4. On the AACM
1) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 1): Discussion of Congo Square
2) Interview with Wynton Marsalis (Part 2): Blindfold test, “Knozz-Moe-King,” general discussion
3) The “J" Word introduces side posts:
2. Four Early Wynton Marsalis/Jeff Watts Records
3. Current Perceptions
4. On the AACM
5. Reading the Black Jazz Writers
(Summer 2010: This is the only completely re-edited section, which combines several posts from old DTM. The material discussing JALC vs. the AACM was originally called "An Old Feud.")
When preparing to meet with Wynton, I read George E. Lewis’s then-new history A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.
I recommend this fantastic book unreservedly. However, Lewis makes no judgments and offers very few listening notes, a high-minded approach that doesn’t help make all this experimental music less forbidding. A critical guide to all the AACM music is needed as a companion volume. I can’t take that on myself, but I’ve found several tracks of superb music that fit comfortably in the canon of great jazz and improvised music. These slender and admittedly novice annotations will hopefully spur others to investigate further and draw their own conclusions. Sincere apologies to all the younger AACM musicians not represented here: I'm working up to checking out the latest developments.
Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall, “Simple Like” from Anthony Braxton (1969) Written by Leroy Jenkins, “Simple Like” is in jazz’s tradition of prolonged exploration of a minor mode. If you think of “So What,” then “Impressions,” then “Ogunde,” the trajectory of getting to "Simple Like" is obvious. At one point, Smith’s trumpet over organ even sounds like Miles Davis.
In the late sixties, this quartet was right alongside the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and later billed as the “Creative Construction Company.” Some of the procedures are identical, like how everyone loved to double on “little instruments.” This record documents how exciting and transgressive it was to keep reaching for unlikely finds in order to create a mini-galaxy of new sound.
Jenkins’s melody is a genuine-sounding folkloric chant with flute. It is wildly out of tune, and unquestionably intentionally so: it is not parodic. Each musician gets a solo, but in contrast to conventional jazz, there is more room for the others to comment obtrusively behind the lead.
Air, “Keep on Playing Through the Water” from Air Time (1974) Steve McCall tuned his drums in the jazz tradition. His opening solo reminds me of Andrew Cyrille. However, once the band is going strong, McCall uses idiosyncratic surges, going from almost too soft to almost too loud very quickly. It ensures that McCall is present in the dialogue, not just maintaining a texture, and seems to me something quintessentially “AACM” and not at all “New York” in approach.
Henry Threadgill plays tenor here, and while he does open up a little bit toward the end, the piece is really a feature for McCall and (especially) Fred Hopkins. Threadgill holds down a chorale-type tune while Hopkins essentially goes nuts. It will scare you to death.
Threadgill is one of the great jazz composers, and his outstanding Sextett from the 1980’s (which doesn’t seem to fit in the AACM camp the way Air does) was exactly the kind of band the Young Lions might have benefited from considering seriously.
George Lewis, “Toneburst (Piece for Three Trombones Simultaneously)” from The Solo Trombone Record (1976) Lewis's own recordings reflect vast knowledge of detailed, abstract music, ranging from early jazz to the latest classical modernists. There is often a major electronic element. The Solo Trombone Record is the most direct statement of his that I’ve heard. “Toneburst” is a major work, a twenty-minute overdubbed exposition of both notated and improvised languages. There is some extended technique, especially during a sarcastic “laughing” section, but mostly the piece uses “normal” writing and improvising. Towards the end, one trombone improvises for a while: perhaps it is a cadenza. When the two other bones return they are far back in the mix, as if they are exhibiting sympathetic concern for the dimensions of this undertaking. (The first trombone even arpeggiates a lonely B-flat minor triad.)
Lewis is one of the most conventionally skilled of all the AACM musicians: he’s one of the most technically advanced trombonists in history, and “Phenomenology” here swings.
Roscoe Mitchell, “Nonaah” (for four saxophones) from Nonaah (1977) Hardcore! The four saxophones play a rich, short, atonal phrase over and over again for five minutes. It isn’t boring, though, since the emotion somehow kaleidoscopes around the spectrum. (It helps that you hear the saxophonists gasping for air.) The initial assault is replaced by a beautiful notated adagio section closing on a pure major triad. Staccato group improvising in the style of the first section follows. On cue, the gates open and everyone is finally allowed to play faster runs, too. This masterpiece seems shorter than its eighteen minutes.
Leroy Jenkins, “Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America” from Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America (1978) This record should be far better known. All the songs are great, but the 21-minute title track is something more. The title “Space Minds, New Worlds, Survival of America” seems worryingly grandiose, but the intensity of the music delivers. The powerful first blues tune is enhanced by Richard Teitelbaum’s synthesizer. After a drum solo, a punching, hocketing rhythmic matrix forms the basis of improvising. The next section is grounded in a blues drone and a new ostinato for improvising. In the closing fade, Jenkins repeats a doleful chromatic line while Andrew Cyrille plays a march.
Anthony Braxton, “Opus 77A” from Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 This two-record set is currently hard to get except as part of the recent Arista Mosaic box. I’m lucky enough to have the original, which has stayed on my shelves since I first got it as a teenager. The first piece, “Opus 77A,” is still my favorite. First of all, it is unbelievably virtuosic in its control of dynamics and articulation. Second, it eventually sounds like Braxton is waging war with a science fiction monster. I know Braxton likes monsters and all that same lo-fi sci-fi stuff that I do, so I’m sure that he would appreciate me describing this scalding performance as “the saxophone eats him.”
The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “Walking in the Moonlight” from The Third Decade (1984) Lester Bowie had great tone, time, blues feeling, gangster attitude, and inborn surrealism. He leads Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman superbly in this Mitchell original – Mitchell and Jarman couldn’t have done it without him. “Walking in the Moonlight” is a humorous parody of early jazz, with the Mitchell tenor solo probably being the single funniest thing ever recorded for ECM. The fact that Bowie isn’t merely a parodist, but just plays this style so good makes the whole piece successful – and, indeed, immortal.
Muhal Richard Abrams, “Introspection” from Colors in Thirty-Third (1986) Abrams has taught and composed with the Joseph Schillinger system since the 1950’s. As far as I can tell, that system can be directed at any kind of music, not just material that sounds “classical.” However, Abrams does write “classical” music that is surely informed by Schilinger. There’s an example of it on this record called “Piano-Cello Song.” Neither Dave Holland nor Abrams seems to improvise here, and I find it a bit dry. (All seven pieces were recorded in one day! That's not much time for hard music. I wonder how “Piano-Cello Song” would have fared under a more luxurious, classical music-friendly environment.)
But “Introspection,” while beginning with solemn counterpoint in octaves like Hindemith, is thankfully taken over by an improvisatory ethos. In particular, the “development section” is clearly a group improvisation in the style of the composition. This is extraordinarily hard to do, and “Introspection” has to be one of the best examples extant. It helps that the groupings seem organized into trios, duos, and ending with solo piano before the return of written material. “Introspection” is "classical-sounding" AACM music that really works.
Anthony Davis, “Wayang No. 5” from The Ghost Factory (1988) A fair number of jazz musicians have tried to make music with symphonic forces over the years, but it remains a troublesome mix. The Ghost Factory offers two solid concertos: “Maps,” featuring dynamic violinist Shem Guibbory (with a crucial role given to percussionist Gerry Hemingway) and “Wayang No. 5,” for Davis himself. Davis is interested in gamelan music, and there’s no qualitative reason why “Wayang No. 5” shouldn’t be paired with other piano-gamelan intersections, like the Lou Harrison Piano Concerto and Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-Tabuhan. A major factor in the success of “Wayang No. 5” is the participation of a non-classical drummer, Pheeroan AkLaff, who has his hands full dealing with the orchestral mallets and string section in the “Opening Dance.” To AkLaff’s credit, it works out pretty well. (Many of today's orchestras are already much better at this kind of stuff than they were twenty years ago.)
During intense improvisations in the slow movement, “Wet Dreams,” Davis shows off an inspired and brilliant two-handed technique. The “March” is very much in the AACM tradition, with some good piccolo trumpet. The final “Keçak” has rousing grit. I believe Davis was shortlisted for a Pulitzer for this piece. I wonder what won.
Muhal Richard Abrams, Vision Towards Essence (1998) For the first 20 minutes of this hour-long improvisation, much of the material is contextualized by a droning insistence on the lowest note on the piano. It’s distantly related to how Giacinto Scelsi creates music out of one pitch. Finally, the textures break up: there’s walking bass, stride, and other more jazzy textures, all naturally rendered with an experimental twist. Abrams' sound is deep inside the piano, and it’s really nice to hear him on a good instrument in front of an enthusiastic audience. In the liner notes, Abrams himself says that “The extemporaneous solo performance, which draws on his full wellspring of experience and intuition, is the pinnacle of his art.”
The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “As Clear as the Sun” from Tribute to Lester (2001) I’ve known this for about five years and I keep returning to it in amazement. I think Roscoe Mitchell is playing sopranino saxophone, but maybe it’s soprano. At any rate, he is somewhere next to late-period John Coltrane here, with endless circular breathing put into the service of heat and fury. Harmonically, its soulful atonality is unimpeachable. It’s not just Mitchell’s success, for both Malachi Favors and Don Moye play the free burn with the same level of authenticity.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago left a huge body of work that is somewhat daunting to find your way around in; I’m looking forward to reading the right book that details their history and discography. (According to Wikipedia, there are about 45 albums!) Essential context of their early years is found on the 5-CD box The Art Ensemble (1967/68), which includes the first recordings of Mitchell, Bowie, Favors, Phillip Wilson, Jarman, Charles Clark, Thurman Barker, and Robert Crowder. The box was produced in 1993 by Chuck Nessa, and is now out of print. It will only increase in value as a collectible: Apart from the considerable beauty of the music, the package is packed with great photos and notes by Nessa and Terry Martin (who recorded most of the music in various basements and apartments). Those that missed the box will still be able to get the music. Nessa is currently in the process of reissuing all the material in better, remastered sound. There is no Nessa website, just Chuck in Whitehall, Michigan with some of the coolest records around; nessarecords(at)charter.net. His reputation with musicians is excellent. Nonaah is in stock.
To understand the music on the ‘67/68 box, it is crucial to understand its historical context. Remember what else was going on in jazz in 1967:
Miles Davis Nefertiti: state of the art modernism -- Ornette Coleman The Empty Foxhole: O.C., in search of pure feeling, thinks he has it with 10-year old Denardo (I prefer 1969’s Crisis) -- Cannonball Adderley Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!: crossover jazz—funk/fusion precursor -- Thelonious Monk Underground: the last Monk record with new tunes -- Sonny Rollins East Broadway Run Down: Rollins’ most convincing interaction with free jazz, and arguably the last great Rollins studio record -- McCoy Tyner The Real McCoy: state of the art post-Coltrane modality -- Cecil Taylor Conquistador!: wonderful sloppy but detailed heads with Cyrille’s quasi-latin beat beneath -- Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village: some of the most powerful Ayler recordings, especially “The Truth Is Marching In” and “Light in Darkness” -- During ’66-’68 Charles Mingus didn’t have a record label, and John Coltrane’s last studio record, Expressions, was recorded in spring ’67, just weeks away from the first date on the Art Ensemble box.
The Art Ensemble didn’t imitate any of the styles on the above roster, but were determined to advance the music further with their own approach. Famously, it was Chicago music. New York City – where all those other records were recorded – was far away, with its own hectic pace. When compared to any New York band playing free, The Art Ensemble was spacious, delicate, and thoughtful.
They were also among the first post-modern improvisers. Right away on disc one of the set, there is a twelve-bar blues with a backroom beat called “Old” and a funky number called “Tatas-matoes.” These pop references sit comfortably next to 20-30 minute free pieces. Even on Roscoe Mitchell’s unaccompanied “Solo” the post-modernist grab-bag is evident: Mitchell arpeggiates a Bb triad over and over again on his horn as unapologetically as a pre-bopper -- of course, he also uses squeaky extended techniques, bells, harmonica, and atonal lines.
The AACM and the Young Lions started off on the wrong foot with each other in the 1980’s, and by the 90’s, they were enemies. One of the most riveting passages in A Power Stronger Than Itself is Lewis’s perspective on the rise of the Young Lions. Lewis is scrupulously fair – he even quotes Muhal Richard Abrams as praising Stanley Crouch’s piano playing (?!?) – but the resentment is clear.
Many of the AACM’s followers are less even-handed, even to this day. A great black American drummer told me at a festival this past summer that he wanted to kill Wynton and Crouch.
I understand where this attitude comes from. Earlier in this commentary I wrote, “The great sadness of this era was how little the best musicians of the Young Lion school (all of whom were black) exhibited knowledge or concern about the previous generation of black innovators connected to free or experimental jazz: Henry Threadgill, Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, Sam Rivers, Dewey Redman, and Oliver Lake would suddenly have less work due to the attention given the Young Lions.”
Of course, any musician should be allowed to explore their path unconcerned with whether it's circumscribed or open. But I can't stop feeling that ignoring free and experimental jazz was the greatest weakness of the Young Lions. And whatever they have done that’s positive for the music, they haven’t thrown a spear forward into the future the way the AACM has.
However, there is a rarely-made argument for the Young Lions' side too. In A Power Stronger Than Itself, George Lewis uses this offhanded quote by superb AACM drummer Steve McCall twice:
The standard music, we’ve all played it.
The AACM story is about musicians resolutely seeking the new. They were, to a person, representatives of the African Diaspora. (They voted out the one early white member, Emmanuel Cranshaw. Cranshaw’s lonely picture in A Power Stronger Than Itself is the height of pathos.) Probably as some sort of consequence of being connected to the black community, all the best AACM music has a funkiness, earthiness, and general humanness that makes their music obviously better than a lot of classical music that has much of the same affect and effect. (This is the part the Young Lions just didn't seem to get.)
McCall shows his own version of earthiness-meets-experimentalism at his best on the albums Anthony Braxton and Air Time, discussed above. His quote “The standard music, we’ve all played it,” makes a lot of sense here, as in, “It’s time to play something brand new.”
But that statement “The standard music, we’ve all played it,” is also used by Lewis as ammunition against the rise of the Young Lions when parsing the 80’s. This is less impressive.
Air remains best known not for Air Time, but for their 1979 “hit record” Air Lore, a collection of early jazz like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. This move towards the old was universally praised by jazz critics at the time, and more recently some have pointed towards Air Lore as “What Wynton tried to do, but earlier and better.” (It is interesting to note how well the band dresses for the photo on Air Lore, even down to listing wardrobe and shoes by designer. This, more than the actual music, is what foreshadows the Young Lions!)
I want to love Air Lore, too. But I’m just not sure about Steve McCall here. Clunky, sloppy drumming when played with great time is one of the great pleasures, but I’m not sure if McCall’s time is quite good enough to pull it off. I don’t think it’s amateurish, exactly... but I do think that I should not have to wonder about it.
Certain modernistic jazz players can be successful not caring that much about the beat while still playing the beat. Paul Bley, Richard Davis, and others somehow make this work. But in Jelly Roll Morton? There is no early jazz that doesn’t treat the beat as a life-or-death matter. If Air Lore does really work (I can’t concede that today, but I’ll keep listening) it works as a naive, “directly channeled from the masters” palimpsest, not as an accurate, learned tribute.
George E. Lewis himself as a trombonist has great time and an authentic jazz beat, but that is just not really true of a lot of classic AACM members. He doesn’t illuminate this basic fact in A Power Stronger Than Itself, and maybe it doesn’t matter: The best music of the AACM relates to the jazz beat only rarely.
(It’s telling that the most swinging late 50's Chicago rhythm, Ahmad Jamal, Israel Crosby, and Vernel Fournier, is not addressed in A Power Stronger Than Itself, even though the first batch of AACM musicians must have known about them. Perhaps the Pershing Lounge was considered inaccessible from the South Side?)
To his credit, Lewis does quote Amiri Baraka as saying, “I want to be completely honest here – I would rather hear Wynton Marsalis in an Ellington concert than what Bowie or Threadgill do. Even when I value them for certain things they have brought into being.” I’m with Baraka on this one. In this postmodern era, the jazz beat seems like something the young improviser should at least know about before discarding it.
And I can guarantee this: the lack of a reliably heated, swinging beat is why the Young Lions didn't check out more experimental jazz. Pursuing a reliably heated, swinging beat was their mission and their accomplishment. Put on Air Lore for a first-generation Young Lion sometime and hear what they have to say about it.
Admittedly, comparing Wynton’s musical universe to the AACM’s is fraught with danger. Each camp pursues such different goals that the commentator can only stub his toe eventually. The only reason to attempt initiating such a dialogue is to encourage considerations that most musicians understand instinctively, but which somehow get left out of so much discussion in print.
Jazz critics have not helped this issue over the years by writing things like, “Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams know and can play the whole history of the music, from ragtime to bebop and beyond.” As far as I can tell, this is just not true. I still haven’t gotten over my initial shock when confronted with the recording of Braxton and Abrams sight-reading through “Maple Leaf Rag.” They repeatedly play several wrong notes together, notably making B-flat minor B-flat major (!) three bars before the end of the second strain. (They do this both times through.) Joplin's important chiaroscuro effect – he goes to major in the next bar – is absent.
This may be some punk rock ethos that they are going for, I suppose; but probably, they are just not seeing the key signature for a bar, and playing D instead of D-flat. The only way I can really respect this error is if they are saying “fuck you” to Michael Cuscuna or whomever might be making them play this in the studio. (I'm making this up: I have no idea whose idea it was to record "Maple Leaf Rag.") But Braxton always talks big about the jazz tradition while simultaneously recording many jazz albums with wrong notes in the melodies and so forth, and they can’t all be “fuck you’s” to the producer, can they?
Mike Heffley’s notes to the Mosaic box are the most helpful information on this controversial topic that I’ve seen: “One can read Braxton’s perceived deficiencies of musicianship as his indeed – but one might also hear them as reflections of the inadequacy of the conventional jazz gameplan and platform.” Fair enough. And “Maple Leaf Rag?” Heffley says it “Has the hasty, half-muffed feel of an old gramophone recording of Scott Joplin himself knocking it off casually (much more interesting than the usual polished academic renditions).”
Well, not more interesting to me! Like Baraka, I’d much rather hear Wynton play his transcription of Louis Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey” with “academic polish” than Braxton’s Joplin. Absolutely. Jelly Roll, Joplin and Armstrong are their own academies. To play them well requires just as much hard work as any other kind of serious music does. I prefer not to hear them trifled with.
But there are those that love and collect Braxton’s jazz records, even the ones with him on piano (don’t get me started on that topic) and to those I say, “God bless.” Certainly, Braxton’s life-work is worthy of serious consideration by everybody interested in this music. A lot of the stuff on the Mosaic box is wonderful, and I recently re-read Graham Lock's Braxton celebration, Forces in Motion, and found it just as exciting as ever.
Getting back to Lewis’s book, I think the AACM’s resentment of Jazz at Lincoln Center is appropriate. Surely Lewis is on point in this paragraph from A Power Stronger Than Itself:
In contrast to the ideologically charged atmosphere on Lincoln Center’s jazz side, its classical side tended to avoid extensive public critiques of experimental music in its chosen, European-based tradition. In fact, composers seen as “fringe” elements were quietly supported, even as it was acknowledged that the public was not necessarily excited about hearing their music.
In his mission to garner respect for the pure jazz tradition, Wynton has rarely tossed experimental music a bone.
(I laughed out loud when I read the JALC print advertisement for the ballyhooed John Zorn/Cecil Taylor gig at the Rose Room a few years ago: “Musical wanderlust will be satisfied.” Has there been a more backhanded blurb in history?)
Surely any serious creative player regardless of ideology will agree with the essential truth of Roscoe Mitchell’s statement in A Power Stronger Than Itself:
The tradition will never be re-created as strongly as it was by those who invented it.
Wynton’s standing as innovator, auteur, curator, and gatekeeper could only be enhanced by some small but significant experimental wing of JALC.
At our interview, I brought Wynton a copy of Roscoe Mitchell’s recently reissued Nonaah and told him to check out the track I cite above. He thanked me and put the CD on his coffee table. Hey, I tried.