From Zero to One

It’s gone eleven and the winter has started to bite. You walk the unfamiliar streets unable to sleep through jet lag, but there doesn’t seem to be much to entertain you here. Not all cities are London, even those with an airport attached to them. A bar closes up just as you arrive at the door, restaurants are either shuttered or unlit, and of course there is no such thing as a late night café. There’s nothing for it but to head back to the hotel and the complimentary tea bags. Perhaps a packet of nuts from the vending machine in the lobby. If only you’d booked somewhere with a room service, or at very least a mini bar. The age of hotels being a luxury are well and truly over, you muse.

You retrace your steps and trudge back through the night into the winter wind, already ill disposed towards the city, thankful you’re only here for a few nights before heading back to civilisation. As you turn a corner lit only by the moon and the single working street lamp you notice a pink glow at ground level reflecting off the damp pavement from the constant drizzle. Maybe this could be something? A neon sign of a saxophone. Promising. You try the door. Closed of course. You curse business trips to post industrial towns and start to turn. As you do a head height shutter opens and two eyes peer out at you, stopping you mid torso-twist. Too shocked to say anything, the door opens for you anyway, and the figure doing the opening nods.
“You open?” you ask
He sweeps his arms from left to right in ascent, guiding you inside. They are open, yes, but not busy. A bar in the corner, dimly lit and the man from the door scuttles past and puts a drink from the fridge on a table, ushering you to sit down facing a small stage. You are the only patron. A thick red curtain lifts and you are faced by two men, side by side. Drums and Sax.

From silence to full volume, a kick a high hat hit as a split second signal before an explosion. There are notes everywhere, snares snapping, cymbals hitting walls, wailing, screaming reeds. No warm up, just energy. You are pinned to your chair as the barman cleans a glass casually and the drums and the sax tear up and down the small room tossing everything in their wake to one side as if their lives depend on getting as much out in as short a space as possible. This is full crescendo music, and you realise that your own life now does depend on it. You try to hold on. You are in a wind tunnel fit to be blown out of the back. The beer remains untouched, your shirt is drenched and the debris of a sonic attack litters the room. You survey the damage as silence is allowed back in and the barman calls time. The curtain sashays back to the boards and you stumble back onto the street, ears ringing, brain dazzled by possibilities. The early winter Wednesday stands in front of you, life itself as drums and sax. Rashied and Frank.

Toneburst

Once we achieve freedom that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll go mental, lighting fires and getting into trouble with the law. Sticking it to the man doesn’t have to mean offensive graffiti on the houses of the privileged . There are innumerable ways of asserting one’s authority. Quietude can be as effective as a riot. Whilst others fought for freedom through force of expression, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians fought and exercised their freedom through force of will. Whilst others were loud, often the AACM whispered their ideas and objections, and it was just as powerful. Freedom is infinite and the AACM wants to see it all. If others were the explosion the these creative musicians went in to explore the space created. Black freedom, once won, allows for the full expression of a black individual’s experience regardless of whether that conforms to expectations of what a free black musician should sound like. It allows for spacemen and scientists as much as it allows for preachers and pyromaniacs.

George Lewis, the trombonist, author, and academic, embodies this train of thought in his piece Toneburst. Here is a man well and truly exploring his instrument, its nuances and peculiarities, every possibility turned over in his hands and examined. Toneburst feels as if it were made in a sterile environment under test conditions with George Lewis in a lab coat hunched over his desk; blowing, watching, scribbling notes with the stub of pencil, blowing again. But if that sounds dry I can assure you it’s not. The experience of watching any master at work is exhilarating; and here we have the sound of a man engaged in the noble cause of exploration, pushing frontiers back for others to come in behind. Lewis is methodical, slowly ensuring the ground is mapped, annotated, and it is fascinating as well as beautiful. We are discovering with him each time he breathes out another mumbled threat, slide into and out of nothing, shouted ramble of a drunk, raspberry. A raspberry blown back to oppressors, perhaps, before the serious business of using up that hard won freedom. And that is what is often forgotten when we talk about freedom: that we really can do anything. George Lewis didn’t forget. He remembers ever detail.

The Hidden Hand of Ronnie Boykins

Inside of a suburban home, a bedroom. The bedroom of a young girl not long sent to bed by parents who want time to be with themselves. The light is off and the door is closed and the covers are pulled up above her head. She is not yet tall enough that her toes poke out at the other end, though it won’t be long. She is not yet sleeping. There is a small light which she is shielding from the landing just in case it creeps beneath the door and out, giving her away; and there is sound, too, for which she (the duvet) does the same. The light comes from the dial of a radio. Each night once tucked up and shut away she plays the radio and listens to the world outside. In fact, it is the universe she is listening to. The static between stations that she finds most interesting. Over and above the chatter and the music. She enjoys the sound of the crackle, the hum of interference up from the ground and back down from the ionosphere. The volume is so low it is barely audible, and yet the darkness intensifies the smallest sound, and she does not want to be discovered. She is attentive to the radio and the squeak of the floorboards as mother goes to the toilet, quickly turning the volume to nothing. Sure that the coast is clear she slowly moves the knob back a little. One, two notches so as to hear a robotic voice distorted by a weak signal. She flicks back and forth between stations, cutting up speech and creating new sentences, new meaning. She half tunes in just to hear the distortion above the music or the words. She lingers but only for a moment or two. She prefers to move the tuner slowly in and out of signal creating the decay into hiss of voice or note, like a ghost moving through a wall. Like tiptoeing backwards out of the light and into the shadows.

The Arabic numerals on the right correspond to the Roman numerals on the left…One as a rule refrains from citing texts like the one in Luke…proves to be an identity after calculation…squealing, low in the mix…The birth of universe man…Imagine a waterfall…everyone was great in his own way…chattering excitedly about secret bunkers, conspiracy theories, spy games…A friend of mine, Derek (not his real name)…let us either forget Abraham or learn how to be horrified at the monstrous paradox…A little golden skeleton…There is no moon…the BBC’s Middle East correspondent has more details…non-uniform bleeps and bloops…There is no aggregate of particles more homogeneous than a pure case…The logic of likelihood is elegant and convincing…Thus did the United States undertake to fight Nazi racism with an army organised according to racist principles…boredom paused, looked at me, then continued reading…cul-de-sacs…An abandoned office has mugs of evaporated tea; a blueprint now covered with the names of children, and genitalia…An effective probabilistic principle of induction would have to be even stronger…pitch changes…Nature spaces are invaded by sloppy country dances…swirling dust…consider a universe of objects…situations repeat themselves with subtle changes rather than developing…ambient noise…male songbirds like the Dunnock or Great Tit hold territories…it is six minutes past six…so always take a field notebook and record interesting sightings…it’s like a thin jigsaw which the music works very well with…crisp packets rubbed between hands…feedback…drifting particles…on, on, on, on, on, on, on, on…They all resonated within a very narrow band of frequencies…multi-layered sound…We still have not dispelled the air of paradox…Now the story of Abraham contains just such a teleological suspension of the ethical…noise like wind blowing over the top of the speakers…Even so, Schoenberg is not ready to go over the brink…the chain of minutes will unroll in the opposite direction…My ‘bogey bird’ is Leach’s Petrel…white noise…record what you are now experiencing…The absoluteness of truth receives some hard knocks from yet another quarter, in the shape of bizarre situations…And for this battle that is lost in advance I recruit you today…aural illusions…distant signals…A legendary Scottish ornithologist…crackles…Jazz became mechanical, and used mechanical lubricant: swing…patterns appearing…tics…the area of a graph paper…hiss…hidden spheres…

From out of the interference and between the voices, cymbal crash static, quiet screams of the universe there is suddenly a clear signal. A beacon in the early morning darkness. The unexpectedness of it wakes her and she is paying close attention. A double bass asserting it’s authority as it emerges like consciousness to a sleeping girl in a suburban bedroom. The sounds of atmospheric disturbance merged into the percussion behind that bass line, allowing melody to sneak up on her dreams, and she was awake. But what kind of melody is it? In the hands of Ronnie Boykins it is a sort of non-melody melody. One that seems to go nowhere; a repeating pattern, with slight variations. At once, anchor and motor, producing a sort of static motion. Like cycling with a high cadence on a flat road. That illusion is as much down to the sure footedness and discipline of the playing as it is the instrument, keeping steady amongst the fizz and pop of white noise, the crash of cymbals and the squeal of horns kept low in the mix. As the band plays chaos he is all the more striking in his clarity. But it is by no means clear if he can get the thing to go, or even if he wants to. There are moments when he is drowned out, moments when he sounds like he is changing tact, and of course that double role of melody and rhythm seem sent by Sun Ra to test his strength. It is a test that he ultimately wins; not by any movement but by remaining upright in the wind and by cutting a clear path through white noise and out into the world, as with a weak signal on the radio needing oh so small movements of the dial to improve reception. And when he is in he is in. Tones resonating clearly and proudly out into the universe, each note audible no longer muffled behind the showy solos of wind instruments and snare shuffles.

In her bed the young girl is upright and alert. What is this strange and beautiful new music? The sound of interference itself, disturbed, captured, arrested and then released. As if the wind was stilled for a moment, only to reveal a description of itself in order to that she might greater appreciate being blown off her feet, which of course she was. And then: static. Pop, Hiss. Boots sinking into snow. A low feedback squeal.

Alice

The clouds have moved in and they seem to be darkening before your eyes. You watch for a while from the door, outside enough to feel the thickening atmosphere, inside enough to stay dry when the inevitable happens: the clouds break open and the water cycle starts again. The thing with storms is not just the sounds and the feel of the rain. The greyblueblack light and the death of shadows. The air feels thicker, the smell of the water to come, the wind whips up the dead leaves, the litter in the park, and the clouds themselves. The moisture hangs heavy. And you, from your door way, insideoutside notice it all. As if you could feel the change in some primordial way, the way cattle are supposed to as your mother once told you they could. Even in the clear afternoon you told yourself that this was coming. There is a rumble in the distance and you smile to yourself. The hairs on the back of your hands stir a little. The clouds are pressing in like a horror move, like a room where the walls move in to crush the heroine pushed by a moustachioed villain bent on world domination. This is his storm and you are impotent in his presence, powerless to stop him. There are more rumbles. There is less light. The heavens, as they say, open, and you duck your head inside. The leaves and the litter are pushed back down and now rush along the street in streams to the gutters. Everything is under attack from machine gun droplets, snipers in the heavens. The world, it seems is on it’s knees hunkering down. The walls, the ceiling, move in. But at the same time you notice something else, something that the hairs on the back of your hand were really trying to tell you: you are alive. And the lightning flashes and you see the shapes of the clouds from underneath, their architecture; the shades of grey and white, the blue and almostgreen. Worms magically appear on the lawn, summoned by the beating of the earth as the drums of Africa bring life to the townships. Berries are washed and shaken onto the ground and you think of the blackbird, and the thunder rumbles once more but now the wind whistles, too. You look back inside and see the books and the records and the vegetables and the fireplace, the tree of your own life. You breath and smell the clean air, and notice that it feels less oppressive. A ray of light breaks through and shows up nothing in particular, but you notice it, of course.

The night had not been kind but you kind of knew it wouldn’t be. The excitement from the storm, the stress of the office, the beers you shouldn’t have drunk. You woke just too early after a bad dream, got up to pee and stubbed your toe. You had a thick head and were too hot as your body processed the alcohol whilst you slept. The dream was forgotten quickly but it certainly involved violence and the threat of more. You tried to sleep again but by then you were awake and you tossed and turned in increasingly frustrated movements before you gave it up. A jealous moon shone through the window as the Earth turned away from it and the shadows it made felt as if she had sent them purely to taunt you. The pile of clothes in the corner a reminder of your nightmare, the shape on the wall a metaphor for your head. Indigestion rumbled like the thunder of the day before making you as comfortable in your body as you were in your bed, as the litter in the rain. There would be so much to do tomorrow that you knew you’d be too tired to accomplish, and you felt worse. You just had to wait the too-early morning out. As you did the shadows retraced their steps back into the objects of your room and the moonlight gave way to a faint sun. The black gave way to a grey, silver, blue, pastelpeach. The dawn twilight calmed your tired eyes even as the headache closed in like the clouds, like the villain’s wall. You’d sleep soon enough, too late, but for now you watched as the peach became orange and a faint pink traced a poem across the sky; a poem of the world as it is: painful, beautiful.

There are two hands. There is a left hand and a right hand and they are attached to the arms, and therefore the body, of Alice. The hands want to tell you a story. The left hand gives it to us straight; there is oppression, grief, death. There are headaches, stubbed toes and bad dreams. There are bad realities. There are storms and struggles and there are wars and diseases, famines, horror. The left hand wants to grab us and force us to look at the harsh conditions of others and at the difficulties in our own lives. The left hand does not want to spoil us with sugar or pseudo-philosophies on the power of positive thinking. This stuff is going on and the left hand wants us to be aware, wants us to take control and in doing, take action. Not to depress us but to have us know so that we can do something about it. The left hand shows us with passionate anger, and with righteousness that to live is to experience this. The right hand nods. The right hand agrees with the left hand. But the right hand wants to show us something else too. The right hand wants us to see the sunrise and the ray of light, the worms sucking up the wet soil, the birds picking up berries, the smell of the storm. The right hand gives us the memories of our dead, the daydreams, hope, reconciliation. The right hand makes us smile, makes us cry with love. And the left hand nods. The left hand agrees with the right hand. And Alice, in between left and right, nods too.

The Search for George Lane (Or, Why Ole Shows John Coltrane Is No Saint)

When people write about Coltrane they often use a small set of words to describe both the man and the music. They do this to show how great and far reaching his art and influence is, but somehow I feel as if they actually diminish both. They don’t seem to want to write about him as a human being, or if they do, only as a way to forgive his mistakes. And who wants that? Coltrane was a man expressing himself, and that really is it; but in using the cliches we turn him from something simple into something too terrifying to approach without caution. The same is true of his music. It is not always easy to listen to, but it is, at bottom, something simple.

I once played Ole to a friend. He said it was too much, too screechy. He was right, I suppose. It is not always melodious in the way that most people understand melody. It is almost twenty minutes long, has five solos and a lot of notes (high pitched notes at that) played quickly. To the non-jazz lover it is indulgent, loud, complicated, unnecessary. It encompasses everything they don’t like about the music. So how can we get around that and show the beauty of it? Under normal circumstances, when we are trying to convert someone to something, there seems to be an effort to assuage their fears by rushing off to play them comforting and likeable. Show them an understandable melody. Early ‘Trane. Coltrane in the Elmo Hope Sextet. In the same way, people who hate rap because “it’s all bitches and hos” then get bombarded with some half baked conscious record from ’91 just to prove that rap can be pleasant. In the case of rap we should be playing Five Minutes Of Death. Excellence at it’s pinnacle, hip-hop raw as fuck. In the case of jazz we should be playing Ole.

Ole is not simply to be listened to we should feel it. In feeling it we knock away the too many notes complexity and simply react to it. We do not search for the spiritual essence of the God JC as we have been told by years of journalism, instead we feel the danger in the music right from the opening bass line. We know immediately the something is afoot, and the scene is set. A flute brings us to Moorish Spain, full of intrigue and exoticism. The sound of the markets is in our ears reverberating down narrow streets. The late summer sunset dips behind the villas and the shadows lengthen. We do not see the flautist, but, hey, there are liner notes for that. George Lane…not a name we know; we shout out, but by the time we look up it is too late. We are in a strange land and George is gone. We follow the tracks in the dust, but are arrested in our steps by the scent of blood. Freddie Hubbard blocks our path to tell us a something: This is a violent place where nothing is what it seems, but he knows who we are looking for and where we might find him, but before we find out, he too is gone. Nothing remains in place for too long. The streets seems to shift under our feet and each road looks both the same and different to the last. We feel the drums slipping around us as if on the edge of escape down the sandstone alleyways. And we feel McCoy Tyner, a rope tied around Elvin Jones’s waist, pulling the drummer back with the repeated tug of his piano. It seems that they want to anchor us, and to help us. A friendly, reliable, stable face or two at last. There is excitement on the breeze. If you are listening closely you can hear someone singing the chords, unable, perhaps, to control themselves. Is it George taunting us? Or is it Coltrane, slowly making his way to the front to save us from this madness? There is an unmistakable energy as if the players know a secret, which of course they do. The flute and the trumpet have set the scene, Lane is trying to escape. And now Workman and Davis appear, to ratchet up the tension, plucking and pulling strings tight across their double double bass; bows peeled across like they’re peering round doors before everyone falls into the room in the nerves before the denouement. And then? Then Coltrane.

Coltrane turns and faces us. And then it really is physical. I can actually feel myself tighten. Charmed snakes are let loose. A gun goes off. There is a bloodbath. Coltrane has let go of control whilst he has control over me. I am captivated, unable to move away. It is clear that he has not come to clear things up at all but to muddy the waters of my emotions further. He has George pinned against the wall with a blast of energy from his horn and is daring me to look. I am rooted to the spot. Coltrane has me as one might a lover, saying “look, look what I can make you feel.” He is boasting, holding me in a stare of indescribably intensity until finally he turns and leaves and for a brief second I see the mask of George Lane slip as Eric Dolphy drops from Coltrane’s hands before he too looks back and makes his escape tumbling, finally, down those labyrinthine streets whilst I am either dead, or barely alive. As the piano slips away silently through the open door and into the panic riven streets below I realise that I did not search for notes I recognise, I couldn’t. Ole is nothing to do with notes, and Coltrane is no saint. He is as flawed and intense as us all. There is no need for theological pontificating, for academic arguments, or for placating uncertainty through melody. In order to be in the world we must face the world, and in art, in order to appreciate it we must face it. That seems pretty simple, and despite it’s apparent complexity this is very simple music. It is sex and death, and there is nothing more human than that.

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The Daydream Director

James Cobb is sitting on his stool behind the kit. If you are taking a cursory listen then it would appear that’s all he is doing. Sitting. Perhaps, as Miles mournfully mutes his horn and pours gentle breath into it, he is looking on at his co-workers with a musician’s critical eye, by turns disapproving and satisfied. Maybe, instead he daydreams about a girl, a trip taken out of town, eating a wonderful meal with wonderful company. That would not be surprising. The melody itself seems made for such a past-time; slow, mellow, nostalgic.

Behind the tape hiss and the crackle of dust caught in the needle however, it is clear that James Cobb is too busy to be wandering subconscious pathways himself. There goes the brush over the snare, the subtle clink of the ride behind solos. He whispers behind the static. Something about how our first instinct was almost correct, that this is daydream music, and he will be our guide. Swish swish. Chnk, chnk. Like a mesmerist swinging his watch chain, the drums pulse an oh so quiet rhythm behind the already barely there of Julian, John, Bill, Paul and Miles. My ears, however, are all his. I am under his command.

It seems as I listen I am pulled into and behind the music, underneath it. James Cobb has something he wants to say but in order to say it he must take me away from the others, far enough that I can hear them, but they can’t hear us. Behind a thick curtain created by the pulse of upright bass, if only we talk in whispers. On Flamenco Sketches James is almost invisible, but that’s what makes us pay attention. So I strain my ears. I’m not even sure that I have caught him yet or if that’s just the background noise. But, no, there he is. Swish, swish. Music for daydreams, but maybe more than that. Daydreams as an imperative. James is dragging me by the waist with each brush stroke, tightening his grip. Now, he says. You can go. And so, I do. I let fly my thoughts into the dusk.

I am on a mountain, out of breath, and aching legs. I have climbed, scrambled, ascended without rest and though I am not yet at it’s summit even from part way up the views are incredible. It is a clear day and I can see for miles. There are other mountains in the distance, lakes, forest, a small town. I am no longer walking, I am sitting in the sun on a rock enjoying this moment and I think now about the years it has taken for this mountain to form. I watch it in time-lapse as seasons scud past and the forests retreat. I think about how small I am in the universe, how small we all are in comparison. And I think about the things I have to do in my time here, the bills to pay, the paperwork waiting for me in the office…

I have lost him. Practicalities swept in and over me, wrestled me away. I move to get up and about the day, but here he is again, quietly insistent just behind Bill: chnk, chnk. Once more he has me, making sure I concentrate on his lesson. Getting me ready to give my real life the shove, to push off and into the warm waters of my romantic inner life. James Cobb holds me safely in his gaze, lets me know it’s okay to leave off for a few minutes more, to treat myself to reverie.

I live by the lake or the sea, I can never decide which. Either way there is water. By the lake it is always bright and the water is calm. I skim stones and swim naked for a few minutes- it is too cold for anything more than that- I watch boats and walk around part of the shore. I think about Henry Thoreau and how I too would love to leave society behind, but have neither the psychological strength or the practical abilities to do so. Come mid January I’d be starving and frostbitten. That’s why in my thoughts it’s always so bright. The sunshine makes it seem like life on the lake is never hard. And yet, if I imagine a life by the sea the weather is always harsh. I live in a rain-lashed-cliff-top-ruin. The ground around me is eroding alarmingly though I am not alarmed. In fact, I rather look forward to arriving home under a black sky to find my ruin on the beach. But as my house has come to an end so do my daydreams and I am back again to the real world, thinking of the upkeep of my actual home in a small Northern city.

Jimmy Cobb looks at me with the patience and love of an experienced teacher. He knows that the lessons are hard but he implores me to listen. Listen closely. He is teaching us something here. Something that no-one else wants us to know. Doing very little is sometimes the most effective thing, and doing it quietly in our own way is the most forceful way of doing it. Whilst they want us to rush, to produce, to be busy; Flamenco Sketches says no. James Cobb says absolutely no. He says, grab hold of your wandering mind and rather than wrestle it to the ground stick out your thumb and hitch a ride. The journey will feed you, show you an alternative. Daydreams may not make any money, are arguably useless in a purely utilitarian sense, and will get you told off by your parents/teacher/boss, however, they are most certainly not to be scorned. They should be enjoyed, and enjoyed thoroughly, and in what more pleasant company than with these sketches tucked under your ears, led by the subtle backbone of James Cobb? Swish, swish. Chnk, chnk.

(Image nabbed from a google search. Contact me if you need crediting)

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