CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, Straight ahead

Steven Small – Mexico City Blues & Soviet Modernism

Small ! 127.jpgEvery time an article appeared in the late twentieth century proclaiming the death of Modernism, another appeared shortly after; pointing out, rightly, that profound echoes of the movement will linger and intrigue a while yet. Perhaps because of when I was born, (immediately after the second war), this movement fascinates me and will until my last breath. It was a profound moment in the human journey when the hegemony of historical artistic values were challenged, discarded. Schoenberg, Coltrane, Brubeck, Riley, Colman, Matisse, Picasso, Miro. Pollock, Rothko, Eliot, Pound, Kerouac, and even Freud are defined by this impulse to move free from the received wisdom of history.

Those names and others were significant among the game-changing modernists. The paradox is, that once defined, accepted, the movement they arose from became part of conventional history. The energies arising from the Modernist impulse were profound and so powerful that counter-revolutions are endlessly trying to reset the clock – to recapture late 19th century values, a time when empires and financially powerful men determined our world view (the Trump, Brexit phenomena).small-2016-125Stephen Small is a wonderful pianist but he is much more than that. He conjures up musical projects that catch people unawares; original projects, affording us a viewpoint on life and art that we would not experience otherwise. The concept behind the first outing of the Mexico City Blues band was to look at, examine the Jazz of 1957, fusing it with the Beat poems of Jack Kerouac  (Kerouac wrote Mexico City Blues in that year – see earlier post).  This was in part a re-imagining, but also a fresh look through post millennial eyes. When Stephen Small takes on a project he brings to it an immense musical knowledge, but more importantly an eye for the unusual, for quirky detail (no artist, musician, writer or poet worth their salt can succeed without this). When artists do their job well they show us the world afresh.

Mexico City Blues 2016, unexpectedly took us into the heart of Eastern Bloc Europe during the immediate post-war era. What a marvellous idea and what extraordinary music we heard. By coincidence, just before this gig, I was travelling through the former Eastern Bloc and I gained a strong sense of the wonderful music existing there – a music largely obscured from the anglo-centric view, created in an era of strong disapproval and inside hermetically sealed borders. A small cadre of Poles, East Germans, Czechs, Romanians and Russians listened to Jazz when they could. Forbidden LP’s circulated, Radio America broadcasts were devoured and later on there were a handful of US State Department Goodwill Tours (aka propaganda).  Small pointed out something important.small-2016-121

The Jazz that these musicians created, recorded, while referencing the American or Scandinavian music was also very much their own. They hated being told that Jazz was forbidden by the philistine authorities, but they were also suspicious of swallowing the US State Department line.  Jazz is and should be by its very nature suspicious of any party line. There is a little Evans, Ellington and Brubeck in their music but what defines these artists is an uncompromising originality. I am a longtime time fan of Polish Jazz, as it is interestingly melodic and distinctive. The most important thing I learned while in Poland was that the ethnic Poles did not rebel against Russia out of any yearning for American capitalism, nor did they despise socialism. They just wanted the jackboots of Russia and Germany off their neck. Nations and art forms are happiest when finding their own way in their own time. Hearing this music is to glimpse the soul of an artistically suppressed people, finding hidden pathways towards the light.

The gig traversed the compositions of four 1950’s to 60’s era Eastern Bloc musicians and paid tribute to the experimental free improvised music of Russia. There was a distinct flavour to all of the pieces. They were lush without over ornamentation, marvellously inventive, moody and original (perhaps tinged with the dark romanticism of Slavonic literature). After hearing these composers, my interest is piqued enough to want to lift this corner of the Iron Curtin further.small-2016-126

The artist featured most was the amazing Krzysztof Komeda, a wonderful composer and interesting pianist whose dark and moody compositions are forever associated with Roman Polanski movies; a match made in heaven. Anyone who follows the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko will have heard Komeda often (Stanko was in many of the Komeda bands). If you saw Polanski’s ‘Knife in the water’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘The Fearless Vampire Killers’ you have absorbed his music without realising it. ‘Astigmatic’ Komeda’s greatest album, is highly regarded to this day. It signals the first significant shift away from American Jazz sensibilities, establishing a new and predominantly European Jazz aesthetic. I once saw Polanski interviewed about his early movies and he spoke passionately about Komeda and his music. The Komeda compositions we heard were the achingly beautiful ‘Ballad for Bernt’ and ‘Crazy Girl’ (both from ‘Knife in the Water’).

First up was a solo piece, ‘Suite for Jazz Orchestra’ by the East German composer Pavel Blatny. Then Bassist Jo Shum joined Small for two Komeda numbers – following that the duo played ‘Gral’ by Ludwig Petrovsky (another East German). The last piece in the first set was a ballad by Murad Kazhlaev (an Azerbaijani).  I have not seen Shum perform for some time but she was magical – her touch and instinctive feel for this interesting music adding deep resonance. small-2016-120The second set was free improvised music in the tradition of, and honouring the all but forgotten experimental improvisers of 1960’s Russia. For this set Small was joined by Dave Chechelashvili on modular synthesiser. As Small carved out motifs and themes, developing them and exploring the possibilities, Chechelashvili shaped the sound. Small’s Korg keyboard was split and connected with the modular synth; as patch cords were adjusted and knobs tweaked, we heard a music that you don’t expect from Communist Russia. Evidently and surprisingly, this was tolerated because it was perceived as artistic exploration. It was hard not to think of Glass, Reich or Riley and wonder at this parallel development.

Mexico City Blues: Stephen Small (piano, keyboards, concept), Jo Shum (double bass), Dave Chechelashvili (modular synth). November 2nd 2016, CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Albion Hotel, Auckland.

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, experimental improvised music, Straight ahead, vocal

Stephen Small Group – Mexico City Blues

Poems (2)I made up my mind days before the Mexico City Blues gig that I would not, could not review it. It is some kind of crazy to review a gig where you’re in the band. Logic and custom sensibly warns you to walk swiftly in the opposite direction. The gig passed and I asked others if they would do the review; “You’re wrong man” they said, “You absolutely have to do it, but do it differently – tell a story about what it felt like performing for the first time, and what it felt like as a non musician being part of a high quality improvising band”. I thought about it for a while and gave in. In truth I had a world of stuff churning about in my brain and the subconscious urge to outline the experience was gnawing at me; my thoughts and impressions always seem to spill onto the page somehow (or into a poem) – so hell why not. It’s Gonzo journalism in its purest form; outlining crazy, using ones-self as the hapless protagonist.

Just over a week ago I got an email from Stephen Small. His email cut right to the chase; Would I consider performing Jack Kerouac’s poetry as part of his next gig. The invitation delighted me although I have a writers/photographers reticence about crawling out from behind the pen or the lens. Having read Kerouac from age fourteen I couldn’t resist. Those poems and that crazy-wonderful Beat vibe shaped my life and I needed to acknowledge that. I was certain that he wanted no more than one, or possibly two short verses; still daunting. I emailed Stephen asking how long we had to get this together. We’re up next Wednesday he replied, we will rehearse a few hours before the gig. Moments after agreeing a sense of terror overcame me; troublesome questions and self-doubt tumbled out the ether. Shit how do we do this, what will my voice sound like? Having never performed poems in front of an audience AND to music, I experienced brief bouts of wide-eyed terror over the next day.  Poems (4)I confided my fears to a few knowledgeable friends, Chris Melville and poet Iain Sharp. Both were very sensible and reassuring in their advice; “Just own who you are man, own your voice. You know this stuff backwards and you know the music”, they said. When I explained the hazards of fitting existing verse to music, drummer Ron Samson told me, “Don’t worry man, we will follow you – your safe with us”. I discussed it further with Stephen and he gave me a set list. From that list I chose three poems that roughly matched the rhythms of tunes. For ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ (Mingus) I chose Kerouac’s chorus 66 from ‘Orizaba 210 Blues’, for ‘Blue in Green’ (Evans/Davis) I selected the beautiful mystical 1st chorus of ‘Desolation Blues’. I was sure that two poems would be more than enough, but as a precaution I prepared a third as back up – verse 116 of ‘Mexico City Blues’ to Horace Silvers ‘Peace’.

On the day of the gig crazy set in. It started with a series of small mishaps like an email and printer crash. I immediately recognised the portents. The Sirens of the unknown were calling me into uncharted waters. Luckily I had my three poems ready – printed off in large type (as befitting a person of my age). At the last-minute, as if by divine providence, I threw a paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ poems into my bag and headed for rehearsal. What happened next was pure Zen.  Poems (6)Jazz gig rehearsals tend to follow a formula, but viewing this process from the outside and being part of it are two very different things. From the inside your inbuilt detached observer gets fired from the cannon of weirdness. You realise just how random Jazz rehearsals are. They begin what becomes a slow descent into the controlled accident. The first hour of any rehearsal is a ‘hang’, insider jokes, war stories and talk of gear and gizmos. Then a sudden flurry of activity follows; disembodied items of musical machinery miraculously forming into new shapes. If the rehearsals are in a Jazz club the activity takes place in semi darkness. Instruments, microphones and amplifiers joined by a spaghetti of wires as the musicians stumble over precarious piles of instrument cases and zip bags. “Oh shit this channel is dead – (from out of the darkness) – don’t worry its the cable – have another in my car – its parked a few streets away. Can we route the cable through the Hadron-Collider? – clip click – sorry false alarm”.

Then the actual rehearsal begins; The rehearsal proper being tiny fragments of music accompanied by impossibly cryptic instructions in a language that sounds like computer machine code.  “Twice through the head – I’ll lay out – transition to this key at 32 – we’ll play Kathy’s Waltz in 4/4 as 3/4 is way to corny”. None of this is reassuring to a first timer, but the band leader (Stephen) managed to communicate profound information subliminally. Above all and surprisingly, I learned that he had absolute confidence in me. This gifted me a deeper understanding of the leaders role. Zen Master. The communications were less about detail than vision, their main purpose to bind the collective and set them on a path to the promised land; a guiding hand in a deeply mystical process. On the band stand the subtlest of gestures hold the collective together. A glance is a cue or a change of plan – a call to ‘Jump now’ – everyone trusted to do the business – me included. I know poetry and especially Kerouac’s poetry – it was my job in the collective to sell that.  Poems (7)Then came the truly random bit. “We can cue you in on each piece, or just dive in where ever you think best – we can follow”. The words ‘each piece’ threw me a curve ball. “I have only three poems printed off” I added lamely (or four if you counted a crumpled excerpt from ‘Desolation Angels’ tucked into the back of the folder). “No matter – just say anything – you’re a poet – it will be fine” said Stephen. Then I remembered the paperback of Kerouac’s ‘Book of Blues’ in my bag. “Great” said Stephen, “just pick the poems randomly – do it at the last-minute while we run through the head of each tune – perfect”. This was a band leader channeling the Zen Master – a role quite appropriate to a 1959 referencing gig – throwing me a Koan, an improbable musical puzzle, no escape route possible. When we got to the tune ‘Peace’ I gained confidence, “Ah I have something for this – yeah – Horace Silver”. At this point Stephen casually informed me that they were actually doing Ornette Coleman’s ‘Peace”, another tune entirely. Ornette, ORNETTE – holy crap – panic.  Next the gig

I was tentative during my first seconds of delivery and that was entirely due to where my awareness was.  I mistakenly looked out to see how it was coming across; people were giving me the thumbs up and the band sounded perfect. After that I just relaxed. Stephen’s final instructions were as brief as they were powerful. He leaned across and said to me; “There is only one thing to remember tonight and that’s to have fun”. Minutes into the gig the advice sank in and I did. As I relaxed the strangest thing happened. It was a quasi-mystical sort of thing and I can only explain it in those terms. All sense of self and separation vanished as I felt a golden thread of sound and colour run through me. I recall glancing about me and feeling totally at one with the band. These are exceptional musicians and I suspect that they were doing all the heavy lifting. They treated the poetry with respect and they treated me as an equal. As a non-musician I will never forget that. Poems (5)I was suddenly experiencing the music as an insider, a privileged viewpoint that few non musicians ever get to experience. I leaned across to Hadyn Godfrey (on trombone) and said, “Holy crap is it always this much fun, I’m totally tripping on this?”. As I read I started playing with the phrasing and found that as I moved, the band moved with me. Even more amazingly we managed to converse musically.  Me clumsy and them eloquent, but it felt so fine, so damn fine. I have never previously experienced such power – the engine of a musical collective. I am a careful listener and I know this music backwards, but from the inside everything looks different. There is nowhere to hide but everything to gain; that’s what makes it so exciting.

The gig was about placing the famous Jazz standards of 1959 into a wider context. We all love these tunes, but few grasp the wider sociopolitical forces at work behind the times. These musicians were part of a vital modernist movement; A reaction against the suburban atrophy of racially segregated urban America. Miles, Colman, Coltrane, Brubeck, Mingus, Kerouac and the Beats were counter-culture warriors, bent on ushering in a better world. A place were fresh ideas, the arts and people mattered. Poems (1) I will not critique my performance, that is for others. What I will do however is comment on the extraordinary Stephen Small Group – the ‘Mexico City Blues’ musicians. Stephen Small is a man of broad musical tastes, real vision and very open ears. He empowered a wonderful band and under his skilful and subtle coaxing they gave it their best. His piano never gets in the way of others, but it adds amazing texture and substance to the performances. It is deeply in the blues tradition and lovely. Instinctively he knew who to hire and what to expect of them.

Olivier Holland brought his electric bass as well as his upright bass. I hadn’t previously heard Oli on electric bass, but he is simply killing. Ron is always marvellous and as a musician said to me, “With those beats pushing at your back and pulsating through your body anything seems possible”. Neil Watson on guitar and pedal steel is another talented musician; his feel for the blues is exceptional. He also has a happy grasp of the absurd and this is an essential prerequisite for any good improvising musician. Lastly there is Hadyn Godfrey, an experienced talented trombonist who effectively added electronics to his horn for this gig. The use of pedals, a small Moog and various forms of extended technique gave the gig an other-worldly dimension. 1959 never sounded so good.

I may never get to do this again but I will not forget this night. Stephen Small did what good leaders do. He made us all believe that the improbable could become magic. He took an idea from the margins and helped us realise it in a fresh way. Jazz at its best is a controlled accident, a high wire act, an intrepid exploration. For one truly wonderful night I was a small part of that.

Stephen Small Group: Mexico City Blues – Stephen Small (leader, piano, keys), Neil Watson (fender guitar, pedal steel guitar, electronics), Hadyn Godfrey (trombone, electronics), Olivier Holland (electric bass, upright bass), Ron Samsom (drums), John Fenton (Kerouac poems)

Special acknowledgement to Chris Melville for the photographs