Sonny Rollins is here…

I found my way into improvisation via ragtime, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, essentially dance music without Ecstasy. Or, in my case, dancing. Learning about this music, and how to play it, you immerse yourself in a world that is, from the first time you cross its borders, essentially alienating for many people. Anyone who’s seen Woody Allen’s films can get along with early jazz and swing, but after that, it gets knotty. The dancing got left behind and bebop asserted a more highbrow approach, and this is where jazz as repellent starts. But at some point in my mid teens, this became the sound I had in my head, it was what I wanted to come out every time I thought about playing the piano. (Thinking is all very well, I’m still working on it now.)

Still, it’s the boiling lobster principle. After twenty, thirty years, you take a sound for granted that most people hear as a kind of indulgent white noise. Growing into it, I was around others who felt the same draw, we nodded our heads together to music which appears to have no beat, no tune and no purpose. This was in some way mirrored in our own lives of monastic practice by day, and Guinness by night. The music was and is offensive, actively disliked by those who don’t understand it, and nothing is more powerful than seeming to tell someone they are stupid. It was “everyone playing at the same time.”

Occasionally the “j” word gets popular again, and other streams of music appear; the advantage of jazz as an influencing genre is that you can often take half of what’s already in it and make something more digestible. This stuff is essential for the growth of the ecosystem of the music, but there are some musicians who manage to steer a path in and out of these currents, they are “likeable”, but they are “heavy” too. You stay with them and they with you. For me, it’s Sonny Rollins.

Rollins has always cut through the noise. Charlie Parker’s records in the forties still shock today, bursting with an energy that shoots out at all angles. He seemed to stream through the sky like a comet, died young and broke and looking old. Rollins survived.

He took Parker’s language and sound and expanded in all directions. The first good sign is that you cannot teach anyone how to play like Rollins, nor can you even pretend to. He appears to pluck sounds out of the air. He can weave around chord changes with impossible elegance and groove one minute, then hack away at one note like a lumberjack at a redwood the next. He moves sound around like a voice. Language becomes secondary. It’s not a “style”; it’s simply being good, being fast…..not playing fast, being fast. The only way to mimic Rollins is to be as witty, as imaginative, and as quick as the man himself. It’s impossible and it’s inspiring. The music is dancing again.

When I think of the archetypal improviser, someone who shuts their eyes and listens and simply plays what they hear, it’s him.

I am saying this because he is still alive. I want him to know. There are too many obituaries.

Possible origins of “Brother Face”

 

 

I never used to read poetry; it was somehow a symbol of everything I didn’t know, and could never learn.  Steve Swallow’s album “Home” is built around Robert Creeley’s poems, but at the time it was the musical forms, endlessly rotating yet deceptively simple, that attracted me.  Listening to Steve Swallow’s music is like a familiar face that always appears new, yet retains its identity, as if one views it from a different angle each time.

 But then I started looking at the poems – strange fragments of conversation, no long words, there was nothing I didn’t understand, but I couldn’t find its meaning; it was confusing and yet something about it drew me in.  I decided to investigate, eagerly amassing volumes of his work; like buried treasure, I had a feeling I could dig it up in the future, and age might render it even more beautiful, perhaps I might even understand some of it.  Along with The Beatles, Beethoven late string quartets and making my own jam, it was something I could save for later life.

Several years on,  I am in many ways none the wiser.  I must say I don’t know what Creeley’s on about most of the time.  But I keep going back to him, there is so much to enjoy even without understanding, it’s taught me to listen to words both written and spoken as I would to music.  I want to understand it, and in the meantime am happy just to read it.   And every so often, a quote will jump out at me, and a meaning presents itself.  Here’s one, from a poem called “En Famille”.

 

“Somehow it’s sometimes hard to be a human.

Arms and legs get often in the way,

Making oneself a bulky, awkward burden.”

 

I love the way the words are not only describing a feeling, they are doing it.  Reading these lines, I feel like my mouth is reliving the actual experience, the consonants piling up and making a spluttering mess of what should be a perfectly normal sentence.  No long words.  At the same time, I think it expresses a feeling that many artists, writers and performers have; the need to somehow transcend the limits of physical body.  One often hears of people who feel they are “a woman trapped in the body of a man”, or vice versa.  Well I am a man trapped in the body of a man.  My arms and legs often get in the way, and so does everything else to be honest.  I feel that music temporarily removes the physicality of being alive and translates into a pure energy, or perhaps an energy “outside” of one’s body.

 If I’m playing, and especially if it’s going well, it’s “flowing”, I’ll get to the end of a tune and it will feel like someone waking me up.  It’s like falling asleep at the wheel, but with the physical danger removed.  This is not a cosmic, hippyish assertion; it means that as a player, one enters the realm of the listener.  The closer you can get, as a player, to the listener’s world, the more the music will seem to compose itself.  Of course, the stuff “under the bonnet” needs to be working too in order to get there, but I am loathe to talk about the fuel injection to someone who just wants to see a good race. 

In essence, music, both in its making and its appreciation, is an out-of-body experience.  (It is also, a lot of the time, an out-of-money experience.)   I feel like the occasional alienation one experiences as an artist, the often structureless form of the weeks, every one different and yet similar, busy and empty in strange alternation, the “What do you do I’m a musician oh that’s glamorous what kind of music jazz mostly….(silence)…does jazz still happen now that you can’t smoke indoors?” conversation – all of this is compensated for the intensity of the out-of-body experience.  The precarious existence of a musician, envied by many, sits uneasily with the sea of rampant consumerism where a desperate lunge for the shops seems the only way to stay afloat.  The escape needs to be real, not just a discussion about what is possible or not possible, it has to be physical, tangible, living.  At that point one might see a shadow not of one’s former self, but of the one that is here now.  Maybe not even a shadow, maybe a reflection.  Here’s another Robert Creeley poem, “Histoire De Florida” and it opens like this;

 

“You’re there

still behind

the mirror

brother face.

 

Only yesterday

you were younger,

now you

look old.

 

Come out

while there’s still time

left

to play.”