thought and feeling. And out of this awareness comes silence. Silence put together by thought is stagnation, is dead, but the silence that comes when thought has understood its own beginning, the nature of itself, understood how all thought is never free but always old – this silence is meditation in which the meditator is entirely absent, for the mind has emptied itself of the past.”

“Meditation is a state of mind which looks at everything with complete attention, totally, not just parts of it. And no one can teach you how to be attentive. If any system teaches you how to be attentive, then you are attentive to the system and that is not attention.”

[- J. Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known]

So, again, what does it mean to learn about oneself? Krishnamurti offers some useful guidance, noting that “knowledge” implies something that is fixed. Rather, one’s being changes from instant to instant. As soon as one fixes on a particular impression-turned-to-“knowledge,” time has passed and what one is aware of is now a memory, impeding the ability to notice what is actually true in the moment.

“… I know nothing about myself. I don’t start with a conclusion – I am god, I am not a god, I am the state, I am not the state, I am the world, I am not the world, or I am the world – I know nothing. Right? So I begin there. I know nothing. What I know is what other people have told me. Propaganda. What I know, what I am is the result of what others have made me. Or in reaction to the world I am. So I really don’t know anything. Right? So I can begin to learn. Right? May I go on? No please, share together. It is not just I go on talking. As I know nothing I begin to learn. So I must find out what it means to learn. What does it mean to learn, not knowing anything, what does it mean to learn? I know, I have to learn a language – Italian, Greek, French or whatever it is. And I store up the words, the meaning of the words, the verbs, the irregular verbs, and so on. So I know a language. I know how to ride a bicycle, drive a car, dig in the garden, or run a machine. I know all that, but actually beyond the technological knowledge I know absolutely nothing about myself. Can we start from there? Can you honestly say, ‘I really don’t know anything about myself’ – not out of despair, not out of a sense of frustration: not knowing myself I am going to commit suicide! You follow?

“… What do you mean by saying you know nothing about myself. What I am. Why I do this. Why I think that. What are the motives, the impressions, the… you understand? I know nothing about myself except the technological knowledge, the information, the activity in that field. So I know nothing about myself. I only know what people have said to me about myself – the philosophers, the analysts, the psychoanalysts, the mothers, the fathers, the books – I put all that aside. So I am going to learn – learn about myself. And so before I use that word, I must find out what it means to learn.

“If I learn about myself, does that learning lead to knowledge about myself, and from that knowledge I act – you are following? I want to learn about myself – learn. What does that mean? I have learnt a language, ride a bicycle and so on. Myself is a living thing, isn’t it? Changing, demanding, asking, lust, anger – all that. I must learn about all that. Now if I learn about anger, that learning can leave the residue as knowledge. Right? From that knowledge I act. Therefore I have stopped learning. I wonder if you understand this?”

[- J. Krishnamurti, Second Public Dialogue at Brockwood Park, September 1973]

 

7. Coltrane’s work from 1965 until his death in 1967 is too often viewed in terms of its abstraction, relentless intensity–and not as often in terms of spiritual expression. I experience it as intensely emotional music, in some ways not unlike how I experience the act of actually playing music, or how I hear late Romanticism in the music of early Schoenberg or late Wagner. A large body of music exists that reflects the dynamics of periods when conventions of harmony, melody, and rhythm have been pushed to their limits. This is true for both these composers, and certainly Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, and others as the 1950s came to an end.

Listen to John Coltrane’s Meditations (1965, recorded near the end of Coltrane’s Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones) and to Interslellar Space (1967 duets with drummer Rashied Ali). Ok, Live in Seatle with his final band and… ok, I’m opening up the door to too large a body of great work, so stay with Meditations and Interstellar Space as openers!

Here’s what I suggest you do:

Listen closely through the entirety of Meditations. Listen a second time and then…

Describe in writing Coltrane’s playing, the textures, what they evoke in you.

Choose a fast movement and listen two more times and write again. Write more. Aim for interesting musical details but also images, colors, feelings, patterns, dream sequences you personally experience.

Movement one: what would this look like if it were a painting? A folk song? A building?

Try the same with one of the quieter movements.

Beyond Coltrane’s own personal expression-and that is obviously a strong focus of this music-would this work be the same without the saxophonist’s engagement with the other players? As yourself how the musicians are musically interacting? What are they “saying” to one another, as if this were a conversation? How do they support, jab, foment, ignore, spur on Coltrane? Listen to pairs of players—Coltrane with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner with Jimmy Garrison…

Ask yourself: “what is Coltrane discovering? What is he revealing? What does he have to offer to you the listener.” What do you think he discovered about himself? Is it true that the longer he plays, more of himself is revealed, warts and all? What do you notice about yourself while listening? Your discomforts, resistance, confusions-maybe these at first-but maybe followed by moments of engagement, passages you want to re-hear, joyful moments, and emotions you experience?

 

8. As an improvising musician, I have experienced art as a vehicle for discovery–discovery of the world and discovery of one’s own self. Personally, music and visual art making began early in the development of my language skills. Music, especially, became a primary means of my own self-expression and it has been a significant avenue through life for my interaction and relationships with others. Music is a prime way by which I often speak, despite my love of language. I also took fifteen years away from playing and so learned about how life is possible in other modes. There are advantages to not having to practice the piano! Yet ultimately I returned and continue my relationship with music as a performer and composer.

I discuss at length the spiritual experience encountered by members of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band in my 2012 book You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press). Beginning with their November 1970 month-long engagement at a Chicago supper club, the band found the process of collective music making driven by intuition, close listening and response, joy in discovery, and commitment to living in the moment to guide their musical journey.

 

9. Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), his collective work for ten musicians, is on one level evocative of the wild abandon of New Orleans jas up to the 1920s, and in another way, the cacophony of parallel play and juxtaposition championed (completely independently?) by Ornette Coleman and John Cage. But for some, including me, it maybe be suggestive of Coltrane’s early experiences in ectastic charismatic churches. He was raised in the Black church, in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME Zion) tradition, in North Carolina. Imagine, literally or non-literally, the multiple horn textures during ensemble passages replicating people speaking in tongues, calling and responding with the preacher at will with multiple layers of “amens…?” What do you think?

 

10. “To be able to pray is to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word. This is how some worshippers of the past would act: ‘They would repeat the same word many times, because they loved and cherished it as much that they could not part from it.’’”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel [Man’s Quest for God, available in many editions]

Coltrane made use of highly repetitive structures in his work during the 1960s. A phrase would be repeated, varied, turned upside down and sideways, again, again, and again. Is this a form of prayer as understood by Heschel?

 

11. I recall spending summers as a young child during the early 1960s, at a lake colony called “Golden’s  Bridge.”  This was a setting that was founded in thd 1950s by political activists. At times, freedom riders would begin their journey at that colony. We would gather and sing political folk songs, most often “Freedom Songs” of the Civil Rights movement, knowing that within a few days they would cross the Mason Dixon line and likely be brutally attacked. Collectively sung folk songs and spirituals played a key motivational role in that movement, as they have in the Black church. Hymns of praise and hope have from ancient times brought people together. Coltrane’s musical journey encompassed a panoply of the inspirational music of the gospel church, the traditionally secular expression of frustration and desperation found in the blues, the intense virtuosic of the bebop movement, the discipline of big bands, and the interpersonal interplay of Miles Davis’s first great Quintet of the mid-1950s, followed by the beginning of his quest to move beyond the constraints of conventional harmonic and rhythmic structures. This involved endless hours of private musical practice in which he explored all sorts of scales and patterns, in their infinite permutations and combinations. He had a tremendous reservoir to draw upon in strictly musical terms. All of it could be brought to bear in the service of deper personal expression, emotional and spiritual. Would the latter have been possible in a deep way without all that preceded?

 

12. The term “creative music” was championed by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago in the mid-1960s. My understanding of the term is about the project to point musicians away from that which is repeatable, marketable and consumer driven to that which is that which is expressive of the moment. True, the AACM, at its core an organization dedicated to establishing new, sustainable means of and venues for music making  for Black musicians, placed a priority upon original musical composition (rather than improvisation as the primary value). On this point, read George Lewis’s magisterial history A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Compositions by affiliated composers could often spur or structure within open improvisation. One challenge related to my larger present topic was how recordings of AACM works could be disceminated to reach a listening public in a musical world dominated by the corporate “music industry” Does music that is unique, unrepeatable and humanly focused change when it enters a system that is commodity and profit-driven?

 

13. The 1960s and 70s work of the AACM sparked musicians around the world, beginning with Black musicians, to explore musical collectively (as well as performances of original compositions). Sun Ra’s Arkestra played a parallel role, as did Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop, and the 1970s Creative Music Studios retreats in Woodstock, New York (Karl Berger, Anthony Braxton, Carla Bley and others). Of course these are just some of many important examples.

One aspect of 20th century Euro-American music, especially composers such as John Cage and the early minimalists (Frederick Rzewski’s “Le Mouton de Panurge and Terry Riley’s “In C” come to mind) is an impulse to recapture communal functions of music. Such works motivated collective improvisation, where the expression of the individual and the sound of the whole were inseparable. Some, like David Darling, Paul Winter, and Bobby McFerrin have sought to engage non-professional or “amateur” musicians in freely flowing collective music making.

How can the process of collective improvisation become a useful tool for non-musicians or those who are not professional musicians in their search for personal and collective expression and introspection?

 

14. “[God is] the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos. This is what we understand by God as the creative life of the universe. Religion is the endeavor to invoke these animating and organizing forces and relationships and to get us to place ourselves in rapport with them.”

“To produce art is to be creative, to give new meaning to reality. Since the experience of value in life constitutes our knowledge of God, all sincere art is sacred.”

–  Mordecai M. Kaplan [The Meaning of God in Jewish Religion, New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1962].

Mordecai Kaplan, offering a non-supernaturalist, religious humanist theology, considered creativity and artistic expression to be central attributes of human existance. For Kaplan, the universe, as it were, is a place alive with creativity. By being creative, people imitate God, regardless of whether one conceptualizes God as a force, personality or indwelling. Can music be a secular manner of engaging the religious impulse and understanding suggested by Kaplan?

 

15. “Whoever says You (“Du”) does not have something; he (sic) has nothing. But he stands in relation.” –Martin Buber

The relationship between Art and commerce is complex and much discussed. Much contemporary music, film, and art is designed for popular consumption, as entertainment. I’ve alluded to the dilemma of non-commercial work entering the marketplace.

The internet age promised a more open society wherein everyone could disseminate their own work and everybody could access all forms of music. Yet things have not turned out in the manner musicians anticipated. Most music is either marketed via and/or for corporate interests, or for free, or both. Individual entrepreneurship has grown yet faces tremendous obstacles in a time of free downloads and internet subscription services that offer meager profits to musicians. The nexus between music and commerce is hardly new, but has the present situation changed the nature of music making? Does the advent of the individual track download turn all music into an object, a commodity? Has the result de-sacralized the process of musical engagement for depth inward expression? Is there an appropriate—or possible–role for Art as a healer in the breach between human values and objects for consumption?

To simply state that commerce de-sacralizes art would be overly simplistic. To suggest that art should belong in a pristine domain separate from the realities of the world is not only a high Modernist idea, but one that is reminiscent of the body-mind split of the Hellenistic-rooted West. In traditional and non-western cultures, there is no clear distinction between life (work, play, ritual, dance, celebration…) and what in the West is the creation and distinctly aesthetic contemplation of work called Art.

Commerce is so deeply imbedded in our culture for it to be possible for art–or anything else–to function totally independent of it. Artists need material sustenance and the fulfillment of desires to have their works viewed and heard by audiences. The AACM explored viable alternatives to move art outside of an exploitative economy; what are routes today towards a livable path for artists beyond holding jobs as educators or in the service industries? In an age of reduced public support for artists and the arts, this is a critical question.

 

16. A final issue far larger to address easily within the scope of this essay is this: the role of music as a revolutionary force in oppressive societies. The example of Dmitri Shostokovich as a supporter, yet at times persecuted, by Joseph Stalin has been discussed by Alex Ross in his 2009 book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Shostokovich was expected to produce easily accessible works that celebrated the party line of Soviet national struggle and triumph. In contrast, in South Africa, popular and traditional songs inspired and sustained the overthrough of apartheid. The question I raise is this: if music can challenge an oppressive order, need it be populist and accessible to all? Is there a place for music that is more challenging and thus less easily accessible yet as a consequence, aesthetically disruptive? Frank Kofsky and Amiri Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) each interpreted the later work of John Coltrane as a revolutionary force precisely due to the latter qualities. [Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, 1970; Jones/Baraka, Black Music (1966), Da Capo Press 1998, excerpts are included in The Leroi Jones / Amiri Baraka Reader, Basic Books 1999]. What is a productive yet deeply expressive role of Art as an instrument of social awareness, critique and change?