Here, in order of their
appearance, are the compositions on the new self-titled
Music Ensemble CD (Roaratorio, 2001):
Stance Dance (Courage)
Echoes Wind Transpire
Scan that list a few times,
take away the capital letters (or, actually, leave themeither
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 wellbetter,
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
Ensembles 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 1970s, a period fervently but correctly
labeled "important" by armchair jazz historians, and unmistakably
fertile for New Yorks 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 wouldnt 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 jazzs
exploratory mandate, publicly performing the kind of pure
experiments that musicians sometimes need and listeners
Not always, of course.
Free jazz and free verse have another thing in common:
both are polarizing. Both can be taken or left. Thats
okay; the freedom is what matters, and its 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, theres no such thing as a wrong
note. The music here turns that idea inside outtheres
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 dont 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 paceits
more than half an hour longbut 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 Carters 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 Parkers
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 youd 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 isnt
guaranteed; this is the most haunted and brooding of the
lot. "Radiatory Fineness" begins, oddly enough, coarsely;
the players intone a communal restlessness. Bairds
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
All instrumental music
is non-literal; it makes moods, not meaning. These works
dont give up their secrets easily, but mercifully,
theyre nowhere near as coy as they could be. In
fact, given the albums 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 wouldnt have been "The Music
By any account, that, at
least, is an apt title: the players seem unified by their
purpose, however mysteriousor perhaps deceptively
simpleit may be. They seem to trust each other.
Every piece contains at least one discernible moment in
which it literally seems like a conversationthat
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