Thursday, April 30, 2009

Abercrombie's Backward Glance

John Abercrombie is one of the instantly recognizable jazz guitar stylists. His sound and conception have a pastoral elegance attuned to Indian Raga or Persian modal improvisations as much as it does to his precursors in the jazz world such as Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Miles Davis.

Characters is the only completely solo record Abercrombie ever made, and my personal favorite of his many releases. It was recorded for ECM by Manfred Eicher in Oslo, Norway in November of 1977. The album is distinguished by Abercrombie’s blend of acoustic guitars – primarily as chordal background – with melodies overlayed by the electric guitar, and occasionally, electric mandolin. Together, the acoustic and electric never sound crowded but complement one another like entwined branches of a vine.

The songs, all Abercrombie originals, are at once lyrical and harmonically daring, reminiscent of compositions of Evans like Blue in Green; they seem to be heading for a familiar resolution but pause to take another sidepath that opens out into something else.
Backward Glance from Characters

...(listening now, my take on it)

letting go
the handles
a bicyclist rounds a street corner
dream messenger
voice and touch of fingertips
remembrance of pathways in sunken cities
steps winding down always to a new door
light filtered by waves above
from tears of a thousand burning suns
of long gone galaxies
and curtains of persian night

forgotten the way back

awakened slow
eyelid blinks
flutter of wings
murmur of the heart

Abercrombie in the 70's

* Here is an interesting (at least to the explorative musical types) youtube clip with Abercrombie recently demonstrating the art and discipline of improvising on one string. By restricting the sonic "palette" to a narrower range, the musician finds resources to break out of the box of mechanical playing and away from licks that habitually "fall under the fingers". John starts with a basic Lydian modal thing and then uses the same approach against the chord changes to "Stella By Starlight".

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oleo, June 1954

The melody for Oleo was, at least partially, composed on the spot by Sonny Rollins for this Miles Davis session, now issued on "Bag's Groove" (this version of the song not to be confused with that on the later Prestige session, "Relaxin").
According to Davis, Sonny would tear off scraps from paper found in the studio to write down his ideas, which also included two other songs that became jazz standards, Doxy and Airegin.

This song, as composition and in this particular performance, broke new ground somewhat analagous to the concurrent infusion of Zen thought and poetry into "Beat" culture. Here, a direct simplicity is achieved by paring down to essentials.

Oleo ia played over I Got Rhythm chord changes, as were countless compositions of the bop era. In most cases the melodies for the typical bop "heads" based on these changes were close to improvisations themselves, but with slight adjustments for compositional continuity. Rollins' melody, by contrast, is based on a shorter offbeat rhythmic "burst" motif, an urgent telegraph popping up from the melody stream - an energy pocket, a musical photon carrying an electromagnetic force. The improviser - or listener - uses this seed motif to fuel his own storyline. There are echoes of the deceptive simplicity of Monk and also the "cool" compositions from Davis' own Birth of the Cool sessions - check out "Deception" (Miles' revamp of George Shearing's "Conception") from there.

Oleo, rhythmically, bears some similarity to Charlie Parker's
Relaxin' At Camarillo - composed and performed not long after his release from the California state mental hospital of that name. Parker's tune, built on blues changes, also carries a threaded rhythmic motif that propels the tune along.

The arrangement of Oleo is also unique; the only constant is Percy Heath's spry walking bass line. In the statement of the "head" Miles Davis' Harmon-muted trumpet and Sonny's tenor in play unison over the bass-line with Kenny Clarke's understated drums and Horace Silver's melodic chordal comping coming in for the bridge. During the solos this arrangement remains basically the same although Clarke's drumming comes in, subtly, during the A sections and with a little more panache in the B.

Miles' solo is a gem of understatement - the first few bars are dashed off like a child's rope skipping song with a brilliant sweeping bop line here and there; predominately on the turnarounds.
While Miles's phrasing is already sparse and punctuated by empty bars, in Sonny's solo the phrases are more explosive but, in his first chorus, he leaves as much 2 or 3 bars empty. In the second chorus, after short, abstract jabs he pauses in and gathers himself before jumping into an extended line punctuated with accented peaks; picture a childlike figure cut at odd angles on paper folded in layers and then suddenly unfolded, a neo-bop daisy chain with sunlight pouring through each section differently.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blumenschein's Lake

The Lake - Ernest Blumenschein

I live about three blocks from the Phoenix Art Museum and you would think I was a frequent visitor. Alas, it's a case of jaded convenience; already a procrastinator, I am comforted by the proximity of the Museum and set my intended visits upon the enormous heap labeled, "Things That I Really Want to Do That Can Always Be Done Later".
However, when I do get around to it, I love to go to the permanent collection and ritually soak up the "rays" from a few favorite paintings. One of my favorites is Ernest Blumenschein's "The Lake". Blumenschein captures the mystical, dramatic beauty of the Southwest - in his case New Mexico - but brings a decorative
element to the scene. Decorative, in the sense of using design elements suggested by the natural scene that are not there but that bring a unifying and personal element. Often Blumenschein has a shimmering detail - as of the reflection of the land and sky on the wind-stirred ripples that rake a watery surface - in the foreground and then a kind of sculptural, blocky, background of clouds or mountains that seems art deco.

Eagles Nest Lake

Presently, the Museum is showing a complete exhibit of Blumenschein's work and I have been blessed to see a great many works I never knew of. Though his paintings of Native American figures are impressive in their execution and color, I always have the nagging feeling that this caters to a kind of Eastern tourist fascination of the time. This may have not been Blumenschein's intent but I, as a resident of Phoenix, have seen quite enough of this sort of thing. It's the Blumenschein high desert landscapes, especially the water scenes therein, that speak to me and seem to be entirely unique and non-traditional.

Blumenschein was very fond of fishing, and though he later tended to move away from portrayals of the human figure as his landscapes came to the fore, he often punctuated his lake and river scenes with tiny figures of fishermen, either solitary or in groups.

Before taking up a career as an illustrator and then fine artist, Blumenschein was a musical prodigy on violin. Beginning musical studies in his native Ohio, Blumenschein moved on to New York City to study painting at the Art Students League.
To support himself, he took on a position as first violinist in the New York Symphony, conducted at that time by the great composer, Anton Dvorak. The story goes that Dvorak immediately hired the young Blumenschein for the first violin chair merely after hearing him play a D minor scale!
As Joan Carpenter Troccoli puts it in her masterful, "Painters and the American West; the Anschutz Collection"
"...his paintings seem analogous to music in their rhythm and repetition. One might even say the roundness of tone sought by musician's echoed in his sculptural forms."