Deep Listening Band/Joe McPhee Quartet

January 19, 2004

Unquenchable Fire
Deep Listening DL 19-2003

Steve Lacy
The Beat Suite
Sunnyside/Enja SSC 3012

Blending music and texts — either poetry or prose — has never been a particularly easy task, especially when the music involved is improvised. Yet for the past 50 years at least, variations of the concept have been tried with various degrees of success.Among his other sonic inquiries, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy has turned his hand to text-based material for many years; he has been able to utilize the voice of his partner Irene Aebi as his speaker/vocalist since the late 1960s. THE BEAT SUITE is his most recent grapple with the concept — and one that is particularly apt. The words, which intermingle with the music here, were written by 10 of the most accomplished Beat versifiers. All had or have an affinity for improvised music and most were known personally by either Lacy or Abei.

Iconoclastic Pauline Oliveros is another all-out experimenter, but from the so-called classical aide of the divide. Justly celebrated for her early experiments with microtonalism and electroacoustics, she has in recent years concentrated on her unique theory of Deep Listening, embracing structured improvisation, and begun regularly collaborating with non-academic improvisers such as bassist Barre Phillips, percussionist Susie Ibarra, and on this CD, multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee.Basically, the three members of Oliveros’ Deep Listening band and the members of McPhee’s quartet singly and together take turns musically commenting on the images suggested by Rachel Pollack’s prize-winning speculative fiction novel, Unquenchable Fire. During the course of the five tracks, Pollack herself reads excerpts from the book. These are amplified by sounds from Stuart Dempster’s trombone and didjeridu, David Gamper’s flutes, keyboard and electronics plus Oliveros on accordion. McPhee on soprano saxophone, alto clarinet and Casio digital horn, his longtime associate Joe Giardullo on flute, bass clarinet plus cellist Monica Wilson on cello and drummer Karen Jurgens are featured as well.

Musically the results are striking; vocally a little less so. While the imagery of Pollack’s utopian feminist fable is imposing, her curiously flat, sometimes stumbling delivery suggests that perhaps a trained actor or singer would better have expressed her thoughts. Luckily the suppositional notions are enough to launch nonpareil improvisations. The 3rd Movement, for instance, purports to be a true history of the city of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., coincidentally McPhee’s hometown. Pollock’s tale involves the town’s creation by 12-foot giants who changed colors according to the seasons and, after a catastrophe, shrunk the inhabitants who were visited by travelers from a multi-tiered UFO who landed and helped the townsfolk build homes and set up a government. The fable encourage the woodwind players to introduce discordant Albert Ayler-style type multiphonics, which are soon battling for space with legit, legato cello line. Soon the squeals fade into a one solid quivering mass as McPhee and Giardullo begin vocalizing from within their horns’ body tubes. Joined by plunger tones from Dempster’s trombone, the Casio-inflected Bronx cheers, shorter squeaks from the other reed and irregular drum beats, begins to resemble an approximation of a conversation between mechanized dwarfs and outer space denizens. Adding to this combination of rustic Americana and otherworldliness are irregular, double-quick, Silent Movie house electronic keyboard chords, where high-frequency vibrations echo other vibrations, and what could result from slowing down a scratched LP of circus music. As McPhee’s Aylerian soprano moves centre stage, wildly offbeat drumming and cartoon-like mouse peeps erupt around him.

An earlier movement that references birds, ashes and children’s fingers, which turn to sticks to beat away time, is amplified with didjeridu pitches which appear to be moving through a cistern. As their textures become more craggy and distant, wiccan-like accordion key frights mix it up with growling animalistic tones and vocalized syllables being electronically swabbed through the Aboriginal horn and flute. Soon these tiny segments of chirping flute and accordion pitches reconstitute themselves into a solid, oscillating, single sound mass, midway between the experiments of Tony Conrad and AMM.Other interconnections are less obtuse. A revolution predicting horse who tells his tale to two women from Cleveland — Ayler’s hometown, by the way — calls forth straightforward whinnying from the soprano sax, then bass clarinet curls that follow the sax lines like colts chase after one another in a field, and is amplified by woodblock clip-clops. Later, when Pollack’s description of a subway ride turns to a voyage of visionary content, the emotion is amplified by a single crimped flute line that melds with bowed cello lines and expanded accordion keyboard colors. By the time a caramel-smooth clarinet line succeeds this, the sound is almost too romantically pastoral. More manifestly the verbalization of the title in the 4th Movement brings forth an undulating massed sonic outpouring from horns and keyboards closely akin to what Sun Ra called a space chord. Supplanted by s a romantic cello interlude and a trilling soprano sax line, outlined by distant cymbal pops and board smashing crashes, tiny, nervous Balkan-sounding squeeze box tones enter the sound field along with what could be the parody of a keyboard exercise. As the tone shards accumulate into a dense, resonating line, low frequency piano glissandos and Casio-created slide whistle bird chirps flit-in-and-around the solid tone as outer space-like whooshes end the piece.

Much more down to earth, even when personalizing idiosyncratic symbolism is turned into an art song-like display, The Beat Suite also has its drawbacks related to its non-instrumental portions. Lacy warns from the top that “This is highfalutin’ material. It’s not for everybody.” Yet the 10 interpretations sometimes seem to further muddy characteristic prose. Abei has the not completely enviable task of “singing” free verse, sometimes with phrases or entire poems repeated for emphasis, and with her voice usually in concert with Lacy’s improvisations. The end result frequently fails to adequately demarcate poems that are serious and those that are humorous. Too many of the tracks sound too similar, while Abei’s British-accented, high-pitched readings can remove the meanings of the words.

This is especially unfortunate on “In the Pocket”, since Anne Waldman and Andrew Shelling’s words are rife with jazz references from song titles to the namechecking of saxophonist Art Pepper. Happily Abei makes no attempt at jazzy scat singing, nor do the horns start quoting jazz riffs, but the steady walking bass line from Jacques Avenel and characteristic boppish bomb dropping from drummer John Betsch cry out for a clearer verbal acknowledgement of the theme. When it comes to personalizing “Jack’s Blues”, a poem by Robert Creeley, who has had empathy with jazz — and jazz musicians — for decades, the quartet gets together to play a real blues behind Abei. This comes complete with horn riffs, a curt shuffle from the drummer and pizzicato picks from the bassist.

Lacy’s tart tone and trombonist George Lewis’ higher pitched, lustrous plunger work can’t really bring enough life to Bob Kaufman’s “Private Sadness”, the longest and slowest moving of the poems And Abei’s non-American accent really does her in here.Much more palatable are the tunes when you can ignore the lyrics and hear her voice as merely a third part of the front line. This is particularly effective on Lew Welch’s “A Ring of Bone”, where her accented rolling “r”s create musical onomatopoeia. Of course the real show is the Lewis and Lacy act. Here, for instance, the trombonist first slides down to mid-tempo notes then squeezed up to soprano range to introduce Lacy. Much more emphatic is the ‘boneman’s plunger work on William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, where his sweet tone underlines Burroughs’ brutal images. Soon his protological plunger tones, reminiscent of Quentin Jackson’s, push Lacy to buzz his reed and Betsch to emphasize press rolls and cymbal pressure. When the wah-wah timbres appear a second time they give Abei’s singing of “Who are you?” at the end an Alice in Wonderland fillip. All and all though, Gregory Corso’s “The Mad Yak” is most transparent vocally, since the New York poet was most close to everyday speech in his writing. It’s also probably the only track that doesn’t demand the listener read the words as lyrics are being vocalized. Here, as well, Lewis shows off some hand-muted, arching tonal effects while Lacy supplies reed snorts, spetrofluctuation and mouth noises

Although the Oliveros-McPhee experiment with prose usually come across better than the Lacy-Abei poetry recreation both discs are still notable. Both should interest those whose ardor encompasses literature as well as improvised music.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Beat: 1. Wave Lover 2. Song 3. Naked Lunch 4. Private Sadness 5. A Ring of Bone 6. The Mad Yak 7. Jack’s Blues 8. Agenda 9. In the Pocket 10. Mother Goose

Personnel: Beat: George Lewis (trombone); Steve Lacy (soprano saxophone);, Jean-Jacques Avenel (bass); John Betsch (drums); Irene Aebi (vocals)

Track Listing: Unquenchable: 1. Intro 2. 1st Movement 3. 2nd Movement 4. 3rd Movement 5. 4th Movement

Personnel: Unquenchable: Deep Listening Band: Stuart Dempster (trombone, didjeridu); David Gamper (flutes, keyboard, electronics); Pauline Oliveros (accordion); Joe McPhee Quartet: Joe McPhee (soprano saxophone, alto clarinet, Casio digital horn); Joe Giardullo (flute, bass clarinet); Monica Wilson (cello); Karen Jurgens (drums); Rachel Pollack (reading)