Big Bang Big Band

Plunged into a world of 1930s swing bands – Fletcher Henderson, Chick Webb, Jimmie Lunceford and, yes, Count Basie and Duke Ellington — for an upcoming piece in the Playboy Jazz Festival program,  I was in need of some temporal balance, a contemporary counterpoint. Via my high school library’s subscription to Downbeat (every school with a music program should have one) the Exploding Star Orchestra came into my life.

Get this straight from the beginning. No devotee of ’30s era swing music would admit to hearing any similarities between their favorite bands and this 14-piece outfit of Chicago renegades led by cornetist and “electro-acoustic constructionist” Rob Mazurek.  But there are shared qualities, ways that connect the  time passed to now, ways that allow us to say, with an ambiguity we’ve always loved when it comes to this type of band, that the Exploding Star Orchestra is out-of-the-tradition.

How? There’s the glossy sheen of well-orchestrated harmonics; yes the usual section blends but also the drone of various samples that Mazurek has collected: rain, insects, bicycyle pedaling, that sort of thing as well as the weird electronics that Mazurek applies to his trumpet. Did I say weird? One drone is concoted from the sounds of electric eels.

Another commonality? Riffing, almost exactly as Sy Oliver or Don Redman might do it (“Impression #1”) or as they most certainly would not (“ChromoRocker”).  Riffs give us a way to pin down the music, and there are just enough of them to make the contrasts strong and leave us anxious for resolution. As far out as the Exploding Star is,  it occasionally is as down-earth as a Fletcher Henderson ballad.

The tradition the Star most honors is that of the Chicago avant garde. Mazurek uses the same methods of development and cacophonous backgrounds to frame solos as did/does the best of the AACM (Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians; you know,  Muhal Richard Abrams, Fred Anderson, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, those guys).  Like the best outside composers, Mazurek is a master of resolution. The long opening track, “Ascension Ghost Impression,” starts on a lips-only whistle, heats up, comes to a boil, then simmers, suddenly resolved in a wonderful brass chord. Terrifying dissonance resolves in moments of startling calm.

The main innovation here is texture, the way Mazurek combines reeds, brass and percussion with the samples and strange electronics. Mazurek’s cornet adds Miles-like electronic trumpet effects. Central to the mix is Jason Adasiewicz’s vibraphone which adds both natural and hand-manipulated sound, soothing one moment,  jangling the next. Soloists — the jagged sound of flutist Nicole Mitchell, Greg Ward’s alto saxophone, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet — add edgy, questionable behaviors.

High on our current play list, Stars Have Shapes captures the ups and down of modern life, its beauty as well as its confusion.  That it’s dedicated to the memory of Bill Dixon and Fred Anderson says a lot. The big band the Orchestra most resembles? Sun Ra. It employs some of the same melodicism — floating, gentle — as soloists bubble to the surface.  Also like the Arkestra, Exploding Star falls into worm holes even as it travels into deepest space.  How can you not believe in time travel?–Cabbage Rabbit

Absolutely Zawinul

Of all the electric keyboardists to come out of the fusion era, Zawinul was the most organic,  most human. His synthesizer spanned an array of natural sounds–including Wayne Shorter’s tenor–and his use of voice through the Vocoder made his music take on folklorique, even choral qualities.

This natural quality of Zawinul’s synthesizer sound makes for an appropriate fit with the Absolute Ensemble. The Ensemble, conductor Kristjan Jarvi’s 28-piece acoustic orchestra with vocalists, claims Tango and Mediterranean-influenced projects as well as a “reinvention” of Bach. Jarvi conceived this project in 2004, designed to showcase some of the composer’s unreleased numbers, when Zawinul was 72.  It was still in production when Zawinul died in 2007 at age 75.

Not all the tunes are unfamiliar. Those that have been heard before, including “Ice Pick Willy” from Weather Report’s Sportin’ Life lp, take on a new earthiness with their acoustic instrumentation. But it’s the new material that sets the recording apart. The themes, construction and rhythms are are easily recognizable as trademark Zawinul but yet are something new.  Augmenting the ensemble with the core of his Zawinul Syndicate , gives the recording rhythm to go with its lushness.

Arranged by guitarist Gene Prisker, the music keeps it electric sheen even as  violins, oboes and contrabassoon combine for added warmth. On “Bimoya,” stings riff at the long conclusion of the tune much as Zawinul’s keyboard.    Orchestration is sterling throughout.  Zawinul and Pritsker counterpoint the winds and violins on “Sultan,” to impart a graceful middle-eastern feel. At one point on “Good Day,” a banjo surprisingly emerges from under bassoon. The framing gives the acoustic instruments an electric feel. Dig the oboe on “Great Empire” as it plugs into a Far Eastern melody.

Voices give the sound added depth and meaning, whether in exuberance as on “Bimoya”  and “Ice Pick Willy,” or when suggesting quiet, inner-dialogue as on “Great Empire.” Zawinul’s own voice, processed through Vocorder, goes along way in adding mysterious, cross-cultural feel.  His Vocorder intro to “Sultan” is a marvel of sound and manipulation.

The ensemble without Zawinul has a clean, natural sound, the acoustic instruments blending into something of Zawinul’s  synthesized voicings. Occasionally a rift goes on  a measure or two past its welcome or a figure doesn’t resolve as cleanly as it could . But this was a work in progress even as its inspiration moved on.--Cabbage Rabbit

John McLaughlin Interview

John McLaughlin was a 27-year-old, relatively unknown guitarist in 1969 when he arrived in the U.S. from England to join drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime band with organist Larry Young. His background was broad and without category.  He had been brought up by a concert violinist mother to love classical music, flamenco and traditional jazz. He had worked with Brian Auger and Graham Bond as well as jazz and R&B singer-bandleader Georgie Frame. Before leaving, he recorded Extrapolation (with John Surman and Tony Oxley), hailed by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in theThe Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings as “one of the finest jazz records ever made in Europe.” It took his coming to America for that recording to catch on.

Within days of arriving in New York,  McLaughlin was recruited by Miles Davis to record what became In A Silent Way and later Bitches Brew. His participation in those projects — Davis titled one of the cuts on Bitches Brew “John McLaughlin” — changed the shape of jazz to come and helped define the fledgling fusion movement as a form not only powered by electricity and virtuosity, but a willingness to embrace a variety of forms and influences. McLaughlin would go on to form the energetically-charged and influential  Mahavishnu Orchestra and pursue a host of directions, including flamenco with fellow guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola, Middle Eastern with Trilok Gurtu, classically-tinged orchestral fusion with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Indian-influenced with Shakti. His latest recordings, Five Peace Band with Chick Corea (see Corea interview here), and  To the One,  are a return to the creative and electric power of his early days.

The Rabbit exchanged e-mails with McLaughlin as part of the research for our story “Pop and Sizzle: Plugging Into Jazz Fusion” written for the 2010 Playboy Jazz Festival’s program.  Here are the high points of that exchange.

You’ve explored and developed so many styles of music—no need for me to list them—what has driven you? Why have you been (and continue to be) open to so many styles and genres? Are your broad early influences and experiences—your mother’s classical influence, early exposure to Flamenco, Django, traditional blues, South Indian Temple Music, Miles, work with John Dankworth, Georgie Fame and others–a key? And how does it relate to your own composing?

Truth to tell, I don’t know why I’ve been involved to such a degree in my musical explorations. Most probably it is due to the environment I was subject to from an early age. I believe that we are ‘marked’ in some permanent way by our early influences, particularly when they are dynamic, and the influences you mention above were very dynamic. For example after hearing flamenco music between the age of 13 and 15, I really wanted to be a flamenco guitar player. However finding a flamenco teacher in my little town was impossible, and then shortly afterwards I heard the music of Miles, and the particular LP that I heard had also integrated Miles’ own influences of flamenco and Hispanic music. It was the album Miles Ahead with Gil Evans. From that point Miles became a kind of Guru to me. This was the real Jazz.

How I compose is still a mystery to me. There have only been two instances when I actually sat down to write music, and they were the pieces I wrote for guitar and orchestra. Other than that, the music basically just arrives in my mind. Once I hear it, I really try to stay out of its way and let it be. Of course, the music itself is probably deeply influenced by the experiences stored in my subconscious. These influences relate to all of the different forms you mention above.

-Can you give a sense of your feelings those first few weeks in 1969 after you arrived in the U.S. to work with Tony Williams and were then asked to join the In A Silent Way . Are there any anecdotes, special memories, say meeting Miles for the very first time, that stand out?

I was in a state of euphoria arriving in New York to join Tony Williams and Larry Young for Lifetime. The fact that I ended up recording with Miles the following day was really out of a dream and totally unexpected. I can never forget meeting Miles for the 1st time. I should remind you that Tony had a week to finish up with Miles at Club Baron in Harlem. This was convenient since Larry and I would go up to Club Baron during the day to rehearse with Tony as his drums were already set up there for Miles.

The 1st night in NY I went up to Club Baron, and Miles knew that Tony had invited a guitar player from the UK to join his own band, and for some reason he recognized me when he came in the door of the club. He looked amazing – as always – wearing a long black cloak, and he walked right up to me and brushed my shoulder with his saying, ‘John’ in that whispery voice of his… That was it. The following day I was with Tony at Miles’ house, and as soon as I walked in Miles came up to me and said ‘bring your guitar to the studio tomorrow’. It was just like that.

The following day in the studio was the Silent Way recording date and all I had was a piano score from Joe Zawinul. Joe didn’t know I would be there since Miles had only invited me the previous evening. After running through the tiltle track from Joe ‘In a Silent Way’, Miles wasn’t happy with the result and turned to me and said ‘Play it alone on the guitar’. Since I had only a piano score I asked him if he wanted the left and right hand together. He said yes, and I said it’ll take me a minute to put it together on guitar. He said ‘Is that a fact!’… Sweat was already running down my back and got worse after that. After a few seconds he must have realized that it was a pretty tall order, and he bailed me out by saying’ Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar’. Another of his famous cryptic statements. He was standing in front of me waiting to see what kind of reaction that would make, and after a few seconds I threw caution to the winds, which meant that I also threw all of Joe’s chords from the piece to the winds. I played the melody in E Major with no harmony no tempo, nothing… Anyway everybody knows the E chord on the guitar even if you don’t know how to play… The red light was on and I just kept on playing. On the playback Miles was delighted. I was dumbfounded. It sounded so beautiful, and that was one of Miles talents – to be able to pull music out of his musicians that they didn’t even know was inside them.

When you do a project like the Five Peace Band  or 4th Dimension, do you have a sense of legacy from those days of Miles and Mahavishnu? Or is it something that stands apart, reflecting the current times? Both? How does the spirit of what you did then affect what you do now?

Both Chick and I are very aware of our histories, and I could ask how can what we do today, stand apart from what we did yesterday? The only reason we can do what we do today is because of all our yesterdays. The time we both spent with Miles was marvellous, but already by 1972 I had the first Mahavishnu Orchestra – incidentally it was Miles who advised me to put a band together in October 1971, and Mahavishnu was the result of that suggestion – Chick put Return to Forever together and we’ve both had a lot of experiences in music since the Miles’ days. That said, during our 5 Peace Band tour together, we were very aware that it was 40 years since we’d first met and played together with Miles. That’s a lot of water under the bridge!

David Murray On the Island

In his liner notes to Miles Davis’ post-Bitches Brew recording At Fillmore: Live At the Fillmore East, Morgan Ames quotes J.J. Johnson on Miles’ new direction. “If you put Miles and his new group in the studio and recorded them on spearate mikes, and then you cut the band track and just played the trumpet track, you know what you’d have? The same old Miles. What’s new is his frame of reference. ”

Musicians reinvent themselves not so much by changing their personal style but by putting themselves in new contexts. David Murray, a prodigious recorder has done that times over since the mid-1970s. Whether in small groups or large, the World Saxophone Quartet, avant-garde or ballad programs, Murray’s voice, a unique blend of swing, bop and free expression, is instantly recognizable.

His best playing, certainly currently (and it’s all great), can be heard on his Afro-Caribbean projects.  Murray’s connection to the  French possession, Lesser Antilles island Guadeloupe, heard on 1998’s Creole, and 2004’s Gwotet, has given him new life. His brother-in-law, Klod Kiavue and a group of Guadeloupe Creole musicians known as the Gwo Ka Masters contribute to this Africa-America connection. To make The Devil Tried To Kill Me an overarching fusion hybrid, Murray brings in Californian funk drummer Renzel Merrit. To make it a fusion of arts as well as styles he integrates the poetry of Ishmael Reed  and brings in folk-blues interpreter Taj Mahal to sing them.

Despite all this stirring –and the Rabbit, no stranger to stews, promises to use no more food imagery– the one ingredient (sorry) that stands out here is Murray. His ability to catapult an improvisation into a squeaky, high-register and just as gracefully fall back is familiar to those of us who’ve been following his work since his early recordings on the Italian Black Saint label.   Murray’s willingness to combine elements of classic swing and bop, to recall masters from Ben Webster to Albert Ayler, and to do so in fresh, invigorating ways, is unique among tenor players. Then there’s his tone: rich, robust and razor sharp. The purity of his sound, even at its most wild, even when he somersaults through those previously mentioned upper- register squeaks or caterwauls deep in the low, makes his every solo, especially in these Afro-Caribbean rhythms, a thing of marvel. Yet there’s no doubt, no matter how different the frame of reference, who the saxophonist is.

The lyrics and background chanting provide much of Murray’s motivation to overachieve. Surprisingly, they’re a mixed bag.  Reed’s poem that gives the recording its name is a driving story of recovery, powered by interwoven percussion and vocalizations. Singer Sista Kee makes the lyric flow against the rambunctiousness of her piano and the JuJu paced rhythm guitar of Christian Laviso. But even Taj Mahal can’t make Reed’s “Africa” fit the music in a meaningful way. The poem’s imagery of illness and recovery (a theme on the recording– “Africa, if I were a hospice worker…”–on lyrics by Kito Gamble as well as Reed) are apt and moving as spoken word. Setting them to music — this music — seems to dilute their message. Much more meaningful to the song: Murray’s heart-felt, flowing bass clarinet solo.

The rhythm section is the heart of this recording and it beats best when it is driving a bloodline of chanting that gives way to solos from Murray and trumpeter Rasul Sikkik. Bassist Jaribu Shahid provides just enough support and none of it overly repetitious, even as it grooves. Murray seems particularly responsive to the bass — or is it the other way around — and the effect is one of a single voice coming from eight different musicians. Lovers of both African pop and American jazz will find things to like, even love, here. What comes together on the Island won’t stay on the Island. And lucky for us.–Cabbage Rabbit