All music, like all art, has philosophical, political, spiritual, and social reverberations, which of course is no surprise. Very few are the artists, however, who have both the breadth and depth of mind to engage consciously with these reverberations, and create art which not only reflects their ideals but enacts them. The theoretical implications of collective improvisation itself (otherwise known as "Free" Jazz) will have to wait for another post, but I would like to get into one specific area of philosophy here to frame this post a bit for the uninitiated. If this kind of thing doesn't appeal to you the music likely won't either.
The history of collective improvisation can be viewed, in some ways, as a dynamic project directed towards diminishing materiality in order to open up vaster spaces of sound, spirit and consciousness. Like the abstract painter's work of a generation earlier filling up the canvas with negative space in order to get at deeper meanings behind the canvas, many jazz artists in the 60s and 70s found that in order to really pile up the ammunition to blow open the structure of a song, less worked a lot more. Emptiness, drones, and silences broken by a climactic scream or mind-splitting cymbal crash can force the listener back to the sound itself, rather than allowing them to be lulled away from the moment by a pleasant melody. By making music less melodic, and therefore less narrative, the listener loses the thread of "song" that leads them through the maze of the recorded sound itself. Paradoxically, for me at least, this again draws me in closer to what is actually happening on the record.
A curious side note is that on a lot of the records in this spirit from this period, you see the instruments diminish in scale as well. "Miscellaneous percussion," and "small instruments," as well as more specific descriptions like "slide whistle" and "triangle" show up all over the place, and you find many musicians expanding the range of the kinds of instruments they play, with pianists picking up a cello or a horn, or reedmen dropping in on percussion or, in this case, violinists playing a bicycle horn. To some classicists this is "noise," or "amateurish" but I prefer to see it as embodying the kind of experimentality that has always thrived in jazz, and which, because so many brave artists insisted and still insist on it, will always keep jazz alive, despite the social and financial prominence of some museum jazz artists.
This album is full of surprises, not least of which for those familiar with the work of the artists featured in the CCC (see see see below). I hope you enjoy it and it makes you listen a little harder.
[Original Liner Notes]
1. MUHAL (PART I) 19:24
1. MUHAL (PART II) 14:40
(Live Spiral) 2:40
(Total Time) 17:20
LEROY JENKINS: Violin, viola, recorder, toy xylophone, harmonica, bicycle horn
ANTHONY BRAXTON: Alto sax, soprano sax, clarinet, flute, contrabass clarinet, orchestral chimes
LEO SMITH: Trumpet, flugel horn, french horn, seal horn, misc. percussion
MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS: Piano, cello, clarinet
RICHARD DAVIS: Bass
STEVE MCCALL: Drums, misc. percussion
Around the beginning of 1971 I gradually became aware that something different was going on in the Greenwich Village neighborhood where I live. Strange sounds were coming out of Liberty House on Bleecker Street, which I'd taken to be another boutique featuring over-priced African imports and costume jewelry. One day I noticed an exhibit, set up in a window that had displayed merchandise the day before. It was dedicated to the late Eric Dolphy and included blown up photographs, a bass clarinet, several lead sheets in Dolphy's hand, the music stand he had used to practice. And those strange sounds were coming out the door, not very Dolphyesque sounds either: harmonicas, drums, ballons, voices, bicycle horns, toy pianos. I had to go in and check it out.
What I found was a friendly proprietor named George - he is now known as Kunle Mwanga - and several musicians with lean and hungry looks. They were playing records from a stack, and as I thumbed through I realized that I'd never heard any of them before. I'd heart the names - Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Abrams - and knew they were members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, knew they were supposed to be playing music that was really new, newer than New York music of Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp. Soon I was rapping with violinist Leroy Jenkins, a fast-talking, fast-thinking Pisces. "We have a cooperative group," he said, "the Creative Construction Company. Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Steve McCall, me. We're not basically a solo band; our thing is collective improvisation." But, kazoos, penny whistles, coke bottles? "Colors."
Just now, after listening to the music on this record for the first time since it was recorded, I was struck by how easy it was to hear and to follow. That hadn't always been the case. I went to my AACM shelf and listened again to Three Compositions of New Jazz, the 1968 Delmark album that introduced Braxton, Jenkins and Smith. Sure enough, what had once seemed difficult, recondite music now sounded mellow and amiable. I remembered the comments several critics had made during the late sixties regarding Ornette Coleman, they were surprised that they had initially found his early recordings difficult. So, I though time has caught up with the CCC's music. A second thought occurred almost immediately; there was another reason why the music now sounded so seamless and together. It was together. There had been a lot of color-oriented collective improvisation since the first stirrings of the style, but very little of it had been up to the standards set by the early Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Creative Construction Company.
It could hardly have been otherwise. The musicians had been playing together regularly since 1966-67, most of them, and the AACM had seen to it that they at least had outlets for their ideas. It hadn't been like New York City, where competition between musicians can be withering, groups splinter and fold almost as fast as they're formed, and group personnels as stable as Ornettes's are not just rare but almost impossible. The AACM musicians chipped in to put on their own concerts, they maintained their own school where ghetto youngsters could learn theory and, most importantly, they investigated new ways of playing together without a hint of commercial pressures which intrude into virtually every Manhattan musical enterprise, survival dues being what they are. In that sense, the AACM music was truly new; the players had heard New York music, but few New Yorkers had heard them. The Delmark records were hard to find and the Nessa lp's Bowie and Mitchell made were rarer. The Byg albums the Art Ensemble and the CCC (recording under Braxton's name) had made in 1969 were just beginning to show up in a very few stores. None of the Chicagoans had had any real live exposure in New York.
This was the background of Kunle Mwanga's decision to back a series of Concerts by Chicago groups, beginning with the CCC. The first part of the first concert was Jenkins' "Muhal," dedicated to the AACM founding father who'd been performing with the group on and off since Three Compositions. At this point in time, the music doesn't need a verbal gloss. It is collective improvisation with remarkable range and richness, and even during the most congested moments the textures are quite clear, allowing the listener to follow each player's contribution with ease. The audience which had gathered at Peace Church was a heterogeneous one, but the reaction was unanimous: a collective "wheeew!" Ornette was particularly prominent among the listeners because of the bright orange hard hat he was wearing. Look out, his chapeau seemed to be counseling, something new is coming down.
Braxton's reputation has far outstripped that of the other musicians in the years since this, his New York debut, but even a cursory hearing of the music will reveal that he was in no way the dominant player. A blindfolded listener would probably guess that Jenkins was the leader, so deftly and consistently does his violin sing through. But in fact there was no leader. As Leroy has pointed out on several occasions, the Creative Construction Company was sometimes fronted by Braxton because "Braxton was always better known," but decisions were made and remuneration was divided equally, as was the organization of the group's business. "You are your music," Braxton had been quoted as saying in the liner notes for Three Compositions. Apparently he was right.
It's interesting to note the directions the musicians have traveled since the concert. Jenkins has been carrying on AACM principles in New York as one third of the cooperative group Revolutionary Ensemble. With Sirone (formerly Norris Jones) playing like any three bassists and Jerome Cooper contributing incredibly sensitive percussion the Ensemble is one of the most consistently stimulating groups around. Leo Smith lives near New Haven. He has been performing with Marion Brown and on his own and has become on of the outstanding theorists of contemporary improvisational music through his contributions to The Black Perspective In Music and other publications. Muhal and McCall still live and work in Chicago. Both played on Marion Brown's much-praised Sweet Earth Flying and both continue to demonstrate their remarkable versatility. Muhal has turned up on albums by Sonny Stitt and Eddie Harris as well as on the Art Ensemble Of Chicago's Fanfare for the Warriors. McCall is simply one of the most aware, gifted percussionists now playing; J.B. Figi's comment that he can break your heart with a drum solo is worth repeating in connection with his performance on this lp. Braxton is living in Woodstock, recording for Arista, and working regularly, sometimes in the company of Smith and/or Jenkins. Richard Davis is now, as he was in 1971, one of the two or three most in-demand bassists in New York. He recorded with Van Morrison not long before the CCC's concert, and has continued to work with artists as diverse as Phil Woods and Teresa Brewer. He contributed immeasurably to this music; in 1971 he was one of the few bassists in New York who could have done so. Richard Davis is currently signed to Muse Records.
The strongest, most lasting contemporary improvisational music has been made by working groups, from the Coleman and Coltrane quartets and Sun Ra's Arkestra through Ayler's trio and quartet, Cherry's European band, Cecil Taylor's Unit, and the Art Ensemble. Three Compositions and Anthony Braxton (Byg, Actuel 15), which represent early and middle-period Creative Construction Company respectively, have long been placed in the major leagues of the new music by those fortunate enough to possess playable copies. Now, finally, we have late CCC music available on record and, quite naturally, it's the real stuff.
RECORDING SUPERVISOR: ORNETTE COLEMAN
RECORDED AT: WASHINGTON SQUARE METHODIST CHURCH (PEACE CHURCH NYC)
CONCERT PRODUCTION: GEORGE CONLEY
RECORDING ENGINEER: ORVILLE O'BRIAN
COVER PAINTING BY: P. GIVENS
Art Direction: Hal Wilson