Photo Friday and a Few Random Links

It’s the start of the “Frog Days of Summer” when it’s so hot, we all become a bit amphibious to beat the heat. 

The dogs are doing their best to keep cool and hydrated.

The Barge in Summer

and to endure the terror of summer thunderstorms.

IMG 6312

I still don’t have quite enough energy for a full on “Quick Hits and Varia,” but a few links to some late-summer reading never go astray. Do check out Carl Schiffman’s essay posted over at the North Dakota Quarterly blog or reminisce about a summer on Swan’s Island with the late Donald Junkins.

If you have a digital project that you love, do consider nominating it for the AIA Award for Outstanding Work in Digital Archaeology

If you’re looking for something at the intersection of poetry and photography, check out Kyle Cassidy’s Optimized for Likes: Kerning the Human Altered Landscape. It’s $3 and you can get the PDF here.

If you have itchy writing figures, do consider submitting something to this coming fall’s pilgrimCHAT conference. You can read the CFP here.

This is a neat little piece on jazz violinist Billy Bang.

I’m reading Rosemary Joyce’s The Future of Nuclear Waste: What Art and Archaeology Can Tell Us about Securing the World’s Most Hazardous Material. Oxford 2020.

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 4)

This weekend, I read and enjoyed two recent books on Black utopian thought that included chapters on Sun Ra: Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). The two books follow a very similar organization and survey major Black thinkers of the 18th, 19th and 20th century who engaged with utopian themes: Sojourner Truth, Martin Delany, W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, as well as Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Sun Ra. 

You can read part 1, part 2, and part 3 here, and below, the next part of my somewhat flailing effort to write a review of some recent contributions to our appreciation of Sun Ra.

Graham Locke’s Blutopia (1999) which considers the utopian visions in the work of Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, and Anthony Braxton, noted that Ra’s journey to space and his cosmic claims had parallels in African American experiences of heavily journeys associated with Christian revelation. Ra’s spaceship finds a scriptural parallel in Elijah’s chariot on which the prophet escaped escape from the earthly realm. Locke also recognizes allusions to spirituals and in the chants and dances of the Arkestra during their performances parallels to rituals in the Black church which evoked the Exodus or the incantations that brought down the walls of Jericho. Sun Ra, of course, was uninterested in explicit references to the Bible which he considered, at best, a book laced with secret knowledge accessible through cryptic readings and wordplay and, at worst, an obsolete icon in an age where spaceships replace flaming chariots (Locke, 41). His broadsheets from his Chicago days reflected a sustained effort to find new meaning in scripture on the basis of substitution and numerology, and he dismissed Christianity and organized religion as meaningless. At the same time, the often mystical references to scripture, parallels between his cosmic journey and Christian spiritual experiences, and the Afrocentric impulses that celebrated the accomplishments of the Egyptians create a public personal that simultaneously looks toward both the space age and a Black past. For Locke, the contradictory and ambiguous character of Ra’s utopian vision reflects part of the genius of his “Astro Black Mythology” situated at the intersection of specifics of history and the past and the universals of myth and the future.

Jayna Brown’s recent book on Black Utopia’s noted that Sun Ra once quipped “Me and time never got along so good—we just sort of ignore each other” (Brown 2021, 158). She goes on to argue that, for Ra, time represented a linear understanding of human experience and progress. For Ra’s utopian view, the concept of utopia as literally placelessness complements its timelessness. This created space for Ra’s commitment to the impossible and the potential for “radical alterity” (Brown 2021, 159). Nowhere is this embodied more clearly than in Ra’s identity which regularly defied definition. He was neither human, nor alien, he was not living in the past, present, or the future and his poetry, in particular, continuously sought to . This radical conceptualization of his own existence finds parallels in the science fiction of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany which feature creatures that defy our notions of personal identity and who exist outside of conventional time. For Alex Zamalin Ra’s willingness to operate at the level of impossible paradoxically pushed his audiences to ponder the limits and potential of new possibilities that could transcend the restricted notions of Black experience, planetary existence, and humanity itself. 

Kara Keeling’s starts her 2019 book Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), with a study of Sun Ra’s cult 1974 film, Space is the Place. Her chapter begins with a quote from an Arkestra performance in the middle of the film: “It’s after the end of the world. Don’t you know that yet?” In the film, an extraterrestrial visitor played by Sun Ra arrives in late-1960s Oakland intent of leading Black people to a new planet in a spaceship powered by music. A mysterious antagonist called the Overseer, however, works to thwart Sun Ra’s efforts both in the present and in the past where he appeared in a Chicago club in the 1950s only to be vanquished by the power of Ra’s music. Scenes of Ra and the Overseer playing a kind of cosmic card game in a timeless and spaceless setting punctuate the film and have clear consequences for Ra’s efforts to rescue Black people on Earth. Throughout the conflict, the power of Ra’s music neutralizes the efforts of the Overseer as well as other forces, including NASA scientists, who seek to disrupt his plans. Ultimately, he manages to save Black people in Oakland by teleporting them onto his spaceship and departing the planet. Keeling notes that Ra’s vision a Black future is laced with impossibility from the music-powered space ship to the dream of colonizing another planet. Keeling’s discussion of Space is the Place opens the door onto critiques of the world anchored in progressive trajectories tied to capital and narratives political development which so often serve to deny Black people equality. By queering the tidy linearity of time, Ra creates space for new impossibilities and new pathways that are limited neither to the present nor the future. 

Sun Ra’s contributions to Black utopian visions find their embodiment in the Arkestra’s performances which were often simultaneously unstructured and highly disciplined, futuristic, yet anchored in the tradition of improvised and jazz music, and both humorous and sincere. The Arkestra’s recordings continues to combine music from across Sun Ra’s career demonstrating in practice how the rules of time need not apply. 

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 3)

I continue to work away on my review essay on recent work on Sun Ra (and you can read part 1 and part 2 which I posted earlier this week). At this stage, I’m mostly trying to marshal my ideas into something loosely coherent. It lacks a hook or lede and a consistent organization, but has given me a chance to write about jazz music, Afrocentrism, Afrofuturism and the complex legacy of Sun Ra and its place in contemporary society. 

At some point, I’m going to have to pull all these sections and try to coordinate them into a cohesive review, but this will also have to come to terms with both some classic efforts to understand Sun Ra’s intellectual contribution and more recent contributions. 

But for now, here’s more: 

Swirling’s emphasis on the Sun Ra and the Arkestra’s Afrofuturist vision, Lanquidity captures a perspective on Sun Ra’s Afrocentrism. The release of an expanded version of this 1978 classic includes the late Danny Ray Thompson’s reflections on the album. The baritone saxophone player notes that the title track, “Lanquidity” evokes an ancient Egyptian stargazing ceremony, “Where Pathways Meet” is “a funky version of an Egyptian march,” which “when the other army heard this they ran the other way, proclaiming ‘Here comes the Pharaoh Ra and his army of musicians. Time to get outta here!”, and “That’s How I Feel” includes Marshall Allen’s “snake charming oboe.” The final two tracks “Twin Stars of Thence” and “There Are Other Worlds (They Have Not Told You Of)”  return to more cosmic themes.

Egypt 1971 is another recent re-issue that draws attention to Sun Ra’s interest in Egypt and Afrocentric narratives. It constitutes a massive collection of tracks recorded during the Arkestra’s visit to Egypt in 1971 which were previously issued under various names in the early 1970s (including Dark Myth Equation Visitation and Nidhamu/Horizon). John Szwed’s provides an account of Sun Ra’s visit to Egypt which was apparently a spontaneous detour at the conclusion of a European tour. Hartmut Geerken, a German Orientalist and jazz aficionado, and Egyptian musician and military officer, Salah Ragab, helped organize a scrappy series of concerts for the Arkestra in Egypt, which included some recordings made in Geerken’s home and some for Egyptian public television (Szwed 292-294). While the sound quality often reflected the improvised character of the Arkestra’s tour, Sun Ra’s visit to Egypt embodied his long-standing interest in Africa and the Egyptian roots of Black culture. According to Szwed, Sun Ra was disappointed that Egyptians did not appear to be descendants of the Hamitic race. 

Sun Ra’s interest in Africa and Afrocentrism represents a persistent counterweight to his more cosmic musings. Egypt 1971 provides a good window into the repertoire of the Arkestra in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like so much of Sun Ra’s catalogue, the tracks on Egypt 1971 combines new and much older compositions including compositions from his Chicago days (“Space Loneliness” and “Angels and Demons at Play”), his time in New York (“We’ll Wait for You”), and his time in Philadelphia where he and the Arkestra relocated in the late 1960s. A series of tracks titled “Discipline” represented compositions developed during the Arkestra’s European tour in 1971. Intriguingly, the track titled “Nidhamu” is discipline in Swahili.

The twin visions offered by Sun Ra, of Afrocentrism and Afrofuturism, in many ways define his ambivalent engagement with the post-war world. His continuously developing Afrocentric view of history sought to connect Black people’s past with the history of ancient Africa and Egypt in particular. These ideas, refined by such thinkers as the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop and Molefi Kete Asante at Temple University, are part of a longstanding effort to locate the origins of a global Black culture on the continent of Africa. This supposes that African culture has a kind of historical continuity often associated with its origins in Egypt, Nubia, or Ethiopia and capable of sustaining ideas both of African nationalism and of global Blackness. It also provides Black people with a history that predates the experience of enslavement and colonialism and serves as a response to whites who saw Africa as a continent without history. The close association of Afrocentrism and various forms of mystical, theosophist, and esoteric thought reinforced the notion that white European scholars sought to suppress the glorious achievements of African people, preserved especially in the ruins of the Nile Valley, as well as powerful secret wisdom possessed by these societies.

Sun Ra’s interest in Afrofuturism inspired as much by his extraterrestrial encounter as the public fascination with the space race provided a profoundly modern perspective on esoteric Afrocentric knowledge. In many ways, Ra’s Afrocentrism draws on his own experience growing up in the industrial city of Birmingham and his deep (and often explicit) commitment to an almost industrialized discipline among his musicians. The result is a complex utopian vision that is both mystical and modern, esoteric and public, and with eyes to the past and the future. In this way, it echoes his music which often juxtaposed classic jazz compositions and traditional instruments with more futuristic sounds that drew not only on electronic instruments and keyboards but also improvised and free forms of composition.  

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 2)

Yesterday, I began to work on a little review essay that considers some of recent work on Sun Ra including last year’s Arkestra album Swirling, the re-release of Sun Ra’s 1979 classic Languidity, and the recordings from the Arkestra’s 1971 tour of Egypt. Today, I turn to William Sites’ book Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) as a way to give some background to Sun Ra’s career and personal philosophy and set it against the backdrop of mid-century American urbanism and the Black experience.  

Sun Ra’s legacy, in many ways, is split between his idiosyncratic, larger-than-life personality and his music. Born Herman Blount, he changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra in the 1940s when he moved from Birmingham, Alabama to Chicago. William Sites’ book Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) traces Herman Blount’s journey from the steel town of Birmingham to Chicago. Sites suggested that Blout’s upbringing and early career in Birmingham provided one key for understanding his later development as a musician and thinkers. In that city, Blount developed musical discipline at the city’s industrial high school designed, in part, to prepare Black youth for jobs in Birmingham’s industrial sector. From these encounters Blount developed his famous commitment to discipline which shape the expectations that he had for his musicians. It also instilled within him a commitment to personal betterment and advancement that was consistent with efforts in the Black community to leverage industrialization as a way to develop social, economic, and political power.

During his time in Alabama, he also had his first encounters with Afrocentric thought. Sites notes that Birmingham had Moorish Science Temple with its connections to the Masons and its distinctive blend of Afrocentric mysticism and Near Eastern lore. After high school Blount briefly attended Alabama A&M, whose founder and longtime president, William Hooper Councill (1848–1909), composed several tracts tracing the history of the Black race during his time as president of the institution. Bount’s time there may have overlapped with the Guyanese writer George G. M. James, whose Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy (1935) was a rather widely circulated Afrocentric text that appeared in Sun Ra’s personal library.

It is also during his time at Alabama A&M that he was abducted by aliens and experienced an epiphany. While the exact details of his abduction remain unclear, it appears that his encounter confirmed in his own mind that he was set apart for special things. In some accounts, this encounter make him recognize that he is from outer space. Whatever the precise details of this event, it transformed Blount’s view of himself and it shaped his musical identity as well.

By the time he relocated to Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood in the late 1940s, he had has begun to develop his interest in an Afrocentric view of the world which he ultimately melded with his distinctive form of Afrofuturism. In collaboration with Alton Abraham his longtime business partner with whom he co-founded Saturn Records, Sun Ra developed the Thmei Institute. This loosely organized group of intellectuals published a series of partly mystical and partly historical broadsheets that blended theosophy, Egyptology, numerology, Christianity, and philosophy. These works set out a path for enlightenment and liberation for Black people by appealing not only to the potential of an expanded spiritual life which often drew on mystical readings of the Bible, but also to various stripes of pan-Africanism and more conventional Garveyite overtones. 

Sites argued that Sun Ra’s philosophy in the 1950s and early 1960s developed in the spatial context of post-war Bronzeville, Chicago. Concepts of urbanism changed in the post-war period as white cities increasing viewed with suspicion the growth of a prosperous and independent Black communities of the interwar period. At the same time, an increasingly disillusioned Black population realized that the promises of post-war prosperity and expanded rights grounded in the shared sacrifice of military service would not be forthcoming. In fact, Chicago in the late 1950s and early 1960s was characterized by aggressive efforts to limit the expansion of Black neighborhoods, through urban renewal projects that often targeted low-cost housing and Black businesses. This complemented the growth of new ideas and expectations of middle class life anchored in a rapidly developing halo of suburbs. For Sites, the growing discontent played out in Washington Park where various groups, from the Nation of Islam to Sun Ra’s Thmei collective, offered new visions of a Black future as well as new perspectives on the Black past.

Swirling draws heavily on Sun Ra’s legacy as an Afrofuturist thinker highlighting his vision of the future more than a vision of a Black past. Sites connects “Rocket No. 9” with a series of pieces that traces the route of a futuristic version of Chicago’s elevated railway across an interplanetary landscape (Sites 198-199). The call “Rocket No. 9 take off for the planet Venus” mimics the departure call of a future shuttle complete with departure tones that would sound appropriate on a modern subway. The version of the song recorded toward the end of Sun Ra’s time in Chicago included a final verse with the chant “The second stop is Jupiter” that further reinforces the connection between the rocket and a railway. Sites suggests that these pieces superimpose intergalactic imagery on the expanding suburban landscape of Chicago with the El taking Black riders not just out of the increasingly circumscribed Black neighborhoods but outward toward the newly emerging middle class suburbs. The absence of the final verse in the most recent arrangement of the piece perhaps reflects a bit of pessimism in the current situation and circumscribes some of limitlessness of the outer space and perhaps the aspirations for a contemporary Black middle class.   

Reviewing Sun Ra (Part 1)

I’m taking a partial holiday today and working on a kind of odd ball side project. I have decided to start a review of recent work on and by Sun Ra. I don’t have a very clear idea how this review will go, but I know I’d like to include the most recent album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Swirling, as well as the two most prominent re-releases Egypt 1971 and Languidity. I’d also like to note the Corbett vs. Dempsey republication of a four of Sun Ra’s poetry volumes. 

William Sites’s Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) and some recent treatments of Sun Ra’s output in scholarly literature (e.g. in Kara Keeling’s Queer Times, Black Futures (NYU 2019), Alex Zamalin’s Black Utopia: The History of an Idea from Black Nationalism to Afrofuturism (Columbia 2019) and Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias: Speculative Life and Music of Other Worlds (Duke 2021). 

That all said, I want to start with Swirling, I think. Here goes:

Sun Ra’s music looked forward and backward. Swirling is the most recent release from his eponymous Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, Sun Ra’s longtime alto saxophone player and is no exception. It not only featured many of the long-time members of the Arkestra —  including the late Danny Ray Thompson and Atakatune along side Michael Ray, Vincent Chancey, Knoel Scott, and other Arkestra stalwarts — but also dug deep into the Arkestra’s vast repertoire. The result was an album that embraces the expansive Arkestra catalogue and projects it into the future though its polished production quality, disciplined performances, and new arrangements.

For connoisseurs of the seemingly infinite discography of Sun Ra’s Earthly work, Swirling requires a trip through Robert Campbell and Christopher Trent 800-page effort to document Sun Ra’s recordings. This is more than simply a forensic exercise. The works performed on Swirling connects the 21st century Arkestra to traditions of performance that stretch back to Sun Ra’s days in Chicago when he blended jazz made standard by the great swing bands of the interwar period with new forms of music that drew inspiration from the emerging space age.  

The opening track “Satellites are Spinning” flashes back to 1968, and the very end of Arkestra’s tenure in New York City. The earliest recordings of the next track, “Seductive Fantasy,” dates to 1979 during a time when the Arkestra had a modicum of popular success including an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1978. “Swirling,” the third track, is a new piece composed by Marshall Allen, but the fourth and sixth tracks dates to Sun Ra’s days in Chicago. The fifth track is apparently a piece discovered by Allen in Sun Ra’s archive. “Astro Black” was first released on one of Sun Ra’s dates for the Impulse! lable in 1973, whereas the very next track “I’ll Wait for You” harkens back to the Arkestra’s most experimental period as part of the Choreographer’s Workshop soon after their arrival in New York in 1962. “Unmask the Batman” is a pastiche of the Batman theme by the Ventures from the mid-1960s with the Arkestra original “I’m Gonna Unmask the Batman” from the early 1970s. This piece served as playful reminder of when Sun Ra and some members of the Arkestra recorded a novelty album of music from the Batman television series in 1966 at the same time that they held down a regular gig at the infamous Slug’s Saloon. “Sunology” and “Space Loneliness” date to Sun Ra’s Chicago days with the former appearing on the very first album released by Sun Ra and Alton Abraham’s Saturn Records. “Queer Notions” evokes an even earlier time in Sun Ra’s musical career as the earliest recordings of this piece were by the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (featuring the great Coleman Hawkins) in the 1930s. When Sun Ra first came to Chicago in the 1950s, he found work arranging music for Fletcher Henderson and when Henderson decamped for California, Ra took over his band. He continued to perform pieces from this era even at such bastions of free and improvised music as Slug’s in New York (Szwed, 224). The final track, “Door of the Cosmos/Say” returns to the late-1970s. 

The point of this long and perhaps tedious tedious archaeology of the Swirling track listing is not to finally make full use of my copy of Campbell and Trent’s The Earthly Recordings of Sun Ra (2nd Edition), but instead to demonstrate how Swirling provides a distinctive introduction to Sun Ra’s rich catalogue, the Arkestra’s diverse repertoire, and most importantly, the approach to music taken by Sun Ra during his nearly half-century of performing and recording. The Arkestra’s ability to juxtapose songs made famous by the interwar big bands with music set on the bleeding edge of contemporary jazz in the 1960s and 1970s spoke to Sun Ra’s tendency to blend the past and the future in his view of the contemporary society as well as his disarming practice of combining recordings made over the course of a decade in the same album.

Marion Brown

Earlier this summer, I read Anthony Reed’s Soundworks: Race, Sound, and Poetry in Production (Duke 2021), and this remarkable little book devotes some attention to the work of Marion Brown. I’ve long found Marion Brown the most fascinating and perplexing of the great post-Coltrane saxophonists. I first encountered Brown on Coltrane’s generation-defining Ascension (1965) and Shepp’s Fire Music (1965).

He never gained the social power of Archie Shepp, lacked the exotic spirituality of Pharoah Sanders, and didn’t play with the raw fire of Albert Ayler. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t capable of fiery playing or lacked spirituality. In the 1960s critics often regarded his sound as very similar to Shepp’s, but to be honest, I never found this to be the case other than on the confusing mélange of solos on Ascension. I suppose his Three for Shepp (1966) shares a kind of conceptual similarity with Shepp’s Four for Trane. Brown’s Porto Novo, however, starts to chart out a different direction. (To be fair, I’ve never heard his Juba-Lee or his earlier eponymous recording).

My favorite Brown album is his Sweet Earth Flying (1974) which is the final part of his trilogy of albums grounded in his childhood in Georgia. Paul Bley’s electric organ (as well as Muhal Richard Abrams), Brown’s gently probing sax, and Steve McCall’s sensitive and responsive drums. The narration of Bill Hasson which combines phrases in a made up, vaguely African-sounding, language with snippets of English bring an oddly familiar exoticism to the atmospheric sounds. The title of the album, “Sweet Earth Flying” is from a Jean Toomer poem in his novel Cane (1923), which was set in Georgia. This novel likewise provides a context for the second album in his Georgia trilogy Geechee Recollections (1973) which features a track called “Karintha” which includes narrations from Cane.

The best known and in some ways most challenging album of the trilogy is The Afternoon of the Georgia Faun (1971). The album remains one of the “great white whales” of my music listening in that I’ve struggled for years to connect with it and found it always just beyond my grasp. Recently I’ve tried to listen to it again and while I still find it challenging and abstract, I’m slowly coming to terms with it. While I’m not someone who grasps the subtleties of compositions or even musicianship, I do feel like I am getting better at understanding the atmosphere and style contemporary improvised music and jazz. The more I try to work my way through The Afternoon of the Georgia Faun, the more I appreciate it as a masterpiece of Marion Brown’s catalogue.

A thoughtful review of this phase of Brown’s career appears in this recent piece by Jon Ross in the Bitter Southerner.

Despite the regularly critiques of Marion Brown’s catalogue as inconsistent and unfocused, there’s something about these three albums that provide a kind of focus that transcends any effort to understand the totality of his work. If you’re looking for something to listen to this summer, do check out Marion Brown’s trilogy (it’s perfect companion to Toomer’s Cane which is now in the public domain!)

Music Monday: Looking Backward and Forward

This weekend I listened to a bunch of Archie Shepp. He remains one of my favorite saxophone players and his political commitments and understanding of the past and the present in Black music provides a useful lens through which to consider how jazz and improvised music both explored new sonic and social terrain and constructed new relationships with the past.

Shepp is interesting because he was part of the potent wave of post-Coltrane saxophone players (together with Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brown, John Tchicai, Albert Ayler, and further removed Anthony Braxton, Bennie Maupin and others) who pushed improvised music from free jazz into the realm of the avant-garde. In doing so, he recognized that this move was not just about exploring new ways to create music and sound, but also new social statements that channeled the anxiety, anger, and hope of the 1960s. His albums Fire Music and Sounds of Ju-Ju (which also articulated a connection between American jazz music African rhythms and sensibilities) embody Shepp’s early sound. 

By the early 1970s, however, his interested expanded to include large ensemble compositions that evoked the traditions of Ellington, blues, and gospel and blend them with contemporary soul, the poetics of the Black Arts Movement, and avant-guard jazz. These likewise continued Shepp’s political commitment with albums such as Attica Blues and The Cry of My People offering musical reminders that the struggle for Civil Rights was ongoing while at the same time anchoring protest in the traditions of Black music. 

With this background, it is hardly remarkable to note that Shepp has felt comfortable digging deeper in the Black musical traditions over the last 50 years. His recent album with Jason Moran, for example, Let My People Go, is merely the latest in a long string of albums that deliberately explore the potential of blues, gospel, and traditional ballads within the contemporary tradition of protest music. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that all of Shepp’s ballads and blues are intended as explicit protest, but his music demonstrates the way that jazz music creates a sense of temporal dislocation and offers a distinct way to understand the Black experience (and the mental dislocation that is at the core of what W.E.B. DuBois concept of double-consciousness of the Black experience and Paul Gilroy’s translation of this concept to the larger Atlantic world created through the African slave trade).

The soulfulness of Shepp’s two albums with Horace Parlan, Goin’ Home (1977) and its more bluesy follow up Trouble in Mind (1980) initiate a trajectory that continues throughout the 1980s and 1990s where Shepp’s once aggressive tone mellowed into a reediness characteristic of Ben Webster. The music on Body and Soul (with Richard Davis in 1991), Blues (1991), Black Ballads (1992), Blue Ballads (1995) and True Blue (1998) represent a major contribution to his catalogue and reflect Shepp’s willingness to reinforce the continued vitality of Black music while still exploring new sonic possibilities in jazz.

Over the past decade or so, a number of scholars have emphasized how Sun Ra’s adventurous and diverse catalogue explicitly looked backwards and forward by blending jazz and pop standards with futuristic sounds, arrangements, and concepts. My post today looks to expand these analysis to Archie Shepp’s equally provocative (and perhaps more explicitly activist) 20th century catalogue. The negotiation of the past and the present in jazz music embodied in part in the interplay between the traditional and the avant-garde probes the challenge of tracing out a socially meaningful past for Black people that recognizes how historical inequality can nevertheless provide a foundation for new kinds of futures. 

Music Monday: Ben Webster and Jack Brandfield.

Just a short post this morning! I stumbled upon this wonderful new album by a young tenor saxophonist named Jack Brandfield last week. It’s called I’ll Never Be the Same, and it’s been in heavy rotation in the Caraher house for the last few days.

The album is an unapologetic throw back to the days when jazz was popular music. Brandfield plays with easy pop sensibilities without encroaching on “smooth jazz” or “adult contemporary” categories. His breathy and slurred tone is gorgeous and appropriate for such Jerome Kern classics as “Nobody Else But Me” and the perennial favorite (and likely the strongest track on the album) “Over the Rainbow.” When he does play some of his own compositions they share the same style and approach. 

Not a few commentators have been wowed by this album and noted Brandfield’s similarities in tone and approach to the great Ben Webster. I haven’t listen so much to Webster lately and probably prefer his younger contemporaries who embraced bebop with greater enthusiasm and fluency (especially Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, and Dexter Gordon). But after listening to a few albums worth of Ben Webster’s classic late-1950s ensembles (usually anchored by Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown: Soulville and Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson), I was completely enchanted by his tone and style.

It also got me thinking about how a guy like Brandfield can use a style of playing can evoke a different time with different attitudes, spaces, and rhythms. I recognize, of course, that the ubiquitous Marsalis brothers have been working to make “traditional jazz” popular for the last 20+ years, to the periodic consternation of fans who want to see jazz and improvisational music as capable of contemporary statements and ongoing innovation. Perhaps Brandfield is working in a similar way, but the intimacy of his playing (and the subtlety of gestures toward post-Coltrane style) seemed to bridge the gap between past and present in way that parallels the best work of historical fiction or even sophisticated historians. The best of this genre does more than narrate a good story or leverage nostalgia, but works to conjure the empathy at the core of our shared humanity.

Maybe claiming that Brandfield stimulates an awareness of our shared humanity is a bit too far for the inaugural record of a 20something tenor sax player, but it does make me think a bit about how music can work in transhistorical modes especially in the deliberate hands of a skilled artists.    

 

Music Monday: Alice Coltrane

For a long time, I was vaguely skeptical of Alice Coltrane. It had nothing to do with her famous husband or her famous last name (and son) or even the concept of being a jazz harpist.

It had more to do with a certain amount of ambivalence or even confusion about her engagement with overt spirituality and its central role in much of her recordings. With John Coltrane’s work (and the comparison is unavoidable), there appears to be a certain amount of continuity between his earlier recordings, which he developed from the traditions of bebop (and hard bop) into the realm of modal jazz, and his later work that takes on a freer form. His late work—especially albums like Ascension and Meditations — (which are two of my personal favorites) demonstrate how transcendent spirituality could emerge from popular music (especially in the relationship between melodic concepts and texture in Ascension). 

With Alice Coltrane, I had this concern that she anchored her work in traditions that were unfamiliar. This, of course, was partly true. Her work is clearly jazz despite albums with titles such as Journey in Satchidananda that evoke Indian spirituality and musical traditions (the first minute of the album gives me chills; it’s so deep and heavy). The blues are still there especially in her piano and some of the territory that her late husband explore continues to inspire her early 1970s albums from Impulse!  

As if this wasn’t temptation enough to explore her 1970s albums more carefully, she titled her 1970 recording with Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, and Ben Riley, Ptah, the El Daoud. The album, then, is named after the Egyptian god Ptah “the blessed” and despite the Egyptianizing title, the music owes more to Indian influences than anything distinctly Middle Eastern.

The album cover, however, designed by Jim Evans, reinforces the album’s title:

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Combining the scarab with sphinxes, cobras, and a sarcophagus (with whiskers no less!), Evans makes the Egyptian title of the album even more visible in the cover art. 

In her following albums the Egyptianizing themes diminish although Journey in Satchidananda has a track titled “Isis and Osiris.” Indian mysticism become more dominant and marks a path that eventually leads Coltrane to an ashram where she received spiritual guidance and healing from a number of prominent Vedic gurus.

The conflation of Egyptian and Indian themes in her early 1970s albums reflects the merging of Afrocentric associations with Egypt and a longer tradition of esotericism that understood Near Eastern and South Asian religious practices as part of a wider mystical tradition. The work of Madame Blavatsky whose theosophic writings led her from Egypt (manifest in her monumental Isis Unveiled (1877) to India and various strains of the Hindu Reform Movement. 

A similar kind of universal spiritualism appear in a similar form in the music and poetry of Sun Ra and the presence of it in the work of Alice Coltrane is neither particularly surprising or unexpected. What is telling is that both of these artists (and many others of course) brought together popular traditions of music with broader spiritual themes both anchoring their spiritual visions within Black music practice, Afrocentric identity, and this broader tradition of esotericism.

I hope to get back to some more sustained readings on Afrocentrism, particularly Stephen Howe’s work, Afrocentrism, in the next few weeks.

Music Monday: Bill Dixon and Lyman Woodard

I continue to be fascinated by late 1960s and 1970s American jazz music in all its diversity. Not only does it feel like it has well and truly shaken free from the shackles of post-war jazz styles, whether swing, bop, hard bop, or free jazz traditions, but it also has embraced the influences of R&B and rock (as well as jazz’s more longstanding wellsprings of gospel, soul, and blues music). I’m no jazz historian, but it feels like the decline of jazz as a significant commercial musical form created new opportunities for labels and artists perhaps less fettered to the expectations of a particular audience.

This week, I’ve been enjoying The Bill Dixon Orchestra’s Intents and Purposes. It’s a pretty wonderful album that I listened to yesterday while reading Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (2018). The Bill Dixon Orchestra was a ten piece ensemble that included Byard Lancaster and Robin Kenyatta on alto sax, Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman on bass, Bill Dixon himself is on trumpet, and intriguingly Catherine Norris on cello. I have no idea who she is (and couldn’t really find much about her on the web other than she appeared on an album Noah Howard recorded for ESP’ disk in 1968 (Noah Howard At Judson Hall). Avant-garde jazz in the 1960s and 1970s tended to be a pretty masculine space and seeing a woman listed in the band is not all that common.

The album itself is brilliant. I found the interplay between the percussion, sax, and trumpet lines particularly compelling, but the cello adds something to the recording that makes it sound truly distinct. Check it out. 

I’ve also gone back to the The Lyman Woodard Organization’s amazing 1975 album Saturday Night Special. For some reason it just feels like a summertime album suffused (as the the liner notes for the re-release suggest) with the sounds of Detroit. It’s a masterpiece of soul jazz made all the more fantastic by Lyman Woodard’s organ, electric piano and Mellotron and Ron English’s guitar and bass. The album cover showing a gun, a wad of money, and cigarette papers was photographed by Leni Sinclair the famous activist and artist. 

The album came out on Detroit’s Strata label which embodied many of the same community oriented practices operations such as Phil Cohran’s Affro-Arts Theater in Chicago. Strata combined political activism with poetry, music, recording and performance venues at the very moment when Detroit’s manufacturing base had started to struggle in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and “stagflation.” You can read a bit about Strata here.

The album itself, when set against this backdrop, evokes a kind of determination and even a bit of optimism. The music (and the rest of Strata’s fairly limited catalogue; see especially Kenny Cox’s album Location with the Contemporary Jazz Quintet as well as his two earlier Blue Note albums from the late 1960s).  

In any event, these two albums are a great early summer sound track and fantastic of long summer evenings. They both offer rich sonic tapestries that both evoke a particular moment in jazz music as well as complex historical urban landscapes. Check them out.