Thursday, June 30, 2011

Nels Cline / Marc Ribot at (le) Poisson Rouge

by Kurt Gottschalk
photo by Peter Gannushkin

The pairing of Nels Cline and Marc Ribot was such a perfect prospect that it almost seemed bound to fail. Each of the guitarists is so enigmatic that their first meeting onstage — at Poisson Rouge in Manhattan’s West Village on June 15 — was easy to anticipate but difficult to prognosticate. The meeting was even seen as significant enough that what could have been a concert preview became a Downbeat cover story.
The two guitarists move in similar circles but are quite different. The difference might be summed up by saying that while Cline can play anything, Ribot can play anywhere. Cline is a chameleon who can find a place whether he’s playing with the rock band Wilco or out improvisors such as Andrea Parkins or Gregg Bendian, or backing Yoko Ono or painter Norman Wisdom. In the Downbeat story he’s even quoted as saying “I don’t want to have a style ... I’ll do whatever it takes to communicate the essence of the song.”
Ribot is no less versatile but always immediately recognizable. Whether playing with Laurie Anderson or John Zorn or as a sideman or leader for any number of groups, his sharply rhythmic playing is unmistakeable. That they’re both supremely talented and adept at working in varieties of settings was never the question. But with so much that they might do, it was hard to imagine what they actually would.
They began a set that would run close to 90 minutes at a natural starting point, Ribot leaning toward rhythm and Cline toward melodic runs, and worked toward a common ground that found both pulling Ayleresque lines off the necks of their acoustic guitars.
They brought the first piece to a close in short time and then started an easy blues with Cline playing slide. It was quickly taken over, however, by a spritely melody, blue turned to spring green. From there they built a bass heavy riff that morphed into unplugged skronk, each section lasting less than two minutes. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the blues foundation that freed them to explore. Both gentlemanly, each always complementing the other, they shared a conviction to keep moving without pushing too hard.
Having covered considerable stylistic ground in the first two pieces and first quarter hour, they relaxed into what they had newly made their own. On the next piece, Cline played harplike repetitions over Ribot’s jagged lines, building to more slide work from Cline as Ribot pounded a bass line. For a third piece Cline prepped his guitar strings and they played a fragmented Tin Pan Alley that incorporated a bit of flamenco and other, less explicable gestures.
When they switched to electric (Ribot playing a hollowbody Gibson, Cline on a lap steel played with a bow) they created a mountainous noise that moved almost unfathomably into a crowded groove. Cline took over with his electronic effects pushing into an electric abstract Americana. Ribot sang “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” over a quiet squall before then made their way back to a distorted Ayleressence. The magic was borne of their knowing that they didn’t have to stay in one place, nor did they have to rush anywhere.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Suoni Per Il Popolo, June 15-25, Montreal

by Mike Chamberlain

I have been thinking about music recently in light of remarks by Erdem Helvacioglu and Satoko Fujii, two musicians for whom I have nothing but the highest respect as musicians, thinkers, and human beings.  The questions have to do with categories, how we label music, how we talk about and what we expect from the music we listen to.  Helvacioglu, in an interview we did in New York in April, talked about how he wanted to validate beauty in avant-garde music.   The avant-garde has concerned itself in large part, Helvacioglu was saying, in terms of dealing with expressions of the negative and ugly in life., and he, who self-identifies as an avant-garde musician, is putting “beautiful sounds” (my quotation marks) in his own cinematically-inspired electronic music.  Fujii, a pianist and composer whose list of recordings and collaborations is totally astonishing both for stylistic breadth and sheer output, after a concert at the Sala Rossa in Montreal during the recently-concluded Suoni Per Il Popolo that could fairly be described as beautiful in its various aspects, asked if I thought there was such a thing as jazz—Fujii questioning her own position within and among the categories of jazz and avant-garde music.

What is jazz? is the oldest and most boring question around, but discussions about the meaning of the term go far beyond mere definition.  It’s interesting to me that rock fans don’t obsess over the meaning of the term rock, at least not nearly to the same extent that jazz fans and music geeks do with the term jazz.

Part of it is due to the fact that rock is much more secure as an industry and a place for musicians to make money.  The Beatles, the death of John Coltrane, and the schism wrought by Miles’ going electric killed off jazz as part of mainstream culture.  Wynton Marsalis came along in the early 80s and attempted to “save” jazz by taking possession of the term, defining it as a philosophy wedded to a certain set of sounds, a definition that devalued experimentation in jazz.  This wouldn’t have been such a problem if no one had paid attention to Marsalis, but when he became the most public voice of jazz, his ideas about the music helped to shape the definition of jazz in the public mind, or those who were still paying attention, and in the minds of people like festival programmers.  There isn’t much money in jazz (Fujii and her husband, the trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, rode the “magic bus” from Toronto to Montreal for $10 on their way to play the Suoni Per Il Popolo. I don’t think that Stevie Wonder and his entourage came anything but first class to play a free outdoor show at Montreal’s big jazz festival, the FIJM, last year), and jazz is simply not found much in the general public’s daily lived experience.   But although there’s less money in jazz, the term itself is sold by festivals and venues around the world, and there is much discussion among we self- or otherwise appointed music commentators about how the marketing aspect of the term becomes at least equally as important as to how the festivals work to promote the careers and help to further the music that could be labeled as jazz.

I’m not a purist.  I saw Patti Smith and Elvis Costello each for the first time at the Montreal jazz festival— and many others who are not jazz artists.  It doesn’t bother me that the Montreal jazz festival presents a lot of music that no one in his right mind would call jazz.  First, I don’t listen only to jazz, so I’m pleased any time the programmers book an artist or group I am interested in seeing live, no matter what they’re playing.  Second, I buy the argument that the festival makes about how the bigger concerts, by artists like Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Sting, and Prince, help to pay for the artists who don’t produce as much money at the box office.

But there’s a problem.  The pool of “big name” jazz artists who headline at the FIJM is aging and going on to the great jazz band in the sky.  Perennials Dave Brubeck and Tony Bennett are performing in Montreal this week, and not to be too disrespectful to either of those men, one wonders if the pair have more than 10 or 12 more FIJM appearances in them—put together, of course.  The problem has to do with what the festival has done or not done over the years to renew its jazz content, and to pay attention or give opportunities to some artists whose music is considered to be “too” avant-garde. Why has Anthony Braxton, for example, never been invited to do an invitation series at the FIJM?  It’s a no-brainer.  Of course, I grant that it might not be possible to arrange such a series easily, given personal and business considerations on both sides, but assuming some kind of mutual willingness, it seems that the set of concerts would benefit both Braxton and the festival.   And there is an audience for such endeavours.  But people like Andre Menard and Laurent Saulnier, who book Montreal, seem to either not see it or not want it.  Case in point: virtually the only artists from Chicago who ever play Montreal are Kurt Elling and Patricia Barber.  Nary a Ken Vandermark,  a Von Freeman, or a Nicole Mitchell in sight at the Montreal festival, to name just a few.  The so-called avant-garde jazz that is included in the festival is basically a token. The John Zorn double concert last year is the exception, not the rule. There is no real commitment to making a prominent place for the tradition of experimentation in jazz, unlike, say, at the Vancouver jazz festival.

Fortunately, we in Montreal are well-served by a smaller but in ways more vital festival, the Suoni Per Il Popolo, held at the Casa del Popolo, Sala Rossa, and associated venues in the first three weeks in June.  (This year, the Suoni finished the same weekend that the FIJM kicked off.) The Suoni’s name invokes people, not a musical category, and in its eclecticism and DIY spirit reflects the sensibility, along with relatively cheap rents, that has made Montreal fertile ground for artists of all descriptions.

Since Mauro Pezzente and Kiv Stimac opened the Casa del Popolo in September 2000, avant-garde jazz has been a feature of the programming during the regular season as well as the Suoni itself, alongside electronic, noise, musique actuelle, folk, rock, cabaret, spoken word, and so on.  They have built a small empire on the upper end of St-Laurent Boulevard that for some years now has included the gorgeous Sala Rossa on the understanding that the constituencies for the various music overlap in this city, and more important, on the ethos that creativity comes from the margins, and this year’s Suoni program included the likes of Omar Souleyman, Martin Tetreault, Borbetomagus, Malcolm Goldstein, the Shalabi Effect, and Keiji Haino as well as Charles Gayle, David S. Ware, Satoko Fujii’s Ma-do, Farmers By Nature, the Full Blast Trio, Atomic, and The Thing. This eclecticism and commitment to the avant-garde is the rule, not the exception, at the Casa/Sala/Suoni.

Of the concerts I attended, I was impressed, as always, by turntablist Martin Tetreault’s inventiveness and wit as he trawls the cultural landscape for materials for his constructions.  His duo with David LaFrance, a member of Tetreault’s Quatour Tournedisques, was inspired by recent prophecies of the Apocalypse; he billed it as music for before, during, and after the end of the world, a 40-minute piece that delightfully blended electronics and snippets of music and radio broadcasts that carried the listener through dread and destruction to pastoral.

Fujii’s Ma-do is a quartet comprised of Fujii, Tamura, bassist Notikatsu Koreyasu, and drummer Akita Horitoshi.  Delicacy, aggression, beauty, and power all have a place in the sensitive interplay of the quartet.  The first set was exploratory and tentative, but the quartet opened things up on the second set, Tamura—surely the most underrated trumpeter in jazz—showing his incredible range, the quartet deferring resolution until the tension would resolve in a burst of aggression or joyous swing.

David S. Ware played a solo set in which he did two long improvisations, one on tenor, one on sopranino.  He put out bursts of single-note lines in a performance that I found more rigorous than engaging.  I was only able to catch Farmers By Nature’s first set, and again, the trio seemed to spend much of the 45 minutes searching for the “it” that improvisers seek.  I found much to like, especially in Craig Taborn’s provocative note placements, but I didn’t find enough moments of clarity  to suit my taste.  The second set, from what I was told later, was much more satisfying in this regard.

I have seen The Thing three times. Each performance was different.  And each was impressive for its beauty, power, and inventiveness, whether they were crushing Sixties’ soul and R’n B, freaking energy music, or as in this concert, engaging in improvisations that included a version of “Summertime” that re-imagined the piece to evoke not a southern pastoral lament but the summertime energy of a big-city and a section of “A Love Supreme.”  Mats Gustafsson and Joe McPhee challenged one another, bassist Ingebrigt Hacker-Flauten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love (my favorite drummer this side of Hamid Drake) churning out funky swing, turning time on a dime when the moment called for it.

In all of this, there was a commitment to creativity, to inventiveness, to a bricolage of the 90-year history of jazz and the popular musics that are now a part of the common musical vernacular.  Beauty?  Yes.  Jazz?  Most assuredly.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pretentious Music is Pretentious

by Kurt Gottschalk

I recently had someone comment on the playlist for my radio show that something I was playing was so pretentious he was going to turn it off. In fact, he made a point of saying that he did not pledge to my show during the WFMU marathon because I play this sort of thing. And in general, this is totally fine by me. Nobody should like everything, and I realize that much of what I play will appeal to a small minority of people. I do, however, find it odd when someone feels their objections must be heard publicly. We revel together but object to separate ourselves from the pack. But I’m not sure why people need to announce that they’re leaving the pack. Perhaps to make it clear that they are superior to the rest, and not the other way around.

All of that is par for the course for freeform radio, for non-mainstream media or unusual artistic expression. But reading the listener’s comment I got hung up (as I often do) on a word. “Pretentious.” It’s a word I used a lot in high school. It was what we punks stood against in the battle of the “P” factions: punk vs pretension, punk vs pomposity, punks vs posers. It was clear. It was wrong. It was, it meant — I found myself at a loss. It meant being something other than genuine. Didn’t it? And punk was all about dying your hair and being yourself. It was, I reasoned, the same word root as “pretend.” The implication is usually “putting on airs of intellectualism,” or more simply “acting smarter than you are.”

If my assumptive leaps aren’t too huge, the argument then is that the music I played on the radio that afternoon was the direct result of someone acting as if they were smarter that they really are. There may be other syntactical paths to take, but it seems clear in any event that art itself can’t really be pretentious and that the accusation is actually lobbed at the artist. At which point, it seems pretty untenable. We can’t know that an artist is being true to himself or herself without knowing them personally, and if we knew them personally surely we would make the claim about them, not their work. “I can’t stand listening to Paul Simon,” for example. “I met him at a cinematographer’s party and he was so pretentious!” Is Paul Simon’s music pretentious because he’s not actually South African or Brazillian? Is it less so (or for that matter all the more so) because he often hires musicians native to the land he’s emulating? Or is it he who is pretentious for making the records? I don’t find Paul Simon to be pretentious. He strikes me as refreshingly genuine, although I’ve never met him. But clearly one could find him pretentious. Taken apart, though, the claim that his music — any music — is pretentious is, at least to me, befuddling.

So let’s assume my playlist commenter meant to say that the artists were pretentious for making a work that, well, that sounded as if it were made by someone smarter than they really were. What does that sound like? My intention here isn’t to ridicule the commenter into a corner. I got stuck on it for precisely the reason that it was something I had said many times in the past myself. We punks hated bands like Genesis and Yes because they were so “pretentious.” And I find now that I didn’t know what I meant when I said it.

The word itself comes from the Latin “praetendere,” literally “to stretch in front of,” like a curtain. So pretentious music, perhaps, is stretched in front of the artist, hiding their true identity as a regular person. In that regard, it would seem that masked performers such as Kiss, The Residents, MF Doom or Slipknot are really the pretentious ones, and that may be right. But the semantics now are clouding the issue. For what someone really means when they call an artist or their work “pretentious” is, simply, that they don’t like it and, more importantly, that they don’t approve.

Essentially what the accusation does is set up a dichotomy — “pretentious” music as opposed to “nonpretentious” music — and uses the language to make it clear which of the two classes we should prefer. This is a common and cowardly approach in discussing art. It’s not a statement of quality, it’s a simple matter of categorization. Another example will help to illustrate.
Last fall, I was asked to speak on a panel held by the Jazz Journalists Association. In the endless endeavor of critic list-making, the panel was to consider the best records of the year so far. As I’ve written elsewhere, I object to the notion of besties lists, but I’m certainly able to talk about records I like and why I like them. Since I didn’t have personal bests to select from, I brought records that I loved and which I thought might not be as well known and might spur interesting discussion. One of my favorite records from 2010 was the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra’s Stems and Cages, a project of the Norwegian city of Trondheim, which commissions different artists to assemble and lead versions of the band. Since the town is hiring someone to assemble a jazz orchestra, and the artist hired is presumably doing so in good faith, it seemed to me fair game to consider the music as “jazz” and to take it as a legitimate starting point.

The audience, and one gentleman in particular, objected vehemently. It was not jazz, they said. I asked why not, and the gentleman most vehement responded sternly that “it wasn’t based in the blues.” Really? Are we still hung up on that? I asked if all of Eric Dolphy’s music was based in the blues and he insisted that it was.

What he was doing, just like my playlist commenter, was creating a linguistic foil in order to exclude a piece of work from the class that is considered acceptable.

A third example: A friend once objected, after seeing a performance piece where a man dressed as a chef simulated sexual intercourse with a side of beef, that it “wasn’t art.” Sure it was art. If it wasn’t art, it was real, in which case we should really be worried.

What she meant to say was that it was bad art. What the vehement gentleman meant to say was that it was bad jazz. What the playlist commenter meant to say was that it was bad music. But saying that would mean making a claim that would have to be defended. If you say something is bad, you have to be prepared to defend it. If you say something is simply not what it’s presented as, then the discussion’s over. It’s not in the club. Case closed. There’s nothing to defend.

Which, really, is a pretty pretentious argument to make.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise”

Cornelius Cardew’s “Treatise”
by Brian Olewnick

Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise (1963-1968) has become, in some circles, the pre-eminent graphic score of 20th century avant-garde music. Particularly among those musicians and listeners who value improvisation, it seems to have nudged aside works like Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis or Brown’s Four Systems as the go-to score, in part or whole. Spanning 193 pages, with absolutely no written instructions (though the double line of octaves running along the bottom of each page at least suggests that the interpretation flow along musical lines, it has indeed been danced to), it consists of an enormous wealth of calligraphic richness: numbers, isolated musical signs, arcs, circles, squares, squiggles, quasi-representational figures and, most of all, lines, all rendered with a dazzling degree of elegance. A central spine (Cardew referred to the work as “a vertebrate”) runs through the work at mid-page, with occasional interruptions, anchoring it.

Cardew brought together musicians to perform the work, in whole or part, numerous times while it was gestating but after his conversion to a particularly orthodox version of Maoism around 1971, he renounced it along with all of his other prior compositions as bourgeois artifacts, effete pieces that did nothing to elevate the worker. For quite a while, it seemed to have gone into hibernation apart from often being included in performances by AMM after Cardew’s death in 1981. Keith Rowe had participated in many a realization of the piece, developing his own translation of image groups therein, and it served as a touchstone for him, perfectly melding the worlds of free improvisation and post- Cagean music. AMM would only play a handful of the pages at a time, Rowe believing that a proper, considered reading would devote six to ten minutes per page.

Ironically, it was an exceedingly rapid version of “Treatise,” led by Art Lange in 1999 (hat [now] ART 2-122) that brought the work back into the public forum. Lasting a mere 140 minutes (or about 44 seconds per page), it was necessarily a rush job and hardly scratched the surface of the piece. Rowe continued to champion it, however, playing excerpts in concert and talking about it with some constancy. Soon, Treatise became something of a staple among the burgeoning eai group of musicians and listeners, discussed and analyzed frequently and seemingly performed, in one manner or another, every other week.

Two recent renditions have surfaced, one a reading of four pages, one in its entirety, that approach the piece from distinctly different vantages, the first “traditional”, the second, not so…

Choi Joonyong, Hong Chulki, Jin Sangtae and Ryu Hankil are four of the leading improvisers in South Korea, having released a slew of impressive recordings over the last five or six years, ranging from ultra-quiet to extremely harsh sound ranges, generally incorporating low-fi devices including turntables, CD players, film projectors and assorted “broken” electronics. For this performance, they chose four pages, 20-23, and imposed a 40-minute time limit on themselves, by design or intuition coming close to that Roweian standard. I think it’s fair to say that the sounds generated bear no obvious correlation to the score (there’s a projection on the rear wall, but the musicians don’t look that way, instead occasionally—not always—peering down at their tables at individual sheets of the score there), something that’s likely quite common in realizations of Treatise. One doesn’t know how the graphics were read only that the resultant music was somehow molded into something different than it would have been otherwise. While they don’t seem to be terribly conscious of each other, certainly not reacting directly to what one another is playing, they do manage to come to mutual halts on a few occasions and cohesive ensemble formations on others. But, in the AMM tradition, they seem to respond to the totality of the room, the performance of four pages of Treatise inside it being just one element occurring at the time. Some twelve minutes in, a sustained drone is developed, possibly reflecting the omnipresent spine of Treatise that bisects almost every page, but these musicians have short patience with any kind of stasis and that drone is summarily interrupted by the clatter of tin cans and shards of static and abruptly brought to a halt, Hong and Choi standing up and entering a rear room, the latter banging something twice, clearly, the former possibly setting into motion some small toys. The set continues in this staggered, irregular, harsh fashion, the sounds of metallic clatter or a table being pushed across the floor or Hong leaving the space entirely to sound the horn on a car parked outside as likely as the more “routine” sounds of cracked electronics or screeching (recordless) turntable. It seems at a far remove from the elegant calligraphics of Cardew, the graceful arches on p. 22 or the ascending cascade of “f” shapes on p. 24. But that, of course is to look at things visually, not necessarily ascribing another kind of meaning to the shapes, lines and numbers. There’s a brief shot of p. 24 on Choi’s table and one can glimpse a dense concentration of markings he’s made thereon, so you realize that something is afoot. But that’s one of the essential beauties of Treatise: its utter openness to interpretation. Here, this listener ultimately became absorbed in the goings-on, rapt in the appreciation of the unique sound-world created via this singular model. But are there “wrong” readings?

Shawn Feeney (in a work realized in 2002, though uploaded only recently) took an entirely other approach, treating Cardew’s work as an explicitly graphic piece, devoid of intuitive meaning, removing (apart from the initial idea) any human interpretation at all. He first arranged the 193 pages to scroll across the screen from right to left, a beautiful enough image and, really, how Treatise should be viewed if at all possible, making more apparent the thoroughgoing structure of the composition. He then programmed a sine wave generator to activate upon encountering any morsel of black ink as that portion passed an invisible y-axis midway on the screen. Tones grew higher above the central spine, lower beneath it. There might be more to it with regard to specific pitches, quavers, etc., but that’s it in a nutshell. Feeney essentially sets it in motion, then stands back and watches/listens to what unfurls. It’s necessarily lacking in many of the prime elements that have been part and parcel of, I imagine, virtually every prior performance of the work: the consideration of the musician(s) involved, what they bring to the shapes and symbols they encounter, how they process them. This could easily, it seems, lead to a sterile, “science experiment” kind of enterprise but somehow that doesn’t happen, at least to these ears. Instead, several aspects emerge. One is a rather surprising sense of narrative and even drama. If you’re at all familiar with the score, you can’t help but anticipate what’s going to happen when certain standout pages enter the arena—the baroque apparatus on p. 183, for instance, or the series of large, black circular shapes on pp. 130-135. You have a couple of inches of “lead time” as the score enters the screen on the right, constantly refreshing your expectations. Another, more salient result is that, by virtue of the laser-like precision of the sine tones, you gain a greater appreciation of the microstructures within Treatise and how they relate to medium-level and larger superstructures: the risings and fallings, the contrast between smooth and rough shapes, solid and open, intensely intricate and expansively sparse. It’s one thing to view this enormous array of figures, another to have their orientation and relationships explicated, even to this fairly minimal degree, by sound. The central spine becomes quite prominent and all but unwavering (though when Cardew chooses to draw it by hand instead of rule on pp. 169-170, it’s wonderful to hear the bumpiness), causing distress in some listeners but, for myself…well, it is a vertebrate, after all. Indeed it is and that nerve column does hold things together and, I think deserves its recognition.

By consciously putting aside the entire area where, arguably, the deepest and most absorbing investigations of “Treatise” are likely to be found, Feeney has succeeded in shedding substantial light on aspects of it that are too often overlooked. In my limited discussion with other musicians and listeners, this has caused large divisions with most, I think it’s fair to say, coming down against it, finding it too formulaic and literal-minded. I can’t help but disagree while acknowledging its severe limitations. I think of it more like a scanning electron microscope photo of an object. That same object, limned by an artist able to bring the wealth of his and others’ experience to it, to imbue it with ideas, may well provide the greatest “value”. But the microscope, inhuman as it is, provides a kind of information inaccessible to one’s eyes. To these ears, Feeney’s thus made a significant contribution to the anatomy and history of this almost 50-year old work, a piece—a creature-- that, one suspects, has only begun to reveal its richness.

John Cage: How to Get Started

John Cage
How to Get Started
Microcinema International

One thing that made John Cage’s spoken pieces (such as, most famously, Indeterminacy) so great was his instrument. He was a tireless constructer of environments and constraints for the production of music and sound, but times his soft, mellifluous voice, often with a tickle in the back of it, is what made his structures for spoken word so eminently listenable. He could emote delight and seriousness at the same soft-spoken moment like nobody.
In 1989, at the age of 76 and three years before his death, Cage was booked to present his radio play James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet at a conference on sound design held at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California. Just before the morning presentation, Cage changed his mind and decided instead to create a new work with the title How to Get Started. He made notes on ten subjects — touching on silence, harmony, time, composition — and then spoke extemporaneously on each for three minutes and, typical for him, weaving in stories about friends and other artists. Each section was recorded and then played back as he began the next so that, by the end, there were ten layers of Cage speech.
The piece works on two levels. First it is, of course, the (somewhat) candid thoughts of one of the 20th Century’s most significant composers. To that regard, little of what he offers will be new to anyone who’s spent much time learning his philosophy, although anyone who has spent the time learning it likely will also delight in hearing him say it again. And it’s in that respect that the recoding is of such interest. Cage’s voice is weakened here. He drops to a whisper at times, seemingly not within his control. But the familiar cadence and timing is still present. Cage didn’t feel the need, in his lectures or his compositions, to fill all of the space available. (This point is made evident to the point of celebrity in his 4’33”, but is true even beyond the infamous silent composition.) As a result, the successive generations of How to Get Started grow rich without dissolving into cacophony. It’s not a crowd scene, it’s just ten John Cages standing in different spots of what feels like a very large room.
Microcinema International has given this unusual piece of Cageology a handsome release, in an oversized digipack with a booklet including a helpful essay by Laura Kuhn and a transcript of  Cage’s performance. The piece was restored for use as an audio installation at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, and is also the genesis for a website ( which will host commissioned spoken performances.
How to Get Started is far from Cage’s most important work. It’s not even, strictly speaking, his best recorded lecture. But it’s a fascinating look into an aesthetician with complex ideas on composition and spontaneity.
- Kurt Gottschalk

Heiner Stadler’s Tribute to Bird and Monk

Heiner Stadler
Tribute to Bird & Monk
(Labor Records)

By Stuart Broomer

I’ll confess to not recognizing the name of Heiner Stadler when this reissue of a two-LP set from 1978 arrived, and I’m not sure Tribute to Bird and Monk (originally on Tomato, it’s now on Labor Records, LAB 7074) would have caught my eye back then. I have certain engrained prejudices against tribute records by musicians who are unknown to me—so much of it just feels like false advertising. But a look at the personnel here was enough to make me interested.

The basic group is a sextet, its members chosen with rare taste for both skill and inventiveness: Thad Jones on cornet; George Lewis, trombone; George Adams, tenor saxophone and flute; Stanley Cowell, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Lenny White, drums. Cecil Bridgewater is listed as a special guest, though he replaces Jones on a single track; Warren Smith adds tympani on two tracks.

It’s a surprising group, with many of the members having credentials in both mainstream jazz and the avant-garde, like Jones, known then for his Basie association and his own big band, but a surprisingly outside improviser when presented with the opportunity in Sonny Rollins’ 1963 quartet; or Lewis, then associated with Anthony Braxton but with a season in the Basie band behind him as well. That kind of mixed background extends to everyone in the group, perhaps most notably Adams, whose proto post-modern solos could regularly bounce amongst suave bop, bar-walking gutbucket and “new- thing” effusions.

There are, I think, all sorts of reasons why recording sessions put together and led by arrangers –“concept” records especially--shouldn’t work, whether it’s the auteur’s distance from spontaneity or the creative indifference of session players, but occasionally a CD in this category can be transformative. This is one of them.

Stadler arranged three tunes by Charlie Parker and three by Thelonious Monk, and he approached them in a way that makes them touch on the whole spectrum of jazz and certain key issues in its making. It included a radical rethinking and reapplication of New Orleans polyphony, often focusing collective improvisation around the composed melodic materials of Parker and Monk. This polyphony is often set within a broad tonal language that expands towards free jazz, mixing dissonant collisions and freedom of choice with the original harmonic content of Parker and Monk’s musics.
In addition to its own power, Stadler’s writing draws us across jazz history, so that we’re listening to it all at once, though specifically from the compositional (formal and harmonic) perspective of Parker and Monk. It’s a radical view in that it treats jazz as a range of possibilities rather than as a specific and progressive sequence of styles (in this sense, it’s oddly akin to the contemporaneous European band the Anachronic Jazz Band, which performed repertoire by Parker, Monk, and Coltrane in the style of traditional jazz ). The result is dense, lively and sometimes manic, and the lines between composition, “arrangement,” and improvisation blur into continuously dynamic music.

Robert Palmer’s original liner notes provide precise descriptions of Stadler’s scores, from describing the elaborate deconstruction of “Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are” (including Stanley Cowell’s piano solo accompanied by the three horns playing a transcription of Monk’s original piano solo), to the kinds of verbal directions for solos that arise throughout the charts, like this for Lewis’s trombone feature on Parker’s “Au Privave”: “Play in approximately half tempo but never precisely. Play either slower or faster and combine the different half tempo levels by means of ritardandos and accelerandos: short excursions into the original medium fast tempo should be played throughout your solo.”

Here Stadler is effectively developing the improvisational content, dictating the strangely arrhythmic component while liberating note choice. Elsewhere there are directions about lengths of freely improvised interludes, keeping them short to prevent the loss of melody, Stadler keenly aware that melody was always Monk’s sculptural material. He also understands the special abilities of his performers, so that the compositional language is perfectly compatible with many of the individual musicians’ best work. It’s a near-ideal mix of personalities and there’s a definite sense of reciproity. It sounds like everyone in the group found Stadler’s methods a stimulating challenge, a genuinely different approach to familiar material.

In an era when so much music has been reissued, including work of marginal quality, it’s a surprise to encounter something this good for the first time. There’s a certain painful irony to that as well, for Stadler is not just revising Parker and Monk’s music: he’s paying tribute to its genuinely radical spirit, finding openings in it that will admit and expand the spectrum of jazz practice. Tribute to Bird and Monk is a visionary view of bop in its revolutionary glory that appeared just before the arrival of neo-conservatism in jazz, the very force that would make work like Stadler’s invisible, while sapping bop of its historical dynamism and meaning.

Stadler’s Tribute to Bird and Monk belongs with a very select group of recordings. It can be included in a special category of major works neglected specifically because they were put together by composer/ arrangers who weren’t widely known. Examples include A.K. Salim’s Afro-Soul Drum Orgy (Prestige), for which Salim assembled a band of Johnny Coles, Yusef Lateef, Pat Patrick and around a half-dozen percussionists from Africa and the Caribbean and worked out a few phrases of a few bars each. Another relatively unsung masterpiece is John Benson Brooks’ Alabama Concerto (Riverside), based on Alabama folk songs and played by a superb quartet with Cannonball Adderley, Art Farmer, Barry Galbraith and Milt Hinton. Brooks’ Concerto simultaneously fuses jazz with folk sources and classical form and it does so with an unlikely ease and naturalness.

Stadler’s Tribute also has strong affinities with some highly individualistic and brilliant treatments of the jazz pantheon: with George Russell’s arrangement of Monk’s “Round Midnight” (on Ezz-thetics on Riverside with Eric Dolphy and an assortment of sound effects that include piano interior); with Misha Mengelberg’s “Ellington Mix,” a medley of deconstructed Duke tunes (on the ICP’s Bospaadje Kinjnehol I on their eponymous label); and also with Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project (HatHut).

George Lewis may have been inspired by his work with Stadler when he created his own tribute to BIrd. Lewis debuted his Homage to Charlie Parker—sans actual Parker material--at the 1978 AACM
Festival in Chicago, recording it for Black Saint the next year.