Ben Hall & Don Dietrich – “Tiger Swallow Tail” (2019)

Those two words.  Those two words that have lives apart from one another in most contexts, but when combined result in a visceral reaction, the scrunched up nose, the shaking of the head.  Two words that even the most die-hard music fans will dismiss out of hand.  Two words that everyone seems to have an opinion about, even if they’re never heard the music.

I speak, of course, of “free jazz”.

I too reacted that way for most of my life, though in recent years I’ve developed a sort of respect for it.  Let me be clear – I’m not a free jazz fan.  But that being said I can understand the appeal of the improvisation, and from time to time on a recording, if you’re fortunate and the artists are talented, things coalesce into the ethereal, a glimpse of something new and unexpected, a hint at what is possible.

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Ben Hall & Don Dietrich combined on a pair of 15-minute, untitled tracks for the recently released Tiger Swallow Tail.  Put out by Radical Documents (and available on Bandcamp HERE), the duo pair up in a cacophony of drums and saxophone, crashing cymbals and a screeching horn, an aural attack on common sense and decency.  And it works.  I can wrap my head around it just enough because of the general simplicity – this isn’t some large collection of instruments competing for space and time, banging into each other like a bunch of beater cars on a dirt figure-eight track, but more like two completely different and random events that intersect from time to time, sometimes missing each other entirely, others banging into each other like billiard balls and careening off in different and new directions, and every now again locking into a groove and swirling around one another.

I’m not going to promise that Tiger Swallow Tail will transform you into a free jazz evangelist, but it may be the right intro to the genre to open up your ears and expand your horizons just a bit wider.  And that’s always a good thing.

Sun Ra – “Fate In A Pleasant Mood” (1965)

sunrafateSun Ra is primarily known for his more experimental music, but when Fate In A Pleasant Mood was recorded in 1960 (it wasn’t released until 1965) he and his Arkestra were still in the midst of their Chicago Phase, a period when they were transitioning towards the sound that would later define them.  This performance is, at least to my untrained ears, fairly straight forward.  There are hints of free jazz sprinkled about to be sure, but it would easily stand up against some of the more classic jazz artists of the period.  Nothing spacey or weird, just jazz that is perhaps a slight bit unpolished and occasionally rambling.

I have one of the post-1965 Saturn pressings and it sounds pretty good.  A few spots early on side A felt a bit hot, but overall it’s clean and enjoyable to ears.

OWT – “Good As Gold” (1989)

ostgoodasgoldI’m not sure what to make of Good As Gold.  OWT was the partnership of harpist (yes, I said harpist) Zeena Parkins and percussionist David Linton.  The pair also brought some keyboards, digital, and even tape looping skills to the project, which in many ways feels like some kind of bizarre free-jazz-meets-no-wave thing.  Experimental?  Yeah.  Thought provoking?  Definitely.  Enjoyable?  Well… it’s challenging.  The compositions have quasi-structures, but there’s so much happening that the listener never gets comfortable, which may well be the point.  “Dream Mint” is my favorite piece, something a bit more restrained with some intriguing electronic elements thrown in for good measure.

Iceberg Slim – “Reflections” (1976 / 2018)

First things first.  Iceberg Slim, aka Robert Maupin, aka Robert Moppins, aka Robert Beck, earned his notoriety and fame because he was, for almost a quarter century, a pimp.  Over the years the pimp has achieved an almost mythological status in music, especially hip hop, and the term has even become a part of everyday vernacular, using the word pimp as verb to describe someone trying to push something on or sell something to a person or group.  But let’s be real for a minute.  Pimping is not glamorous.  It’s not a profession one should aspire to.  A pimp sells people for sex.  He controls every aspect of their lives.  He takes significant amounts of their money.  Yes, he offers some protection from others, but that’s because he needs to protect his “property”.  And while he may not tolerate someone else hitting one of his prostitutes, he won’t hesitate to use violence on them himself.  It’s sex slavery, pure and simple, with the pimp as the master.

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I first encountered Iceberg Slim when a friend sent me a copy of Slim’s seminal book, Pimp:  The Story of My Life.  My friend came to it via his love of hip hop, particularly Ice-T, who is said to have taken his name in part from Slim and who used to quote Iceberg to those around him.  Ice-T has even claimed to have been a pimp himself for a brief period of time.  It’s been a while since I read Pimp, but I came away with a sense that this was actually an important work on many levels.  It paints a fairly direct and honest picture of “the life”, and Slim doesn’t appear to pull any punches, describing the ways he manipulated and controlled the women who worked for him, as well as the application of violence in ways that were very matter-of-fact.  There are many ways a reader can experience a book like Pimp.  It can be read as a more or less true crime book; it can be viewed form a deeper sociological or psychological standpoint as a valuable insight into the human condition; or, unfortunately, it can be consumed as an instruction manual.  Knowing that many people read it in the last way is the most concerning part.  While the book hardly glamorizes pimping, you can understand how, for someone in any environment with limited to no options other than crime, it could latched onto as a guidebook, a way out of poverty even if it is at the expense of other people.

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Slim spent a number of years in prison, turning to writing after getting out and starting a straight life.  Pimp was followed by some novels and political writing, and Iceberg found himself a sought-after speaker and interviewee.  In 2015 The New Yorker published an excellent article about his life, which you can read HERE for more details.  In addition to his writing and speaking, Iceberg also put out a sort of spoken-word-meets-jazz-funk album in 1976 called Reflections.  It got the re-release treatment last year from Modern Harmonic, and that’s the version that found its way into my hands a few weeks back while I was in Chicago.  I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this record on a moral basis, but ultimately the artist will draw on his/her personal experiences, and this is no different.  Slim was, for a period of time, clearly a bad person.  But he went to prison for that, and by all accounts never went back to the criminal life after his last stint of incarceration ended in 1961.  Clearly it’s the sex trade aspect of his crimes that makes me queasy; had he been a bank robber, I probably wouldn’t feel conflicted about this record at all.

Backed by the Red Holloway Quartet, the four compositions that comprise Reflections are delivered as poems in a spoken word fashion by Slim.  And I have to admit, the man has a smooth voice and delivery.  The musical accompaniment is subdued, the emphasis on the vocal delivery and story.  The recording itself is fairly clean, though in a few places it feels like the vocals got overly hot to the point of some mildly annoying distortion.

As I sit here listening to the nearly 20 minutes of “The Fall”, I’m getting a slightly bad taste in my mouth.  It’s not the music, or the delivery, but instead the words themselves, particularly in how Slim refers to women.  These are street stories, told in the street-wise manner of that period.  “Broadway Sam” is more intriguing, the story of a man’s descent into addiction, with nothing to sugar coat his fall.  To me Reflections is more a sociological relic than something I’d listen to for entertainment – it’s more than 40 years old and comes from a time and place I never experienced, so at times it feels almost like an anachronism when in fact it’s likely quite honest.  That being said, it has value, and I’m glad that it exists.

John Coltrane – “Ascension” (1965)

Jazz is a genre that my forever mystify me.  I don’t dislike it, and certainly there are some albums like Kind of Blue and Blue Train that are undeniable brilliant to my ears.  But I just find it… difficult.  Swing is pretty easy to get, but it’s basically dance music for a different era, and as such it has a certain familiarity.  Hard bop and modal jazz also have recognizable elements, though I still find them challenging (but in a good way).  But free jazz?  Man… free jazz is downright hard.

I find it interesting that I am comfortable listening to rock and electronic based experimental music, which is sort of the “free jazz” of those genres, but when it comes to jazz it’s like the connections between the neurons in my brain just break down and I have no idea what’s going on.  My hypothesis about this is that I already have a base familiarity with some of the more extreme forms of rock, and it’s not hard to get from the distorted guitars of a popular song to the extreme distortion of more experimental work; it’s just a matter of degrees.  But when it comes to the instruments played by jazz ensembles, like the 11 musicians who recorded Ascension, I’m truly used to hearing the performers strive to make them as clear and organized as possible.  Saxophones and trumpets and pianos aren’t instruments I associate with discord.

The first two sentences of the liner notes on Ascension warn the listener:

To begin at the beginning, a caveat for the casual listener.  Be advised that this record cannot be loved or understood in one sitting, and there can be no appreciation at all in two minutes listening to an arbitrary excerpt in a record store.  

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And this is true, because two minutes into Side A I was ready to take it off the Rega.  But the intro is arguably the “freest” section of this free jazz record… or maybe I just think that because my ears eventually got used to it.  It’s actually the perfect way to start the album because it breaks down everything you thought you knew about jazz and everything you expected from the record when you see Coltrane’s name on the cover, wiping the slate clean like a palette cleanser and putting you in the right mind space to absorb Ascension.

There are two versions of Ascension, and my copy is the more common (and Coltrane-preferred) version 2.  I believe both were recorded live and in one take as one nearly 40 minute performance.  Unfortunately it has to be split in two for vinyl, and those moments when you’re flipping the record are the only sonic reprieve you get.  And while certainly qualifying as free jazz, don’t think that the entire thing is one big sonic jumble.  There are places in the session where things come together into something very familiar sounding, particularly during the solos.

I may never truly “get” jazz, but I find that exploring it broadens my perspective, so if for no other reason than that I’ll continue to occasionally dip my toe into the jazz pool and test the water.