Friday, July 26, 2013

Sandbags, part II: On Jarrett, Shipp and getting past Us vs. Them

If Matthew Shipp had posted an Emperor Has No Clothes take on Keith Jarrett in, say, early 2001, my response probably would've been something along the lines of "Amen." At that time, I was still in college—a budding jazz obsessive who thought he knew something about the music, by virtue of the fact that he had spent many hours during the prior couple years learning from master jazz scholars such as Phil Schaap, interviewing master jazz musicians such as Steve Lacy and poring over the vast LP holdings at WKCR. Back then, my core notions about jazz, many still intact, were starting to take shape. Among the truths I recall myself then holding self-evident:

1) Much of the best jazz seems to date from the middle 1960s, when records such as Evolution, One Step Beyond, Point of Departure, Fuchsia Swing Song and Out to Lunch! were being made for Blue Note. (No, it's not a coincidence that Tony Williams is on all of those dates.)

2) I love Booker Little, especially the Out Front album.

3) I love Steve Lacy, especially Trickles (with Roswell Rudd, Kent Carter and Beaver Harris) and School Days (with Rudd, Henry Grimes and Denis Charles).

4) Having sat in what I'm thinking must have been William Parker and Patricia Nicholson's East Village apartment and prepped Vision Festival programs along with awe-inspiring musicians such as Alan Silva, and having attended at least one entire (or nearly so) Vision, I love this festival, and the players—such as Parker, Whit Dickey and, yes, Matthew Shipp—who frequent it.

5) I do not care for the work of, among others, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis and, yes, Keith Jarrett.

It shouldn't be too hard to guess which of the above opinions were derived from actual roll-up-my-sleeves dirty work—i.e., time spent studying/relishing music—and which stemmed from… I'm not sure how to put it other than a blind sort of prejudice. Names like Metheny's, Marsalis's (take your pick), Jarrett's signified the sort of jazz that they liked—they being the world at large. At that time, I'm not sure that I'd ever spent much time in the presence of anyone who actually enjoyed the work of Metheny or Jarrett, but I'd spent plenty of time in the presence of people who were choosy about their jazz, who separated the music into factions that could basically be pegged as Worth yand Unworthy. So, as many green fanatics do, I began to develop a sort of Us vs. Them sensibility regarding the genre. Jazz that I perceived to be popular—I'm not sure how I arrived at this classification; maybe by reading select issues of Downbeat or Jazziz?—was more or less automatically suspect. Anything "free" or "avant-garde" was, just by virtue of its inherent unpopularity, more or less automatically brilliant.

Now, as I implied above, items (1) through (4) in my numbered list above all stemmed from what were essentially joyous sessions of autodidacticism. I'd check out a stack of records from WKCR, hurry home to my dorm room and just study, which really meant blissing out on pure information—not just musical, but also biographical, historical, contextual. I was devouring books like Valerie Wilmer's As Serious as Your Life around this time, cramming for interviews with underrated geniuses such as Grachan Moncur III. In short, I was following my nose, blooming into a lifelong lover of this music.

But in constructing a personal jazz pantheon, I was also, whether intentionally or simply by default, deciding who didn't belong there. At the time, I couldn't have told you exactly why, say, Metheny or Jarrett didn't rank among the Andrew Hills and the Sam Riverses and the Bobby Hutchersons and the Mal Waldrons I worshiped. (I probably would've muttered something about them being "cheesy" and/or inauthentic, whatever that might have meant.) I simply had an intuitive sense that these musicians weren't worth my time. I guess the logic was: "Too many people like them; they must be suspect."

Flash forward to the present. I still love those mid-’60s "inside-outside" Blue Note classics. I still adore Out Front—maybe even more than I did then, if that's possible. I still cherish Steve Lacy's enormous and unwieldy discography. At the same time, I love Now He Sings, How He Sobs; I love Bright Size Life and Song X; I love Songs of Mirth and Melancholy; I love Byablue, Shades, Fort Yawuh, Facing You and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio. I also love New Orbit and Shipp's (still-active?) working trio with Michael Bisio and Whit Dickey. I'm not sure what would be an example of jazz that I particularly dislike; even if I could think of one, I'm not sure I'd be inclined to waste virtual space by mentioning it here.

Here's a list of points I'm not trying to make in this post:

1) I'm not trying to say I love Keith Jarrett's work unconditionally. In fact, I'd be suspect of anyone who made that claim, not because I think any of his output is particularly crappy, but because there's just so damn much of it. I only know a very tiny sliver of what's out there. I can say with authority—the authority that comes from actually doing the earwork—that I love the American Quartet. I'll admit that I've never heard The Köln Concert—not because I'm wary of it, but because I simply haven't gotten there yet. (I mean, I've never heard Exile on Main Street front-to-back, either—every one of us has our blind spots.) I'm not wild about what I know of the so-called Standards trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, but I'm no expert. I haven't yet spend any good time with Somewhere, the record Shipp wrote about, but I'm looking forward to doing so.

2) I'm absolutely not trying to say that I think Shipp doesn't know Jarrett's work well enough to comment on it authoritatively. As Ethan Iverson pointed out, Shipp's piece doesn't mention the American Quartet, but that omission is far from an admission of ignorance regarding that period of Jarrett's output. (It would be hard to imagine a player of Shipp's age and disposition not knowing, say, Fort Yawuh inside and out, but again, I'm speculating.)

As for the general sentiment of the piece, I applaud Shipp's nerve, but given his track record for assailing sacred cows, I wonder what all his aggregate rhetoric along those lines has won him over the years, and whether journalists' consistent solicitation of his opinion on famous jazz musicians might not be viewed as opportunistic, or even crass. That is to say: At this point, writers know that Shipp will spout off if given half the chance, but is reducing him, or any other musician, to a caricatured hater really the best thing for jazz journalism, for Matthew Shipp, for the music? Shipp is very clearly a brilliant musician. (As with the Jarrett discography, Shipp's body of work is enormous. I adore some of it—the aforementioned New Orbit, with Wadada Leo Smith, is a particular enduring favorite, and the recent duo project with Darius Jones is remarkable; other records—Equilibrium, for example, and certain other electronic-beat-driven Blue Series titles—leave me cold.) His work speaks for itself; I'm just not sure that knowing he's suspicious—and even disdainful—of Keith Jarrett enhances my enjoyment/understanding of his art in any way. It bums me out that Shipp might go down in the history books—whether through his own persistent soapboxing or through journalists' calculated foregrounding of same—not as "The guy who made all that beautiful, turbulent, haunting music," but as "The guy who persistently dared to dis Shorter, Hancock, Jarrett and other sacred cows in the press."

Here's my best attempt at summing up the point I am trying to make in this post:

The great thing about being a music fan is you don't have to take sides. The other day I had the privilege of speaking to the kids at the School of Rock in Montclair, NJ, about the subgenre known as pop-punk. We listened to Descendents, the Misfits, the Buzzcocks, the Ramones and a few other great, old bands—true forefathers of the style. We also listened to Green Day and Paramore, and during my preparation, I checked out others whose material the students were learning: New Found Glory, Something Corporate, Fall Out Boy. I enjoyed it all: old and new, "authentic" and "commercial," "arty and "populist." I guess what I'm trying to say is, I no longer have any stake in the Us vs. Them game. I love everything that sounds good to me. This week I marveled at both Missing Persons and Gorguts. A lot of times, I tune in to WKCR when I'm driving, but just as often, I'm blasting freestyle on 103.5 or soft rock on 106.7. I'd like to think I don't spend as much time worrying about what I don't like or what isn't worthy, and that I value really doing the listening legwork over spouting blanket opinions. As I've written here before, musical prejudices are like sandbags; there's a great liberation in letting them go, either because you've learned to love an artist you'd previously deemed lame, or because there's simply too much great music to focus on instead, and far too little time in which to do so.

P.S. A totally unrelated Shipp/Jarrett comparison I published in 2011. The more I think on it, the more the two figures seem to be running on parallel tracks—aside from the points I make in the piece, consider each musician's long, super-prolific association with a single label (Thirsty Ear's Blue Series—actually curated by Shipp—and ECM, respectively).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Feels like home to me: Convulse / Sorcery

A lot of my recent recreational listening has focused on two Nordic death-metal albums, Convulse's World Without God (1992) and Sorcery's Arrival at Six (2013). Despite the two-decade gap between them, these records share some key factors in common. Convulse and Sorcery both formed in the mid-to-late-’80s—in Finland and Sweden, respectively—broke up in the mid-to-late ’90s and reunited recently: Convulse in 2012 and Sorcery in 2009. (World is original-era Convulse, while Arrival is post-reunion Sorcery.) More importantly, they both home in on a willfully limited but immensely satisfying aesthetic.

These two bands don't sound much alike—Convulse has a more traditional death-metal sound, with super-low, almost gurgled vocals and endless doomy riffs, while Sorcery takes a punkish, almost rock ’n roll approach, focused on a wildly unhinged vocal delivery and galloping uptempo rhythms. But both bands thrive on a sort of paring down of aesthetic parameters; essentially, they each do one thing extremely well, a thing that "on paper" or on a first listen, can seem slight or rote. But there's an intangible brilliance at work in the output of each, a quality that I've come to think of as "closeness to the source," a feeling of in-the-blood-ness that's often detectable in bands formed just as a given style was coming into being but before it was a codified, cataloged movement. Obituary, another death-metal band with ’80s roots, gives me a similar kind of feeling, as does Asphyx. I don't listen to these bands to be challenged; I listen to them to be sated, in some primal way. I'm not sure what it is, but there's something so exciting, vital and, at base, pleasurable to me about this strain of death metal, these bands who channel all their effort not into progress or freshness but into making a few basic elements feel, for lack of a better word, true.

Convulse - "Godless Truth":

What do you say about a track like this? You do not get anywhere by analyzing its constituent parts; you do not, as a commentator, "make a case" for it. It either entrances you, seduces you with its dark song, or it doesn't. There's a certain artfulness to the composition, but the overall appeal is pure primitive, teeth-gritting shagginess. Think monosyllables: weight, doom, blurt, girth. It's animal music, executed with great intentionality. Two metal-obsessed friends of mine have their own terms for this kind of metal: one refers to it as "knuckle-dragger" music, the other as sound that it's in touch with the "lizard brain." Both terms emphasize a kind of primitiveness, and that's absolutely a factor here, maybe even the overriding factor.

But I don't think Convulse played this way because it's the only way they knew how to play. Their next album, Reflections, went in a more groovy, rock-oriented direction, but in recent interviews, bandleader Rami Jämsä has all but disowned that effort and stated that he's conceiving of the new Convulse material as a sequel to World Without God. In other words, the uniformity of WWG—spoiler alert: the rest of the album sounds very similar to the track above, a fact which will either delight or horrify you, depending on your personal affinity for this brand of death metal—seems to have been very much by design. The band wanted their work to function like a single blunt instrument, and their reunion effort is an attempt to capture that glorious single-mindedness.

Sorcery - "Created from Darkness and Rage": 

It's difficult for me to describe how happy the intro to the above Sorcery track makes me. (Consequently, I'd be remiss if I didn't thank That's How Kids Die's Josh Haun for turning me onto this band.) It's as though I can feel my metabolism changing when I hear it, slowing down to the level of the beast. I play it now and I think about a scene from the original Clash of the Titans that fascinated me as a kid, when Zeus punishes Calibos by turning him into a monster. I always found that moment when his shadow morphs to be so grotesquely compelling, and this passage ensnares me in a similar way. It's a sort of musical wallowing, a glorification of filth. Again, it's not about the on-paper content so much as it is the feeling. The unholy crunch-and-stomp here is not a guise, not a matter of received knowledge; it is something native in these players, something they've been driving at since they were young men, since the mark of metal first fell upon them as Zeus's curse falls upon Calibos.

The track speeds up, and the mood becomes less about anguish than seething, venting explosiveness. But there's still this enormous integrity to the presentation. It sounds strange, but I simply feel like I'm in good hands when I hear this brand of death metal: the hands of experts, of lifers, of players who get that in many cases, great metal is first and foremost a matter of passion and sensation, of technique perfected only to a point, of pride in primitiveness, of deliberate myopia. You zoom in your sights so that only the bulls-eye is in frame, and you bombard that target again and again. Like World Without God, Arrival at Six is that kind of record. It is connoisseur's death metal. No argument can be made on its behalf, but if all of the above is speaking your language, no argument need be made. Like that of Convulse, Sorcery's music springs from and aims directly for your lizard brain, that knuckle-dragging part of you, serenading the beast, eliciting that sinister smile, that strange masochistic glee, like a gene that we have that non-metalheads lack. (Think of cilantro.) There's a serenity there, amidst the pummel and the churn, a kernel of contentedness. What I hear on Arrival at Six and World Without God feels like home to me.


I saw, and loved, Convulse at MDF XI. They issued a new EP, Inner Evil, in early 2013 and are prepping a full-length for later this year. Sorcery toured the U.S. in April but didn't make it to NYC; I really hope they remedy that oversight soon.

Here's a Spotify playlist containing both albums in their entirety. Pay special attention to the exemplary production quality of each. The material on these records is impeccable, but the beautifully raw, full way they're rendered makes them all the more durable and enjoyable.