Sunday, 6 February 2011

In The Realm Of Nothing Whatever

The problem with this jazzy boulevard that I'd found myself diverted along was that it was addictive. If a theoretical boulevard can be addictive as such. Where soft drugs and soft porn lead some on to harder drugs and harder porn, the hapless jazz addict will find themselves drawn towards ever lengthier and more abstract ventures, albeit more healthily and indeed 'healthily', until they arrive at that point of no musical return - 'free jazz'.

No, this doesn't have anything to do with Jools Holland And His Boogie Woogie Big Brigade playing for the benefit of non-paying passers by. It's a style of jazz where improvisation takes precedence over melody and structure, and the players dispense with such trivialities as chord sequences and tempo and literally 'play how they feel'. It's complex, it's challenging, it's intellectual and it gives you an air of depth and sophistication. The only problem is that a good deal of it is basically an unlistenable racket. Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus... these are all incredibly hip names to drop, and yes some of their work is indeed rewarding if demanding listening. But that's when it works. Most of the time, it doesn't, and you'd be hard pushed to find anyone who listens to the bulk of 'free jazz' for pleasure.

Personally speaking, there's only three examples of the genre that I'd ever listen to for anything resembling 'pleasure', and none of them are exactly textbook examples. First, and laugh if you must, there's the music from Zen-inflected BBC Watch With Mother effort Bod. The short tunes that heralded each character were composed in advance by well-versed scat-yodeller Derek Griffiths, and improvised around by a set of players who might well be playing how they 'feel' (notably the violinist, who appears to be aiming for some kind of world title in Most Number Of Notes Played in a minute) but who never lose sight of the tune (admittedly, not hard to do when said tunes run to an average of eight seconds). Secondly, at the other extreme, there's AMM, who dispensed with the whole notion of a 'tune' altogether. This fluid collective of hardcore beardy jazzers were regulars on London's mid-sixties 'psychedelic underground' circuit, where they donned lab coats and turned the scoffing that free jazz was 'just noise' to their advantage, recruiting someone to 'play' the transistor radio alongside conventional instruments and doing away with anything resembling riffs or melody to concentrate on creating evocative soundscapes with names like Later During A Flaming Riviera Sunset and After Rapidly Circling The Plaza. Yes, there are moments when the screeching and scraping can all get a bit too much, yes, there are moments when it sounds like the 'bonus track' from The Stone Roses' Second Coming has been dropped on the floor and smashed and then haphazardly glued back together, and yes, there are moments that can only be described as sounding like a goose, browbeaten and exhausted by the relentless cacophony, is weakly pleading to be allowed out of the room. But if you're in the right mood, it can be quite an entertaining listen. And then there's Starsailor by Tim Buckley.

Initially one of about two hundred and thirty three million 'folk troubadors' Dylan-aping their way around Greenwich Village in the early sixties, Buckley was marked out from the crowd by the advantageous possession of both an ability to write his own songs and a searing multi-octave vocal range, and was quickly signed to the ultra-hip Elektra label, where he recorded two strong but rather undistinguished albums. By the time of third offering Happy Sad, however, he'd started to move towards jazz, embellishing his songs with vibes, standup bass, congas, impressionistic lead guitar and startling vocal gymnastics, as most celebratedly showcased on the superb Buzzin' Fly. Critical and commercial success followed, but Buckley was also doing some following of his own, delving deeper into the possibilities of the jazz idiom. The slightly more loose-ended Blue Afternoon (containing Happy Time, which even if proved otherwise this writer will still continue to believe 'borrowed' its arrangement from the end theme of Camberwick Green) gave way to a brace of albums that were almost entirely free-form in approach, which went right over the heads of the 'heads' and more or less finished off his spell as a chart hopeful. With his career and personal life in freefall, Buckley spent some time working as as chauffeur before remerging with a radically reinvented funk sound and borderline explicit lyrics, which was just starting to pay dividends when, having become increasingly fond of hard partying, he died following the entirely accidental mistaking of one 'substance' for another; something given added poignancy by the later equally young and accidental death of his son, Jeff Buckley, with only one critically acclaimed album to his name. Starsailor, in case you hadn't worked it out already, dates from slap bang in the middle of his 'difficult' period, and while it can seem a difficult listen at first, with lots of juddering noises and vocal lines seeming to break through at random, perseverance pays off and you come to really appreciate the lovelorn aching of Song To The Siren, the propulsive riffing of Monterey, and the carefree and schmaltzy Moulin Rouge, the closest the album ever comes to a conventional song (something that is leapt on by a trumpeter who is audibly overjoyed to be playing something that makes sense to his ears at last).

So, free jazz - it may be 'clever', but it's not big. And what's more, as the spectre-at-the-feast that was Derek Griffiths yelling "doo dk'n dk'n doo da dooda dadooda, do do do do do d'doooo!" kept naggingly reminding me, it was an improvisation too far from the real musical holy grail - as indeed the above overlong and overcomplex write-how-you-feel free-form shenanigans have been from the main narrative thrust - Music From BBC Children's Programmes. As Sun Ra & His Arkestra jetted off further into some kind of sax-wailing cosmos, Bod And His Friends were wandering into a horizonless green void. And I was somewhere in the middle, still rifling through those hazardous cardboard boxes.

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