Was a bit taken aback by this one at first, if only because it prompted me to wonder what could possibly remain so "secret" about a history that's been worked over so thoroughly throughout the past decade -- that every young person knows very well by now by way of its revival and all the reissues that followed. Isn't this item arriving many years too late? Isn't it just a little bit pointlessly redundant by now? Hasn't that terrain already been mapped and mapped again, already?
I imagine Savage's liner notes are the big selling point, what makes the thing worthwhile. And to be fair, there are a number of tracks and included on the thing that largely fell between the cracks during the post-punk resurrection of recent years. Nice call with including a track by Robert Rental and Thomas Leer. And then there's the surprise appearance of the Method Actors, who -- even though they hailed from the early days of the Athens, GA scene -- never found much of an audience on these shores but were apparently something of a hit in the United Kingdom.* I especially recall liking their cover of "All Tomorrow's Parties," where they took the bold liberty of dispensing with its dirge and drone and kicking the whole thing into a reeling, uptempo dance mode. Wait a minute, here we go...
And from the track listing you might've noticed a couple of tunes that also turned up on the Brutalist Tarts series of mixes I've uploaded here. Yes, the period music in question constituted "high school music" for me once-upon-a; the stuff that undoubtedly played a big role in irreparably warping my aesthetic sensibilities for life. Yes, I sought out and owned and listened to a lot of the stuff. Only to succumb to that common scenario some years later while I was in college -- selling a lot of the stuff off for the sake of lightening my load, supplementing my student loans, or bartering for other, newer records, etc.
And then at some point in the late '90s I started seeking some of it out, again. Not sure why -- may have been just from combing the used bins at various northside shops on the Chicago northside, looking for something or other by some act that I'd missed years ago; some acts that had a certain reputation for being exceedingly "experimental" at the time, about whom I'd been long curious but whose records didn't come my way at the time. In the course of which I revisited some other stuff from the post-punk years and was struck anew by the sound -- the styles and the sonics and whatnot that were so peculiar to the age but had soon thereafter waned, not leaving any sort of lasting or discernible influence on much of anything that followed.
So I more or less started re-gathering the stuff. Which wasn't hard at the time, because there was a fair amount of it to be found in the used bins of a place like Reckless Records -- usually selling for a couple of dollars a pop. Little did I know that within two to three years, lots of people would be combing the bins for the exact same stuff. Here's to being slightly ahead of the curve, I guess; because if it'd been a little later it would've required about 6x the outlay to acquire the better portion of the early 23 Skidoo discog.
I believe one of the groups that had me searching in the first place was Rip Rig + Panic. I remembered hearing a little something about them back in the day, and I'd gathered that they had something or other to do with "jazz." It wasn't until several years after the fact that I finally heard them, courtesy of a home-taped cassette of their debut album God lent to me by a friend from the Netherlands. I was knocked out by it at the time; bewildered that someone'd thought to run that combination of sounds up the flagpole, and that anyone'd saluted it....
RR+P are one of those odd, incongruous acts that have almost wholly evaded Reissue Culture over the years. Not difficult to see why, to suspect that it can attributed to lack of significant interest. To be honest, going back and listening to God a decade after I'd first heard it, I found the "jazz" angle to be a little difficult. Difficult, as in: a bit over-reaching, unconvincingly executed, mal-adopted. But then I finally acquired a copy of the follow-up, I Am Cold, in which everything falls together in a much more spirited and persuasive manner. Much of that is probably on account of the appearance of Neneh Cherry's stepdad Don stepping aboard to help out on a good portion of the sessions.
Don Cherry's legacy was one that was difficult to assess in those years. Much of what he'd done was long out-of-print, and what little had been reissued mostly involved his work as a sideman in the Ornette Coleman Quartet. His more "open," "cosmic," pan-global "fusion" work of the early '70s had fallen into the domain of the archeological -- known and hoarded only by those who had esoteric knowledge of such things. At some point on God where the group breaks into a chant that's an echo of Don's own "Brown Rice" from 1975...
Which may have been one of Cherry's more high-profile joints during the '70s, but the rest of it -- the raga fusion material done with Indian musicians, the Afro-Brazilian excursion of his Organic Music Society, playing with Terry Riley, the collaboration he did with Krzysztof Penderecki, etc. etc. -- was mostly only for the most adventurous of "avant" enthusiasts. Speaking of Penderecki & the like...
Mommy, what is that man doing to that piano? If there one aspect of RR+P jazzisms that came up short, it was Mark Springer's work on the keys, which always struck my ear as a forced, rough impression of Cecil Taylor. Taylor having long been controversial figure in the jazz world, his detractors charging that he'd been one of those artists most guilty of taking the music in a swing-less, soulless "avant" outer limits; mostly on account of his turning too much of his ear in direction of European influences (i.e., "atonal"/serialist contemporary classical music). I recall Greg Tate, circa the early-mid 1980s, relaying a remark that Betty Carter made about Taylor; her claiming that black music had to have a certain quality to it -- a "thang," she called it -- and that Taylor's music didn't have it. Which may seem a fair enough verdict on some of Taylor's music, but not all. Because there are times (like in the above) when you sense that was merely venturing further (perhaps furthest) down the same road that a number of his contemporaries had taken -- seizing the angular, fragmented rhythms that Thelonious Monk had developed, and fragmenting them to the point of maximal suspense and disjuncture. The result being that it's like listening to Monk as you and the music are being sucked across the event horizon.
The New York post-punk scene wasn't without its share of jazz(-ish) influences or excursions -- James Chance, of course, as well as the bewildering harmolodic mess whipped up by James 'Blood' Ulmer his crew, and the Lounge Lizards. But as one of many offshoots of the disintegration of the Pop Group, Rip Rig + Panic could be viewed as expanding on post-punk's politicized aesthetics of dub/disco/funk hybridity by pushing it more squarely in the direction of jazz. Not that any of this was wholly unprecedented or an entirely ground-zero scenario. In some respects, it could also viewed as a response -- an attempt at wiping the slate clean of the tendencies that led to the bloated and tepid jazz-rock that out of the prog scene during the 1970s. If anything, one could easily argue that "punk jazz" idea harkens back to those portions of the '60s psychedelic counterculture that had embraced the likes of Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler (e.g., the MC5's "Starship" and the Stooges' "L.A. Blues") resulting.
A dubious rumor had it that Patti Smith once had the notion to approach Ornette Coleman with the idea of doing a collaborative project. No telling what might've come of such a thing, but one can't help but wonder if similar ground hadn't already been amply covered by Brigitte Fontaine and Areski in 1969 with their album Comme à la Radio...
The accompaniment for most of the album's tracks was provided by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who at the time had recently started a productive (though not terribly lucrative) residency in Paris that lasted about 2-3 years. Having come together under the AACM banner, the members of the Art Ensemble took the Association's charter for freeform playing and composition as carte blanche to throw the boundaries of its music wide open -- wide enough to allow or account for an optimum of musical and cultural influences. What result is a polyglot vernacular in which almost any & all influences can find sufficient elbow room to intermingle and intertwine. A venacular that expands to include bicycle horns, whistles, bells, assorted toy instruments and non-musical objects And all of that interspersed with a myriad of vocalizations: miscellaneous shouts, chants, nonce cries, and rants (laughter, curses, the babble of toothpaste adverts, demagoguery from some soapbox pamphleteer, some old busker warbling an unintelligible delta blues tune -- voices from the pulpit or flea market or street corner, all drifting in from a nearby radio or through a window that's always open to the avenue outside. Yet despite all that hubbubery and junk of everyday life, it never strays too far afield from the blues; even as it goes haplessly chasing after chaos or diving into childishly gleeful tussles of spontaneous creativity. Its gleeful energy is the key, what fuels and threads each excursion and provides cohesion as all caution and customs are tossed to the wind.
With the Art Ensemble's later material -- roughly, Fanfare for the Warriors onward -- there was a pronounced return to "roots," a tendency for the music to firmly couch itself in a certain tradition -- espec the more traditionally bluesy of the wide- & swang-hipped New Orleans sort -- and build upward and outward from there. Despite that, there was still an unflagging emphasis on the "outward" part of the equation. But early joints of 1967-1973 (for which there's a lack of good Youtube uploads, unfortunately) follow a different, much more alinear course.*** Reedman Joseph Jarman has counted Anton Webern and John Cage as being among his myriad musical influences. The latter one seems a little too appropriate at times, particularly those times when the group takes to making music/noise from whatever instruments or objects might be laying around. But especially for the role silence played in their earlier studio sessions, the way the group let in become an integral component of the music; allowing it into the music by way of a peculiar spaciousness -- the air through which vibrations travel, the quietude (ceding to it, then driving it back) that is the defining other of all sonances.
As it happens, the Art Ensemble had an NYC post-punk/no-wave connection, as well. Trumpeter Lester Bowie's younger brother Joseph took his trombone to NYC in the 1970s and briefly worked for a short time as a member of James Chance's Contortions before starting his own outfit, Defunkt.
* I suppose this is still the case. Now that I'm living back down South and am just a short distance downroad from Athens, I still never hear them cited. A local college station has a show devoted to "Georgia Music," on which the DJs routinely spin tunes by Pylon and occasionally by some other throwback Athenians like the Swimming Pool Q's. If they ever do likewise with the Method Actors, I've missed it.
** The story had it that Fontaine and the guys in the AEC first crossed paths via their shared association with a specific Parisian theatrical venue, which is how they came to work together. (One can't help if Areski and various AEC members' shared interest in North African music didn't also factor into the equation, as well.) When asked at the time if the album amounted to some sort of "jazz move" on her part, Fontaine is said to have sharply responded: "Look, for me the Art Ensemble of Chicago aren't jazz musicians, just musicians. I don't like jazz, I detest jazz, I loathe jazz, jazz makes me puke. Except, of course, for the greats, those from when jazz was alive, that is, when I was very young: Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Coltrane...But for me, now, jazz means nothing anymore." (Quoted in George Lewis, The Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.)