Blowin’ Balloons

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “jazz age” aside, the relationship between America’s “indigenous” music–as jazz is mistakenly referenced–and American literature is symbiotic but somewhat murky. Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through the Slaughter imagined the hard scrabble beginnings of “jass” through the life of New Orleans progenitor and cornet player Buddy Bolden. Beat-groupie John Clellon Holmes’ The Horn riffed on racial and artistic themes. The Beats themselves utilized the rhythms of bebop and something of its spirit as they shouted “Go, daddy, go!” And Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel takes the music’s name and forms as its own. Some of the best jazz literature isn’t fiction at all. Think of saxophonist Art Pepper’s memoir of heroin addiction and its consequences, Straight Life. Then there’s pianist Hampton Hawes’ Raise Up Off Me or Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog, both of which address hardship (or inflicting it) and the creative process.

Jazz and literature share forms of theme and improvisation. We want literature, like music, to swing with tempo and feeling, to push boundaries and make something new. We don’t mind jazz music being obtuse or challenging; in fact we expect it. We want musicians to pursue risk, and that requires a quotient of failure. When language moves away from obvious meaning, when it takes risks, we’re uncomfortable. What does it all mean?

That’s a question I asked myself dozens of times during a reading of Nathaniel Mackey’s Bass Cathedral. Mackey, winner of the National Book Award for his 2006 collection of poetry Splay Anthem, likes to push and take chances. Sound, rhythm and meaning are as important to Mackey’s prose as to his poetry. It’s easier to read Bass Cathedral if you think of it as poetry, full of word play and symbolism. The book constantly presents us with open-ended images. It’s full of realizations, things occurring in the characters’ minds and spinning of mental wheels, sometimes to actually get somewhere. A line from the book seems to describe its introspection and multiple layers: “Everything’s odd, a bit off, curiously shadowed by syncopations not of time so much as of brightness, light as though brightness or light turned its head or turned around to inspect itself….” If Bass Cathedral were music, we’d call it avant garde.

Written as a series of letters addressed to the “Angel of Dust” and penned by the saxophonist and brass-tempted N., the book is a sort of second-hand stream-of-consciousness account of lives in which music is all. It’s 1982 and recorded sound is still found mostly on vinyl LPs. The Molimo m’Atet has recorded a new album, Orphic Bend. The music turns out to be more Orphic and more bent than the group’s members expected. During Miss Nancy’s bass solo, from the point at which the stylus (or needle) hits the record’s groove, balloons of poetry, like the speech or thought bubbles blown by comic book characters, manifest in thin air. What is said there—“I dreamt you were gone…”– influences the shape of the ensemble’s next live improvisation as well as the shape of their lives. The balloons don’t appear with every playing. And sometimes they pop up unexpectedly, as during a live performance when they rise like a skirt from Miss Nancy’s thigh to express profane statements as dancers bug-a-loo to her grooves. Sometimes the balloons are literally empty.

There’s little plot here. The ensemble members obsessively haunt record stores to see how their record sells and who is buying it (the old Arons Records then on LA’s Melrose Avenue makes a cameo). They try to answer existential questions by purchasing a new mouthpiece for a horn. They listen to recordings. A sexual attraction develops between group members, leading to envy and jealousy.

Word play spawned bop and beatnik lingo and that’s where most of the action is. Like a jazz soloist, Mackey finds catchy riffs that he twists this way and that. The word balloons lead to a discussion of the ballooning of Dizzy Gillespie’s cheeks. What is “missed” defines a “mist.” Looking for harmonies, the musicians find “accord” and dischord.” Often the most inventive of these rants end in cliché; there’s lot of “upping the ante” and “sides of the same coin.” Much of this free association is fascinating though confused as life itself. Musical references abound. Sun Ra, Art Blakey, Bazoumana Sissoko and dozens of others are called up.

Bass Cathedral should be in the back pocket of every aspiring hipster, everyone who sees life as a series of improvisations. Like a jazz solo, not every note Mackey hits works. But when it works, when the phrasing is clean and clear and the meaning piles on like notes in a chord, Bass Cathedral sings with truth and relevancy about art and the human condition. What to listen to while reading? Andrew Hill, Point of Departure; Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys; Ornette Coleman, Dancing In Your Head. You’ll get the idea. –Cabbage Rabbit

–A version of this review first appeared in the OC Weekly

East Meets West

In his liner notes, producer-arranger Bob Belden calls this meeting of Miles Davis alumni and Indian musicians “a grand gesture at reconciliation between disparate cultures bound together by a universal truth. Music.” That word “reconciliation” is a bit off, since Indian music has influenced everyone from the Beatles to Zappa. Miles himself famously added sitar and tabla to his early 1970s bands, notably when recording On the Corner and Get Up With It (his 1972 recording at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, In Concert, made exceptional use of Khalil Balakrishna’s sitar and Badal Roy’s tabla). Miles’ embrace of Indian music was about more than just instrumentation. His use of modal forms recalled Indian raga forms and the droning sitar strings served the same purpose as Michael Henderson’s resonating bass, providing soloists firm bedrock on which to build their improvs.

Balakrishna isn’t to be found here, but percussionist Roy appears as well as some 15 other Indian artists and nearly a score of Miles’ sidemen, ranging from Jimmy Cobb and Ron Carter to Benny Rietveld and Adam Holzman. Wallace Roney, in a familiar role, is the Miles stand in. What they come up with over two CDs is a mixed bag with more hits than misses. Generally the older material—“All Blues,” “So What”—is less successful. The exception is “Blue In Green” with Roney’s muted trumpet and Shankar Mahadevan’s vocals hovering eerily over Louiz Banks’ piano and Mike Stern’s guitar. Of the later material, “Jean Pierre” strikes the only off note. Without Miles making something of his little ditty, the song remains just that: a ditty.

Everything else ranges from good to excellent. It’s great to hear lesser known tunes like “Ife” and “Great Expectations” from Miles’ electric period covered in this format. Ravi Chary’s sitar solo on “Expectations” stands up to the frontline with an attack that recalls Mahavishnu era John McLaughlin. McLaughlin himself contributes disc two’s final cut, a respectful coda to what was obviously a labor of love. It’s not news that Roney, both in tone and phrasing, can sound like Miles when he wants. Here, he’s especially haunting when muted and a bit more athletic than Miles on “Great Expectations.” He calls up memories of the master in every note, whether working his way slowly into “Spanish Key” from Bitches Brew or adding funky punctuation on the slow version of “Ife.” And how wonderful for those of us who cut our teeth on electric, post-Bitches Brew Miles to hear guitarist Pete Cosey, bassist Henderson, drummers Lenny White and Ndugu Chancler, saxophonists Gary Bartz and Dave Liebman (who takes a turn on Indian flute) and keyboardist Chick Corea playing this music again. The surprise here is the Indian pianist Banks whose work is sharp and distinguished throughout. Then there’s alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa who ignites “Spanish Key” with his fried-in-butter tone. This is not the Indian-electric hybrid that Miles pioneered. It’s richer on the Indian side of the equation, thick with percussion, humming with strings and spiced with voices. The more we listen, the more we like it. Released June, 2008. Recommended.—Cabbage Rabbit

War and Peace, Vonnegut Style

As a foot soldier and prisoner in Word War II, Kurt Vonnegut experienced pointless cruelties and the absurdities of military life. This posthumous collection contains 11 never-before-published short pieces on war as well as his last written speech delivered by his son on April 27, 2007, two weeks after his death. It opens with the letter he wrote his parents in 1945 announcing his P.O.W. status. Fans of Slaughterhouse Five will recognize the grim business of sifting through the remains of Dresden after the Allied bombing in “Guns Before Butter” and “Wailing Shall Be In All Streets.” Other stories here find farce in military life or explore the ethical compromises needed to survive. One clever fable suggests ending tyranny is akin to trapping a unicorn. The stories don’t carry dates and we’re left to assume they came late in the writer’s life. All of Vonnegut’s strengths are flexed, especially his way of making dark humor out of matter-of-fact horror. There’s even a time travel tale that suggests some men will do anything to find a battle even in a golden age of peace. Decorated with the author’s thematic sketches, and prefaced by novelist/son Mark Vonnegut (The Eden Express), Retrospect is required reading in a time of questionable conflict.—Cabbage Rabbit

John Zorn

John Zorn’s interest in film music flickers through all his recordings. His latest project seems a soundtrack for a spaghetti western too twisted to be shot, all sauce and corkscrew pasta (reference his 1985 collection of Enrico Morricone movie music The Big Gundown). Varied and accessible like his 2001 release The Gift, the 11 tracks on The Dreamers range from shimmering desert mirages to a Vince Guaraldi-styled keyboard romp. If you’re looking for any one consistent thing you’ve come to the wrong place. Zorn composed and arranged all the numbers here for a septet with names familiar to those who follow his Electric Masada band. The overall effect is more High Plains Drifter than High Noon, all mood and background with little in the way of standout soloing. It’s Marc Ribot’s recording by default. The guitarist’s slightly singed sound dominates most of the tracks, and he’s called upon to supply everything from zing and burn to melancholy romance. Keyboardist Jamie Saft is Ribot’s main foil with vibist Kenny Wolleson chiming in, sometimes at polar opposties. Zorn himself is largely absent; his alto adds roller coaster screams to “Toys” and, we suspect, that breathy, horrific motif on “Anulikwutsayl.” There’s plenty of examples of Zorn’s skill at electrifying Jewish folk themes and interweaving them with other cultural influences. “Nekashim” swirls a geography’s worth of Middle Eastern influences into an intimate, graceful dance. Travel and pursuit emerge as themes with gallops, burning rubber and downshifting. “Mystic Circles” rolls railroad-like, decorated by crossing guard bells and Ribot’s fighter pilot flyover. The collection seems to calm as it progresses and, like a good movie script, finds resolution at end. The album design by Heung-Heung Chin (Chippy) is worth mention, with tunes and credits gauzily reproduced on translucent paper and a sheet of stick-ons of the oh-so-tiny animal characters that grace the cover included for the kiddies. Dream-like? You bet. Released March, 2008. Recommended—Cabbage Rabbit

Freedom Train

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, long-haired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails.

“Becoming a hobo goes far beyond dropping out. That something is part strength, part weakness, both pure freedom and an absolute prison.”

Dale Maharidge, The Last Great American Hobo quoted by William T. Vollmann

The last conversation I had with my grandfather was about train hopping. By then, he’d decided I was a shiftless, long-haired hippie of dubious political beliefs and used silence to show disapproval. But driving back down from Lake Arrowhead to Riverside after a family outing in search of snow we began—I don’t remember how—talking about his experience riding the rails. He told stories I’d heard a few times before, how he hopped freights between New Orleans and south Texas and how some Depression-era boxcar carried him to St. Louis and eventually to the Midwestern town where he met my grandmother and took a job, not ironically, with the railroad. Most of the talk was about practical matters: where to catch trains, when and how to jump off, the dangers of riding up top or between cars, spiking boxcar doors open, how to avoid the bulls guarding the rail yards.

While I did my share of haunting rail yards and climbing around boxcars, I never overcame my fear of catching on or jumping off moving trains. I had one exhilarating and frightening experience mounted on impulse—where was I going?—that ended some 20 miles outside of town when the train slowed to a crawl and, panicked, I leapt to a bruised and knee-scrapped landing.

You wouldn’t think William T. Vollmann shares those fears. The prodigious writer, a National Book Award winner for his novel Europe Central and author of a 3,000 page study of violence, traveled through Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and once walked to the North Pole. But he does. “I am not a brave man at all, but a cautious, even timid soul who makes himself pull off one stunt after another for his own good,” he writes his account of contemporary freight hopping Riding Toward Everywhere. The book holds enough tales of broken bones and severed limbs, even death, to justify his fears. But Vollmann pursues them and the uncertain freedoms of “catching out,” conducting a risky romance with a disappearing lifestyle.

Facing his fears is only one of the attractions that brings Vollmann to the rails. He sees America—its beauty and its ugliness—best from the picture window of an open box car. He loves the uncertainty of not knowing where a freight is headed. It puts him in touch with a mostly invisible underclass of Americans who live beneath bridges and in thickets next to the tracks (his last non-fiction book, Poor People, explored impoverished lifestyles). It allows him to connect with “back then,” an earlier generation, much like I did with my grandfather.

Best, and most American, it allows him the chance to challenge our “security man” society. “Every time I break an unnecessary law, doing so for my own joy and to the detriment of no other human being,” he declares, “so I regain myself and become strong in parts of me that the security man can never see.” Vollmann views train hopping not as a crime but as “an unauthorized borrowing property of others” the chance to become “a microbe on the trunk of a [corporate] elephant.” That Vollmann does this voluntarily—“Hey, you guys hop trains for fun!,” one yard bird marvels—tells much about the man.

Indeed, Vollmann and his traveling companions enjoy advantages not available to real hobos, whispering to each other on cell phones while hiding from bulls, dining in restaurants, buying Amtrak tickets when they can’t find out-bound freights. Somehow, this heightens Vollmann’s narrative, holding him separate from the experience, an observer as well as participant. Mostly, this book is a meditation on what it means to be restless, to know that basic human desire–“I have to get out of here”– a statement he repeats endlessly. His goal is to go everywhere and no where at once in pursuit of “Cold Mountain,” a Zen-like state of contentment that sometimes blurs with the all-American notion of Big Rock Candy Mountain, the sweet place just beyond imagination. Threading themes from Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain, Jack London and other American writers Vollmann seems to settle on Kerouac’s simple declaration for guidance: “Everybody wants to GO!”

Vollmann’s musings sometimes stretch too far, tending to trivialize his obsession with rootlessness. “Isn’t running away from everything the same as running toward everything?” he wonders to no meaningful conclusion. But this “shadow play” also serves him well. Weaving hobo encounters, the disapproval of “citizens” including his father, tramp graffiti, tales of rail-riding women and violent encounters with the notorious Freight Train Riders of America with his own bright experiences and literary bent, Vollmann has discovered an America lost behind its current conformity. We’d all be wise to catch on. Cabbage Rabbit

Riding Toward Everywhere by William T. Vollmann, Ecco, hardback, 270 pages, $26.95

A version of this review first appeared in the Inland Empire Weekly