The Music Ensemble

Here, in order of their appearance, are the compositions on the new self-titled Music Ensemble CD (Roaratorio, 2001):

Stance Dance (Courage)
Arithmetical Mystic
Echoes Wind Transpire
Radiatory Fineness

Scan that list a few times, take away the capital letters (or, actually, leave them—either way) and it could start to seem like a dense, portent, utterly puzzling poem. A collision of words, but a deliberate, attentive one. That fact suits the music well—better, even, than the titles themselves. Like free verse, free jazz unlocks the presumed cage of conventional structure, and searches elsewhere for meaning. Or, if meaning is also a cage, it searches for lyrical truth. The Music Ensemble’s titles, and its music, may at first seem thrown together, but so do many of the most interesting works of late twentieth century abstract art.

These pieces were recorded in the mid 1970’s, a period fervently but correctly labeled "important" by armchair jazz historians, and unmistakably fertile for New York’s jazz lofts. To accommodate increasing experiments with alternate modes of creative expression, players had also to find alternate venues in which to perform. Commercial clubs wouldn’t cut it, so free jazzers set up shop in the upper floors of warehouses, factories and other spaces large enough to contain them, their often expansive equipment, and a small but supportive audience. (By this time, remember, even Western pop audiences had been at least partially acclimated to such foreign-born creative spurs as ragas and transcendental meditation, both of which could be said to inform the music on this CD.) Among the loft scene darlings, rightly, were Roger Baird, Billy Bang, Malik Baraka, Daniel Carter, William Parker and Herb Kahn, known collectively as the Music Ensemble. Briefly, before financial pressures dissolved this notably noncommercial group, it held fast to jazz’s exploratory mandate, publicly performing the kind of pure experiments that musicians sometimes need and listeners sometimes like.

Not always, of course. Free jazz and free verse have another thing in common: both are polarizing. Both can be taken or left. That’s okay; the freedom is what matters, and it’s guaranteed by the very amendable jazz constitution, which holds to be self-evident the truth that improvisation is a divine right. Even the most disciplined players learn that with the right touch, there’s no such thing as a wrong note. The music here turns that idea inside out—there’s no such thing as a right note. Descriptions, therefore, are, if not useless, only partially helpful.

Sound too wishy washy? Well, whether you buy into free jazz or not, these six men certainly do. They don’t play limply. They manage to demand attention without stepping over themselves or each other, to be assertive and also polite. Such attributes make it a lot easier for skeptics to take them seriously. As does the fact that if even one player had tried to shoehorn his part into, say, a Dixieland or hard bop framework, it would have been a disaster.

"Stance Dance (Courage)" opens warmly into thick cymbals and prolonged drones, evoking the din we associate with a symphony orchestra tuning up, and inducing a corresponding anticipation. The players seem to study the tones of their instruments, making minute adjustments and, importantly, announcing their entrance. The piece expands at its own pace—it’s more than half an hour long—but it does have a perceptible arc. After a frenetic middle section in which every instrument flickers in and out of foreground visibility (magically, the missing harmonic tether makes Carter’s delicately melodic phrasing even prettier), the piece contracts back into the drones and closes in on itself.

Two thirds of the way through "Arithmetical Mystic," after a section that might be set a mile deep in the ocean (thanks especially to Parker’s murky, swimming bass), it becomes airborne, with fanfare. Bang carves out a steady rhythmic pulse, a kind of alert siren, on the violin, and eventually gives way to a whistling wind, through which Baraka bravely decides to take a stroll. Elemental imagery, and attendant chaos, persists.

If this all seems worrisome, and you’d feel safer with the training wheels of an apparent tonal center and a measurable (if legato-leisurely) rhythm, "Echoes Wind Transpire" is perhaps the place to start. Be warned, however, that consolation isn’t guaranteed; this is the most haunted and brooding of the lot. "Radiatory Fineness" begins, oddly enough, coarsely; the players intone a communal restlessness. Baird’s cage-rattling emphasizes the point, and the effortlessness with which he kicks the habit of regular meter makes it seem easy. The stir eventually abates, and Baraka emerges, with Bang in his shadows, to inspire wonder as to what subconscious vortex called this or any of it forth to begin with.

All instrumental music is non-literal; it makes moods, not meaning. These works don’t give up their secrets easily, but mercifully, they’re nowhere near as coy as they could be. In fact, given the album’s pervasively brow-furrowed disposition, it could use a touch of humor. But then, if the group had the kind of self-guarding irony that is now so customary, it wouldn’t have been "The Music Ensemble."

By any account, that, at least, is an apt title: the players seem unified by their purpose, however mysterious—or perhaps deceptively simple—it may be. They seem to trust each other. Every piece contains at least one discernible moment in which it literally seems like a conversation—that is, a real conversation, with overlapping interjections, digressions, rallied and discarded ideas, and completely organic rhythms. Writes Billy Bang in his portion of the collective liner notes: "Our music was generally never written down or notated on paper. In the beginning I was uncomfortable, because I always wanted to know where out root was, what color were we in, etc. Later I realized the unimportance of my personal concept, and understood that the ensemble was intuitively working for a unit feeling." Thus, even from deliberate abstraction can emerge clarity and coherence.

Jonathan Kiefer