This music, this vanguard jazz is concerned with an ultimate awareness. Each musician involved has to be so totally at one with what is being played, that the sound that is produced has not an explanation in the world. It just is. Pure joy. Pure pleasure. Pure love for making the music.
I am saying these words having been to two unrelated concerts on two successive nights. The first was held at Bard College on April 16 and included a performance by the reed players Evan Parker, Ned Rothenberg with guest artist, Joe McPhee. The second, on April 17, was the first of Michael Ehler’s Meetinghouse Concerts in Amherst, Mass. The players for this one were members of the DIE LIKE A DOG trio, Peter Brotzman, reeds, William Parker, bass, and Hamid Drake, drums. How the music sounded out of each concert could not have been more different. I was taken aback by both experiences.
The concert at Bard was considerably calm; that is not to say that the strenuousness with which the musicians played was not absent. The intensity was overwhelming. All three musicians projected their own voices so distinctly that the listening was mollified, i.e. I did not have to work to appreciate what they were doing (nor would I ever have to, really). Parker demonstrated no uncertainty about how he played with the others. Rothenberg grooved on bass clarinet in a style similar to that of Parker. McPhee congealed with the two as if the three had always played together. The music that emanated was controlled, formally informed, blatantly masterful and of the same temperament. The three musicians made waves of sound; their choices of instruments always allowed for a balance of pitch: one low, one mid-range and one high. Within the waves of sound, there were places where it gripped me: for instance, when one player would launch himself off into a screaming line of notes or there would be silence or there would be single note emphases to closure. Structure always unfolds if one pays attention to the shape that is being molded. There is always a whole unit per piece. That is what is often misunderstood about vanguard jazz improvisation. Open-endedness is not part of its success.
I was astonished by the rapidity of fingering of the valves and of the power of the ostinatos which left my ears ringing. The breaks in tempo or key changes relieved the tension of the climactic points. Parker’s body never deviated from its stance, no matter what instrument he played; Rothenberg sat when he played the bass clarinet and was in the middle of the group when he played alto. Flanking the right side of the stage, McPhee played the tenor first out with Parker and the soprano with Rothenberg and then the same with Parker and Rothenberg. When the three were together, I was immersed in a huge lake of harmony and occasional breaths of air as hints of melody broke the water. The variations in each instrument were only distinguishable when I focused on trying to hear any one of the instruments. How much the immersion in that lake soothed my troubled soul! It caressed me, comforted me, did not let me go. The strength of the sound and the creativity in shaping the sound that each musician possesses is undeniable. Who would not want to be in a musical environment like this?
On the other hand, which is, by the way, attached to the same body, the Brotzman, Wm. Parker, Drake performance knocked my damn socks off. Brotzman is so incredibly refined that I am amazed by the fiery expressivity that comes out of him. And what a trio this is. The contrast of the relaxed nature, not to detract at all from their brilliance, of Parker and Drake only serves to uphold the confined energy that bursts forth from Brotzman. The first set started out muted, but that softness motored itself into an incontestable bravura. The music never let up. Drake moved from one kind of rhythm to another effortlessly, and Parker, whom I believe is truly a personification of his bass, moved right along with Drake. In the traditional sense, bass and drums are the rhythm section for a trio. There was no difference here in this vanguard jazz context. Brotzman had a superb rhythm section. It is no doubt one of the reasons he could go to the extremes that he did; he could go off into outer space, as he did with the tenor, and come back again realizing that he is tethered to the ship.
The second set started off with a short piece with allusions to Afro-American pulse exemplified with Drake playing the frame drum (deff). But Parker played the shakuhachi and the slit drum, so already, I was in the world, not just a section of it. Brotzman played an antique German clarinet, although the way it penetrated the air with the expertise of his playing, its antique characteristics were quickly diverted. Brotzman did not have to do much to maintain any kind of presence because the music he produced was so eloquent. The structure of this piece impressed me. It began quietly and built to a height where I hung for awhile partially uncomfortable but with which I was simultaneously ensconced. The rhythmic content of the piece was constant and complex and dense and paralleled with the total inhibition of the clarinet going up and up in subliminally measured steps. I knew that when Parker put down the slit drum and picked up the shakuhachi once again, and Brotzman switched pitch, I was returning slowly, curvilinearly to peace and quiet. I reached there when Brotzman blew one short tweet.
A huge scream on the tenor announced the beginning of the last piece of the night. This music developed as a stream of consciousness. It was relentless. It progressed to the places where each musician was totally mindful of how he was blended with his instrument. When the music seemingly broke apart, that is, when each musician went in his own direction, it was for the reason that the body/mind relationship of each player took over. (The music proceeded at such a speed and intensity that I screamed. I had to stop writing and listen.) All the while though, each player knew that the other was there and they could reconnect with each other. Brotzman played the taragato at one point. There were tender phrases that he slipped in, believe it or not. Beneath all the fire is a gentleness that one has to recognize as it is passing. The tenor returned and moved into a bird song. The drums hushed and moved into a march; from the bass, I heard a familiar Parker plucking pattern. The horn darted around and slowed its pace. Brotzman’s shoulders were hunched; his horn screamed as he moved the line into a low tone. Parker plucked a string once, no twice. "That was all she wrote."
The texture of these two concerts was completely different, not only due to the instrumentation, but also due to the players. This is all a given. The two concerts were also incomparable, in the literal sense of the word. All the players gave everything they had. There was no holding back.
I have opened my mind and ears to all forms of creative improvisation. I have seen its connectedness to all forms of music, classical, past traditional jazz, gospel, blues and, after all of that, the sounds I live with everyday--birds singing, water moving, wind blowing, leaves swishing, animals howling, humans talking. There is no denying that the rich genuineness of this music can reach into my soul and touch it indelibly. That is why I love it and why I keep going back to it and why it is so inspirational to hear, to write about, to feel. Its impact never leaves me.