Monday, July 04, 2005

Final Evening of the Jazz Fest: Roscoe Mitchell at the Culch

The evening, at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, began with a short presentation -- the computer equivalent of a slide show -- in memory of Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors, and another AACM member, Ameen Muhammad, whose work I confess to not knowing; all were members of the Chicago Association for the Advancement of Creative Music, and two were members of that organization's most famous progeny, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (they gained the "of Chicago" during their tenure in Paris in the late 1960's). The AACM celebrated their fortieth birthday in May of this year; Roscoe Mitchell, the main act at the Culch last night, has been with them for the duration, being, along with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams (not in attendance) one of their founding members; Mwata Bowden has been with them for 30 years. In a way, I've been 'with' them for almost ten years, myself. It was a big deal, seeing last night's show.

Back in my acidhead days, which corresponded to my initial explorations of jazz (starting with free jazz, thanks to a friend of a friend -- hi, Ian -- who gave me his record collection, including Ornette Coleman's groundbreaker and some Albert Ayler) the musicians associated with the AACM were one of my first passions. I bought, off Ty at the Flea Market -- remember Ty? He's with Lester and Ameen and Malachi now -- a collection of their music, for a mere $15 an LP, that he'd acquired from a former jazz promoter (the famous "Mary Lou" collection) who'd been on the scene throughout the 1960's. He'd underpriced them, not realizing just how in demand, among some people, this sort of music was: I had original BYGs of AECO's Reese and the Smooth Ones, Message to Our Folks, and A Jackson In Your House; I had original Paris pressings of Certain Blacks, People in Sorrow, and Phase One, plus one of those related discs -- was it on Pathe? Nessa? I forget -- featuring Fontella Bass. None of these were available on CD at the time, but all are now; owning them felt like a big deal, then. On subsequent visits, and for much higher prices, I bought off him almost anything to do with the AACM. Was it on Delmark? I bought it. Did Joseph Jarman appear on one track? I bought it. Was it on BYG or recorded by American musicians in Paris in the late 1960's? I bought it. I got solo albums by all the founding AECO members, Maurice McIntyre's Humility in the Light of Creator, the first albums by Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams (I still need to replace Levels and Degrees of Light on CD -- heads out there take note, that one's a must have). I also bought rare Ornette Coleman's and Albert Aylers off him, but AACM music, with it's tripped-out detailed textures and "little instruments" (bells, bike horns, rubber ducks, and percussion instruments of every manner) uniquely suited the psychedelicized state I was living in back then (I was dropping acid every couple of days). A broke, confused university drop-out, as well as a druggie, I had very little money (most of which I either cadged off my parents or got off welfare, which I was on for periods during those years); I actually got a job (at a Shell gas station/convenience store -- my low point in work history and the job I started smoking cigarettes at, beginning an 8 year habit that I'm very glad to have put behind me) for the express purpose of being able to afford more of Ty's records. I read whatever I could (not much was around, back then -- mostly I read the liner notes to the records), wrote frenzied AACM-related histories for friends and tried to capture the essential differences between the New York and Chicago free jazz scenes; I recorded tape after tape for anyone who'd listen, most of which were just too damn out-there for the people I thrust them on. As with any enthusiasm, I needed someone I could share it with, and a painter friend of mine and fellow would-be athlete of perception really got the brunt of it; he still has boxes of this stuff he hasn't listened to -- I made him around 100 tapes in a short few months...

Ah, tapes. Ah, LPs. Remember these artifacts of the past, how they felt in your hands? Remember the equipment? Ahh, nostalgia.

Anyhow, it was pretty damn cool to see one of the founding AACM guys play last night. Mwata Bowden was fun, too. He's been associated with the High School Jazz Intensive that Coastal Jazz has put together, coming to town early to spend a brief, intense week working for three hours a day with young BC musicians, whom he then conducts at the Roundhouse. The kids have gotten very enthusiastic responses, both times they've done this; Mwata, slim, stylish, well-dressed (in an African manner I cannot describe, with a brimless cloth cap and a loose shirt that seems more like a robe) has explained their project, introduced them (and us, at a workshop last year) to different forms of graphic notation, and guided them in going "out there" musically, which they've done with great conviction and talent. The song he'd chosen as the theme of the project, he explained this Sunday, was a Jimmy Heath tune called "Without You, No Me;" without him, the project wouldn't have happened; without them, the project wouldn't have happened; without us, the project wouldn't have happened; without Coastal Jazz and its sponsors, the project wouldn't have happened (let's all raise a glass of Henkel Trocken to the TD Canada Trust, shall we? And smoke a du Maurier for old time's sake -- no, wait, get that stuff away from me). "Without You, No Me;" it was the final number on Sunday afternoon, and received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience.

It was odd to pair Mwata Bowden with Paul Plimley, for the opening act. While Bowden projects grace, dignity, and control, and presents himself as being very self-consciously of African ancestry, Paul Plimley is one of the whitest lookin' damn jazz musicians you could ever hope to see. I hesitate to attach adjectives to his manner -- I don't wanna be mean -- but if Christopher Guest were to make a film about jazz musicans, Michael McKean would have to play Plimley. I sat making notes of ways I could try to convey the odd quality of Paul Plimley's performances without being hurtful -- he's a great musician, a great improviser, a true enthusiast, and a nice guy -- all of which I've said to his face, so I don't want to belabour the abuse over hear behind his back; but he looks... I dunno. Like a golfer. Like a math teacher. Like someone who'd be instantly hired for a kids TV show. Like someone who could very possibly have the words "gosh" and "swell" in his vocabulary. To see him lost in rapture as he plays like a maniac, doing things alternately lyric and tuneful and noisy and chaotic, all with an expression on his face you'd imagine on your Dad's face, if he were a free jazz musician, is bizarre; men this white are simply not supposed to be jazz musicians. But Plimley is, and he's an extremely talented one. And so, we had a study in contrasts, between the extroverted, unself-conscious, and whiter-than-white Plimley, and Bowden, who seemed more than a bit overwhelmed by playing alongside him; during a couple of long stretches, he actually seemed quite unable to find a way "in," stood listening to Plimley play for long periods, picking up one instrument, then another, trying out a few notes, and finally finding his way; I felt a little tense, a little worried, wondered if Bowden was experiencing that tense moment of flop sweat and unself-confidence that all of us who've spoken or performed in public know. He finally made it, commenting afterwards that it was difficult to play with a "crazy guy;" Plimley then took the microphone and said various nice things about Bowden, whom he'd met when playing in Chicago 15 years ago, and hadn't seen again til that day. After that, the two men found a place they could inhabit together; the pressuring aura of expected "professionalism" disappated a little and we got the sense of something far more intimate, of two very different men who didn't know each other well but shared a common passion, making music together. And it was great music to hear, with instrumental experimentation one associates with the AACM -- lots of small percussion instruments, Mwata switching from clarinet to a wooden flute to a didjeridu. Plimley seems to get better every time I hear him play, too; a few years ago, when I last saw him, he seemed to "bang" a lot, to mash several keys at once, but revealed dizzying fingerwork last night.

Roscoe Mitchell took the stage next. I've got only a short time to write before I have to be at work, so let me say that Mitchell's performance was extremely intense; that much of the night was spent in full-on onslaught mode, with each player trying to purge every demon, express every emotion, achieve catharsis and unity through sheer propulsive force of their breathless improvisations, leaving the audience as well as the players pretty much spent; nothing was held back, and everything delivered, with a force that overwhelmed you and left many marks, as it blew through your brain and out the back of your skull... Fellow jazz enthusiast and eccentric Ralph, who was in the audience, liked it best (and I confess that I did too, tho' I didn't admit this at the time) when, for the encore, the bassist traded his stand-up bass for an electric and the band got funky; but I also really liked hearing pure free jazz. It's actually a bit rare to hear these days, I realized. Most "jazz" doesn't get this free, and a lot of purely improvised music tends to be quieter, now, with people intensely listening to each other and producing minimal soundscapes, rather than, in the manner of Coltrane and Ayler and old Ornette, trying to vomit up demons and cleanse their spirits through their horns; I don't think I've heard a performance quite this intense or noisy from a jazz musician since Charles Gayle was last here. It wasn't entirley what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it considerably -- a cathartic night, though the back of my head still feels a bit raw. I'd go into detail about what each player did -- the trumpet player playing two horns at once, the Cecil-Taylor-esque mania of the pianist, the skill of the bassist, the amazingly handsome drummer, and the pleasing way Roscoe Mitchell stepped back, sat down and just listened, head nodding, to his quintet play --

but alas, the jazz festival is over. It's Monday morning. It's DAYJOB TIME. Time to bathe, put on a tie, and figure out if I have enough money left after buying CDs at the festival to afford a chai on the way to work.

Thanks again, Coastal Jazz.

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