A Gathering for Ornette Coleman, June 14, 2015, Berkeley Arts Festival

    A bunch of us got together last Sunday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space to celebrate Ornette. People shared stories: of seeing the Quartet repeatedly at the Five Spot in ’58, of spending many hours with Ornette at his home, playing and discussing music, of seeing the double bill of Ornette and Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers at Wolfgang’s in San Francisco, a show which I’ve also heard about from Harry Duncan, who produced it.

     The previous day there was an event celebrating and marking the end of the two-year residency of Myra Melford at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There too, the spirit of Ornette permeated the proceedings, and this was remarked upon by many. Lisa Mezzacappa and Kasey Knudsen played Jayne, so beautifully. The day and the residency programming as a whole were remarkable for their fusion of community outreach, large scale works with texts and voices, workshops, and an articulation of lineages.

Ornette Coleman, B.B. King, and Pete Seeger, y’know?

Chanting (from Virgin Beauty) - Ornette Coleman Chanting (from Virgin Beauty) - Ornette Coleman
L-R: Bill Crossman, [TBA!]. Dan Plonsey, John Schott, John Finkbeiner, Jason Levis, Vijay Anderson L-R: Bill Crossman, [TBA!]. Dan Plonsey, John Schott, John Finkbeiner, Jason Levis, Vijay Anderson
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Ornette Coleman

Every time I saw him was a religious experience. His sound, his sound. His sound and song were one. His love, his beautiful benedictions.

Once I was riding in a car with John Zorn and Trevor Dunn. Zorn had these mix tapes he would take with him when he traveled. We were listening to one when this track came on with a French singer and the unmistakable sound of Ornette Coleman. I recognized that it was a track I had read about in David Wild's discography of Ornette, and in Litweiler's biography, but never heard. I was excited, and mentioned that I had read that Ornette had asked for and received $10,000 to play on this one song, a single for Claude Nougaro. "Worth every penny!", said Zorn. As we listened to the song, motoring up highway 80, the sound of Ornette, his melodies so beautiful they made you laugh, seemed to radiate out of the speaker like a glimpse of Divine Eternal Love.

Somehow I never even contemplated life without Ornette before; it felt so shocking this morning.

Charlie, Billy, Don, Ed, Dewey, Ornette...

Remember Marty Erlich's song I Don't Know This World Without Don Cherry? The world is once again a strange, disorienting place. 

1. 04-Gloria.mp3     

Claude Nougaro with Ornette Coleman, Barclay Records, 1975.

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What Key Did Erroll Garner Play It In?

     When and if science examines my brain, it will show that in the Sonny Rollins area of my brain, there is a considerable wing devoted to bassist Bob Cranshaw. So I DEVOURED Ethan Iverson's interview with Mr. Cranshaw, which is full of priceless details, reflections, and insights.

Cranshaw speaks of a session he did with Erroll Garner that really sparked my imagination:

BC: Another experience that I’ve had like Sonny’s – I did a CD with Erroll Garner and Grady Tate. His last CD [JS note: the record is Magician, issued on Garner's own Octave Records label in 1974]. The same kind of experience, like Sonny, played standards. He played a tune; it was his tune. He said, “Okay, Bob. I’m just gonna play a little of it so you can hear it.” He played the tune down. “Okay, now we’ll make a take. Take one!” He turned back to the piano and put his hands down for an intro. He was in another key. He had no idea. He played by ear. Grady and I looked at each other. I heard it, so I didn’t panic, but the two of us are looking there and we’re laughing because how in the hell… two second ago, he just played the tune in one key, and the guy says, “Now we’re gonna make a take,” and he turns to the piano and he’s already… wherever his hands were, that’s where it was. He had no idea. He couldn’t read shit.

EI: What a hell of a player, though.

BC: To think of that kind of gift.

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Mingus Speaks, by John F. Goodman (UC Press, 2013)

Mingus SpeaksDid this book get enough attention? I think it's a major contribution to the literature. Goodman was a jazz critic for Playboy, reviewed Mingus's 1972 so-called "comeback" concert, and began interviewing Mingus, first for an article, then for a book. And only forty years later, here's that book! At the time, Mingus was in high spirits, and he and Goodman seemed to have a rapport.

There are so many brilliant observations, witticisms, polemics, and word improvisations here! Some of my favorites:

     Charlie Parker didn’t bullshit. He played beautiful music within those structured chords. He was a composer, man, that was a composer. It’s like Bach. Bach is still the most difficult music written, fugues and all. Stravinsky is nice, but Bach is how buildings got taller. It’s how we got to the moon, through Bach, through that kind of mind that made that music up. That’s the most progressive mind. It didn’t take primitive minds or religious minds to build buildings. They tend to go on luck and feeling and emotion and goof. (They also led us to sell goof.) (p.25)

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Actual Trio CD – audio excerpts posted

I've made an Actual Trio page with short excerpts of three songs from the forthcoming record. Soon I'l post a long interview with Dan Seamans about hunting, a subject neither of us know anything about, a John Hanes photo-retrospective, and a version of the liner notes in Esperanto.

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A talk on mentors and influences for YBCA

Thanks very much to Myra Melford, Isabel Yrigoyen, Roko Kawai, Doug Katelus, and Anya Rome over at the Yerba Buena Center for The Arts in San Francisco. Yesterday evening I gave a presentation in their "Mentors and Influences" series. Unusually for me, I wrote the entire thing out beforehand, and more or less read the paper. That makes it easy to present here, albeit without the live musical interludes played by Dan Seamans and I. Here goes:

When one is a novice at something one usually over explains, over writes… and over explains. So I ask for your forbearance in advance. I didn't expect to write a formal paper and read it here, but thinking about this topic so got my wheels turning that I needed the contemplative, critical thinking that writing provides me.

[ first live musical interlude: West End Blues ]

As long as I can remember, I have had an insatiable appetite for teachers, mentors, role models and, let’s just come out and say it, HEROES. My life has been an obsessive, life-long, sometimes anguished, sometimes comical quest for people, in my life and in the pages of history, to serve as my personal North Stars. To be Moses, and lead me out of degradation and bondage, to the promised land. My relationships to the actual mentors in my life have sometimes been very intense. Not Whiplash intense, mind you. No one threw a guitar at me!

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emerging from the cave (well, at least there’s a record to show for it)

photo:Myles Boisen 

credit Myles Boisen It's been so long since my last record that just now I had to check whether it was five or six years. So I am thrilled, and more than a little relieved, to have just finished the recording of a record with the trio, the Actual Trio, in fact. We did the entire record in one ten-hour day, at the legendary Fantasy Studios, just fifteen blocks from my house. The project feels exciting and new to me in several respects:

1) the trio has been playing together regularly for three years, longer than any other ensemble I've put on record (not counting the collaborative band T.J. Kirk). We play a repertoire written for this group, that is, for John Hanes, Dan Seamans, and myself. The songs are "lived in", for sure.

2) working with producer Hans Wendl, the first time I've had a producer for one of my own records. I've known Hans and his impressive body of work for at least twenty years, and worked with him recently on Sarah Wilson's to-be-released record Kaleidoscope. I felt there was a family resemblance between the trio's music and Sarah's record, and so it just sort of flowed out of that. He was crucial to the success of the recording, to hear the whole trio from above, as it were, thus giving me some space to concentrate on the guitar playing. 

3) a guitar, bass, and drums trio record. of original music. sans effects, minimal editing. live. from which the question arises: do I really have something that must be said in this regard?  I simply would not want to release something that could not more or less hold its own with the guitarists and records I admire. I think that making a record in this manner - one day live in the studio - severely exposes a musician. But - what a great thing, to be exposed!   

4) Going outside my normal practice of recording at one of two studios operated by close friends. Guerrilla Recording and New, Improved have been recording homes for me for a long time, and I really cherish the work I've done there, with Myles Boisen, John Finkbeiner and Eli Crews. For this recording, I wanted to be in that incredible room, Fantasy Studio A, where Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans and mentors of mine like Jerry Granelli and Julian Priester have recorded. To give the drums that warm, spacious sound that lets them fully speak, lets them breathe, lets them sing. We worked with engineer Adam Muñoz, who is to engineering what Marc-Andre Hamelin is to pianos: a virtuoso's virtuoso.

So it's now mixed and sequenced, and we feel that it came out QUITEWONDERFULLY !   Hey, how 'bout that? Eight songs, all first or second takes, originals. The record that comes out after the end of records. Also the record that comes out before our second record. Like the man said: "This Is Our Music."

commitment, openness, and clarity of intent

More news soon. Thanks.

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Scales: 2014 Musicians Poll Results

Most Over-rated Scale: the Diminished scale*

Most Under-rated: the Chromatic scale**

Most correctly rated: the Whole Tone scale

Scale Deserving of Wider Recognition: the 5th mode of Melodic Minor

the "Money" scale: 5th mode of Harmonic Minor

Special citation, for work in Black-Jewish relations: the 4th mode of Harmonic Minor.

* virtual tie with Pentatonic

** also a virtual tie with Pentatonic

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Coltrane. Offering’s “Offering”: An Offering

     One of the highlights of the new Temple University concert is Coltrane's late composition Offering. The only other version of this fascinating meditation on harmonic cells is on Coltrane's final official record Expression. Since the piece so seamlessly weaves together composition and improvisation, a second recording tell us something about which parts of the piece were fixed and which were open. However, because Alice is almost completely inaudible when John is playing, the Temple recording is like The Magnificent Ambersons or Smile: an artwork that has only partially survived. We have to try and infer what the totality was from the fragments we have.

     Here is my transcription of Offering (11/11/66). The chords written above the staff are based on the fragments I can hear of Alice between Coltrane's phrases, which I compared to what Coltrane plays, as well as what Alice played on the studio recording a few months later.

     The rhythms as written here are a humble attempt to notate the un-notatable. Morton Feldman said something like "Notation is a metaphor. It's a question of finding the right metaphor." That very much applies to this kind of transcription. Of course other people might come up with very different conclusions about how to show what they hear in a piece like this. That's why I hesitate to share transcriptions at all: my ideas about Offering are just as much about me as Offering, and so will your transcription be in some ways about you, and that's a great way to learn about yourself, while you think you're learning about Coltrane.

     In my next post I intend to compare the two versions of Offering.

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Coltrane: November 11, 1966 released on September 23, 2014, his 88th birthday


     If it had been recorded properly, this could be one of the greatest recordings in Coltrane’s discography, which is to say one the greatest recordings in Jazz. Taken as it is, Offering: Live at Temple University is a crucial document, imperfect and fragmentary, but complete enough, of a concert in which Coltrane was able to markedly expand his conception and presentation of music performance. He had recently played twenty concerts in Japan, all in concert halls. Back home he was mostly still in nightclubs, which his music had long outgrew. Here, at an educational institution in his hometown, he could present the music without liquor, cash registers, cramped stages, low ceilings, without the people who come to nightclubs to play the mating game, and without having to take breaks every 50 minutes. 

     At Temple he had onstage with him black and white musicians, men and women (err, woman), professionals and amateurs. The music embraced diversity. The instrumental configurations changed with each piece: solo bass, delicate tenor and piano duo, roaring drum ensemble, the quartet without Pharoah, the quintet with the added percussion. This was matched by the contrast of Pharoah’s extreme noise-tenor, with the lyrical consonance of Coltrane brought to his pieces Offering and Naima. Coltrane let two young people sit in, one a white student, the other a black saxophonist friend of Rashied Ali's. Sitting in was common enough when Coltrane played the Vanguard or the Village Gate in New York, but these were people he had never met, never heard. No problem, say your piece. 

     The nine member group and its guests played, most likely continuously, for an hour and a half. The audio recording, from a college radio broadcast, was most likely captured by a single mike at the front of the stage. That's great for the saxophones, and not bad for the drums, but when those two are playing that's pretty much all you can hear. The piano becomes audible when the horns drop out, and the bass becomes audible when everyone drops out. There are plenty of weird volume dips, off-mike moments, and beginnings and endings of songs cut-off. But when Trane plays, his sax is clear, vivid, and achingly, heart-breakingly beautiful.

     Coltrane had started using his voice on A Love Supreme, and subsequently on Om and the posthumously released Reverend King. On Kulu Se Mama, Juno Lewis had sung his titular poem. Here at Temple, Coltrane twice lets fly with almost a minute of improvised, melismatic singing. As Ashley Kahn and Ravi Coltrane point out in the liner notes, he sings something quite similar to the melodic cells he favors in his solos. Here's what it sounds like:

1. Leo-vocal-excerpt.mp3     

     For me, this may be Coltrane's most radical move yet. He is, obviously, not a practiced vocalist, and equally obvious, he doesn't care. We're no longer "just" in the world of "music" here, if we ever were. We've crossed over to community, to ritual, to happening, to an all-embracing vision in which raw, unmediated expression is more important that any commercial, professional standard. Coltrane sings, students sit in, the local drum circle does its thing. Even if this had been a great audio recording, it could only be a one-dimensional rendering of a multidimensional event. Our hearts and imaginations must fill in the rest.

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