Monday, December 14, 2009
Kung Fu Jazz
In Bruce Lee movies the fighting is so perfectly choreographed it almost looks real. Well, not REAL real, of course, but the way we'd imagine real might look in Hollywood. It would only make sense on screen. Imagine the scene in Fist of Fury where Lee takes on an entire school of assassins-in-training if it were real and not painstakingly planned out. It wouldn't make for a very interesting (or long) film. But we accept that such blatant posturing is the nature of the High Arts when they become commercialized.
Imagine if, at a concert at Carnegie Hall of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, all the highly-trained instrumentalists walked onto the stage and started improvising on Bach themes. Unacceptable! Surgically-orchestrated art, free improvisation, structured improvisation—all these forms are valid and have found homes in the music world. I'd like to examine a piece from that second category, an expressionist jazz record made in 1977: Streams of Consciousness by Max Roach and Abdullah Ibrahim. We’ll get to that, but first a little background.
In high school I went dozens of times to see the Hank Roberts Trio, a cello-centric jazz/folk/fusion/experimental music group. As a young musician, it was by watching and listening to the Trio that I observed an improvisation that went several levels deeper than the fun jam-bands we teens also flocked toward (not for completely musical reasons). It is often the interplay of all the players, the back-and-forth, and not just one person's domination that makes jazz that much more complex. For some reason I think of sports with their finite number of players but infinite possible outcomes. This attribute is especially evident in a record I stumbled upon in our collection: a rare 1977 duet by drummer Max Roach and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) entitled Streams of Consciousness. The credits say it was produced by Max Roach, but saying it was produced by anyone is laughable—all they needed to do was get the guys in the same room and hit the record button.
At the beginning of their interplay, the piano sets off in a gospel direction, only to collide with the deepest swung funk beat. Experimental jazz meets stride, and complete discord meets pop. At times you can almost hear Carole King singing, but that is interrupted by ideas a bit too interesting for seventies pop (not that there's anything wrong with it!). Ibrahim slams down a Vince Guaraldi-like left hand line that is deliberately off-time, enough so to throw Roach off balance. This transforms the next series of movements into a fun sparring match. This interaction never turns into a train wreck. My guess is that the pianist was trying to stir things up. We travel through some blues, some stride piano, a drum solo that sounds like a machine-gun battle, but always return to Roach's funk. Every once in a while you have to remind yourself that you're only listening to two people. When one drops out for a moment you can't help thinking, Hey, where did everyone go? Ibrahim throws in an upbeat progression and a bunch of flowery chords here and there to help knit everything together and a bit more Guaraldi for good measure.
There is proof on track two that melodies and chords can be played on a drum kit. Roach seemingly uses every piece of drum hardware as percussion. The second track soon takes a turn for the conventional. For some reason the second bit of this cut feels like walking home.
On the third track I hear people at a party, dishes and silverware clinking, laughter. Roach shows the listener the possibilities of the high-hat cymbal, using the metallic concussion as well as the inner resonance to create a hollow vocal sound. I'd hate to have to transcribe this monologue, though.
The last track allows the space between chords and drum hits to become the melody. I know that's a strange concept. Picture a Béla Bartók percussion ensemble at a speakeasy. Max gets the most out of that snare drum—it kind of makes you rethink what you thought you knew about drums.
The liner notes bend over backwards to stress there was no preparation for this recording. Simply put, these two jazz giants sat down and started playing. In the realm of jazz (traditional jazz, free jazz and bebop, as opposed to smooth jazz, which I like to call jass or Quiet Storm Jazz) this less structured approach is not uncommon and in free jazz is a prerequisite. Of course, when you consider the deep musical background of Roach and Ibrahim and the status of each as virtuoso instrumentalist, composer, band leader and cohort of the biggest names in jazz, it is not surprising that we're still operating within the world of seventies jazz music. In current popular music parlance I would have trouble placing Streams into a category, to use with iTunes for instance. Yes, it is free jazz, but being played by two musicians with supreme understanding of composition and form. Yes, the first song is over twenty minutes long, yet it is exceedingly listenable. Yes, this is one in a relatively long list of Roach studio duets, but there is a reason Roach named this his favorite of all his famous duets. This was a non-commercial record. This condition is practically built into it by nature of it being free jazz. It may have been free in its creation, but Streams of Consciousness has ultimately proved priceless. Put on your good headphones and close your eyes!