Archive for the '9bb) Liner Note: Ahmed Abdul-Malik' Category

28
Aug
17

9bb) Liner Note: Ahmed Abdul-Malik—New Jazz Imagination

Available on Umlaut Records

Globalization has been a fait accompli for some time now. While it continues to pose serious challenges to long-standing cultural, economic and political orders, and although—as conspicuously demonstrated by Brexit and the elevation in America of a Donald Trump to the presidency—it has ignited reactionary movements that will doubtless interrupt and impede its progress, it is here to stay. Indeed, one area in which it is already fully rooted and very much in blossom is the arts.

I’m thinking, in particular, of the art of improvised music—or “free jazz”— an art of which the recording at hand, a tribute to multinational musical unity as well as to the late visionary bassist, oudist and composer Ahmed Abdul-Malik, is in every respect exemplary.

Jazz, from Ragtime to Dixieland to swing to bebop has, of course, always been a hybrid music, a happenstance of multiple migrations, voluntary and otherwise, that joined Africa and the West Indies to Europe in the United States. If the balances of the sources feeding jazz were in flux from the beginning, and sometimes dramatically, the most radical shift took place in the late 1950s with the emergence of “free jazz.” The intention of the first generation “free jazz” players (most of whom were black) wasn’t to entertain as such, but to enlighten. Animated by the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements, the ambition of these men, in addition to asserting the hegemony of jazz’s African strain, was to restore black music to its original role as a music of spiritual utility. They wanted to affect a spiritual awakening, a spiritual revolution that would transform nothing less than the way we lived. As the bassist Alan Silva breathlessly remarked to me upon coming off a thirteen-piece, hour-long collective improvisation: “Man, in another ten years we won’t even need traffic lights we’re gonna be so spiritually tuned to one another.”

For the most part, the musics of the early “free jazz” players were informed by ancient African methodologies on the one hand and the European avant garde on the other. (In the latter instance, the avowed purpose was to incorporate experimental European concepts into a black aesthetic.) But another group of players was guided by a somewhat different perspective. Contemporaneous with the Black Cultural Nationalism and Civil Rights movements in the United States were major upheavals in Africa, and these men were drawn to the modern African musics that accompanied those upheavals—to the soundtrack, if you will, of decolonization. And in the process of exploring the African musics of the period they became enamored of still other existing musical genres that were not normally associated with the African underpinnings of jazz. I’m referring to the Arabic musics of North Africa and the adjoining Middle East. Prominent among these individuals was Ahmed Abdul-Malik.

New York-bred, Malik was thoroughly steeped in the jazz tradition. He worked, at one time or another in literally every jazz idiom, and with the likes of Bob Wilber, Coleman Hawkins, Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

He was also a deeply religious Sufi Muslim who was increasingly at odds with much of the secular and materialistic Western ethos, an ethos he believed was reflected in certain Western musical approaches. In his own work, represented in groups that he led and which is preserved on several albums, he largely eschewed those approaches and gravitated to ways of organizing sound that spoke to his spirituality, to musics both old and current from North and East Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Fusing them with the aforementioned spiritual inclination and procedures of the new jazz, he fashioned an original synthesis of ostensibly disparate traditions that would yield some extraordinary music.

A portion of that extraordinary music is on exhibit in this album and it is played by a group of renowned and exceptionally gifted European musicians—virtuosos all—who know how to listen to each other (a crucial aspect of improvised music) and are more than up to the endeavor.

Seymour Wright has devoted his career to an exhaustive examination of the alto saxophone’s resources—the instrument would seem on occasion to be an organic extension of him—and he is capable of creating astonishing textures of sound with it. It is in no way hyperbolic to say that Wright is redefining the alto’s very scope. Turned on to the piano by Oscar Peterson, Pat Thomas took the leap into “free jazz” in his teens, and in gigs with luminaries like Derek Baily and Tony Oxley quickly became one of its most lauded practioners. Double bassist Joel Grip is no less versed in the intricacies of improvised music and his intuitiveness and ability to intermingle with the other players is central to the unit’s success. The master percussionist Antonin Gerbal, whose prodigious technical proficiency gives full expression to the sonic possibilities of the drums, expertly propels the group.

Calling what they play “New Jazz Imagination,” the quartet makes music, Wright says “inspired by our shared love of the work of Ahmed. We use memories and ideas that we draw from his music as a core for our improvisation and imagination. We excavate and re-inhabit documents and fragments of plans and compositions that he left behind to make music that though it originated in the twentieth century will speak to the twenty-first. We play the notes, but we use them and the ideas contained within them as vehicles for our own creativity.

“We want to move from the known into a new creative space.”

And that they do. Introduced by a simple folk-like tune and quickly advancing into a hypnotic use of repetition, almost as a motif, the music ultimately gives way to an ensemble improvisation that is at once loaded with heat, tension and surprise and remarkably controlled and contained. The intelligence here is stunning and the music produced is of the loftiest caliber. Building at times to ecstatic heights, it never once descends to the anarchic cacophony that often taints the “free jazz” indulged in by the lesser equipped. Albeit openly emotional at various points, it can claim coherence, subtlety and structure, not to mention a fidelity to the multicultural material and philosophy of the musician it honors. And the freshness of ideas it exudes will invite and reward repeated hearings.

Though he did achieve a measure of recognition during his lifetime, a proper acknowledgement of his unique vision and contribution eluded Malik. This recording is offered as a correction. If Malik was in many ways ahead of his time, globalization, and the phenomena of mass migration and racial intermingling that are among its components, has profoundly altered our aural landscape. It may well be that his time has finally come.

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Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC
Reviews

109415877-0-m31
Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

“Robert Levin’s articles…make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they’re something else again. He’s a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I’ve read; his ‘found critique’ of ‘Space’ by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray’s thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon’s introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson…is a minor masterpiece; and he’s lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that ‘What is meant by ‘every man has his price’ is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To ‘sell out’ is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'”
—Colman Andrews, Creem

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Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press

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