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Eddie Prevost Part Two

Eddie goes on to describe a performance by one Alexander Strickland, who performed as Syncopating Sandy, at the New Cross Empire sometime in the late 50s, a solo piano performance that lasted from 9AM Monday through to 11PM on Saturday, “without stopping, without sleep, fed at the keyboard”. This gives one pause to consider LaMonte Young’s 1960 instruction to “feed hay to the piano”, and thus to consider the boundaries between Fluxus-informed and music hall-informed performance art. Sandy’s ‘act’ may have been more of a very impressive circus turn than an artistic performance, but it makes one think that the LMC ‘Circadian Rhythm’ improvisers managed just 14 out of their proposed 24-hour continuous performance in 1978, as part of David Toop’s week-long Camden Town-based festival, ‘Music/Context’. Perhaps there is something to comparisons that have been made between the soi-disant ‘Second Generation’ of British free improvisers and pantomime/music hall performance? The late great Lol Coxhill would certainly have accepted this allusion.

Whatever, this is all great stuff, historically-informed material that gets one thinking about the “barbaric days of marathon dancing and other bizarre feats of endurance”. I will touch on this in my new LMC book, but long-form works by the like of Young, Autechre and ex-Pogue-turned-conceptual-artist Jem Finer demonstrate continuingly unfolding ideas of extended performance.  Prevost then moves on to another interesting arena Indeterminacy versus Improvisation, or, more particularly, the co-determinacy of the two. Prevost uses the ideas of trombonist/composer George E. Lewis, to postulate that “the spirit of jazz spontaneity was somehow displaced and maybe culturally expropriated?” by ‘contemporary composers’, both American and European (page 86). Or, whether ‘the likes of Cage and the graphic composers’ (such as Cardew, with ‘Treatise’?) used so-called ‘open scores’ as ‘capitalist enclosures’ of ‘possessive individualism”, using improvisers as ‘cannon fodder’ for the primary and secondary gains involved in the notion of the ‘composer’. This is indeed explosive stuff, and worthy of considerable thought. Several reputations may be at risk here. In particular, the expropriation of African-American experimental musicians and improvisers’ work, in the name of white Americo-European ‘composers’. Not a good look at this point in time.

The idea of Graphic Scores as ‘enclosed improvisations’, in which the ‘composer’ gets the financial and reputational rewards, “commanding property status” (page 88) is a seductive one, as is Prevost’s suggestion that Post Modernism is the handmaid of neo-liberalism, with” “there is no other way” as its totemic signifier”.  Overall, the book is an anti-neo-liberal, pro-communitarian and anti-commodification tract, with “the market imperative” as the bogey man, with the avoidance of plagiarism of other or self held forth as an imperative. It does at time sail close to pompous self-importance and wind-baggery, not helped by Prevost’s language (or ‘meta-language’?), which is occasionally ‘preachy’ and academically alienating for the average reader. But would such an ‘average’ reader be approaching such a book? This will be a book for the already-converted. I certainly couldn’t order it from my local Waterstones, so I got it from the author himself (and jolly quick to deliver, he was too! )

All minor stylistic reservations aside, there are enough ideas in this book to make its more recondite sections more than worthwhile getting through. There is much important stuff contained herein, especially in these times of No Live Music. “Keep music live” has never been more important.

Eddie Prevost’s New Book, Part One

I’ve rediscovered my reading ‘mojo’, after a few month’s of lockdown torpidity. earlier in this most strange of times. I’ve spent some of my time finessing my history of the London Musician’s Collective which, all being well, might well be out sometime in November. But for now, I’ve got Bob Woodward’s Rage and Left Out, the story of the Corbyn Labour debacle, to look forward to, with much trepidation. I’ve just finished, however, reading Eddie/Edwin Prevost’s latest book, his fourth, called An Uncommon Music for the Common Man: A Polemical Memoir, on his Copula imprint. It’s possibly his most readable book, but it’s a curate’s egg of both the sub-title’s constituent parts - some very interesting material about his personal story, and some tough-to-chew theoretical musings, which are worth reading through, for their thought-provoking nostrums. He is a true working class intellectual, a ‘common man’ with ‘uncommon’ ideas.

Eddie was bought up by a single mother in Bermondsey (now unrecognisable from it’s post-war iteration), and his account of post-war privations (Chapter Ten) make fascinating reading. Tellingly, it was apparently his French teacher who insisted that he add an acute accent to the ‘e’ in ‘Prevost’, in celebration of his French Huguenot forebears. His stammer, however, perhaps reflected a lack of confidence in this significant background pedigree.

His use of quasi-medical (or, at the very least, psychanalytical) terms like ‘regression’ and ‘progress’ in music feature heavily, earlier on, in his book-wide discussions around the “goal-oriented purposiveness” of the former (and the European canon in general, if I’ve understood him correctly) and the AMM-related sounds of the latter, which he holds forth throughout as a ‘democratic’ alternative to the ‘Equal Temperament’ hold that has held western music in thrall for the past few hundred years. Needless to say, ‘free improvisation’ is held as an example of creative good practice, exemplified by the workshop that he has held since 1999, as well as by the works of AMM and the ideas of Cornelius Cardew. He helpfully discusses the pitfalls of ‘genre specification’, particularly with regards to Free Jazz and Free Improvisation, the latter ”too white and European”? (on page 56), and which have often been confused/conflated. There is also more much-needed thinking around the troubled waters of ‘Class, Gender and Race’, which will hopefully be expanded in the future of this sort of literature.

Controversially, he wonders whether our younger British improvisers have “a genuinely experimental bent”, tied to the masts of ‘neo-liberal modern jazz’ and ‘regressive’ musical values generally (”the pantechnicon of re-invention”, page 65). At the same time, he offers that “my view of the aesthetics of improvisation has been shaped, but not confined, by my knowledge of, and admiration for, jazz” (page 47). Which certainly dovetails with my views around the background motivations of the so-called ‘First Generation’, which Prevost celebrates at various junctures in his narrative. But, he also queries whether (to paraphrase), “ the practice of experimentalism (has) ossified, fifty + years since 1966?”  Ultimately, it seems that Prevost’s feeling is that “the exploratory process” is “ongoing”, and “capable of transcending any hegemonic consensus” (page 67), despite this ‘ossification’ process that is always threatening this creativity.

To be continued…

Joni Mitchell Part Two

David Yaffe’s prose is perhaps over-effusive, and insufficiently reflective about some key aspects of Joni Mitchell’s life/’journey’, as opposed to extolling her (undoubted) genius. Events are taken merely as signposts on this narrative of Genius. Possibly THE pivotal event was surely the giving up to adoption of her only child, a trauma continually revisited in songs on her albums, most famously in Blue’s ‘Little Green’, which only really made full sense once she had made the adoption public knowledge. Everything else followed on, like William Burrough’s admission that the shooting of his wife was the fountainhead of his later work. 

This is not the trope that Yaffe makes much structural use of, however. Similarly, there is little systematic analysis of her seeming compulsion to get together with at times-unpleasant  (but then again, who isn’t at times?) male fellow musicians. This is probably a reflection of my own position as a male observer, prurient and perhaps wishing to judge? I’m working on it. 

Joni comes across as the possessor of awesome talent - as a writer, musician, fine artist and dancer. She also was also clearly aware of this, and, at times. let it make her a bit mean about others who helped her along - Judy Collins (”there’s something la-di-da about her”) and David Crosby (”He was paranoid and grumpy. He was unattractive in every way..”). These are no doubt cruel-but-fair comments, but even so…But again, would we extend the same criticisms to ‘mean’ male blowhards like Jagger et al? Her dismissal of her first hubbie, Chuck Mitchell, is clinically eviscerating, and one gets the sense that Joni never tolerated fools easily. At least in retrospect, as some of these fools proved to be the motivator for many of her finest songs. Chuck’s sexism presumably provided a template for Joni’s questioning of same. Or did it? This theme is unfortunately not really taken up by Yaffe, even though it represents a key dissonance in then-contemporary gender relations.

In our current, hyper-sensitive era, her decision to ‘black up’ (most famously on the cover of Don Juan…) seem puzzling, if not exactly offensive somehow (it would have been, if, for example, Robert Plant had worn blackface?). Her tobacco smoking habit also seems to catapult her back to a different time (file along with Frank Zappa and George Harrison, in this instance, puffing compulsively in nearly every shot), but the big mystery with this superlative artist, is what happened after 1979 and Mingus? Quantum physics issues are probably easier to solve, in terms of Joni’s catastrophic qualitative fall. None of here post-1980 recordings hold a candle to her Canonical Six.

But, ultimately and arguably, Joni Mitchell’s achievement is of being the greatest songwriter, lyricist, composer, guitarist, pianist and (phew!) painter that the ‘classic rock’ era ever saw, all facets of her genius being taken into account. The fact that she is a woman is notable, but ultimately a side issue. This is an consummate artist.

Joni Mitchell - A Seventies Can(n)on   Part One

I’ve been having a bit of a Joni Mitchell ‘binge’ of late, and have finished reading two books on the great songwriter - David Yaffe’s intermittently interesting 2017 biography “Reckless Daughter”, and Sean Nelsons disquisition on Court and Spark (C & S), part of the 33 1/3 Press series of record album tributes. I’d have been just as happy to see a book on Hissing of Summer Lawns (HOSL), to be frank, but, as Nelson points out, how to award competitive points to Mitchell’s glorious six-album ‘run’ from 1970-1975? Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, C & S, HOSL and Hejira form a peerless series, and that’s leaving out the 1974 live Miles of Aisles and the late-seventies controversies, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and Mingus, both of which pretty much cooked her goose as the general public were concerned, and much to David Geffen’s chagrin. Shame, I still rate Mingus highly, although it does lack the internal coherence of the canonical six.

What other ‘runs’ are there of equivalent heft in this time period for single artists? I’ve given this some thought, and came up with John Martyn’s Island Records sequence, ending conclusively with Grace and Danger in 1980 (absolute disaster then ensued for this apparently unpleasant drunk); Tom Wait’s Asylum Records series, concluding with, again in 1980, Heart Attack and Vine (although I’m not  a fan of the latter recording, nor Blue Valentine) - however, other great runs were still to come for Waits in the eighties and nineties; Neil Young, from Everybody Knows This is Nowhere through to Rust Never Sleeps (but also acknowledging a couple of stiffs during this eleven year run, including Journey Through the Past and On the Beach); Scott Walker’s four solo albums from 1967 to 1970, and, of course, David Bowie’s incredible through-seventies masterpieces from The Man Who Sold the Earth to Scary Monsters (I still don’t like Diamond Dogs, though, and the first two Berlin albums are uneven in the extreme, imho).

There are hardly any weak tracks on Joni’s sextet of classics, which cannot be said of any of the above. One of her many achievements is that they were made in an age of hippie/yuppie male chauvinism, summed up famously by the preposterous Rolling Stone magazine, which in 1971 ‘named’ her ‘Old Lady of the Year’, and charted her various relationships with male musicians (mostly of far less talent than she), such as Leonard Cohen, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and David Crosby. Just imagine if male artists were held up to the same hypocritical standards - blokes such as Picasso and Warren Beatty and Mick Jagger, just to name three with severe trouser-problems, were equally ‘slaggish’ (to name the subtext of this asinine ‘tree of shame’). Mitchell had the self-confidence (and self-knowledge) to give the middle finger to such passive-aggression, and produced six albums that could all be potentially finalised for ‘Top 100 Albums of All Time’, or suchlike. It’s easier now for female artists, but it must have got “so lonely” at that time (to quote from ‘California’) for female artists, who knew that they had the talent to put their male contemporaries into the shade. Just think of the relative pygmy-talent of the likes of Nash, Crosby and Browne. Reading Yaffe’s book, the crap that Joni had to put up from ‘ex-lovers’ like Browne, drummer John Guerin (who specialised in double standards, by the sound of it) and the physically abusive ‘Othello-syndrome’ (basically, alcohol-fuelled pathological jealousy) jerk, percussionist  Don Alias, whose presence on Bitches Brew does little to excuse his abusive behaviour. 

Graham Nash comes across as one of the few famous amours in her life who weren’t in some way abusive, but Joni’s powers of forgiveness appear to be saint-like with regards to them (but not to others, it seems, as we will see).

To be continued...

A Film and a Gig - the first since March

So, on Friday (4th. September), I went to the cinema with my son in the afternoon, for the first time since mid-March - to see ‘Tenet’, Christopher Nolan’s completely chaotic and incoherent new blockbuster. There were only about 8 people in the place (Crouch End Picture House), so it bore some comparisons to a free improvisation gig! At least the audience at I’Klectik on Sunday managed to reach into double figure (the maximum allowed in had been set at twenty), but that admittedly included a few people who were working there. Like the cinema, physical distancing was thus easy peasy to accomplish, but the compulsory wearing of face masks was a constant reminder of the ‘new reality’(as opposed to the ‘new normal’). Still and all, it felt so good to be back in a live music scenario that all other factors and considerations could be put aside, even if only temporarily.

The evening consisted of members of the London Improvisers Orchestra (LIO) performing two separate paying performances; mine was from 19.30 to around 20.30, and the following from 21.00 onward. The earlier consisted of a sextet of Charlotte Keefe on trumpet, Adrian Northover on alto sax and introductions, Douglas Benford performing with a ‘harmonium’ (in fact, it was a digital sqeezebox, which was unfortunately only able to make an impression in the quieter passages), Jackie Walduck on vibes, bassist Geru Kempf and percussionist David Fowler and a modest, but effective, drum kit. I was unfamiliar with any of these LIO members, but they produced an interesting tapestry of ‘pointilliste’ free improv, putting me mostly in mind of the Withdrawal -era Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) of 1967, probably down to the imaginative use of the vibraphone (played, uniquely, by saxophone colossi Evan Parker. and Trevor Watts in the SME). It seems instructive to remember that this music is now over fifty years old, and what was once radical now seems almost quaintly institutionalised, forming  a definable and recognisable ‘style’. Some (not me, I hasten to add) might even suggest that it has even become an ossified form.

The LIO’s ‘eminence grise’, Steve Beresford, had sent in a five-minute prepared piano improvisation, and it was great to see a Founding Father starting off this performance by younger improvisers, if only from a social distance. There were good performances from all involved, and I was particularly impressed by Charlotte Keefe, who demonstrated a Lester Bowie-like command of various trumpet stylings. What did come to mind, however, without wanting to sound too critical of what was a very enjoyable event, was the problem of ‘endings’ in this music. There was an encore (or at least it felt like one), and after about ten minutes, there occurred what sounded to me like a perfect full stop in the sound (it proved to be a caesura), and I thought to myself, “lovely,  a perfect end to a very coherent set” (unlike Nolan’s film). What then occurred was what seemed to be some kind of interpersonal dissonance, and the bass player (I think) seemed to want to carry on, when the others, as far as I could ascertain, seemed to sense an appropriate ending - I could be totally imagining this, but the group seemed from this point on to flag somewhat, as if flailing about for lost connections,and the music seemed to be ‘going through the motions’, rather than creating a dynamic and genuinely interactive soundscape. I got to thinking once more, what a delicate process free improvisation always is, a tightrope walk, and it only takes a moment’s indecision or misunderstanding, to topple a carefully constructed edifice.

Of course, this was my very personal reaction, and the group’s experience may clearly be totally at odds with this. But this is a music that does have a ‘heart and soul’, whatever its detractors may think, and small, even imperceptible events, do affect the listener, thus validating many improvisers assertions that there is such a thing as ‘creative listening’ from an audience. I would further assert that free improvisation demands creative listening from its audience, in order for the latter to gain anything of use from it.

Staff informed me that, while things certainly remain uncertain, they hope to have more in situ gigs in October. Let’s hope so.

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