Friday, August 17, 2007

What I'm Listening to... + Peace Be With Max Roach

I have been listening to Haydn: The Piano Sonatas by Franz Joseph Haydn and John McCabe. Something about Haydn (1732-1809) is very orderly. It's like listening to someone who has learned all the rules and relishing in the walls of those particular boxes. Emblematic of the classical tradition, everything resolves nicely, you can start anticipating his next move after you've listened enough. His bass-clef counterpoint was sometimes a little haunting but usually only for the length of a single measure. I don't imagine Haydn experienced particular compositional expectations as either traps or limitations. I sense he sort of reveled in the grammar of it. Plus having a clear affection for repetition and arpeggiation, he really indulges both in the sonatas.

The funny thing is that he was isolated much of his professional life from other composers, playing as court musician for a rich family. What now sounds like an orderly enunciation of rules is mix of Haydn being an original and his in depth study of the work of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (second of the five sons of Johannes Sebastian Bach and Maria Barbara Bach). I couldn't listen to Haydn all day long, but the joy and playfulness he communicates in the sonatas is definitely infectious, and McCabe is clearly in tune with this spirit. Those qualities make me smile and shake my head in wonder that boxes, for a minute at least, can sometimes be seductive for their own sake/aesthetic not just because of the promise of power and acceptance in their mastery.

Finally got Harriet Tubman's I Am A Man (Knitting Factory, 1998), because I kept hearing "Frozen Fire" on guitarist Brandon Ross' Myspace page and it was driving me nuts not to be able to hear what came immediately before and after it on the album. I'm digging parts of it, though I find myself sometimes frustrated that it doesn't have the explicit sensuality of his solo work Costume (2004). But Harriet Tubman is a masterful trio, and the sensuality that is present is more muscular, more consciously negotiated as far as shared space between the three players, Melvin Gibbs (bass), JT Lewis (drums) and Ross (guitar, banjo, vocals). It's also their earliest easily available recording.

Not only does it have different layers, it has different sonics, different articulations, distinct grooves inhered in the instrumental voices of each of the players. The unique conversations between each of those elements has its particulars depending on the theme, mood, color, genre, legacy being mined. So I Am A Man is a rich album. Even though it's only 46 minutes I myself can be full-up needing to walk around studying on Harriet Tubman after a single listen.

A little more about that sensuality: check out the more recent pieces on the Harriet Tubman MySpace page to get a sense of what I mean about a more explicit sensuality, e.g.: "Araminta's Dream" (2007) and "Don't Be A Slave" (2007) the use of space is really distinct on those tracks, particularly the way each instrument is recorded (I'd really like to know what mics they used, and the set up on Lewis' drums on "Don't Be A Slave") and mixed spatially. I'm hoping to get to Treasure Hunt for the Prototype (2000) in the near future, but have just seen it as a $50 import thus far. (pictured r-l: JT Lewis, Brandon Ross, Melvin Gibbs)

Stevie Wonder's Talking Book: well this never stays out of the player for that long. Classic. Nuff said.

Astor Piazzolla y Su Quinteto Tango Nuevo/ Astor Piazzolla and the New Tango Quintet, Hora Zero/Zero Hour (American Clave/I.R.S. Records, 1986) I love how in Spanish it's "and his New Tango Quartet" but that "su"/"his" was perhaps considered too 196os-corny in 1986. Like it's: "Xavier Cugat and His Latin Beats!" Anyway, I'm still getting a feel for this. Found it listed on MuthaWit's blog. I definitely will listen to music suggested by musicians whose work I like (that's how I got deep into slide guitar), and that reminds me I have to listen to Habib Koite, a Malian guitarist that Felice Rosser (Faith) mentioned at Faith's URB ALT show and also in this great interview by Daniel Garrett. OK, so while I was listening to the late Argentinian composer/musician Astor Piazzolla (who has also composed works for orchestra and bandoneón) I was thinking about passion and my mind gravitated to Mexican singer Chavela Vargas whom I was thinking (at the time) wins out over Piazzolla and his gang with just her voice, a guitar, and an otherwise empty Carnegie Hall stage.

But then I listened to Piazzolla again in a quiet space, not in my car (as I had previously), and it blew me away. The first track, "Tanguedia III" reminded me of a film soundtrack, it has such a feeling of motion. I was sure that I'd heard it in some film. You can't listen to this in a car, or I couldn't, because you've got to move. When you're driving, the only thing in motion is the car. Your body moves very little, and I realized it's pretty hard to respond to tango when you have to hold onto a steering wheel with one or both hands and have only one foot free. There was so much interplay between the instruments, charges and retreats, call outs and answers back (an elegant mosh pit?). I imagine a visual parallel as some of the physical scenes between soldiers in director Claire Denis' ethereal film Beau Travail (1999). I think of tango as unfolding heartache, whether over a lost nation, or love, family, etc so it's not surprising that Vargas, who sings like to break your heart, occurred to me. Piazzolla's bandoneón is, on the other hand a voice of controlled wild abandon, with the constant potential of chaos or implosion. Reminiscent, again, to me of actor Denis Levant's solitary, anguished, yet highly precise dance at the end of Beau Travail. Meanwhile the rest of the group, particularly Fernando Suarez on violin and Pablo Ziegler on piano, often play like the devil's after them. Plus it was produced by Kip Hanrahan. Kip Hanrahan? When was the last time I heard his name? Unfortunately, not in connection with the label American Clave (I mean you gotta look twice at a label that would produce an album of music for various writings by Ishmael Reed, c'mon! Conjure: Music for the Text of Ishmael Reed) But notably in the label site Hanrahan tells this story about Piazzolla:

After the wave of critical and public approval and the swelling of satisfaction on our part (the two only peripherally connected) that followed “Tango: Zero Hour”, Malvi and I bet Astor that he couldn’t come up with a new music that was even more beautiful, more passionate and more complex (honest?) than the Magnus Opum. Unnerved and sneering at the challenge (as always), he came up with “La Camorra” suite, which in many ways was an even more spectacular and transcendental piece than we had even hoped for. Although more mercurial (like it’s creator) than TANGO: ZERO HOUR, it more than satisfied the terms of the bet in dealing with beauty, passion and complexity, while relentlessly shifting and gaining in intensity. It also continued, maybe fulfilled, the Piazzolla incline of The Rough Dancer... pointed out by Fernando Gonzalez, playing with and against tango form, making references to tango passed and tango future, and to Piazzolla’s own past and (possible) future, with direct references to bandoneon players that influenced his understanding of the instrument, and of tango itself, while transcending them. Wow! For some reason, probably because it was eclipsed by the continuing (and justified) attention still being given to TANGO: ZERO HOUR, this piece, and this recording, which many of us who were close to him consider to be perhaps his best recording, the best half hour of Piazzolla recorded, got lost and was never given the prominent place it deserved. If fortune has any sense of balance, this record... Oh, fuck, if fortune had any sense of balance, so many things would be different. Right?
—Kip Hanrahan [La Camorra: The Solitude of Passionate Provocation]
So, I already know what I'll be listening to next right? Well, after some Brahms, Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dang.

Penultimate: listening to a friend's unreleased work which he kindly gifted me. Always puts me in a peaceful space.

I've also been listening to WKCR 89.9 FM NY's week-long tribute to Max Roach who passed on Thursday, 16 August 2007. He was 83. I flat out hollered when I read that he had gone on. Roach was one of the folks that made me fall in love with rhythm. Learning rhythm in school was about a rigid math problem. (Whack-whack-whackity-whack-whack.) It wasn't alive, it was a metronome that got turned on to ensure precision along the melodic line. But Roach, man. He. Was. Time. He made time something alive out of that notation and those time signatures. No less precise, but he gave it breath for me, a heartbeat, a flow. And he could play in a tailored suit without seeming to break a sweat (!) and never looked tight (as in uncomfortable or forced). This morning I was listening to the drummer's Freedom Now Suite: We Insist! which I hadn't heard in years, and some of his early work with Theolonius Monk including a breakdown of a recording of "Well You Needn't." It's a real gift that WKCR is devoting this amount of airtime to Max Roach allowing for the broadcasting of the diversity of composing, playing, and recording work he created in his outstanding 50+ year career.


At 6:56 AM, Blogger ReggieH said...

Wonderful post. And to think, when growing up I thought I was the only one who was listening to Mozart, Mingus, and "Don't Rock the Boat" all in one day! LOL

Thanks for the "Harriet Tubman" hook-up. I'll definitely be checking them out.

And you will love Piazzolla's "Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night!" You are right, however, his is really NOT 'casual listening' type music. It's 'cinematic' and listening to it he takes me to a seedy-elegant club in Buenos Aires at night...amazing.

PS: did you know that the premiers of Hayden's "Paris Symphonies" (nos. 82-87) were conducted by a black man, Afro-French composer Joseph de Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges? He's one of my (18th Century) heroes!

At 7:37 AM, Blogger John K said...

Ditto what Reggie said, but also, I'm so excited that someone who knows music is writing about Harriet Tubman and I Am a Man! I bought that CD years ago at Other Music in the Village, and was grooving to it for a long while. I didn't know anyone else who was listening to it, so it's great to see you writing about it and their work in general. Speaking of Haydn, I used to think of him as fitting Colette's epithet about Bach, "a sublime sewing machine," until I took a course with Louise Vosgerchian that introduced me to the art of the string quartet. That changed my opinion of Haydn and the other Classical-era musicians forever, though I still like both Bach and the post-Beethoven movements in European art music more. Haydn definitely has his charms.

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