Opens with the excellent “Egoes War,” which is an extended percussive workout with some interesting electric guitar snippets, sort of in the vein of Sun Ra‘s afro-futurism. From there things devolve into banal identity politics-based third world-isms and naval-gazing noodling drawn from the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It picks up with “Listening Embrace,” which is reminiscent of early Julius Hemphill, and “Staircase Struggle,” with its in-your-face sung/spoken vocals. On the whole this album is a bit hit-or-miss.
Mary Halvorson is one of the most talented guitarists of her generation. Her approach might be compared to that of Bill Frisell. Both guitarists have eclectic interests, a generous spirit towards collaborations, penchants for odd — almost contrarian — improvisations, and a willingness to employ distortion. However, especially in his later years Frisell has gravitated toward a pastoral Americana in his work that can come across as sedate and complacent. Halvorson, on the other hand, is much more willing to dabble in dissonance and incongruous leaps. That is to say, Halvorson sounds like Frisell turned up to eleven, with a more adventurous sense of composition.
Meltframe is a collection of solo guitar cover versions of generally lesser-known jazz tunes. For the most part, this is yet another tremendous album from Halvorson. She opens the set with a ragged, willfully jagged and loud take on Oliver Nelson‘s “Cascades.” Then there is “Cheshire Hotel” by the French guitarist Noël Akchoté, a sometimes collaborator with Halvorson, with a sort of pop derived melody and an emphasis on rhythmic reverb. Duke Ellington‘s “[(In My)] Solitude,” probably the most widely known composition to appear here, is played with a solemn yet sensitive emotional palette — another of the disc’s highlights. Carla Bley‘s “Ida Lupino” gets an acoustic treatment, recasting the tune’s tender, nostalgic sympathies for a charismatic female actor/director fading from view by newly emphasizing a kind of scrappiness. The album does drop off toward the end, with compositions that impress much less and performances that only occasionally spark interest. So the album is a tad uneven, but most of what is here is good-to-great.
Away With You is much less overtly “jazzy” than, say, Saturn Sings from six years prior. Halvorson seems much like the rightful heir to the kind of music her former teacher Anthony Braxton has been making for half a century. These recordings feature an octet with a horn section playing charts set against abstract solos. The charts aren’t exactly conventional, but they do provide an organized reference point that contrasts with other aspects of the proceedings. In Halvorson’s hands, it isn’t that she merely juxtaposes the strange and conventional, or that she fully integrates them either, but rather she plays those distinct approaches off each other in varying degrees. This lends a dynamism to what she does that seems the key to the album’s success. There is a totality evoked that contains disparate approaches and their synthesis, while extending equal respect to each and all of them. This is how Away With You achieves the much talked about but rarely delivered notion of music that is “inside” and “outside” at the same time.
Yoko Ono’s 1973 album Feeling the Space tends to be relegated to the dustbin of history. But why? This is one of her most “mainstream” pop/rock recordings, relying on a lot of fairly conventional rock-ish genre devices. There is even a faint hint of the ironic/unironic use of kitsch that propelled the Brazilian tropicalistas starting in the late 1960s. Frequently derided by audiences opposed to her basic artistic purposes, often under the blanket criticism of her alleged lack of talent, Ono actually had formal musical training as a child. She proves here — for anyone needing such confirmation — that she can sing conventionally and on pitch. Though by singing in a second language, her Japanese accent lends her vocals a warbly, primitivist quality. The lyrics reflect the heyday of second-wave feminism during which the album was recorded. I happen to find this an immanently listenable album that deserves credit for reaching out beyond the confines of frequently elitist avant-garde practices and into popular forms. John Berger, in “The Primitive and the Professional,” New Society 1976 (reprinted in About Looking), said:
“the ‘clumsiness’ of primitive art is the precondition of its eloquence. What it is saying could never be said with any ready-made skills. For what it is saying was never meant, according to the cultural class system, to be said.”
Ono complicates the primitive vs. professional dichotomy by combining a sense of the primitive with erudite theory and overtly popular forms executed with conventional precision. While few individual songs here stand out like a “hit single”, except perhaps “Women Power,” it is very refreshing to hear music drawing from eclectic genres performed so consistently competently, paired with lyrics that evidence an intelligent moral center. While no “lost classic”, Feeling the Space exhibits many of the same strengths that are also overlooked in CAN‘s albums Flowmotion and CAN from later in the decade, as well as critically applauded features of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson‘s recordings from the early/mid 70s.
Of Willie’s numerous forays into hybrids of country and pop in the late 1960s and early 70s, My Own Peculiar Way is probably the most consistent. The backing arrangements are all reasonably suited to the music, unlike the jarring discontinuities of Willie Nelson & Family or the revolting and overbearing schlock of Laying My Burdens Down. That isn’t to say this is a great album. It is unambitious. But it is also pleasant enough.
Valerie Wilmer – As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (Allison and Busby 1977)
Val Wilmer is a journalist who photographed and wrote about the “new jazz” also known as “free jazz”, etc. Her 1977 book As Serious As Your Life (revised and reprinted numerous times, with various alternate subtitles) remains one of the better-known histories of the musical movement. Much of the book consists of chapter-length treatments of particular musicians, plus a few chapters on specific issues or theories. The book captures the various attempts to forge and hold together a community of shared values mediated by this music. While the biographical portraits sometimes verge on hagiography, the book as a whole benefits from well-researched quotes from performers themselves. In fact, this book is an invaluable source of first-hand quotations from practitioners of this type of music during its heyday. Figures like Bill Dixon, Clifford Thornton, and Rafael Garrett, for instance, offer extremely wise views on the music business and the practice of jazz. And Wilmer deserves much credit for offering up a range of perspectives, often confused and contradictory, to allow readers to appreciate the multifaceted interests and objectives of those involved in the “new jazz” movement.
As the work of a journalist, though, this suffers from all the usual handicaps. Among those is a certain theoretical weakness, drawing conclusions from unstated assumptions rather than providing any clear explanation of the analytical framework that led to those conclusions. Well, at times it is perhaps less a weakness than a disingenuousness, what might be summed up as ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology. Actually, as will be seen, As Serious As Your Life might be seen as an early example of so-called “left neoliberalism” that first emerged in the 1970s.
Every chapter, and practically every page, documents some form of resentment and envy (although it should be noted that not all the subjects interviewed exhibit these qualities). This doesn’t seem to be precisely Wilmer’s intent. But this emerges from the book nonetheless.
“If you achieve a certain independence in your work, you’re automatically attacked by all sides, last but not least by your own colleagues in the different countries. It’s fairly difficult nowadays for composers in general, and in particular for younger composers, to get performances or teaching jobs. And if someone like me has all his works regularly performed—very complicated works like Gruppen for three orchestras; Carré for four orchestras and choirs; or Mixtur, which requires a lot of electronic equipment, four sound engineers, another four persons playing the sine-wave generators, a lot of rehearsals—then there’s automatically a lot of jealousy. And I can understand that feeling. Then, there’s also another reaction coming from people who have a traditional musical education and are very much disturbed by what I do.”
Stockhausen uses the word “jealousy” here, but really he means “envy” in the sense of “resentment”. He does posit a useful dichotomy of those who, as quasi-reactionary partisans oppose innovations or change, and those who nominally support a common project but raise objections based on envy or resentment.
Envy and resentment were pronounced factors in the “new jazz” movement, especially in relation to its limited commercial prospects. Iain Anderson, in This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture, noted:
“The narrowing audience for free improvisation illustrated experimental musicians’ growing difficulty in finding suitable venues and rewards consummate with their self-image as artists. Many champions of free jazz began to view their lack of opportunity as a consequence of the music industry’s racial and economic structures, rather than the intrinsic value or resonance of their work. These extra-musical developments soon interrupted and fractured the debate over modernist aesthetics, threatening the critical establishment’s prestige, credibility, and ability to mediate the position of jazz in American culture.” (p. 75).
Wilmer is a “champion of free jazz” in this context. Especially in her chapters that are topic-based essays not focused biography, she frames her narrative to bracket out these questions. But Wilmer’s framing leaves her with little to support the idealized objectives of many free jazz practitioners (as quoted by Wilmer). This shades into an endorsement of the “myth of meritocracy” that holds that all meritorious action should be (but isn’t) rewarded commensurately — and is an attempt to demystify the absence of a meritocracy.
To be more precise, Wilmer basically adopts the ideological position articulated by philosopher John Rawls, probably the leading 20th century philosopher of political liberalism. Rawls insisted that envy and resentment were not intrinsic to the human condition, but were the byproduct of unjustifiable inequality. But Rawls’ position has been criticized by the likes of Jean-Pierre Dupuy in an interesting and relevant way. Dupuy insists that there are symbolic procedures (hierarchy itself, demystification, contingency, and complexity) that make acceptance of unequal social conditions tolerable, that is, that give the appearance of critique but really form a protective buffer around individuals to allow hierarchy to function instead of being an actual challenge to it at its foundations.
The role of envy is pronounced in the politics of the far right wing. Recall former 2012 U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plea to avoid the “bitter politics of envy” — Romney of course espousing this to suggest that the poor should accept their lower social status without objection. Another prime example is novelist Ayn Rand‘s work. Her pseudo-philosophical concept of “objectivism” is nothing more than the allowance of some people to assert their self-perception/self-identification as “fact” that must be accepted and acted upon by others (while dodging the question of which people get to do this and which don’t, and why). Unlike the far right, who seek to maintain and promote inequality but eliminate objections to it, centrist liberals tend to assume that envy and resentment would go away in a “just” society (contrary to the view of psychoanalysis, which posits that envy is part of human psychology and therefore would not go away). The problem here is that the dubious assumptions of Rawlsian liberals cause them to fail to meaningfully distance themselves from odious monsters like Rand. At bottom both simply try to “wish” away envy and resentment. As a result, the centrist liberals simply draw a line of exclusion in their hierarchy slightly differently than the right-wing reactionaries — but they still draw those lines and show no sign of trying to eliminate them in the future either. We end up with merely a slightly different “management” of the collective feelings of guilt over the differences between particular groups. In this way, the sentiments of black nationalism espoused in this book are often not so far off from the right-wing populism of, say, country musician Merle Haggard in the late 1960s and early 70s. Rather than see black nationalism as merely one intermediate step in a larger effort, it is seen as an endpoint — despite the resentment-induced contradiction that if black nationalism is desirable then why not white nationalism, or, more humorously, this leads to the satirical song about male chauvinist resentment “What About Men?” from the TV show Portlandia.
Wilmer frequently frames the narrative of her book around a rather rigidly linear notion of (artistic) legitimacy. (Following Dupuy, Wilmer here accepts hierarchy itself as an externally-imposed order independent of personal value). She sees “free jazz” as unquestionably at the pinnacle of musical achievement and sophistication, at times indicating that it shares that position with Euro-classical music. This leads, for instance, to complete derision of all forms of so-called jazz fusion, in ways that are often baffling.
Wilmer and some of her interviewees are right to point out that more marketing of the “free jazz” genre might have changed its prospects by creating demand and thereby leading to wider acceptance. But those sorts of marketing decisions are basically political in nature. Wilmer and some of her interviewees are hesitant to explicitly see them as such. (Following Dupuy, there are numerous passages in Wilmer’s book that emphasize the contingency and complexity of the position of “free jazz” musicians as part of the accident of birth in an arbitrarily racist society with a complex and uncontrollable musical economy involving record labels, club owners, promoters, etc.). All this reduces the “free jazz” movement to a kind of Ayn Rand-like universal (“just”?) capitalism, merely from an anti-racist entrepreneurial position.
So what is sorely lacking here is the recognition of something W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote long ago:
“[A]ll Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.”
“Criteria of Negro Art” (1926). Wilmer and her interviewees frequently depoliticize their cultural interventions, and further tend to absolve many of the quoted speakers from having to reevaluate the self-serving and self-defeating aspects of their positions. In this respect, Wilmer’s book takes a very different view than Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz / Black Power (1971), which saw the “free jazz” movement as intimately linked to militant black political action in decolonization and anti-capitalist movements. Carles and Comolli, like Du Bois, viewed “free jazz” as unabashedly partisan, though Wilmer recounts and indeed promotes a concealment of that partisanship that is ultimately unconvincing and, frankly, often deceptive. As Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:
“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek to know in what respect my race is superior or inferior to another race.
“I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.
“I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master.
“I have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors.
“There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden.
“I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.
“One duty alone: That of not renouncing my freedom through my choices.
“I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world.
“My life should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values.”
Wilmer is obviously writing from a very different perspective than Fanon. But in this way, in hindsight at least, it can be seen how the free jazz movement fizzled and ultimately failed, by becoming an accomplice to the system it ostensibly fought against and surrendering the revolutionary premises that gave rise to it in the first instance — Anderson’s This Is Our Music is a very even-handed treatment of that transition.
As Serious As Your Life remains an invaluable resource and a book that anyone researching the “free jazz” genre will need to consult. But, at the same time, readers should consider other relevant scholarship that throws the ideology of Wilmer’s book, and of the musicians she interviewed, into relief.
A list by Syd Fablo and Bruno Bickleby
Born: February 26, 1932, Kingsland, AR, United States
Died: September 12, 2003, Nashville, TN, United States
Recorded at an appearance in Italy in 1990 of the “reunited” Ornette Coleman Quartet, this bootleg has a number of things going for it in spite of the expected lo-fidelity sound. For one, there are some original songs present that do not appear on any official albums, and this bootleg comes from period of years without any official recordings. Second, some of the performances are quite good. The first disc is relatively strong, though the second disc doesn’t really maintain the same level of performance.
Charlie Haden plays like a motherfucker here — this is one of his strongest recordings of the era. Billy Higgins also turns in an above-average performance that surpasses any of his studio turns in Ornette’s band. Ornette plays well as usual, though there is nothing particularly remarkable about his performance here. On the other hand, Don Cherry turns in a substandard effort, and he more often detracts from the songs than contributes to them.
This bootleg is naturally only for Ornette fanatics. But there are a enough highlights to recommend this to those fanatics.
Pavement’s full-length debut album Slanted and Enchanted has remained a critical favorite decades on, sort of the archetype for the kind of indie rock it represented. It reveled in a “lo-fi” aesthetic with tons of slacker charm. Read most reviews of Slanted and Enchanted and you’ll probably be told one or more of the following: a list of influences (The Fall, etc.), personal details about the band members and the history of how the band was formed, and some personal anecdote about how the reviewer discovered or reacted to Pavement. You can read about those things elsewhere. I want to instead write about the cultural significance of Pavement in terms of what they represented in a larger cultural context of the time.
The 1890s were called the “gay 90s” and the 1990s were called the “cynical 90s”. Following a decade of brutally reactionary policy from the like likes Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, cynicism in the 1990s was very much a kind of coping mechanism. In his important book(s), Kritik der zynischen Vernunft [Critique of Cynical Reason], Peter Sloterdijk described cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness”, a kind of purer strain of opium for the masses. That is just the right description for Pavement’s music. Read interviews with the band at the time and later, as well as any of the various books about 1990s “indie rock” and you’ll find much the same set of concerns about not “selling out”, staying “independent”, and so on. And yet, stop and think about what those things mean. It’s all an open acknowledgement of how shitty things are living under late capitalism. But the response is a kind of mild reformism (“economism” if you will), lessening the harsh impact and trying to stand apart from the worst excesses without really fundamentally changing anything. Their cynicism was a kind of self-preservation effort, by demonstrating an awareness of the shittiness all around, and thereby implying that they stood apart from it. Elaborating on more or less the same concept of disavowal, Mark Fisher wrote,
“Capitalist ideology in general, . . . consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief — in the sense of inner subjective attitude — at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”
Stephen Malkmus‘s lyrics are sort full of non-sequiturs and almost surrealist imagery. The lyrics, delivered with cracked, non-virtuoso singing, are a big part of what makes up the band’s sound. There is a charm about them. These seem like slackers worth rooting for. On songs like “Here,” Malkmus sings, “I was dressed for success / but success it never comes.” This is sort of what sociologists call “strain theory,” when there is a gap between social expectations and really existing conditions and actualities. Different songs here might represent different types of reactions to social strain: retreatism, rebellion, innovation. The second track, “Trigger Cut / Wounded-Kite at :17,” perfectly fits one of Sloterdijk’s phrases: “coquettish melancholy”.
The music is full of noisy guitar distortion. The drums are a lot looser than on later Pavement albums, and this is album is altogether more legitimately lo-fi than later recordings. Alex Chliton‘s Like Flies on Sherbert is an important precedent for Pavement’s aesthetic in this regard.
Some of the songs seem like parodies of grunge era rock music. This is where the “enlightened false consciousness” angle gets a bit specific. Pavement seems to be parodying the “false consciousness” of others. But doing so doesn’t escape this false consciousness, and that was precisely Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynicism — it still retains a connection to that which it purports to reject, and what it does retain, subtly and unspoken, is the same lust for power and prestige, just through different techniques and strategies. Put another way, a parody of false consciousness merely steps away from the most extreme false consciousness while remaining within it, which is quite different than turning from the wrong path to the right path. If we look back to the song “Here,” it certainly contains a critique of the so-called “myth of meritocracy” of the neoliberal era, but it also displays a casual acceptance of it as well. There is a reference to joining in prayer (religion being the original “opium of the masses”), and to waiting, as if someone else will swoop in and change things.
On this debut, Pavement was mostly channeling musical pop culture of the present and past. They had certainly studied up on everything good about 1980s “college” rock. But they were putting their own stamp on it all. That was evident with the album cover — a trashed re-purposing of an old album cover. Later on, Malkmus’ lyrics got a bit sharper. By the time of Brighten the Corners, he was witheringly good at capturing the existential anxiety of trying to manage socially imposed expectations, personal desire, ambition, and resigned acceptance of limited possibilities. But on this debut, the raw energy is a bigger factor.
While it is important to note the band’s cynicism, there was more to their music than just that. Actually, one of the very reasons they remain one of the most lauded bands of their day is that they used their cynicism to open up a space to slip in some rather earnest reflections on the sorts of anxieties and coping mechanisms that middle-class, educated white people tended to rely on in a time when opportunities were starting to diminish and expectations were being (somewhat forcibly) adjusted downward. Pavement didn’t rage and despair about it in a nihilistic way quite like, say, Nirvana. They took a more contemplative approach. The ironic distance and cynicism Pavement used was kind of a dead end (just like nihilistic grunge/alt rock). It accomplished the opposite of what it intended. But I think their music represents kind of a necessary wrong move, to enable those who followed to make the right moves — or, at least, better moves.
Well, I might as well succumb to one of the typical Pavement album review cliches, and talk about how I was introduced to them. In the late 1990s I was involved in student radio. A woman (Nora?) worked at the station who was middle-aged, and I think was in a graduate program at the time. Everybody loved her because she was one of those gracious, erudite types, who treated us young college kids with respect, lending her wisdom to us but seeking to learn from us too. When talking to her one day she admitted to having fallen out of the loop on what was the latest “in” music, and asked what band was like the new Pavement. I had never heard of Pavement at the time, so I had to admit I did not know. But her inquiry encouraged me to find out. Though I made only a cursory investigation at the time. I did keep hearing more about them though. At another school, a classmate of mine who knew I wrote music reviews for the campus paper asked what I thought about Pavement. His all-time favorite album was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Then a few years later a friend got me a ticket to see James Carter‘s Gold Sounds project perform — this was a jazz band covering Pavement tunes. I felt somewhat bad for not sharing my friend’s deep knowledge and appreciation of the songs, even if I already had an interest in Carter. Anyway, now with a much deeper appreciation of Pavement’s music, I can say that Brighten the Corners remains my favorite of theirs, though Slanted and Enchanted is runner-up and is definitely the place to start with this important 1990s rock outfit.