Saturday, April 26, 2008

Regarding Sean Bell

I haven't really formed my thoughts on the disgrace of Sean Bell into a coherent interpretation, but the following two blog posts speak pretty well to the issue, and I submit them for your consideration:

There's a phrase spoken by Jimmy Breslin at the beginning and end of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam: "New York--the city I love and hate equally." This always struck me as a completely comprehensible statement, especially in its self-centered logic. I'm willing to grant the stereotype a degree of veracity: New Yorkers can be a self-absorbed lot. But NYC comes by its "center-of-the-universe" status honestly; New York is the place where a lot of the shit (good and bad) goes down. "Love/hate" for Breslin, and usually for me too, but right now it's more "shame/disappointment."

Post scriptum:
The title of my April 8th blog post now carries a bitterly ironic ring, doesn't it?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

NY Ain't So Bad, Is It?

So I recently got this CD reissue of a 1975 Rashied Ali album entitled N.Y. Ain't So Bad in which Ali & co. play the blues. Yes, free-jazz stalwart and once-drummer for John Coltrane Rashied Ali, playing the blues. The straight-up, down-home blues. Kind of.

What is so arresting about this album is the way avant-garde cracks give texture to the mostly smooth, polished surface of this set of blues. This really is a blues album--heavy on groove, finely-burnished melodic and harmonic turns of phrase (i.e. great stock licks), and that elusive but crucial ingredient--"feeling." Nestled between and tucked behind singer Royal Blue's straight-ahead (and soulful) shouts, "free" elements turn up erratically: one of the saxophonists (Jimmy Vass on alto and Marvin Blackman on tenor) might play a background phrase whose harmony intersects perpendicularly with the harmony articulated by Charles Eubanks on piano and Benny Wilson on bass; Ali might expose his free-jazz roots, playing a fill that is a bit too busy, clattery, and all-out rowdy to belong in a Chicago-style blues band.

[I'm sorry I can't provide sound files here, but you check out the album on iTunes. Listen to "Everyday," the band's cover of the B.B. King standard. Towards the end of the 30-second sample you'll hear Ali taking things "out" on the drums. Also check out Ali's hip polyrhythms on "Moontipping."]

Listening to N.Y. Ain't So Bad reminded me that the album was recorded around the end of a period in US jazz when African American musicians from the "progressive" end of the (jazz) musical spectrum articulated a strong sense of a black music continuum--both in their words and their music. This pan-African musical sensibility of course arose along with (I don't really think it's accurate to say "out of") the Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements. Musicians such as Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Albert Ayler, who had pushed very hard against musical-aesthetic boundaries during the mid-60s to create high-energy music that confronted the listener with extremes of timbre, pitch, and rhythmic density, began to change direction by the late-60s and into the early 1970s. I wouldn't characterize this change (evidenced by albums such as Ayler's New Grass, Sanders' Thembi and Shepp's Attica Blues) as a "reigning in" of musical vanguardism so much as a spreading-out of its impetus. As in numerous prior moments in jazz, these musicians sought ways to connect what they were doing to a deeply-felt experience of an inclusive black musical tradition: one linking gospel, blues, R&B, soul, funk, jazz, etc.

While I've often thought of the notion of a "black music continuum" as a distinctly post-Civil rights African-American construct that casts an essentialist light on the musical practices of African Americans, the music created by Ayler, Shepp, Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Frank Lowe, Clifford Thornton, Rashied Ali, et al. was nothing if not eclectic. These musicians used elements of jazz (from various sub-styles and periods in that idiom), blues, funk, West African, and Caribbean music, freely borrowing and mixing together bits and pieces as they saw fit (Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp strike me as especially voracious in their eclecticism). If they were guided by essentialist notions of blackness, then it was an essentialism that seems to have undermined itself, allowing for a diversity of musical expressions that challenges the very notion of a common, underlying essence. If essentialist understandings of black expressive culture usually reduce the multi-faceted, myriad forms, styles, and aims of African-American art to a monolithic body of work with a single, driving force of "blackness," the essentialism of Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and, on the basis of N.Y. Ain't So Bad, Rashied Ali, was perhaps something of an oxymoron: a reductionism that resulted in variety, a narrow-minded investment in race as the basis of culture and consciousness that allowed for an expansive musical vision.

I venture to guess that it was Rashied Ali's investment in such a notion of a black music continuum that allowed him to record N.Y. Ain't So Bad without any qualms. His other recorded work from the mid-70s belongs more clearly to the post-Coltrane avant garde bag. Arguably, it took courage for Ali to record a relatively straight-ahead blues album (vis a vis his standing in the avant garde community). I would say it also took musical courage for his band to inject these blues with piquant touches of free music--and to let the two musical poles, down-home blues and heady free jazz, coexist in a delicate tension in sonic space without attempting to reconcile them with one another.