Tuesday, June 07, 2011
A few words on George Lewis.
Like many outside of Chicago, I first heard Lewis in the context of Anthony Braxton's "Creative Orchestra Music, 1976", particularly his solo feature on the infamous march piece. In the summer of '77, as I've written many a time, I first saw him live at the Tin Palace with an incredible Braxton quartet that otherwise included Muhal, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. Lewis, I guess 23 at the time, brought the house down on several occasions that day, once causing Brax to step to the side and deliver an exaggerated bow in his young trombonist's direction.
I don't have a distinct recollection of catching him around otherwise in those days though doubtless I'm forgetting some events (maybe with Anthony Davis?). I *do* remember him up at Environ, not a little pissed off at an interview with Albert Mangelsdorff that had been run somewhere, wherein the German had maintained that he was the only trombonist able to play overtones, Lewis wanting desperately to walk up to him, 'bone in hand, and proffer a rich, multi-layered blaat.
His first recording, from November 1976, is already remarkably self-assured and experimental, mightily impressive for a 23 year-old. The sidelong piece for three trombones is a fine mix of approaches, pointillistic alongside trad-referring chorales, bluesy wails amongst strangled squawks, etc., all cohering amazingly well, not sounding like a mere grab bag of effects, but as a considered walk through a catalog of available sounds and structures. Side two has three pieces more "in the tradition" and beautifully played, especially the closing "Lush Life", as pretty and imaginative a version as you're ever likely to hear.
I'm not precisely certain of the chronology of these four albums as the remaining three don't include recording dates, but they're all from 1977-79.
Lewis began using electronics (at least on record) around '77, a fairly unusual move (in the way he was using them) among AACM-affiliated musicians, presumably deriving from his knowledge of and working with people like Ashley and Behrman in conjunction with his increased activity at and eventual directing of The Kitchen. Ewart always struck me as an interesting player--often fantastic as part of an ensemble, a bit tending toward new-agey things on his own. Here, he's fine on flute, alto and bass clarinet, as well as percussion. There's a typically rambunctious first piece, well played but fairly standard for the time followed by a more fascinating piece, the pair dealing more in pure, extended tones, rubbing them up against each other. Lewis also contact mics his instrument. Lewis' "The Imaginary Suite", which takes up side two, is marvelous and a clear antecedent (if, in fact, it preceded!) the following recording; indeed, part two of this piece is virtually the same. Using low horns, percussion and a bed of electronics, Lewis fashions a music that was leagues away from what any of his AACM cohorts (with, perhaps, the partial exception of Anthony Davis) were doing while at the same time injecting enough grit and blues to easily distinguish it from the white, post-minimalist music of the period.
In years past, this was always on my Desert Island Discs list. Not certain if it would be today, but it's still damn great. Lewis, Davis, Ewart and Teitelbaum. Two sidelong tracks, the first, "Blues" a bit more raucous for a while before mellowing, the title track all rich, deep smoothness. For sheer sonic gorgeousity, this is tough to beat. But more, as said above, this simply not only stood out, but stood very much apart from the work of any jazz-based musician from the period that I can think of. The title track, following a wonderful, billowy beginning, settles into such a beautiful electronic bed, something that might be akin to the Eno of the period, but far deeper, from which Ewart's alto emerges like some wondrous fern, unfurling leisurely but inevitably, splintering, coalescing. And Lewis--well, there's no more beautiful trombone solo in jazz--if this is jazz--to my ears. Everything is in there. And, the piece just ceases with the trombone dangling out there. Soooo good. Hmmm, maybe still Desert Island....
It might just be that Lewis didn't release much more through the 80s, but this is the last recording of his I have on vinyl. On Lovely, no doubt having to do with his tenure as Director of the Kitchen. A quartet, as above with J.D. Parran replacing Davis. Very different from the Charles Parker disc, beginning with a swarm of percussion and double reeds (Ewart on musette, Parran on nagaswaram), an intriguing variation on minimalism. Low horns and electronics don't appear until about halfway through the first side, foghorn-like, buoys in the clatter. There's actually a brief snatch of what sounds like some very Rowe-ian guitar in there, presumably Teitelbaum-generated. It's a fascinating step, on the whole and, if I don't love it as much as the Parker homage, it indicated some intriguing branching out.
But...I'm not sure what happened. I think the next thing I have under his own name is the "Voyager" disc on Avant ("Changing with the Times", which I liked even less, was approximately co-synchronous--I see "Berlin Tango" listed at AMG, but I'm unfamiliar with that). Somewhere in those 10-15 years, his use of electronics had become, to my ears, overly academic and bland. Subsequent releases ("Shadowgraph" and others) didn't rectify the situation to these ears. I saw a performance of a work of his in Nancy in 2002, a quartet wielding light sabers that triggered sounds--not very good. (Although I relish the memory of hanging out in the wee hours at a table including George and Teitelbaum, the former proving to be a voluble storyteller and exceedingly friendly person). However, I did have the good fortune to witness a duo with the late Bill Dixon at Vision Fest in 2006 that was extraordinarily beautiful, thoughtful and sensitive. I've no doubt that I've missed things along the way from Lewis that I should have heard--I don't think I've encountered anything emerging from his professorship at Columbia, for instance. I was hoping for more from his book on the AACM as well.
Still, one of my favorite musicians, all things told, from this period and I'm extremely grateful for any number of musical memories, live and on record.