Done midway through his prolific, if under-recognized career, this previously unpublished interview with Mazette Watts (1938-1998) also offers a profound snapshot of the experimental music scene in 1974. Speaking to Jazz Magazine’s Chris Flicker on a tape transcribed, edited and introduced by Pierre Crépon and published in The Wire, Watts who had been involved in the initial flowering of the 1960s New York New Thing in association with Sonny Sharrock, Byard Lancaster and others, saw the music in decline in the US after the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. Lack of decent venues, no major label support, fruitless DIY projects and players’ expatriation and complacency are cited, with Watts only singling out Cecil Taylor, Frank Wright and Sam Rivers for praise. Someone who had taught, traveled internationally and worked as a recording engineer/producer, Watts instead saw the future in terms of merchandising finished products and more importantly, synthesizer programming and computers. At the same time he maintained few users, except for Terry Riley and Roger Powell were using the syntheizer to its full capacity and has harsh words for the Sun Ra, Stevie Wonder, Paul Bley, Herbie Hancock and even John Cage.
Performance portraits by Susan O’Connor
NEWS FROM ELSEWHERE
Next month will see the demise of SuperDeluxe, which has been one of the pillars of Tokyo’s experimental music scene for the past 16 years. The (familiar) reason: the building is earmarked for demolition. The Japan Times’ James Hadfield goes into detail about the club's comfortable ambiance, flexible, DIY ethos and (lack of) amenities, comparing it to better-known experimental hangouts in other cities. He also itemizes some of the important gigs he’s witnessed there including sets by German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, Japanese guitarist Keiji Haino and American bass/baritone saxophonist Colin Stetson. However he doesn’t deal with the deeper question of where non-mainstream musicians will be able to play in the future as more out-of-the-way venues in major centres become victims of demolition and/or gentrification.
Although known as a creative trombonist and band leader who has worked with, among many others bassist William Parker and pianist Cecil Taylor, Steve Swell tells Point of Departure’s Troy Collins about the compromises and sacrifices one has to make to survive as creative musician in the New York City area. Although he now teaches regularly – something he admits he didn’t like at first – and has enough connections to gig regularly in North America with his bands featuring saxophonists Jemeel Moondoc or pianist Cooper-Moore plus in Europe in projects with saxophonists Peter Brötzmann, Gebhard Ullmann or Jan Klare, he still has to handle all day-to-day business himself. Now that he's freed from earlier day jobs such as driving a taxi or tempory proofreader at financial and law firms, he still must divide his day into one-hour intervals in keep track of his tasks. Without his own PR person, personal manager or a booking agent, he has still developed contacts over the years and like his music he manages to improvise his schedule as he goes along.
Conceived of, in a way, as a riposte to Ken Burns’ arch-conservative PBS Jazz series, Tom Surgal has directed a film entitled Fire Music, which presents the history of so-called Avant-Garde Jazz purposely ignored in the Burns’ series. Rolling Stone’s Hank Shteamer notes that the documtary is really comprehensive, because it not only focuses on major New York figures involved in 1960s-1970s revolutionary improvised music, but also many of the era's lesser-known players. Luckily made before some of the interview subjects passed on, Fire Music includes commentary by among others, trombonist Roswell Rudd, trumpeter Bobby Bradford and reed players Prince Lasha, Noah Howard and Sonny Simmons. Although Shteamer faults Surgal for not including the history of equivalent musical experiments taking place in Europe and Chicago, for instance, he admits that the omission makes the film’s narrative much more manageable. And note the story of how Californians Lasha and Simmons immediately decided to head to New York after listening to new Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy LPs in a record store.
Known for his work in Battle Trance, Little Women and other Jazz-oriented groups, Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante explains to Madison, Wisc.'s Grant Phipps in this wide-ranging radio and Tone Madison Web page interview that he’s as involved with composing as he is with improvisation. Deeply committed to Subtle Degrees, the improvisational duo he co-leads with drummer Gerald Cleaver, with whom he has been playing for 15 years, Laplante also spends time composing for interpretative modern dancers, the JACK string quartet and Yarn/Wire a two pianos/two percussionist New music ensemble. Someone who admits to be equally influenced by Beethoven’s later string quartets and John Coltrane, Laplante wants to inject more space into his music. As he says: “I just feel like silence is really the most beautiful sound. I hope to use it more in some senses in the future.” (Also includes two samples of Laplante's recorded work )
Although clichés about Japanese fans’ appreciation for all sorts of Jazz are legion, 82-year-old Tokyo-based Kiyoshi Koyama has done more than most in spreading the word. He’s been an important presence through most of the county’s post Second World War scene. In this article, Koyama tells Japan Times’ Katherine Whatley how despite having an English degree – his thesis was on the presence of the word “jazz” in American literature – he has always worked in all aspects of the country’s Jazz scene. That included organizing coffee house listening sessions, writing for Japan’s major music publications, putting together historical box sets of recordings and hosting a weekly national Jazz radio program,. Along the way he famously interviewed saxophonist John Coltrane about spirituality and welcomed saxophonist Ornette Coleman to his home for sushi. Someone who visited New York annually to check out spots like drummer Rashied Ali’s legendary club, he continues to keep up with cutting edge in Jazz.
Part of the French Free Jazz scene for almost 50 years from his Paris base, Jamaican-born drummer Noel McGhie has been affiliated with some of the most visionary and uncompromising players on the scene, including stints in the bands of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and pianist François Tusques. In this rambling Q+A with Point of Departure’s Pierre Crépon and Jochen Behring the drummer spins tales of how through constant study, the trained-as-an-electrician McGhie became a drummer after relocating to England when he was 18. In France a few years later, and ever since, Free Jazz was flourishing due to its fashionable support from the extreme left and McGhie was soon working steadily. The 74-year-old drummer recounts his experiences of that time, playing with the likes of saxophonist Archie Shepp, singer Colette Magny, trombonist Clifford Thornton and other subsequently famous or now unknown Free Jazzers.
Although best known as a masterful guitar improviser whose talents have been in demand by musicians as different as John Zorn, McCoy Tyner and Elvis Costello, Marc Ribot tells The Daily Beast’s Larry Blumenfeld that he has long been a forefront activist as well as a closet songwriter. Now his protest songs, which encompass Second World War Italian anti-fascist anthems, labor chants and Civil Rights and Vietnam-era protest songs, plus his own compositions are being released on disc. Ribot, who attributes his increased militancy to the election of Donald Trump, says that he turned to song writing when he first participated in peaceful demonstrations and found that younger people didn’t know traditional protest songs and had none of their own. A new series of Popular Front songs was needed, he decided. At the same time Ribot, who describes himself as “a boring old Social Democrat”, has been performing these songs in concerts with his own bands, featuring the likes of saxophonist Briggan Krauss, and multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. Crucially though, he also affirms that improvisation itself is a political act
While The Red Bull Music Academy’s Jeff Mao wants to get in so-called war stories from engineer Baker Bigsby’s about his work with the likes of rock stars like The Rolling Stones, The Band and Sly and the Family Stones, Bigsby himself says “one of the most important things I did [was] the early ’70s revolutionary, avant-garde jazz”. Weaned away from rock music by producer Ed Michel, he engineered important discs by, among others, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, violinist Michael White, and Sun Ra Arkestra’s Space Is The Place LP, which necessitated bringing in extra electronic equipment. Still some of his best experiences, he says, came from recording Alice Coltrane’s devotional music, often with her just playing organ and singing.
One locus of New York’s Free Jazz scene in the early 1970s, the crumbling industrial building that was 501 Canal Street was finally torn down in 1983 and, following the trajectory of Joni Mitchell’s song, became a parking lot for years until a luxury hotel was built in its place. But in his article for the New York Times, Nabil Ayers recalls that time in his early childhood when the area was dirty, dangerous and drug-ridden but 501 was a cheap place to live. Ayers was on site because his uncle, saxophonist Alan Braufman, welcomed Ayers and his mother, Braufman’s sister, into the building. Once there, the child witnessed the daily practice routine and weekly concerts of his uncle plus other residents, including such future Jazz luminaries as pianist Cooper-Moore and saxophonist David S. Ware, who also lived in the building. One part of this story is how Valley of Search, Braufman’s and Cooper-Moore’s recently reissued debut LP was actually recorded right in the building.
Known, if at all, for his playing on two seminal 1960s Free Jazz LPs: saxophonist John Coltrane’s Ascension and pianist Paul Bley’s Barrage, trumpeter Dewey Johnson (1939-2018) was a shadowy figure most of his life, dying at 78 in June. But as The Wire’s Pierre Crépon points out, the Philadelphia-born trumpeter was an important transitionary figure in exploratory Jazz, first in San Francisco, where he mentored alto saxophonist Noah Howard and played with saxophonist Byron Allen; and later in New York with bands that included saxophonists Giuseppi Logan and Pharoah Sanders and drummer Rashied Ali. A nervous breakdown, subsequent periods of homelessness and a series of menial day jobs made his presence on the scene iffy after 1967, although he did play with on-and-off with The Music Ensemble featuring drummer Roger Baird, saxophonist Daniel Carter, violinist Billy Bang and bassists William Parker and Earl Freeman; and in the early 1980s a group led by drummer Paul Murphy, with pianist Mary Anne Driscoll, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons and bassoonist Karen Borca. More serious illnesses and homelessness was his lot for next three decades until his recent death.
A versatile percussionist, New York-based Chad Taylor is best-known for his long-time membership in various permutations of the Chicago Underground group with cornetist Rob Mazurek. But, as he tells Jazz Right Now’s Cisco Bradley, his musical flexibility came about after he turned from classical guitar to studies at the New School with the likes of bassist Reggie Workman and saxophonist Arnie Lawrence that helped him to become a professional Jazz musician. He then became part of the the open Chicago music scene, where Avant Rock. Free Jazz and other genres crossed naturally. Although never an AACM member, Taylor did play regularly with Fred Anderson at the Velvet Lounge and was also mentored by him. Furthermore as it evolved, The Chicago Underground began encompassing the use of electronics and post-production studio reworking of already recorded material into the band's CDs. Besides his other affiliations, Taylor says he learned the most from being in the Digital Primitives trio with tenor saxophonist Assif Tsahar and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, who taught him more about the music business and even encouraged him to sing. His best playing he adds, is when he feels he has created something he has never done before.
Looking forward to an even busier year than usual recording and perfuming his music, New York-based pianist Matthew Shipp discusses his political, mystical and musical philosophies with downbeat’s Ron Hart. Along the way he explains the divergence between the sessions he records for a label like ESP-Disk, with discs featuring the likes of multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and Polish saxophonist Mat Walerian, and the multiple series of CDs he has recorded for Leo Records with Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman. Comparing the societal ferment of today with that of the 1960s, he also muses about the varied political and social commitments of earlier Jazz icons such as saxophonists Archie Shepp, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. The one thing he’s sure about in 2018 though, he says, is: “I don’t want Donald Trump anywhere near my music.”
Now established as a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Cooper-More has been for many years a constant presence on New York’s so-called downtown scene. But in this transcribed memoir by Sound American’s Nate Wooley, he outlines his early life and how he evolved musically. Growing up in rural Virginia his first introduction o Jazz was through the LPs of Ahmad Jamal and Charles Mingus. While attending university in Washington D.C, and Boston – as a flute specialist [!]– he had a chance to see John Coltrane’s band with Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Rashied Ali and Jimmy Garrison, which convinced him that what he calls “Power Music” was what he wanted to play. He also listened to discs by other advanced musicians like trumpeter Bill Dixon and pianist Burton Greene. Encouraged by players like drummer Cleve Pozar, who had already recorded, Cooper-More dropped out of school, surviving as an organist playing with commercial bands. Later he put together advanced groups with the likes saxophonist David S. Ware and percussionist Juma Santos. However his first opportunity to record came when he moved to a musicians’ cooperative on New York’s Canal Street with Ware, and Ware’s then floor mate, tenor saxophonist Alan Braufman, asked him to record what became the Valley of Search LP. (Includes sound samples).
Perhaps it’s that her interviewer is fellow saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, but New York-based composer/alto saxophonist Matana Roberts goes into much greater detail than usual about her background and ideas in this dialogue found on Shaw’s blog pages. A Chicago native from a family obsessed with music, Roberts was playing both so-called classical clarinet and Jazz saxophone by the time she was in high school. Soon afterwards she expended her interests in a mixture of players such as Cannonball Adderley, Earth Wind and Fire, Bob Dylan, and Donna Summer even wider to include a variety of other sounds such as those from composers like Morton Feldman, John Zorn and John Cage, saxophonists like David Boykin, Fred Anderson and Von Freeman, singers like Jeanne Lee, and hip hoppers like Nas and A Tribe Called Quest, These musical influences, plus the writings of Roxane Gay and Jane Jacobs, her quest to experience the natural world, plus her involvement in yoga, movement and swimming, encouraged her to conceive of her Coin Coin project. This is envisioned as a 12-part recorded examination of Black American history, parts of which she performs solo. Right now her other major ambition is to play with older musicians in order to understand some of their received wisdom
Unlike the usual fluffy “blindfold test” conducted by most magazines, where participants merely guess the identity of their closest musical associates, Jazz Times' George Varga challenges California-based flutist and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM) stalwart Nicole Mitchell with sessions relating to all facets of her burgeoning career. Not only does Mitchell nail the identity of such contemporaries and influences as bassist Mark Dresser and trombonists Jimmy Cheatham and George Lewis plus flutists James Newton, Hubert Laws and Robert Dick , but she also articulately elaborates what each player meant to her as a maturing improviser and how some helped her find her place within the ongoing Jazz tradition. Oh and dig her experiences when she first met mercurial pianist/bandleader Sun Ra.
Fifty years after the Jazz world was shocked by the release of German tenor saxophonist Peter Brötznann’s epoch LP Machine Gun, the German reedist tells downbeat’s Andrew Jones about the session’s origins and intent. Unlike American players such as saxophonist Albert Ayler, who believed that love would heal the world, European musicians of the time were angry and wanted to get rid of the old structures, the saxophonist says. Since some of the members of the Octet – which included future major players like the UK tenor saxophonist Evan Parker, Dutch drummer Han Bennink and saxophonist Willem Breuker and German bassist Peter Kowald – weren't that familiar with each other's work, Brötzmann composed what he terms “a Charles Ives thing: solo, solo background, solo” to have “the most freedom possible, but to give some structure to hold on to” for the recording date. As for the LP title, it came from trumpeter Don Cherry’s description of Brötzmann’s ferocious playing.
Troy Collins’ Point of Departure profile of guitarist Michael Musillami rightly deals with his newest disc, composed and recorded after the guitarist’s successful recovery from surgery following an unexpected brain hemorrhage and unrelated brain tumor. But besides discussing that CD, recorded with Musillami’s long-time collaborators bassist Joe Fonda and drummer George Schuller, Collins deals with the challenges facing him as a creative musician and label owner. Starting out playing in organ trios with organist Richard “Groove” Holmes and others, the guitarist had an early association with the likes of reedist Thomas Chapin and bassist Mario Pavone and since 1999 has headed Playscape Records, on which the trio alone has recorded almost 100 compositions and also showcases other leaders such as Pavone and pianist Peter Madsen. Describing himself as a “dinosaur… (who) really enjoys the process of writing every note by hand,” the guitarist says that “emotion” would be one word to describe his music, adding “I’m playing the blues even when I’m not playing the blues”, unlike the neoclassical forms some players now bring to improvisation. As well, he notes, changes in the record industry have meant that Playscape initially presses fewer CDs than in the past with the music also available in digital stores, but not on streaming sites.
Born as Robert Northern and brought up in the South Bronx, Brother Ah got his nickname during his years teaching at Dartmouth College. His affiliation with Ivy League and other post-secondary institutions was just one of the many firsts he logged as a Black French Horn player starting in the 1950s, he tells Open Sky Jazz’s Rusty Hassan. Best-known for his contributions to important recording sessions by Thelonious Monk (Orchestra at Town Hall), Gil Evans, John Coltrane (Africa/Brass) and Miles Davis, the hornist also studied and worked in Europe early in his career, and later was part of the orchestras at the Metropolitan Opera and many Broadway shows. Years later when he regularly spent time in Africa in Ghana and among the Massai people, he found many of the sounds he heard were similar to those Sun Ra created for his Arkestra. Brother Ah played on-and-off with Ra for a decade after 1964, following an experience hearing the group and shouting because the music was as profound as that of contemporary European composers. Brother Ah then decided he had to work with the Arkestra himself, and did so. (Interview is in two parts)
Despite the current faddish mania for collecting vinyl records and the constant pressure from streaming services to abandon physical formats altogether, James Toth writing in The Quietus says the CD is still very viable and gets a bad rap for no good reason. The CD is convenient and provides superior sound quality. Meanwhile streaming services push their delivery model because they can make more money charging the consumer monthly for music he or she could own forever if purchased. Additionally, at this time transmitted sound isn’t that good as on CDs. Vinyl records’ sudden popularity has meant that the manufacture of new LPs has become an expensive proposition, he adds. Plus a new LP is basically a big, costly CD with added vinyl noise, which once it ages makes pops, hisses and crackles part of the listening experience as LPs did in the past. Toth also asks how you can properly split into two LP sides the all-of-a-piece improvisations of say Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton of The Necks. And what about the extensive catalogues of most Jazz issued between 1988 and 2002, including sessions by John Zorn and Matthew Shipp? Should that music be discarded if it's not transferred to vinyl or streaming services?