The recently published, sixth edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD – written with wit, immense insight and enthusiasm by Richard Cook and Brian Morton – has 1,601 pages of reviews, beginning with the Aaly trio from Sweden (a fair bet for always being the first entry) and ending (another good bet for bookend position) with Zubop, a British ‘Afro-tinged bop fusion’ group. The contortions of that description indicate the problem they face in trying to encompass the diverse range of musical approaches that have come to constitute jazz in its over-one-hundred-year history.
Few people could imagine listening to as much music as Cook and Morton have managed; lack of time and money being the principal reasons, but lack of interest in particular strands of the music being another important reason. Most people fix on particular areas of the music which mean most to them and which combine to form a coherent understanding of jazz. It is probably best at this point for me to explain my own position, because it shapes all of what follows and will allow those who have no empathy with my views to save time and turn to the next article.
For me the best jazz has always had a strong sense of freedom at its core, a gloriously liberating feeling that mixes joy with dissent, pain with defiance. It is why, for example, I adore the music of Charles Mingus, which embodies all of those features. Indeed Mingus could be said to be at the centre of a continuum which starts (as jazz does) with Louis Armstrong, then advances through the music of Duke Ellington and the best bebop players, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, on to Mingus and then to John Coltrane (in all periods of his music) and the full flowering of freedom that he helped initiate – along with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor – and which reached its apex with the transcendent playing of Albert Ayler. So, is there still great jazz being played today and if so, who are the inheritors of that wonderful lineage?
I would suggest that recent years have seen the emergence of a number of musicians who have revitalised a form that was beginning to loose its spirit through a mixture of dull complacency and regressive inertia.
Much of the credit for the creative peak which jazz has reached again in recent years must go to the bassist William Parker around whom an astonishing amount of activity revolves. He co-directs the Vision festival (a meeting of the finest musicians from Europe and America); is, and was, a member of numerous groups (including the Cecil Taylor Trio); has an ongoing duo with poet David Budbill; plays mesmerising solo sets (and has begun to play a lot more than just bass) and leads several important groups, including, In Order To Survive and The Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra.
The Peach Orchard (Aum Fidelity AUM010/11) is a two-CD recording of the In Order To Survive quartet with Parker on bass, Cooper-Moore on piano; Rob Brown on alto, and Susie Ibarra on drums. The dynamic interaction of this group has both grace and ferocity. Brown’s playing has a prowling, tense presence that often develops from, or gives way to, an easy-flowing lyricism which is beautifully bolstered by Parker’s strong, clear notes and the detailed, filigree percussion of Ibarra. Cooper-Moore is a great, overlooked pianist – his neglect as regrettable as that of Herbie Nichols in his day – whose contribution to the group momentum is a crucial element in its exceptional collaborative strength.
Parker’s large group has recorded three CDs, each of which has much to recommend it, but Mayor of Punkville (Aum Fidelity AUM 015/16) is especially good and features seventeen musicians, including the singer Aleta Hayes who sings on James Baldwin to the rescue, an expressive, mystical, fervently realised song.
Spirituality, generosity and sincerity could be said to underpin everything that Parker does. He likes to dedicate his music to other musicians and the higher ideals. Oglala Eclipse, for example ‘is a tribute to Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill, Jackie McLean, Alan Shorter, Charles Tolliver, Gary Bartz, Cecil McBee, Stafford James, Richard Davis, Sam Rivers and to Crazy Horse, Black Elk, Kicking Bear and Red Cloud. The same sun has shone on all of them.’ And that is only half of the dedication. He compares the different elements of the group to the branches of a tree, which is as good an analogy as any for what they do because, while there is a real awareness of each persons individual contribution, there is also a sense of the single collective purpose, a soaring unity. Slick, precision playing is not their intention, this music has instead a lovely, loose multi-coloured texture. Above all it is warm inviting music which, in every way, communicates to those who choose to listen.
William Parker is also a member of one of the most invigorating groups to form in recent years. Other Dimensions In Music first recorded in 1989, but made their best CDs eight years later. Time Is Of The Essence Is Beyond Time (Aum Fidelity AUMOU) is one of the outstanding CDs of the 1990s. The group usually works as a quartet (Daniel Carter, alto, tenor, flute trumpet; Roy Campbell Jr, trumpet; William Parker, bass; Rashid Bakr, drums), but for this recording they were joined by the foremost pianist of this generation, Matthew Shipp.
ODIM’s music is fully improvised, the better to achieve the intensity they seek, and the quietude too; this is multifaceted music, rich in contrasts and declarations. Shipp has the resources to fit perfectly into a group that seems magically aware of group dynamics; shifting as one towards a graspable essence or all but one falling silent as that one player articulates a sublime and spirited statement. In the liner-notes Steven Joerg, the recording’s producer, quotes the late Lennie Tristano, ‘Everybody in this country is very neurotic now. They’re afraid to experience an intense emotion, the kind of intense emotion that’s brought on by good jazz.’ As apt now as it was in 1950 and as apt for Ireland as for America. (None of the musicians mentioned in this article have ever played in the Republic, though some have played in Northern Ireland. Our jazz police are assiduous in their border patrols.)
Daniel Carter, an exceptional player on flute, tenor, alto and, unusually, trumpet (the great veteran Benny Carter, 96 this year, played both alto and trumpet, as does Ornette Coleman, but nobody else that I can think of) is also a member of the band Test. On their Live CD (Eremite MTE021) he is partnered by Sabir Mateen on clarinet, flute, alto and tenor. On the first track, 54 minutes long, they play through every possible permutation while maintaining a frenzied impetus which is aided greatly by the playing of Matthew Heyner, bass, and Tom Bruno, drums. Test regularly play in the New York underground and on the street so they are aware of the benefits of direct, immediate communication. The urgency of their music is a counterblast against superficiality, a reminder of the elemental passions that personify the greatest jazz.
Sabir Mateen is also present on a heartfelt two-CD set by the Raphe Malik Quartet called Looking East on the excellent Boxholder label (BXH 019/020). Malik has for many years been one of the outstanding trumpeters in jazz, having first come to notice in Cecil Taylor’s Unit in the mid-70s, a proving ground for any musician and one he excelled in. The present quartet is completed by Larry Roland, bass, and Cody Moffett, drums. This loosely shaped suite grooves and swings in exalted fashion with all four players adept at the kind of resolute, positive-minded playing that makes this form of music so appealing. Malik has a number of other equally fine recordings, mainly on the Eremite label, all of which should be heard.
Another excellent, though very differant trumpeter, is Leo Smith, who has been playing deeply considered music for over thirty years. There are few trumpeters who could play solo, without multi-tracking, over the length of a CD and manage not only to sustain interest but, with each track, to increase the sense of wonderment at its stark, elegant emotions. Red Sulphar Sky (Tzadik TZ 7070) is beautifully realised by employing an aesthetic that is in contrast to that of all the CDs I have mentioned so far. Here all sound is stripped down to a single, slightly plaintive voice, brightly coloured notes emerge from white silence; energy is present but in concentrated, steadfast form. A sense of devotional contemplation lights every note, lifting it well beyond the earthbound.
Smith’s calm gravitas is also one of the carefully chosen elements of Susie Ibarra’s stately recording Flower After Flower (Tzadik TZ 7057) which features a gathering of musicians which is reconfigurated for each track. The full line-up, along with Smith and Ibarra is: Chris Speed, clarinet; Assif Tsahar, bass clarinet; Charles Bffrnham, violin; Cooper-Moore, piano; John Lindberg, bass and Pauline Oliveros, accordion. The CD has eight tracks, four lengthy pieces which alternate with four short ‘Fractals’, each for solo musician. Having played in many groups led by others, including In Order To Survive, Ibarra has, in recent years, begun to concentrate on her own musical vision; her engrossing, richly detailed drumming and her uniquely voiced, captivating compositions. The music on Flower After Flower is, in the main, serene, almost quiescent but is full of interest because of the elaborate and unexpected contours of each piece. There is room for improvisation, but the ultimate direction of these compositions is carefully controlled.
If William Parker is one lodestone, drawing energy and activity towards him, then Ken Vandermark is another. He too has several groups in co-existence and works fruitfully in several others. He too is acutely aware of the rich inheritance bequeathed to any jazz musician now playing. His recordings are replete with dedications to the forebears: Elvin Jones, Julius Hemphill, Stan Getz, Shelly Manne, Derek Bailey and many others, the monumental musicians who led the way. His awareness and appreciation of the contribution made by those who came before him is made especially explicit on the two-CD set Free Jazz Classics Vols 1 & 2 (Atavistic ALP 137 CD) on which the Vandermark 5 (Jeb Bishop, trombone; Kent Kessler, bass; Tim Mulvenna, drums; Dave Rempis, alto and tenor; Ken Vandermark, tenor) rework a great body of work from the last forty or so years (which is in itself a reminder of just how long the free stream has been flowing through jazz). He draws on formations from Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Joe McPhee, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, Lester Bowie, Archie Shepp, Carla Bley, Frank Wright, Jimmy Giufree, Julius Hemphill and Don Cherry. A list that attests to his impressive judgement. His quintet is vehement in its advocacy of these pieces, never hampered by an overly reverential obsequiousness, they savour the chance to enter the spirit of the original while vigorously reclaiming for themselves the right to make it all new.
That we can hear this music is due to the many small labels which have come into existence in the past decade. The labels I have mentioned, and several others, exist beyond the priority of profit making. The documentation of honest, creative music is their purpose and for this they deserve much support.
Published on 1 May 2003