Monday, 16 February 2009

The Art Ensemble of Chicago - Live in Paris (BYG 1969)

Lester Bowie (trumpet, fleugelhorn, bass drum, horns); Roscoe Mitchell (soprano sax, alto sax, bass sax, clarinet, flute, flute, cymbals, gongs, conga drums, logs, bells, siren, whistles, steel drum, etc); Joseph Jarman (soprano sax, alto sa, clarinet, oboe, flute, marimba, vibes, conga drums, bells, whistles, gongs, siren, guitar, etc); Malachi Favors (bass, fender bass, banjo, log drums, cythar, percussion, etc); Fontella Bass (vocals).

Ken Burns--that “innovative” documentary maker, famous for zooming in on, and panning across photographs--once made the belittling remark that the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) only really catered for “white college students--in France”. Granted there was a large market for avant-jazz related music in France in the 1960’s and 70’s; but what Ken failed to acknowledge when he said this, was that the AACM were pivotal in creating one of the first independent music economies to provide black people--living in disadvantaged areas of Chicago--with an outlet for a serious avant-garde / intellectual voice. What’s more is that the group ran on an egalitarian system that utilised the power of the individual; one of the first independent music industries to do so and achieve some form of success. Nice work Ken. I can’t wait for your next “innovation”.

Perhaps the most famous of the AACM drove is The Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEOC). Guided by Lester Bowie’s compositional strength, and driven by Roscoe Mitchell’s playing ability, AEOC emigrated to Paris in the late 1960’s (often considered their best period) and, in a very short time, produced a prolific amount of work including: Message to Our Folks; Les Stances A Sophie (the soundtrack to the film of the same name); The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass, alongside numerous enigmatic live performances, focusing on black music history, or as they aptly put it “great black music”.

One of these performances (on the 5th of October 1969) was documented and initially released as two separate releases (Live Part 1, and Live Part 2), each covering one piece, on BYG in Japan; then re-released as a double LP on the Actuel revival label Charly in 1981. Despite the production lacking a little in clarity, the record offers up a notable insight to the AEOC’s dexterity within their earlier performances. Perhaps not as structurally concise as their later live performances, there are still the distinguishable elements: unity; the individual; identity, and so on. Obvious compositional comparisons exist to the work of Sun Ra; largely because of the ambiguity behind the deliberation and the spontaneity in the pieces, and how this is furthermore structured within them.

The first piece “Oh, Strange” is somewhat sombre in tone, and is perhaps stronger in narrative than the second piece “Bon Voyage”. My interpretation is of African American history, starting off with theme that hint at African heritage; heavy communal percussion (a drum-kit that has been spread throughout the band members, reinforcing the notion of unity and the individual) with delicate voice (here echoed in saxophone and trumpet melodies and improvisations) ringing out over the top. However, as these melodies become darker and more desperate, the reparative drum patterns take on a new contextual meaning, referencing American slavery. The piece eventually resolves into more disparate playing, deliberately empty with a cold tonal centre. The change in dynamic, as well as a change in instrumentation (vibes, bass clarinet, odd stringed instruments, subtle electronic effects… etc, at times comparable to middle period Harry Partch), seems to be commenting on 1960s African American culture; an intellectual voice, that is still being suffocated by a largely belligerent white bourgeoisie.

“Bon Voyage”, however, starts off from the point of a full-on “freak out“, before centring itself around a two-note bass groove provided by Malachi Favors, and poetry sung by Bowie’s wife Fontella Bass. Again the choice of instrumentation remains to be interesting, this time using: oboes; marimbas; flutes; sirens; bells; as well the more conventional “jazz” set-up, which leads to an aggressive yet more spiritual upheaval than the first piece, without falling wind of other corny spiritual jazz composition.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Liam Og's (pub)

Ever read Charles Bukowski? Ever wondered what it would be like to drop into one of those bars where all dreams seem to have faded and hope seems like a thing of fiction writers? Welcome to Liam Og's! This dark and dingy pub--founded by Irish landlords--was originally situated in Elephant and Castle but now juts out from a corner on Walworth Road with a racing green paint job that reemphasises the fact that, this is indeed Irish. Having dipped in and out of the pub from time to time, on occasion--when spirits are high--the bar staff can be quite pleasant, and if you're lucky they'll regale you with an interesting story; but more often than not they seem unwelcoming, almost like they're unimpressed with your being there.

It's extremely quiet in here, and you feel that you would probably be better off not raising your voice beyond a whisper. Although there is never any violence, the tension is so thick you could almost bottle it. Yet there's something oddly romantic about Liam Og's: there's an Edward Hopper-esque charm, as if you had walked in there just before, or just after a rather untimely event. The d├ęcor is very traditional, like it's an old countryside pub that somehow became lost in the modern world. The furnishings aren't bad either, and there's various bit's of traditional English memorabilia strewn around the place; some of it exciting like the old fashioned bicycle harnessed to the ceiling; some of it rather questionable in it's content.

The drinks are somewhat limited in variation (despite this being one of the few pubs in London where I've found a half decent ginger wine), but they're cheap: one pint being under £3; and of course you'll be able to find one of the best pints of Guinness this side of the river. Liam Og's is definitely not for everyone, but if you think you can bear with the gripes, then it's probably worth a look in, even if it's just for an experience to muse upon at a later date. You may even catch the regular playing "Rhinestone Cowboy"... if you're lucky.

374 Walworth Road
London SE17 2NF
020 7703 3295

Flaherty Corsano Duo - Last Eyes (2005)

Paul Flaherty (alto sax); Chris Corsano (drums)

For some strange reason, I always forget that Paul Flaherty is a great saxophone player. Having unwittingly distanced myself from the infamous sax / drums duo for quite sometime, I decided to let Last Eyes by the Flaherty Corsano Duo blast through my speakers-- more out of curiosity than anything else. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that, when first I picked up the record upon it’s 2005 release date, I had the ears of a novice (or to be more precise, someone who listened to “noise” just “because”; not really making the effort to distinguish right from wrong). Not that there’s anything wrong with this, but my outlook and ears have changed somewhat over the past four years.

Now I’m not trying to make the boorish statement that this is a “noise” record. No… that would puerile. What this is--I would argue--, is probably one of the finest examples of the duo’s compatibility; and I’d even consider saying, the finest playing in their individual recorded careers (although I’ve heard a considerable amount more of Chris Corsano than I have Flaherty). The (at a glance) odd coupling of free-titan Flaherty (who’s released records since the 70s), and the comparative new-comer Corsano, work together ferociously, relentlessly, and concisely.

Stripped down to the bare-essentials (ie, no digital effects, no overdubs… etc), they seem to resist the temptation to “go through the motions”; yes Flaherty does squawk and wail, but he seems to be in some form of control most of the time. As well he shows that he can back this up by occasionally falling back on more intricate passages. Corsano is to some extent less adventurous here than in his latter day playing, but I don’t necessarily see this is a bad thing. Sure he doesn’t focus on pulling off some if his well developed stunts (the ripping off tape from his drums, or the carefully deliberated use of pan lids, for example), but what he does exhibit here is a fast, naked, fearless, and involved attack towards the drums.

Although this is probably most easily defined as a free jazz record, the duo hint at other genre infatuations as well; sporadically referencing psychedelia, out rock, primitivism, as well as a plethora of other musical ideas.