BY DAVID FRICKE, Rolling Stone
(4 ½ stars)
LIVE IN SEATTLE
(4 ½ stars)
Charles Gayle with Sunny Murray
And William Parker
Knitting Factory Works
Matthew Shipp Trio
David S. Ware Quartet
IT IS NOT AND NEVER HAS BEEN easy music to describe, nickname or categorize The saxophonist Archie Shepp used the term "fire music" as the title of a 1965 LP. The African-American author Amiri Baraka coined the phrase "new black music" in the mid-60s, back when his byline was still Leroi Jones. White jazz critics with more enthusiasm than imagination simply clubbed it "the new thing." Ornette Coleman unwittingly created the most enduring brand name when he called seminal 1961 blast of rhythmic and harmonic liberation "Free Jazz."
More than 30 years after a generation of visionary black jazzmen led by Coleman, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor shattered the relative calm of post-bop and cool-era tonality, quick-fix words still do little justice to the provocative, intensely physical music being made at the outer limits by the hurricane-force tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, the daredevil pianist Matthew Shipp and the fireball saxman and cliffhanging improviser David S. Ware. Even the freedom implied in the words free jazz must seem like a cruel joke to men who have long been marginalized by a jazz industry besotted with sharp-dressed mainstream re-boppers.
Genre is not an issue, though, in the punk-rock community, where Gayle and company have received a much warmer welcome. Henry Rollins has signed Gayle to his 213CD label and recently put out a new Shipp album, Critical Mass. (Circular Temple, a '92 Shipp session, is a reissue under the archive imprint Rollins has started with producer Rick Rubin.) Sonic Youth guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo have both recorded with the drummer William Hooker, and Moore has released "out" jazz recordings on his living-room label Ecstatic Peace.
Freak rock and radical black music am actually old bedfellows. Cecil Taylor once shared a bill with the Yardbirds at the Fillmore West. The MC5 liberally adapted compositions by Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders into garage-feedback oratories; "L.A. Blues," on the Stooges Fun House is basically Armageddon jazz with amps. If you have no problem diving headfirst into the white-noise lava pool of Sonic Youth's "Expressway to Yr Skull" you're ripe for the propulsive ecstasies of Kingdom Come.
Now in his mid-50s, Gayle is a veteran of the original liberation-music scene who has only recently come into well- deserved glory after two decades of playing on the New York streets and in the subways. On Kingdom Come -- featuring bassist William Parker (a Cecil Taylor veteran) and the free-percussion pioneer Sunny Murray -- Gayle never settles for anything less than total catharsis. In "Lord Lord," the album's 21-minute centerpiece, he bolts out of the starting gate, blowing in tongues over the catgut groan of Parker's bowed bass and Murray's hissing cymbals and snare rifle shots. Desperation, joy and rage roar through Gayle's horn sometimes all at once; multiphonic honks and air-raid-siren shrieks explode with heat, color and primordial exuberance.
Yet there is a startling purity of concept and execution in Gayle's attack, even when he steps up to the piano in 'Beset Soul" for "Yokes." Just as Coltrane never set out to destroy the chord structure of "My Favorite Things" -- he simply would not be imprisoned by it -- Gayle broadcasts emotions, not immaculately shaped notes. And he swings not in mathematical time but with the new elasticity of real life, particularly the African-American experience. When his sax erupts in a caged-animal cry in "His Crowning Grace." you can hear the elegiac howl of the Delta blues and the locomotive soul power of a Pentecostal choir.
Does this kind of jazz ever swing -- in the way, say, Duke Ellington defined it? On Matthew Shipp's album the opening keyboard motif in "Circular Temple #2" finds the pianist twisting a riff marriage of Bud Powell's "Dance of the Infidels' and Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" into a mischievous bent-note stutter (the track is playfully subtitled "Monk S Nightmare"). Even at his most extreme, as in the tidal waves of block-chord fury in "Circular Temple #1" Shipp never resorts to cheap anarchy, preferring the rigorously sculpted discord that Jimi Hendrix aspired to on the guitar.
At times in "#1,' Shipp's singular union of cracked-note hammering and delicate harmonic suspense suggests a duet between Erik Satie and a very pissed off Cecil Taylor. Driven by the impatient bass-drum dialogue of William Parker and Whit Dickey, Shipp is hardly shy about going into overdrive; in the volcanic ensemble passages of "Circular Temple #4" there are moments when Shipp sounds like he's beating his ivory keys into submission. Yet in a recent interview in the punk fanzine Yakuza, Shipp admitted that one of his favorite records when he was growing up was David Bowie's Low. It is not hard to hear echoes of that album's wintry melancholy in the haunting, barbed pathos of Shipp's solo piano reveries.
As a member (along with Parker and Dickey) of David S. Ware's quartet on Cryptology, Shipp races up and down the piano even more frantically than he does on his own LP. He has to just to keep up with the breathless ferocity of Ware's sax tangents. If the dense turbulence of "Direction: Pleiades" was played on electric guitars instead of acoustic jazz instruments, hardcore kids would go nuclear. Ware bellows so hard and fast against Dickey's thrash-peed cymbal clatter, it's a wonder he ever finds time to inhale.
But Ware is also a radiantly confident player; there is a big heart pumping through his tenor, a combination of muscle and rapture that elevates even his most searing detours into atonal space. The 14-minute piece "Cryptology/ Theme Stream" is a powerful document of Ware's striking empathy with Shipp -they just don't just fly free, they fly together -- and of Ware's rare strengths, especially his surprisingly warm enveloping tone and textural ingenuity. At one point in "Cryptology," while Shipp, Parker and Dickey rage on around him, Ware holds fast with a rippling handful of notes, anchoring the instrumental argument with a no-nonsense tone bereft of shock theatrics. It's a sharp lesson for anyone who thinks "free jazz" is just a euphemism for no discipline.
Twenty-eight years after his death, the saxophonist John Coltrane is still the font from which so much of this music flows. The titles of his pivotal mid-'60s, records -- A Love Supreme, Ascension, Meditations -- attest to the spiritual ambitions encoded in his work, no matter where it fell within, or how far outside, jazz tradition. But even as a snapshot of one night on the bandstand, Live in Seattle an expanded two-CD reissue off an extraordinary 1965 club gig, is a big part of the foundation on which Gayle, Shipp and Ware build their own visions.
Leading his incendiary '60s quartet (with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison) supplemented by second bassist Donald Garrett and saxman Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane wads with an inexhaustible, sometimes truly nightmarish passion, turning the standards "Out of This World" and "Body and Soul" inside out for 20 minutes apiece and losing himself entirely in the half-hour convulsions of "Evolution." Passages of stark model beauty detonate into ensemble blasts of dizzying tumult. Thirty-four minutes into Coltrane's dramatic expansion of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro-Blue," the engineer actually runs out of tape and the band in full cry, just stops -- as if vaporized by its own intensity. Coltrane and his peers dared to lead jazz into the mystic. Gayle, Ware and Shipp are still there and not looking back. But the powerful, challenging music on their records shows that while they may be out on the fringe, they sing through their instruments with body and soul.
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