Friday, May 13, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 5/13/11 - Twig Harper & Daniel Higgs and John Coltrane

The facility for collaboration is an attribute that some artists have in spades, while others thrive on a more solitary relationship between themselves and their chosen mode of creation. It can be fairly accurately stated that musicians are generally more inclined to the collaborative, while painters and writers tend to be less receptive to the environment of give-and-take and mutually conceived ideas. Naturally, there are exceptions, and one interesting wrinkle is when an artist is fluent in the language of numerous forms. Take for example musician, writer and visual artist Daniel Higgs. Starting in the early 1980’s with the offbeat rock band Reptile House, Baltimorean Higgs began staking out a strikingly unique and increasingly surreal sound world, a sphere that while weighted at the beginning toward group strategies of post-hardcore invention, most notably with his amazing subsequent band Lungfish, has been increasingly consumed of late by more abstract, individualist areas of sonic experimentation. Lungfish released ten albums on Dischord, more than any other band on that label’s roster, but the last was the excellent FERAL HYMNS in 2005, and Higgs’ prolific documentation of his fascinating outward-bound growth as a solo musician has joined with his abilities as poet and painter to thrust him into position as the current underground’s reigning troubadour/mystic/bard. His bent and attractively confounding strains of primitive folk, most of it recorded directly to cassette, made it fairly easy to chart his progression from collaborator to solitary operator, and that was fine and even dandy to boot. But then last year came CLAIRAUDIENCE FELLOWSHIP OMPHALOS/BALTIMORE, an LP documenting the fruitful pairing of Higgs with fellow Charm City-resident James Twig Harper. It’s a stumping, slippery, demanding yet inviting combination of spoken text (Higgs) and expansive sound (Harper) that adds up to one of the most stirring audio experiences I’ve had in quite a while. I shouldn’t have expected anything less. The name Twig Harper has been on my radar screen for something like a decade. Nautical Almanac, his group/duo with Carly Ptak first started making rumblings in the second half of the ‘90s as part of the noise/New Weird underground, joining a dense thicket of names like Wolf Eyes, No Neck Blues Band, Prurient, 16 Bitch Pile Up, and To Live And Shave In LA in spewing out an unceasing stream of limited run and often hand assembled releases that sat in stark contrast to the prevailing mode of smooth, professional normalcy. Nautical Almanac held elements, especially early on, of Wolf Eyes-style caustic brutality, but they also had flashes of everything from older names like Sun City Girls and Caroliner to contemporaries Sunburned Hand Of The Man. The one time I was lucky enough to see them live, specifically Inauguration Night of George Bush’s second foul term, January 2004 at the “Noise Against Fascism” cavalcade of protest and racket held in DC’s nightclub Black Cat, Nautical Almanac were an eclectic if brief tour de force, landing somewhere between free-rock at its most rhythmic and a far less defined area of extra-musical performance theatricality expressed through physical motion. This is to say they put down their instruments and danced in a way that surely had Sun Ra smiling from his perch far above. Since 2005 Harper has been doing it largely as a solo artist as well, and CLAIRAUDIENCE shows him to be in stellar form. This meeting of two formidable minds presents recitations by Higgs that have been sonically enhanced and tweaked by Harper after the fact. This distance between the principals places the record at odds from the majority of post-Beat-era albums that present poetical readers in tandem with musical accompaniment. Instead of music as a beatific reaction in real time, an essentially jazz-like impulse, here the tendency is for contemplative distance, with Harper presenting different ideas for individual tracks, the results methodical instead of intuitive. On “Number One” Harper cranks out waves of noise residue, layers it with chimes, and then falls back, letting the voice enter the mix so he can subtly modulate it, giving Higgs’ words a scratchy underwater grumble. “Number Two” appears as something quite opposite, bringing a nagging, droning keyboard flourish and waves of electronic additives to a mild yet insistent repeated line from Higgs, and then quickly, it’s over. “Number Three” shifts into the mode of rumpled up sound collage, as spacious and unconcerned with linear focus as anything from the early pre-dance industrial underground. Instead, Harper’s treatment snakes around and deepens Higgs’ images and ideas, commenting upon the language with varying degrees of premeditated intention. “Number Four” gives us a twisting array of abstract loops and squiggles and as the track develops Higgs is deftly submerged until he sounds like an imagined hallucinatory voice heard while lingering beside a buzzing, never resting machine. “Number Five” feels rather exotic. It’s a bit like listening to a Nonesuch Explorer LP after smoking up some primo hash while a roommate recites incantations from a religion of his own invention. As welcome sleep arrives, the sound slowly fades. Good times. “Number Six”, the last on the LP, is also the subtlest, Harper adding only miniscule accents under the words. Instead, he captures bits of Higgs’ voice, speeding it up and slowing it down and molding it into fluctuating levels of audio decay before it too slips into silence. With the LP comes a free download ticket offering an extra twelve minute track of Harper screwing around with a two word phrase like he’s one of those long gone lab-coat clad college funded electronic composers whose work would turn up on albums from the Vox Turnabout label. What a great use of grant money. Those were truly the days. Make no mistake, CLAIRAUDIENCE FELLOWSHIP OMPHALOS/BALTIMORE is intense, at times difficult, and it’s probably best approached in attentive solitude. This puts it in sharp contrast to other poetical work both with and without music, from Charles Bukowski’s HOSTAGE to Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s recordings with The Cellar Jazz Quartet to assorted stuff from Jack Kerouac. Those examples are very much about group experience, suitable for absorbing with a few friends or a room full of strangers. CLAIRAUDIENCE does have stylistic predecessors, and the one that’s springing to mind at the moment is Kenneth Patchen’s work with John Cage on THE CITY WEARS A SLOUCH HAT. While very different in mood and structure (HAT is in fact a radio play from ’42), the two share a similar strategy. But where the writing/figure of Daniel Higgs was once compared favorably to Patchen’s deep precedent, he’s now very much his own man. Frankly, he’s entered a stripped down spiritual dimension that leaves me unable to draw comparisons. I think it’ll require years to figure it all out, and this masterful LP will likely provide a key.

I’m generally in favor of artistic canons, but one of the problems with the idea is how they can shape a skewed perspective on the historical development of the forms they reference. Take the jazz canon, for example. While it’s admirable and fairly necessary to gather a group of defining recordings that sit above the music’s truly huge discographical evolution, it seems to me that one problem with designating a selection of albums as “must-hear” or “definitive” is that they can become a sort of “Jazz For Dummies” primer, a way for busy folks to feel knowledgeable on a voluminous, unconquerable topic so they won’t get left out of the discussion at social functions, a Cliff’s Notes for the socially adept’s perceived cultural mastery. Is that snide? Yeah, it is. But fuck it, I’m that kind of mood today. Hopefully less snide is my issue with the jazz canon tilting history toward a group of heavyweight masterpieces that’s quite antithetical to what the jazz experience really is. When serious jazz heads speak of the greatness of Blue Note, they aren’t just speaking of the canonical stuff like Monk’s early recordings, Sonny Rollins’ A NIGHT AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, Eric Dolphy’s OUT TO LUNCH or Andrew Hill’s POINT OF DEPARTURE. We’re also speaking about the achievements of less celebrated names and the essential gifts they bring to the table: the vast leadership roles of Hank Mobley or Donald Byrd, the under-recorded obscurities of Tina Brooks or Sonny Red, the sincere oddity of George Braith’s stritch and the tossed-off warmth of Ike Quebec’s jukebox 45s. If art is the transmutation of a tangible part of the personalities that create it, then the masterpiece-ification of jazz can foster a stilted relationship between listener and records. It’s kind of like being friends with nothing but geniuses. That’s certainly preferable to being surrounded by mouth-breathers I would think, but I also suspect that being the dumbest (or uh, least smart) person in the room would take its toll after a while. Heh. Now, John Coltrane was a genius, and his enshrinement in the halls of jazz canon-hood is secure. But there’s not simply one indisputable canon approved by the gods of infinite selection, and any group of classic recordings that neglects 1957’s BLUE TRAIN is faulty at the core. Many career summations of Trane spotlight his early work with Miles and Monk, but leave out his pre-GIANT STEPS leadership roles. This is largely because those dates, with BLUE TRAIN being the best of the bunch, are far less assertively groundbreaking than his subsequent work for Atlantic or Impulse. Sure, Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” technique was something new under the sun (and therefore controversial at the time), but it was largely applied to a workaday if elevated approach to post-bop sessioneering. Yes, GIANT STEPS is an unimpeachable masterwork, but I must admit that I’ve always felt closer to BLUE TRAIN, partly because it feels like the perfect expression of his early development before his advancement to the status of rapid-fire instigator of constantly broken ground. As great as STEPS is, I often can’t shake the feeling that it’s a temporary jump for Coltrane on his way to the Classic Quartet where he consistently swung for the fences and bombed the bleachers with waves of improvisational invention. In a sense, BLUE TRAIN can feel in league with the stately, deeply traditional side of Coltrane’s later work found on BALLADS or his collabs with Duke Ellington or vocalist Johnny Hartman. But then again, it’s very much its own thing. BLUE TRAIN does clearly establish its leader’s faultless ear for talent. It was notably the first recording where Trane picked all the players, and he knowingly assembled one of the best bands of the period. Lee Morgan’s gorgeous post-bop trumpet just glistens and Curtis Fuller’s trombone work is the perfect combination of smooth and tough. Perpetually underrated pianist Kenny Drew is as forcefully elegant as any keyboardist from the period, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland and Sonny Clark included, and the crack rhythm team of bassist Paul Chambers (“Mr. P.C.”) and drummer Philly Joe Jones prove why they are arguably the finest rhythmic duo of the era. The group comes together so seamlessly, so casual yet engaged with the material at hand, that it’s a joyful experience from beginning to end. The opening title track is justifiably famous, a sumptuous blend of elevated blues structure and top flight soloing, the kind of tune that gets employed on movie soundtracks as a sort of emotional shorthand, cluing the viewer in to the specificity of a scenario without having to write a line of dialogue or non-verbal action in service of exposition. But BLUE TRAIN is so much more. In contrast to PRESTIGE 7105, Coltrane’s first record as a leader from May of ’57, the difference is startling. That debut is a fine collection of tunes that add up to an excellent whole, but BLUE TRAIN, recorded in September of the same year, presents a strikingly advanced sense of thematic unity. The tracks, four Coltrane originals and one standard (Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned”), are linked together so brilliantly into a cohesive artistic statement that the vibrancy of the whole is undiminished over fifty years later. “Locomotion” is a dynamo of up-tempo post-bop language, and “Lazy Bird” concludes the record with the expert panache of a seasoned club band leaving the stage after a batch of tunes well played. In fact, one of the LP’s best qualities is how the songs gather a unified power that’s very much like a short live set. I should here acknowledge that BLUE TRAIN often does get praised as the flawless if non-grandiose statement that is its lasting achievement. It isn’t in any way a criminally under heard record or a document from a neglected master. But at this late date, the album’s greatness can be undervalued or overlooked in an attempt at summarizing historical context. I’m simply hoping that the uninitiated won’t miss its vast, endlessly enriching rewards.