Ethan Iverson’s Home Page

Greetings! Thanks for stopping by! If you are new here, you might want to look at the Bio page. 

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Twitter is my evil social media drug of choice, where I post frequently.

At the moment you are looking at Do the Math, a blog (but really more like an internet magazine) that began in 2004 and runs well over a million words.

The most significant DTM posts are “pages,” organized by topic:

Interviews: Over 40 discussions, mostly with musicians: Billy Hart, Ron Carter, Keith Jarrett, Marc-André Hamelin, Carla Bley, Wynton Marsalis, many others.

Consult the Manual: Lessons, mainly material written for my piano students at New England Conservatory of Music.

Rhythm and Blues: Jazz music essays about McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Bud Powell, Lester Young, many others.

Sonatas and Études: Classical music essays about Glenn Gould, Igor Stravinsky, a few others.

Newgate Callendar: Crime fiction essays about Donald E. Westlake, Charles Willeford, a few others.

If you want to support Do the Math and also get updates about gigs, masterclasses, and new DTM posts, subscribe to Transitional Technology.


“For Ellen Raskin” (+ R.I.P. to Lee Server and Andrew Vachss)

Another preview track from my forthcoming trio disc with Larry Grenadier and Jack DeJohnette has been released by Blue Note. “For Ellen Raskin” can be heard on YouTube and on all the streaming services.

“For Ellen Raskin” is a tribute to an early influence, the famous writer and illustrator. Her greatest work is The Westing Game, which has consistently remained in print since publication in 1978. My vast passion for this comic puzzle knew no bounds: I even made my 5th grade teacher read it out loud to the class during story time, one chapter a week. Regrettably, I was out sick for the final pages, and when I returned, I had to give an impromptu explanatory lecture, for my classmates complained they didn’t understand the ending.

The other Raskin I read over and over was her first novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) from 1971.

Raskin was idiosyncratic. She loved wordplay, puzzles, and nonsense. Her books are deeply surreal. There’s no doubt in my mind that Raskin paved the way for my future appreciation of surreal jazz pianists such as Thelonious Monk.

At the conclusion of Figgs & Phantoms, Ellen Raskin doesn’t write “The End.” She writes, “The &.

This is just like the conclusion of a Thelonious Monk track where hits a high minor ninth. It’s obvious. Raskin: “The &.” Monk: “Clang!

Raskin’s “The &” connects to her other gifts as an illustrator and graphic designer. Wikipedia lists over twenty books graced with Raskin art, including the cover for the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 classic A Wrinkle in Time. The Newbery Medal is the most prestigious award in children’s literature. Both A Wrinkle in Time and The Westing Game won a Newbery.

A unique statistic: Raskin designed the cover for one Newbury winner and wrote the text for another.

I rarely play a jazz waltz, and haven’t composed one until now. Mal Waldron’s “Fire Waltz” and Wayne Shorter’s “Ju-Ju” are in my repertoire, because it helps to have something in a dark and droning zone when playing with an unfamiliar rhythm section, but I shy away from anything in the Bill Evans-ish camp of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Very Early” and so forth.

When contemplating recording with Jack DeJohnette, I looked through John Coltrane and Elvin Jones references, for Coltrane and Elvin are a big part of where DeJohnette is coming from. My first ever jazz waltz, “For Ellen Raskin,” is the same tempo and feel as Coltrane’s famous “Spiritual,” recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1961, but with a harmonic structure that is comparatively light and breezy — although, hopefully, not without some Iverson idiosyncrasies, and perhaps even the kind of idiosyncrasies Ellen Raskin would approve of.

Jack DeJohnette is magnificent throughout Every Note is True, but I’m especially happy to get some primo Jack at the “Spiritual” tempo on tape.

(“For Ellen Raskin” is the second Iverson composition featuring the name of a non-musical hero in the title. The first was “Bill Hickman at Home.” As far as I know, these are the only jazz tributes to either Raskin or Hickman.)

The Westing Game is a bonafide mystery novel, and I suppose it was the first one I ever read. As I got older, my interest in crime fiction would become a major hobby.

I like thinking about genre. If we know what genre any proposed work of art is planned to be — if we really know, because we command the terrain and can speak truthfully as to what has been done before — then we can fill the container with work that supports or denies a given set of conventions.

The research I have done exploring crime fiction has informed my attitudes to everything else (including music criticism and even what I play on the piano). One of my most helpful guides was Lee Server’s Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers. Server, who died at the end of last year, is best-known for well-regarded biographies of Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner, and Johnny Rosselli, none of which I have read yet. However, I certainly owe a debt to Server: Whatever little skill I have when writing a capsule music review comes in part from emulating Server’s superb style in Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers.

Not every author covered in Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers is truly pulp, and some of the reviewers are up in arms about this minor transgression. Their point is easy to understand, for everyone in that game is eager to define different genres in very precise terms. Still, Server’s commentary on two famous authors rarely classed as pulp, Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler, affected my opinion. Indeed, both Fleming and Chandler went up a notch on my private scorecard thanks to Server.

Server didn’t just include people who fit the bill, he also bent the rules and included people when he could advocate for them with a distinctive “take.” Again, in my music criticism, I follow Server’s lead.

Andrew Vachss also died towards the end of last year. Not long after I arrived in NYC in 1991, I went through a brief Vachss phase, reading a half-dozen of the early Burke series in the then-ubiquitous Vintage trade paperback edition. Within a year or two I rescinded my invitation, and didn’t even include Vachss in my substantial overview, “The Crimes of the Century.”

After hearing of Vachss’s passing I picked up the first three Burke novels on Kindle: Flood, Strega, and Blue Belle. Vachss has real poetic flair, especially when crafting a comic description of urban decay, but what at first seems charismatic soon wilts into a one-note riff. Sexual sadism is inflicted on children, and the former heister (now quasi-PI) Burke goes on the warpath to seek vigilante vengeance.

The titles of the books are Burke’s girlfriends. These women all are simply lurid cartoons, just like the rest of Burke’s associates: the silent Mongolian assassin, the sophisticated trans streetwalker, the salt-of-the-earth black Prophet, the Jewish electronics expert who hides out underneath a Bronx junkyard. Burke relentlessly talks of this crew as his “family” in exactly the same manner that Dominic Toretto describes his associates in the Fast and Furious movie franchise.

While I will never be a card-carrying member of the Andrew Vachss fan club, I enjoyed re-reading the early Burke trio last week. Not for the works themselves, but because it was a way to time travel and re-visit a place last seen almost 30 years ago. The same is true when I pick-up The Westing Game or The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Probably a decade hence I will go through Server’s Encyclopedia again, not expecting to learn anything new, but simply to check in on the slow but constant evolution of my personal aesthetic.

On the late Terry Teachout (with a guest contribution by Heather Sessler)

The arts community was rocked yesterday by the sudden passing of critic/author/playwright Terry Teachout.

I’ll write more about his work in a moment, but first want to turn the DTM floor over to my buddy Heather Sessler, who kept me updated during Teachout’s long bout with a dying spouse and his surprising recent love. (When he wasn’t praising his favorite songs and movies, Teachout’s feed had something of an innocent, old-timey radio soap opera about it.)

Terry and I first met on Twitter more than four years ago. We instantly hit it off and began corresponding via long emails. I was nervous writing to him – me, a nobody in Portland, OR – Terry, an accomplished writer who seemingly knew everyone and everything, yet Terry was interested in me. He asked questions. He made me think about my answers. He took the time to listen to recordings from my junior recital and over many messages helped me choose tunes for my senior recital. He saw something special in me.

During a visit to NYC, I met Terry for Indian food near his home in Washington Heights. He was just as warm and kind in person as he was in his letters. That evening he sent me this note: 

We did stay in touch – through Hilary’s illness, my divorce, and big move to NYC. We reunited again at the Indian joint in early March 2020 just after Hilary’s transplant and before COVID shut everything down. We spoke of the future he and Hilary might have. I was hoping to meet her and get to know the person he loved with his whole being. After Hilary passed, I promised to come over and make him homemade chili and cornbread. The pandemic made a liar out of me and I am so sad that I’ll never have the chance.

Terry was generous, supportive, and made me think that I could be an artist. It is heartening to know that Terry was that kind of friend to so many people. We can grieve together knowing our lives are better because he cared.

As Heather suggests, it was not just on Heather who Terry bestowed kindness. The socials are full of people who have a similar story. Terry’s simple acts of friendship are a wonderful legacy.

The current political mood is very polarized, and just seems to get worse and worse — to the point where I fully expect that typing a sentence such as, “The current political mood is very polarized…” will get angry pushback online from people saying, “How dare you suggest our side bend to the evil Republican regime?”

Terry Teachout was an old-school Republican intellectual. His heroes included people like William F. Buckley and George Will, and never failed to mention that President Bush appointed him to the National Council on the Arts. (The blog post where he walks around the White House and reviews the art collection is quintessential Teachout.)

No one could ever say Terry Teachout wasn’t smart, and the sly dog rarely publicly spoke about his political beliefs. A 2008 article about Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama tips his hand very slightly, but the article is also simply correct in every particular: Teachout forecasts the coming schism with uncanny accuracy.

On a practical level, I was happy that Terry was a political conservative, for we need people that will argue for the arts when the conservatives control the board. On a local level, I was impressed with how he fought polarization by being sincere, polite, firmly traditional, and a stand-up gent. Online tributes have come in from hilarious/scandalous writer Chelsea G. Summers and hard-headed television avatar David Simon. To say that Summers and Simon rarely have a kind word for a conservative understates the matter! One up to the power of Teachout.

Teachout’s biographies covered Mencken, Balanchine, Louis Armstrong, and Ellington. He knew fiction and painting as well, but probably had the biggest impact as a drama critic. It is absolutely certain that losing Teachout is a true blow to regional theater, for Terry was one of the few visible NYC critics who traveled the country to see local productions.

Outside of drama, “middlebrow” may have been Teachout’s forte. His critiques of mid-century movies, music, and books that were both popular and sophisticated were full of pithy truth. I resonated with Teachout best on that middlebrow wavelength. The work of Rex Stout is a perfect example: When I wrote my pandemic-era overview of Stout, I quoted him in the piece and sent it along for him to look it over before it went live. Similarly, Mel Powell’s jazz piano was middlebrow, and my own essay on the larger career of Powell was literally a return serve to an old Teachout essay in the New York Times.

I met Terry over two decades ago when he wrote about Mark Morris. Frankly, I was surprised that someone working as dance critic knew anything about jazz. We kept in touch, and his blog About Last Night was a direct inspiration when starting Do the Math.

I liked Terry, appreciated his perspective, but also felt I owed him a favor. His 2000 profile of Morris put me on the cover of Sunday Arts in the New York Times. (Picks up phone and calls home: “Hey, Mom? Drive to Eau Claire tomorrow and get the New York Times.”) He also advised me on prose issues when I first started trying to write criticism. So, when I heard that Terry was releasing a book on Duke Ellington, I figured it was time to interview Terry for DTM.

But, after setting up the interview, it turned out I didn’t love Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Indeed, I wondered if I would be dishonoring my ancestors if I gave the book positive press. It was a kind of a personal crisis: I literally fell ill with a flu that wouldn’t go away. Finally, somewhat in desperation, I wrote a rebuttal to the biography, “Reverential Gesture.” Immediately my body healed and I was fit as a fiddle.

I figured springing my essay on Terry would be unfair, so I sent it along for comments. He corrected a few things and said, “Go get ’em, tiger.” The interview and my rebuttal ran side by side.

I had hoped my public disagreements with Terry would end there, but, to my dismay, I disliked his play Satchmo at the Waldorf even more than the Ellington book. Should I really keep on this thread? I couldn’t help myself, and spent an afternoon with my books putting together putting together another contra-Teachout screed, “Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.”

In the end, I think Terry overstepped his bounds when dealing with black music, a common-enough mistake for his generation and social circle. Perhaps he treated Armstrong, Ellington, and Miles as middlebrow. However, they aren’t middlebrow. If you take on those masters, you need to bring your A-game and dig deep.

Having landed two blows, I expected Terry to drop me as friend and associate. Incredibly, he just stayed the same warm self. Especially on Twitter, he constantly signal-boosted my work. After Trump was elected, I felt a chill deep in my bones and abruptly quit interacting with anyone I regarded as conservative. Terry didn’t change, so in time I circled back and sent him further things for input.

I try not to make enemies, but stuff happens. If you have visible opinions in the world, conflict is unavoidable. After hearing of Terry’s death, I pondered his vast skill in staying above the fray and connecting people through kindness and friendship. There is definitely a lesson to be learned from Terry’s seemingly effortless and graceful deportment. I never told him I admired him for those reasons, but I wish I had.

Charles Brackeen and Mtume, R.I.P.

Charles Brackeen was a mysterious figure. I spoke to him on the phone briefly when assembling the extensive essay that accompanies the Paul Motian ECM box set. It was an enjoyable conversation, and, since I suspected this would end up being one of the few Charles Brackeen interviews, I included almost all the quotable bits in the liner notes. The relevant passage:

After the Jarrett group disbanded, Motian tried leading his first working band, a trio with saxophone and bass.  Charles Brackeen was an interesting choice.  Like Carlos Ward, he comes from the network of post-Ornette horn players: the 1968 Brackeen album Rhythm X with Cherry, Haden and Blackwell is a superb document of the Coleman school.  On Dance, the Coleman connection is furthered by the presence of David Izenzon, a bassist whose most familiar work is in the Ornette trio with Charles Moffett.  It’s a collection of important, idiosyncratic musicians who (apart from Motian) lack extensive discographies — indeed, Dance is not just Izenzon’s only album from the 70‘s but his final commercial recording.  

Brackeen is from Oklahoma, and he shares something of that Southwestern cry that characterized Dewey Redman.  Motian loved playing with Redman with Jarrett, so hiring Brackeen was a logical consequent.  Brackeen remembers playing with this trio as, “A fantastic experience.  We rehearsed at my studio in New York or on tour in Europe.  The music was accurate, simple, enjoyable, and interesting.  Paul was very experienced and was a spectacular arranger.  There were no questions.”  

During this time Brackeen was also becoming legendary for his street performances.  “That was an important part of my artistic expression.  I would play for anybody and everybody, and they called me the man who talked through the horn. I found some mechanical monkey drummers at Christmastime. First I made a costume and a hat for myself, and then I would dress the monkeys the way I was dressed, like a uniform.  

“People would ask, ‘What are you paying your band?’ or, ‘What kind of batteries are you using?’  It opened the history up.   At first I was playing standards like ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ‘Sunny Side of the Street,’ and ‘Summertime.’ But with the monkeys it was better to make up songs.  The police looked the other way, but it was against the law.  I worried sometimes about how much money I made. It was a lot! Fifteen years I did that!  They didn’t have drum machines yet, but the rappers later seemed to understand what I was doing. Nobody copied me while I was there, yet two years after I left New York they came out with rap.” 

From the opening notes of “Waltz Song,” it is easy to imagine not just Brackeen but the whole trio performing this cheerfully disorganized music on a street corner somewhere.   The tracks with soprano, “Waltz Song,” “Kalypso,” “Asia,” and “Lullaby,” are enigmatic character studies, while the tenor features, “Dance” and “Prelude,” let loose with full-throttle blowing.  Motian seems to be having fun picking non-sequitur titles:  There’s no waltz anywhere, and “Kalypso” has a taste of an AACM-style march. In the 60’s, Izenzon was often paired with other bassists — usually, he was the one with the bow — and “Lullaby” gives him a chance to reference those years via an overdub.

The engineer for Dance and the rest of the box is Martin Wieland, whom Eicher praises highly.  “He was an assistant engineer to Kurt Rapp at our very first session with Mal Waldron, Free at Last. He had just finished at the conservatory in Dusseldorf where he studied to be a sound engineer.  So, like myself, he was a beginner in the field and we used the chance to learn in every session.  He was also an excellent engineer for live recordings including The Köln Concert, almost a specialist in changing multi-track or two-track tapes during live concerts, getting there just when they are just about to run out. In the 80’s he got an offer from a radio station in a higher position and moved away from recording.  I really liked to work with him. He was one of the three important engineers who helped set the direction at ECM, along with Jan Erik Kongshaug and Tony May.”

Dance is distinctive, but Le Voyage is better.  From the first notes the group sounds more confident.  If Izenzon was connected to Ornette, J. F. Jenny-Clark was connected to Don Cherry, appearing on several of the trumpeter’s albums in the 60’s. During the 70’s, Jenny-Clark had become a major force in European jazz:  the year before Le Voyage, he had appeared on Enrico Rava’s wonderful ECM record Quartet.  A natural musician, Jenny-Clark is related to Haden in spirit and harmonic angle although the tone and phrasing comes more from the Gary Peacock school.  (According to Brackeen, Arild Andersen also played in the trio on tour.)

During Brackeen’s soprano improvisation on “Folk Song for Rosie,” Motian moves from free tempo to banging out his canonical crude swing on trashy China cymbal.  Again, not every drummer commands both worlds as convincingly as Motian.

The highlight of the album is Brackeen’s fervent, multi-hued unaccompanied tenor cadenza on “Abacus,” which seems to be the dead intersection of Albert Ayler and Dewey Redman.  There’s really far too little of Brackeen on record.  

Few other jazz bassists would attempt the tricky melody of “Cabala” with a bow.   Later on in the track, the premiere recording of “Drum Music” is stated rather slowly, especially if you know it as the raging sign-off theme concluding countless later Motian sets at the Village Vanguard.  “Drum Music” is notated in 5/4. That doesn’t really seem to matter for the free phrasing, but Paul said it was inspired by “Five,” the abstract Bill Evans tune recorded on New Jazz Conceptions.  

Only on “The Sunflower” does Brackeen’s tenor finally intertwine with Clark and Motian’s shape-shifting time.  With this kind of music, it is incorrect to say there is a Brackeen “solo”:  once the head is over, there is a trio of equals.  Everyone’s phrases follow naturally, and Motian even graces us with a little bit of clunky swing.  The title track returns to soprano and a more spacey ambience, perfect for Martin Wieland to capture every nuance.  Le Voyage should be better known: it’s surely one of the best jazz albums of 1979.

As I write above, Rhythm X is pure Ornette-school, not least because of the band. In the ’80s Brackeen put a few releases on Silkheart. Worshippers Come Nigh with Olu Dara, Fred Hopkins, and Andrew Cyrille is a good listen. Another great band! The style is no longer purely in the vein of Ornette, but also concerned with the kind of gritty post-Coltrane spiritual and modal concepts next door to Pharoah Sanders or David Murray.

It’s possible that the two Motian albums remain Charles Brackeen’s finest studio performances.

flyer courtesy Hyland Harris

Mtume had an extraordinary life in this music. From the forthcoming Billy Hart memoir:

Jimmy Heath’s son was Mtume, so named by Maulana Karenga of the US Organization, an important political group connected to the social ferment of the times. The American version of the holiday Kwanzaa was Karenga’s idea.  

Mtume played congas with Gary Bartz, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis. He also wrote the hit songs “Juicy Fruit,” which was successful with his own group and later sampled by Biggie Smalls, and “The Closer I Get to You,” which was recorded by Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, and Beyoncé.  I’m on Mtume’s album Alkebu-Lan: Land Of The Blacks, which was recorded live at the East, a cultural center in Brooklyn that only allowed black people onstage and in the audience.  When I played at East with Herbie Hancock, they didn’t allow Herbie’s white wife to attend.

Mtume is a Swahili name. Most Afro-Americans go by a name originally given to them by a slave master. If you take an African name, it is a way to reject the status quo and reclaim your heritage. 

Tootie Heath was Mtume’s uncle, and Mtume named Tootie “Kuumba,” Buster Williams “Mchezaji,” and Herbie Hancock “Mwandishi” on a 1969 record date, Kawaida

As the final version of the Herbie Hancock sextet came together, everyone took a name, mostly assigned by Mtume. 

All these names mean something, or even several things. 

Herbie Hancock — Mwandishi — Composer.
Eddie Henderson — Mganga — Doctor.
Bennie Maupin — Mwile — Body of Good Health.
Julian Priester — Pepo Moto — Spirit Child.
Buster Williams — Mchezaji — The Player.
Billy Hart — Jabali — Moral Strength. 

My name, Jabali, has stayed with me ever since this era.

According to Lord, Mtume’s jazz discography includes 114 sessions. The best known are from the several years of work with Miles Davis, but he recorded from everyone from Harold Land and Sonny Rollins to Ramsey Lewis and Roy Ayers.

Listing ten LP titles featuring Mtume in the ’70s certainly evoke an era:

Gato Barbieri Under Fire
Pharoah Sanders Wisdom Through Music
Lonnie Liston Smith And The Cosmic Echoes Astral Traveling
Abbey Lincoln People In Me
Carlos Garnett Black Love
Azar Lawrence Bridge Into The New Age
Gary Bartz Music is My Sanctuary
Reggie Lucas Survival Themes
Hubert Eaves Esoteric Funk
Harry Whitaker Black Renaissance – Body, Mind And Spirit

Mtume’s important career as a hit songwriter is beyond DTM’s purview, but a 2017 interview with the Breakfast Club is a worthy watch. A few years ago Mtume got back on the radar of jazz fans thanks to a substantial debate with Stanley Crouch, seen many times on YouTube.

Barry Altschul, “You Can’t Name Your Own Tune”

Recorded 1977 for Muse. Barry Altschul, drums and percussion; Sam Rivers, saxophones and flute; George Lewis, trombone; Muhal Richard Abrams, piano; Dave Holland, bass. Four pieces credited to Altschul; one apiece to Abrams and Carla Bley.

Barry Altschul turned 79 two days ago, on January 6, 2022. Altschul was a key player during the second wave of revolutionary jazz. More often than not, Dave Holland was the bassist; depending on how you count it, there are 30 or 40 sessions with Holland and Altschul holding down the churn. Notable discs include Circle Paris Concert, Braxton New York, Fall 1974, Holland Conference of the Birds, and Rivers The Quest.

You Can’t Name Your Own Tune is perhaps less-well known, but for no good reason, as it’s really an incredibly listenable session of the finest exponents of this rather hectic style. This is a one-off quintet, but everyone brings their A-game. In some ways it could pair with the early Tony Williams quintet session Spring, also with Sam Rivers. In both cases the drummer decides which directions an “out” date should take, with notably stylish results.

The title track dives right in. Sometimes medium-up swing time with no changes, especially when it is more dissonant than the Ornette Coleman version, is called “free-bop.” Not sure if that is truly a canonical genre or not, but at any rate this is a wonderful example. The charging head is charismatic, and then the solos are frankly amazing. I’ve rarely heard Rivers, George Lewis, or Muhal Richard Abrams playing quite like this: Head-solos-head, a knowledgable rhythm section, and flat-out atonal “jazz” blowing.

“For Those That Care” is a soulful piece of through-composed melodic counterpoint. Holland is on arco, Rivers on flute doubles Lewis. It moves morosely along, breaking apart for collective mourning. It’s all natural, Altschul’s de-constructed brushwork is hot in the mix.

“Natal Chart” surprises with a mix of disparate compositional elements. Partly it’s a literal triplet chatter, partly it’s a swing band gone very, very wrong. The blowing is noisy collective. A little of this goes a long way, especially on record, but the track is short (less than four minutes) and they bring it home with a fake old-timey ending. Bravo.

Muhal Richard Abrams brought an intense trio piece to the date, “Cmbeh.” A thorny head leads into crazy free-bop. If I heard this in a blindfold test, I’d have no idea who the pianist was, but I would want to hear more of them. A lot more. Part of the charm is definitely Holland and Altschul together, they had truly figured out a way to play this tempo that was both fierce and liquid. Holland’s bass solo is great, too. Maybe because it’s the drummer’s date, it feels like the bass and drums are both captured better than on other ’70s sessions with a similar cast and vibe.

Amusingly, Altschul calls his solo track, “Hey, Toots!” March cadences interact with “random” percussion and the eerie Waterphone. The Waterphone was patented in 1973, I suspect this is one of the earlier instances of it being used on a jazz record. The one gong hit is fabulous.

The LP concludes with a classic Carla Bley line, “King Korn.” Altschul played a lot of Carla Bley rep with Paul Bley on several important trio dates; the first time on record is on the only Paul Bley album with Holland and Altschul, Synthesizer Show.

This must be the only occasion Muhal Richard Abrams is documented playing Carla Bley. Interestingly, Abrams features her lines and harmonic concept quite literally in his accompaniment and solo feature. It’s still very abstract of course, but “King Korn” can be heard in there from the piano more often than not. Rivers and Lewis also play at an amazingly high level of fevered, noisy joy. Now, why didn’t this band make a record of Carla tunes? Oh well, at least we have Barry Altschul’s debut album as a leader, the first rate You Can’t Name Your Own Tune.


My second recent podcast (the first was about Rex Stout), this one concerning Wynton Marsalis and his famous broadside, “What Jazz Is — and Isn’t.” We also listen to Wynton’s album J Mood.

Go to this Apple link or search Manifesto! wherever you get your podcasts.

If you know my writing well, nothing I say here will be a surprise, but it is also true that conversation reveals hidden depths of emotion that print may lack…

Manifesto! is hosted by Jacob Siegal and Phil Klay, two important and smart writers/thinkers/podcasters. Thanks Jacob and Phil!

George Crumb, “Ancient Voices of Children”

Ancient Voices Of Children (A Cycle Of Songs On Texts By Federico García Lorca For Mezzo-soprano, Boy Soprano, Oboe, Mandolin, Harp, Electric Piano & Percussion) was released on Nonesuch in 1971, with the same cast that performed the premiere a year earlier.

Arthur Weisberg conducts The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble featuring Jan DeGaetani, Gilbert Kalish, Susan Jolles, Stephen Bell, George Haas, Howard Van Hyning, Raymond DesRoches, Richard Fitz, Jacob Glick and Michael Dash.

A significant number of George Crumb’s moody and theatrical compositions have been settings of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Ancient Voices Of Children tapped into the moment, including anti-Vietnam war sentiment, and remains one of the few genuinely abstract pieces from 20th-century formal American composition to have a cultural footprint larger than a shoebox.

The work is a feature for the wonderful mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani. Crumb wrote:

The vocal style in the cycle ranges from the virtuosic to the intimately lyrical, and in my conception of the work I very much had in mind Jan DeGaetani’s enormous technical and timbral flexibility. Perhaps the most characteristic vocal effect in Ancient Voices is produced by the mezzo-soprano singing a kind of fantastic vocalise (based on purely phonetic sounds) into an amplified piano, thereby producing a shimmering aura of echoes.

DeGaetani’s star turn is not supported by much harmony, traditional or otherwise; this leanness of texture helps create the “ancient” feeling proclaimed in the title. After voice, percussion is the most significant element. The score requires three official percussionists, while the pianos and harp play percussive roles as well.

1a. El niño busca su voz (The Little Boy was Looking for his Voice). Right away, a cadenza for DeGaetani, a document of extreme possibility. There are no words for the singer at first, rather simply phonetic sounds. Again, everything behind her is very sparse. The general feel throughout most of the movements is spacious, almost tentative. It works pretty well on record, but in live performance the execution of all the “tricks” (singing inside the piano, the instrumentalists taking turns with spoken dialogue, and so forth) adds another layer of tension.

1b. Dances of the Ancient Earth. Oboe and shouts of “hey” interact with the drums and harp. The oboe melody is derived from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

2. Me he perdido muchas veces por el mar (I have lost myself in the sea many times). DeGaetani whispers, the instruments circle and glisten.

3. ¿De dónde vienes, amor, mi niño? (Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle). After another stunning operatic cadenza by DeGaetani, the drums take up a menacing bolero rhythm. Underneath the bolero, a tympani groans while slowly being tuned and de-tuned, a notable and rather aleatoric effect.

While intended for conventional classical music performers, the theatrical experimentation of Ancient Voices is absolutely a piece with all sorts of electronic and improvised music of the late ’60s. Indeed, simply reading the strange-looking score of Ancient Children requires the interpreters to go far outside the norms of common practice chamber music.

4a. Todas las tardes en Granada, todas las tardes se muere un niño (Each Afternoon in Granada, a Child Dies Each Afternoon). There hasn’t been much, if any, triadic harmony until now — not even with the Mahler oboe quote — but suddenly a rich D-flat major chord accompanies a quasi-flamenco preach from DeGaetani. Somehow this long sumptuous call is answered perfectly by a toy piano’s sad little marching Baroque cadence. The greatest movement of the suite.

(Note: in the Weisberg/DeGaetani issue, “Dance of the Sacred Life-Cycle” and “Each Afternoon in Granada, a Child Dies Each Afternoon” are complied into one continuous track.)

4b. Ghost Dance. The musical saw offers a plaintive whine and the castanets shake in dismissal. This movement is better in live performance.

5. Se ha llenado de luces mi corazón de seda (My silk heart has been filled with lights). Chimes, gongs, other percussion, a lonely oboe melody. The boy soprano is heard “offstage” in quick cameos in earlier movements, and finally comes onstage to meet the mezzo. However this is not a true apotheosis, but once again something sparse and fleeting. Rather than build an edifice, the composer gives us epigrams and runes.

Steve Lacy Trio, “The Window”

Recorded 1987 for Soul Note. Steve Lacy, soprano saxophone; Jean-Jacques Avenel, bass; Oliver Johnson, drums. All compositions by Lacy.

Steve Lacy the unique: a vital and uncompromising voice essential to seeing the whole picture. Steve Lacy the prolific: Lord lists 185 sessions as a leader, including many double LPs of long blowing by all hands. Lacy didn’t exactly have breadth, he played his thing on every occasion, so it comes down to who else is on the date and other, more intangible parameters. Where to start assessing this vast discography? Perhaps with The Window, which crops up here and there on critics lists. It is well-recorded, Lacy himself is at the top of his game, and the band is comprised of two key Lacy associates.

It’s a very good rhythm section, although it also says something that neither has a Wikipedia page in English. Jean-Jacques Avenel was a major practitioner, a lyrical poet who also had some good “thump” when playing time, hailed in his native France and underrated in America. Oliver Johnson had pedigree as a serious swinger (his first record seems to be with Charlie Shavers) before moving to Europe and collaborating with freer players. Both Avenel and Johnson recorded more with Lacy than any other leader, yet this is the only date where it is just the three of them.

“The Window” is a jazz waltz, with a wonderful chaotic head that leans to the more esoteric. Once the blowing starts, Avenel goes around the cycle in a pre-arranged fashion but Lacy hunts and pecks in the home key, telling a motivic story inspired by Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

“Flakes” is a lightly pulsing and repeating fragment that almost wears out its welcome before giving a way to a “chordal” bass solo. The long-limbed and searching soprano sax lines that follow are really beautiful. The band isn’t swinging, exactly, but they allude to steady time in addition to finding delicious moments of interplay.

Lacy plays very high in register at the top of “Twilight,” a substantial meditation in duo with Johnson. There’s a short repeating theme that helps organize the exotic exploration. Johnson stays on brushes throughout.

It’s time for something that moves, and the trio opens up with “Gleam.” The group isn’t trying to play serious bebop time, instead they offer ramshackle momentum and plenty of smear. Lacy’s tone is very intense and personal.

“A Complicated Scene” is in the Ellington tradition of “jungle music,” a familiar Lacy gambit. Everyone digs in, with Johnson at home in this groove..

The excellent LP closes with “Retreat,” another repetitive minor-key swinger that could only be from the pen of Steve Lacy. When improvising, the trio plays time, and then they don’t, and then they play time again. It’s not contrived, the phrases fall as naturally as breathing.

Don Pullen, “The Sixth Sense”

Recorded 1985 for Black Saint. Don Pullen, piano; Olu Dara, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto sax; Fred Hopkins, bass; Bobby Battle, drums. All compositions by Pullen except the title track by Pullen and Frank Dean.

This fabulous album documents a moment of casual in/out in the music. Pullen played jazz at a high level, he held down the piano chair with Mingus, but Pullen also developed a throughly avant-garde style, with his palm and hand launching a fusillade of wild runs and clusters. He definitely plays changes with a glissando, which seems impossible. However he’s doing it, Pullen at full roar documents some of the most exciting and esoteric techniques ever created by a pianist.

“The Sixth Sense” is a funky slice of hard-bop in 5/4. Olu Dara is another player with an encyclopedic grasp of various jazz styles, having worked with Art Blakey before collaborating with all sorts of significant avant-gardists. Here Dara is bluesy and commanding over the meaty vamp. Good blindfold test! Donald Harrison is very young, and his presence on this disc reminds us that many so-called “young lions” of the mid-’80s had connections to more esoteric musicians. Harrison’s work here pairs with the Harrison/Terence Blanchard tribute to Eric Dolphy and Booker Little music with Mal Waldron, Richard Davis, and Ed Blackwell recorded a year later.

Pullen’s own solo begins somewhat in a conventional zone, but soon enough the astounding double-time flurries start. The left hand keeps the 5/4 going. As good as the horn soloists are — and they are very good — there’s never any doubt that the leader is the most commanding presence on this date.

Fred Hopkins was a star bassist of this peer group. Drummer Bobby Battle died relatively recently, in 2019. Battle isn’t mentioned often today, but he can be heard on about a dozen albums with Pullen, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and others in that circle. Battle sounds just great on this whole album.

“In the Beginning” is comparatively “out,” with a melody that lunges between chaos and a few “tango” gestures. Battle’s free-form playing has an uptempo cast that works beautifully, while nobody did this style better than Hopkins. Harrison is fiery madness, Dara more lyrical. Hopkins listens to the soloists carefully, while Pullen is more like just molten lava.

Of course, during the piano feature, the heat becomes even more unrelenting. The piano is quite out of tune, but maybe it just got that way during tracking.

A hard-bop ethos returns in “Tales from the Bright Side,” which could be from Horace Silver (except for the piano clusters). The piano comping on “The Sixth Sense” was reasonably conventional, with Pullen demarcating the harmonic structure behind the soloists, but “Tales from the Bright Side” has more chaotic accompaniment. It’s almost like the fury of “In the Beginning” infected “The Sixth Sense” in order to become “Tales from the Bright Side.” The dance rhythm is very strong, but they are all really going for it as committed experimental improvisers; the time even gets turned around for a moment a few places, but who cares? In the wonderful piano solo, the bass-register percussive effects recall the more outlandish places in modernist concertos by Bartók or Prokofiev.

The gospel-infused “Gratitude” is a graceful feature for Harrison in duo with Pullen. There’s no improvisation here, nor none required for such a heartfelt yet sophisticated composition. The final piano chords radiate from deep space.

“All is Well” is — surprisingly — another piece with no obvious improvisation. The parade beat approaches and recedes in a traditional NOLA fashion. Less than two minutes of a happy feeling. The first time I heard this in high school it really kind of blew my mind. You were allowed to do this kind of special effect on a serious jazz record?

Five tracks: 41 minutes. Three extended pieces with solos — one odd-meter, one free, and one on a vibrant drone — followed by a hymn and a parade.

Morton Gould in 1968

Random YouTube find:

Morton Gould: Venice
(Audiograph for Double Orchestra and Brass Choirs)
Vivaldi Gallery
(For Divided symphony and String Quartet on Vivaldi Themes)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra conducted by Milton Katims, recorded 1968.

Liner notes sourced from eBay:

At one point I owned this LP, but it made no impression, for I was searching out Gould’s most modernist and meaty works, some of which I wrote up at the time of the unheralded Morton Gould centennial. Listening now, I find the music beautiful and unpretentious. Part of the idea is sonic opulence, and this record documents RCA casually footing the bill for what was a decidedly experimental and non-commercial project.

In Venice Gould is poly-stylistic to a fault; the result is a bit like a random assemblage, a familiar Gould problem, and surely one reason this composer is all but forgotten today. Still, his command of orchestration is undeniable, and certain moments seem absolutely perfect. “Grand Canal” is best, thirds all over the orchestra, a fantastical night journey, the double orchestra and brass in wonderful concord. In a blindfold test, I would recognize “Grand Canal” as Morton Gould.

Vivaldi Gallery doesn’t sit exactly in one place or another: it is hardly a literal transcription but the avant-gardisms are subtle. Is it Stravinskian? Not quite, it is too cheerful, straightforward and strangely undemanding, although this suite would absolutely fail at a classical pops concert. If everything Gould does to Vivaldi had have been done with a more obviously radical motivation, it would make the whole thing less equivocal. The last two movements, “Continuo e Recitativo” and “Alleluia,” are the most dissonant and perhaps also the most successful.

On the other hand, there’s nothing else like Vivaldi Gallery, at least as far as I know. It is something Gould himself understood, something that only Gould could do, and he sent it out into an unheeding world with a smile on his face. I’ll give it another go-around again sometime, especially if I have the chance to listen to that wonderful 1968 RCA heavy vinyl on a quality hi-fi system. The Seattle musicians play with heart and the sound reproduction is simply gorgeous, even on YouTube.