be able to tell, read, invent, and change a story." - Yo-Yo Ma
The new year has started off with a bang. We've got a new administration that
rode in on a tide of new promises and old music by the likes of Springsteen,
Stevie Wonder, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma ("lip-synched"), and Aretha.
And we have what has begun as a promising season of new releases from independent
labels, new operas by independent composers, new performances by independent
musicians, and one great revival by the mother of all independent theater
In late January
I did a two-week stint in England, where I gigged at Warwick University, eating
bad kosher food for six days and failing dismally in my attempt to explain
to a couple of thousand Jews why I was the "Wrong Jew," and then
moved on to Cheltenham, where I gigged with a brilliant sextet led by British
composer Pete Wyer. This led us to the famous Pinewood Studios to record with
Wyer for the BBC, and finally to London, where I gigged on a boat with a fantastic
South African drummer opposite such luminaries as Lol Coxill.
Then I returned
home, rested up for two days, and had the great pleasure of seeing one of
my favorite groups, By Any Means (Rashied Ali, William Parker, and Charles
Gayle), twice on the same snowy evening at two entirely different venues playing
two aesthetically different sets. The first show was at Kenny's Castaways
as part of the Winter Jazz Fest (which used to occur in the Knitting Factory
until its recent move to Williamsburg) to an audience of at least two hundred;
the second was a private concert for less than twenty people in the Film Building
on Ninth Ave. and Forty-Fifth Street as part of the Company of Heaven Jazz
As for the operas,
first I devoured Robert Ashley's trio, Dust,
Celestial Excursions, and Made Out Of Concrete, at La Mama. Concrete
is comprised of six seemingly unrelated stories as seen through the mind of
an old man suffering from a stroke, and explores, among other things, golf
and the fact that a "pyramid was designed to make us ask questions"
such as "Who did it?" and "Why can't we do it now?"
Though I am not
a devout Ashley fan, his importance as a composer,
poet, and performer is evident to me. He is an artist who lives in and thrives
on the present, particularly the simple complexities of everyday lives, while
in turn making these lives transcendent by their very lack of operatic emoting.
This is accomplished by having every nuance of text interpreted in such a
plainspoken, rhythmic way as to reveal its varied emotional textures. This
style, so capably delivered by his "band" (four vocalists and himself),
makes the dialogues timeless.
messages are universal, he is a uniquely American artist who guides us through
the maze of language by using the simplest words to describe the most troubling
feelings. His librettos don't create puzzles, but allow them to create themselves
as they emerge out of these myriad overlapping stories and images. Not unlike
Kantor's use of the bio-object in theater, Ashley creates bio- language, wherein
the actor/singer and his/her dialogue seem to merge to create a third organism
which can best be described as a kind of breathing instantaneous life-force.
In Celestial Excursions, there is a constant tug-of-war between the
mechanical and the electronic without the adherence to spectacle.
On some levels, however down-to-earth the scenarios might appear to
be, Ashley's works, euphemistically deemed "television-operas,"
always stay beyond the grasp of the proletarians he so fervently
concentrates on and probably remain always confined to an audience
of primarily white, downtown intellectuals.
The next new
opera to open this season is the long-awaited John Zorn-Richard Foreman post-punk,
post-Ubu, post-Sade, post-Alice-Wonderland piece, Astronome: A Night at
the Opera, presented by Foreman's Ontological Theater at St. Marks Church
and running through April 2009. It's all you would expect from these great
geniuses of post-post-twentieth-century mixologies. This almost non-verbal
one hour piece contains music by Zorn which was composed first and then given
to Foreman to "act" upon. It's powerful music that employs the talents
of Joey Baron, Trevor Dunn and Mike Patton whose stand-in on stage is a fat,
impossible-to-describe-in brief character with a fake microphone around his
neck the only link for me to the present as far as décor goes and whom
I thought was Mendel Schwartz, a character whose name is intoned many times
during the production, though when I asked Foreman afterward if this indeed
was Mendel Schwartz and if this entire play was seen through his mad eyes
he flatly denied this. Earplugs are handed out with the tickets.
The final opera
a/k/a musical theater piece was a one-day revival of Mark Blitzstein's 1937
The Cradle Will Rock which, like Ashley, is a mostly "sung"
piece. It's indictments of big business, media and religion are still relevant
today. The sad part that its fight for unionizing which it helped foster has
also ended up being a fight for another corrupt arm of the populace it fought
so hard for and most relevant to communists and lefties.
As for the major
revival, that was the Living Theater's fiftieth-anniversary version of Jack
Gelber's great pre-fix/post-fix play The Connection, which, though
a bit dated, still has the strong impact of intense scripting and music. Written
when Gelber was twenty-seven, premiered in 1958, filmed shortly after that
by Shirley Clark, and subsequently revived several times over the years, the
play has always contained great music and great musicians performing it, from
the original Freddie Redd tracks with Jackie McLean in the driver's seat to
such luminaries as Cecil Taylor, Cecil Payne, Gary Bartz and in this recent
production Rene McLean (Jackie's son) and his quartet. The Connection is a
play within a play, filled with improvisation, audience plants, and "real-life"
junkies asking for money for dope in between its two longish acts. It was
so real at times that it almost made me itch for a bag of dope myself.
After a smash
run at BAM, the films of Finnish filmmaker Tuevo Tulio were again dusted off
and displayed, this time at the Anthology Film Archives. The musical moment
of the new year came in Tulio's 1944 film The Way You Wanted Me. Maija,
an innocent country girl turned high-priced hooker, starts revealing secrets
of the other hookers (who in the past had spurned and abused her) to their
rich johns, while all the while in the background a lone piano is plaintively
crooning "Go Down Moses." A few moments later, with the music still
playing, Maija's daughter - who had coincidently shown up at the restaurant
to sell the Finnish equivalent of Girl Scout cookies - opens the door to a
back room only to discover her mom making it with one of the johns, hence
finally realizing how mom has been spending her evenings. The use of this
song to show one's slavery to oneself and the system that can treat impoverished
women so harshly was for me a brilliant stroke.
Some gigs in
recent months that transcended all boundaries include a Joey Baron solo at
the Stone and the intense duo of Matt Maneri and Randy Peterson, also at the
Stone. Randy is one of the most underappreciated, under-heard drummers around.
For the "noise" crowd, the season started with the trio of Thurston
and Gene Moore with Mats Gustaffson on baritone and electronics (check out
the Sonic Youth/Gustafson/Merzbow lp on SYR records).
The oddest show
I've encountered so far this year was Paul Miller aka D.J. Spooky's exhibit
at the Robert Miller Gallery in Chelsea. The show included remixes of everything
from Rodchenko to John Cage, including canvases that were barcoded with a
remix of a Cage piece and that could actually be played when activated.
The major comeback
of the year and possibly of the past 2 centuries was the return of ESP recording
artist Giuseppi Logan in conjunction with the re-release of his 1964 classic
The Giuseppi Logan Quartet. Logan who has been homeless and reported missing
in action for the past 40 years was re-discovered recently in a story not
unlike that of Henry Grimes. The difference being that unlike Grimes, Logan
made only 5 recordings. If he's given more gigs and doesn't disappear again
this fragile 77 year old legend may be one of the "new" joys for
our ears to behold.
Finally, a hint
of some new CDs from five enduring independent labels, some old, two new,
and one blue. First, from Aum Fidelity, there's Farmers by Nature, featuring
the trio of Gerald Cleaver, Craig Taborn and William Parker, who also did
a beyond-the-call-of-duty CD-release set at the Stone. Next, there's Harmonic
Disorder, the new one by the Matthew Shipp trio on Thirsty Ear's Blue Series.
The trio also gave an outstanding performance at the Jazz Standard to accompany
the disc's release.
And, from the
fledgling French label RogueArt, Maison Hantée, a new concept in spoken
word and music featuring both French and English texts by Alexandre Pierrepont
and Mike Ladd, accompanied by such luminaries as William Parker, Hamid Drake,
Roscoe Mitchell, David Murray, and Thurston Moore. And from ECM we're given
the Dowland Project, featuring songs from the twelfth century to the present
sung by tenor John Potter with John Surman on reeds, plus a violinist and
guitarist. [Maison Hantée is in my Top of 2008 list, as is another
Dowland from ECM. - Ed.]
Acid Birds, a
truly fiery release, comes from Italy's all-vinyl limited editions label Qbico
Records. It features Andrew Barker, Charles Waters and Jaime Fennelly playing
3 intense longish tracks including the endearing "If I die, my cat will
eat my face," along with "Larvae" and the title track, packaged
with a beautiful cover and pressed on swirling multi-color vinyl à
la Dave Mason's '60s classic Alone Together.