Thursday, January 15, 2009

Last month, I had purchased two of the recent releases on Matchless, AMM's "Trinity" and the duo of Seymour Wright and Eddie Prévost. I enjoyed the AMM well enough, largely for some extraordinarily beautiful playing by Tilbury, less so for Butcher's integration into the ensemble. In brief, while it worked well as simply an improvising trio, if I came at it listening for AMM as such, I didn't hear that. I wasn't so fond of the duo. Prévost's approach in each sort of exemplified the poles I've come to expect (mistakenly) in his recent playing: with AMM, a concentration on bowed metal and smaller sounds, with Wright a kind of extension of his duo with Gare, ie, a post-free jazz drumming style. While I'd mentally leave a space for his more mechanistic experimentation as heard on "Entelechy", these were the poles, as it were, I'd anticipate hearing him operate within.

Shortly thereafter, Prévost's duo with Alexander von Schlippenbach, "Blackheath", appeared on the review list from Squid's Ear. I hemmed and hawed whether or not to go for it as I'm not an enormous fan of AvS by any means and guessed that the combination would be some well-played but ultimately not too interesting music. On the other hand, I feel generally desirous of hearing what Eddie does in this period to give context to the post-Rowe AMM era, so I pulled the trigger.

The disc is from a live concert, presumably presented in the order heard: Solo AvS, solo Prévost, duo, each between 20-25 minutes or so. As I said, AvS never did much for me. He played two nights at Environ once, probably in 1977. I forget if it was solo or with others, but what I do remember is that the violence of his onslaught left two keys of the house piano broken. After that initial set, he came into the office and haughtily said, "If you don't repair those keys, I'm not playing tomorrow!" Yeah, thanks, Alex. Kinda prejudiced me against his music after that, I'll admit. What struck me most about the piano set here was how much like Cecil it sounded--not insofar as a jackhammer attack or anything, very much in terms of melodic content. Much of it sounds as though spun off from the "Silent Tongues" concert or something, especially the "After All" sections. (btw, I forget if this was ever resolved or not--are those pieces Cecil's or Ellington's, or at least derived from the latter? I remember the issue coming up years back. In any case, they're a couple of the most beautiful bits of music I know) So, in a sense, AvS' performance here is good--certainly very accomplished--but overly emulative for my taste and nothing I'd be in a rush to rehear.

Ah well, I said, more or less what I expected, and settled back to listen to Eddie's piece.


I'm going to go out on a limb and state that, in my experience, I've never heard a finer, more perfectly balanced, more inventive drum solo in the jazz tradition. There may be a handful that, all told, equal it--I'm thinking of some Max Roach solo pieces I heard him play at the Brooklyn Museum, Jerome Cooper's early solo work, some Ed Blackwell--but this is one astonishing, and in a sense (for me) damned troubling work of art. I'll probably kick myself for saying this eventually as other things come to mind but at the very least, I haven't been so enthralled...not just by any percussion solo but by any new, jazz-oriented (as reasonably defined) piece of music in quite a long while. But there's one of the rubs, I think. I'm not sure that such a work could be created by someone in 2008 (as opposed to, say, 1958), something that would ring so true, who had not lived through something like what Prévost has. This is trivially the case, of course, but I mean more in the sense that he's used certain elements gleaned via the AMM experience to inform the performance, though they're not the obvious ones. In other words, someone who has operated strictly from a jazz tradition and whose last name isn't Roach, would likely have gone about this in a crucially different manner, one that would probably have weakened the performance, reducing it to something of a pastiche, however well played.

He begins with brushes on drumheads. Immediately, as is the case throughout, it's clear that he's concerned with at least three areas simultaneously: tone, rhythm and texture. I understand that some will immediately object, "Hey, any good drummer has the same concerns." Easily said, very rarely encountered, imho. One of the astonishing aspects---maybe the single thing that stands out--is how consistently he's able to incorporate all three into his playing, really something of a high-wire act that creates a constant tension/exhilaration effect that, of course, is a classic feature of great jazz. The sheer balance/variation axis is a joy to hear. But the central tenet carried over from AMM, I think, is Prévost's willingness to stay in one general area for several minutes at a stretch. Instead of quickly covering his entire set, he moves calmly from place to place, investigating each area in some depth before choosing to move on. So the brushes and skins are given play for the first few minutes, gradually bringing the cymbals into the picture, the initial feathery touch growing a bit more robust, all in quick, complex rhythms. About eight minutes in, he switches to sticks, concentrating on toms and cymbal, deepening the tone, engaging in melodic roll after melodic roll, nodding more than a little to an early inspiration, Ed Blackwell. The same rapid fire attack is maintained but with not a shred of flash; it's far too intense for that, far too concentrated on the narrowed focus at hand, here the toms and the huge range of tones available. There's some delightful interplay between sock cymbal and sticks on rims, the latter hit at various places along their length to impart yet another set of pitches. There follows a few minutes where the full set is brought to bear, again keeping the quick pace already established but still evincing a concentratedness as opposed to the kind of wild abandon more typically heard, an refusal to jettison the tonal and textural discoveries made earlier for simple combustion. He ends largely on cymbals (with a bit of bass drum), skittering through them, even engaging in a bit of shuffle play, finishing concisely, at the exact moment where no further thoughts are required.

Had someone told me I'd have this strong a reaction to a 2008 drum solo in the jazz tradition, even by someone whose musicianship I greatly admire, I'd've likely dismissed the notion. It would have seemed, to me, a near impossible thing to attain. Maybe Roach, if his mental state was healthier, could have pulled it off. I can't imagine a younger musician, whatever his or her technical abilities, even coming close. Susie Ibarra, maybe? Though I hazard that there would be less jazz in her playing. Others could doubtless do a fine job in their own way but making the kind of connection Prévost does here to the Roaches, Blakeys, Blackwells...I just don't think so, I think there would be a kind of artificiality in the approach that, whatever its technical merits, would tinge the effort irreparably. Prévost sounds utterly natural here, something that I admit, is more than a little confounding to me. It shouldn't be, yet it is. (Who should I believe, my premises or my own lying ears, as they say?)

This, of course, begs the question: Even so, is it of value today, in 2008, to do so in the first place? I doubtless part company with many of my eai cohorts here when I say, yes, I think it is. (Hell, if many of them get around to hearing this, they may well disagree with me as to its strength and beauty.) The attempt will probably fail 99 times out of 100 (more, I suppose) but when the mark is hit, it reminds one of what one loved in jazz in the first place, back when it was vital as a whole, and shows at least its potential viability still, even if that vigor is seldom heard. The tendrils may be sparse and weak, but there remains the possibility of breaking through the soil. Would I desire to hear Keith do a 20-minute solo that similarly referenced Barney Kessel, Charlie Christian and Johnny Smith? No, of course not. But Keith is Keith and Eddie, Eddie--there's no reason they should be subject to the same "rules". Art is too complex for that and even if one thinks that certain general ideas apply at a given place and time, it's heartening to discover major exceptions, to have one's premises healthily shaken. You can never have too much of that.

So, thanks, Eddie.


simon reynell said...

Interesting post, Brian. I like it when critics are honest enough to admit being troubled by something they listen to.

I haven't heard any of the discs you mention yet, though 'Trinity' is at the top of my to-buy list. I doubt that I will hear the Prevost/Schlippenbach duo as I've never been into jazz at all, or even jazz-derivative improv. But it doesn't surprise me that Eddie's playing can get you so enthusiastic. He is such a strong musician, and I feel that he's sometimes unfairly neglected. In free jazz circles this is because he spends so much time doing AMM-style improv, and in improv circles it's just because his AMM colleagues are such giants. Yet Eddie's contribution to AMM has obviously been enormous. He's the only ever-present, and John T's book about Cardew reminds us that of all of them Eddie was the one who never really put a foot wrong through all the political shenanigans. On top of this he's run a great label for decades, and published several interesting and forceful texts. And finally for the past several years he's played a crucial role fostering new talents in the uk through his weekly improvisation workshops, which have helped develop a number of my favourite players.

So though I'm personally not much interested in the jazz pole of his output, I too salute him as one of the all-time improv greats.

Brian Olewnick said...

I wrote the post in something of a torrent and there's likely a bunch that could be added. But one thing, in case it wasn't clear: it's not just a matter of formidable technique, balanced textures and rhythms, etc. He manages, against what I still believe to be huge odds, to have the thing ring true. The "spirit", if you will (I hate the term, but you know what I mean) is there. To my ears (of course, many would disagree), that's an exceedingly rare thing in the jazz world and has been so for quite a while.

I saw Roach with Randy Weston at the Brooklyn Museum around '88 or so. He opened with several solo songs on the snare drum (yes, they were certainly songs). I think that was the last time, in my experience, I heard the same degree of beauty and depth in a jazz-based percussion performance (and not really to confine it to percussion, either...)

Richard Pinnell said...

I'll certainly second Simon's comments about Prevost's role in supporting new improvisors in the UK. The impact he has had on a whole generation of younger players cannot be underestimated, but it probably goes largely unnoticed outside of the UK.

I was lucky enough to see Eddie play two or three concerts in a straight-up free jazz style last year, and while I also have little interest in that area of his work one thing that definitely struck me was how much he seemed to be enjoying playing, with a bigger smile on his face than I've ever seen during countless AMM or similar gigs...

Siddiq said...

Thanks for the interesting post and for the blog in general. I understand where you're coming from about the 'spirit' of the thing and its presence/absence in the music. At the risk of getting people's backs up I'd have to say that the time of jazz as a living form vitally engaged with people's lives and with the world,is over.

It's a simple question of historical specificity: the same thing can arguably (what ain't arguable) be said, of the blues, rock and roll, western classical, hip-hop etc... I think people would find this far less problematic if there was a tangible 'new thing' to replace it. I've not come across any such thing; have you?

But this isn't actually the main point of my comment; I wanted to ask you specifically about this thing Kenneth Rexroth wrote: 'Psychedelic rock in its youth is still profoundly shaking music. Like all good things, it couldn’t last. The combinations of the world are unstable by nature, said Buddha. The last new band of that type I heard was a group of high school kids from Antioch, Ohio — not Antioch College — called Mad River. The drummer gave a three quarters of an hour solo that made Max Roach’s “History of the Black Race” sound like keyboard exercises from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook.'

Quite a statement aint it? The thing is I haven't been able to locate any of his references. Have you heard the Roach piece he's talking about? Where can we find it? Also have you heard of this Mad River Band? Seems pretty obscure but if it's half like what he says then it sounds worth hearing, no?
Anyway thanks again for the blog and sorry to bother you with all these questions.

Siddiq said...

OK I found some stuff on Mad River at AMG but it hardly seems anything to write home about... there's nothing of them live though and that kind of music (think Grateful Dead) tends to need the participation of a receptive audience to really set it of. Oh well maybe some bootlegs will turn up or something. Peace!

Brian Olewnick said...

Thanks for the comments, Siddiq.

The Roach piece cited rings a very vague bell--maybe a project with M'Boom?, but I by no means can say I know it. Mad River as well--I think I've heard of them but am sure I've never actually heard the music. In any case, color me skeptical that a college group could outclass Roach that readily.

It may well have much to do with my own age and teen listening, but I agree that a decent portion of "psychedelic rock" remains vibrant and alive. Just a lot of new areas to explore at the time.

You're unlikely to rouse anyone's dander in this place with your remark about the current state of jazz. I've been saying roughly the same thing since 1990 (with ever dwindling exceptions).

Siddiq said...

He might be referring to the "We Insist!" suite which does apparently deal with black history, though I haven't heard it and there is no actual track with that title.

By the way have you listened to the Dollar Brand/Roach duo "Streams of consciousness"? As the title implies they just walked into the studio and began to improvise. The early 70's (when this was recorded) was probably the best time for Ibrahim doing this kind of thing; he just had the FIRE in him! Haven't yet got familiar with this date but I must say it does sound damn tasty.

Brian Olewnick said...

I've heard the Roach duo but don't own it for some reason. I agree that late 60s and early 70s Ibrahim is extraordinary and when I reach the "I's" in my LP run-through, I'll have a good deal to say about him.