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Mar 19, 2015

Wave October 2014: Architecture and a Sense of the City (by Gary Bayley)


If the triumvirate Wave were to be about any one thing only then that one thing would be architecture. I put this forward in the absence of any shiny attention grabbing manifesto from the band themselves. Roz Harding, Mike Outram, and Jim Bashford, remind me of domestique bicycle riders in the Tour de France; they are real hard-workers, dedicated to getting the job done by being there for one another; there are no fixed job descriptions and the interest is in attending to the gaps, the grey areas, that arise contingently at the time of performance. Sure they are all strong characters but they happen to have big hearts and put the team first. This swims against the current tide of individualism and to my mind puts their music closer to the spirit of the original New Orleans bands than to be-bop and hard-bop modern jazz (also true of the music of Ornette Coleman: discuss!)...
Posted by: Tim

If the triumvirate Wave were to be about any one thing only then that one thing would be architecture. I put this forward in the absence of any shiny attention grabbing manifesto from the band themselves. Roz Harding, Mike Outram, and Jim Bashford, remind me of domestique bicycle riders in the Tour de France; they are real hard-workers, dedicated to getting the job done by being there for one another; there are no fixed job descriptions and the interest is in attending to the gaps, the grey areas, that arise contingently at the time of performance. Sure they are all strong characters but they happen to have big hearts and put the team first. This swims against the current tide of individualism and to my mind puts their music closer to the spirit of the original New Orleans bands than to be-bop and hard-bop modern jazz (also true of the music of Ornette Coleman: discuss!).

Mike Outram, the most chameleon-like of guitarists, is an artist who takes the long-view. His musical character blurs improvisation and composition. What I mean is that the nature of his considered improvisations suggest a long-range order in each piece indistinguishable from the acting out of a preordained composed structure. It is only from observing him on the gig that one realises one is hearing the products of a quicksilver mind reacting in real-time and weaving structural coherence; demonstrably he is a consummate sonic architect. In other contexts one knows Mike as capable of tecno-flash dazzling solos up there with any other leading lead-guitarist, but in this context it is his dedication to the group structures that requires the greater skills. He is not just quantitatively about sound duration, pitch, and juxtaposition, that are essential for melody, harmony, and rhythm, but qualitatively about textures, range, and density, essential for expression and mood.

It is neither fair or necessary to decode drummer Jim Bashford’s playing in terms of other players as he is very much his own man: his own renaissance man that is. Musing on the English tradition I was put in mind of Tony Oxley rather than Tony Marsh. There was less of the driving powerhouse grooves of the latter and more of the former’s creation of solid textural structures created by using microcosmic sounds usually only associated with decoration. For me Jim Black has done the most for bringing this approach over from the avant-garde and into the mainstream. At this particular gig Wave’s JB used gestures to suggest - in the ear of the be-hearer - a sustained groove that, because more apparent than real, left him free to rapid-fire improvised responses and suggestions. At various times I was also minded of Ari Hoenig and Max Roach, not as mere drummer emulation but in terms of overall musical intelligence concerning the soundscapes.

Roz Harding can appear a reluctant leader compared to other saxophonists fronting their bands, but with this project she has a forum for her metier. What happens is that rather than make extended solo statements - with underlying support - she offers conversational fragments for the others to respond to; in turn her solo is shaped by the resulting fabric of sounds. Few saxophonists comes to mind as such truly dialectical improvisers (perhaps Sam Rivers and Ingrid Laubrock). This approach makes for a group resonance, a shifting dynamic equilibrium; one’s eyes dart between the members trying to work out when she is leading and when she is following (perhaps a new riddle arises out of this! question: when is a soloist not a soloist, answer: roz harding). The spectacles of evolving scenes are both exciting and moving as prodigious techniques and craft skills are made to serve artistic creativity. Her combination of the aural and the visual makes for great entertainment besides great art; Roz is a textbook case that supports Dalacroze’s idea. His eurhythmics, the art of interpreting music through bodily movements, stresses the aesthetic sense of musical structures. We get (warmly) to see her expressing her real-time musical-experiences as feelings, rather than get to abstract and intuit her demonstrating (coldly) her musical-knowledge.

Is it jazz? Yes, it is, and this is why. Most recognise jazz music because it conforms to a recognised historical style category like, say, dixieland or be-bop or swing. Wave’s conception operates in a post-modern way regarding styles (everything is ‘fair-game’) in responding to something intangible ‘in the air’: the zeitgeist. It is worth my pointing out that Mike Westbrook said that the music of Louis Armstrong was avant-garde, and he wrote in his The Credibility Gap (1995):

It has always been dangerous to try to define Jazz in terms of any particular style or musical form. All the developments in twentieth century Classical Music have their equivalence in Jazz, yet, with the important exception of the 12-bar Blues, Jazz has not actually contributed new forms to the music. It has always used whatever was around. At the beginning it was marches, blues, ragtime, popular tunes and hymns. Jazz has a way of making any musical idiom its own. ... Whether the result is good jazz or not depends on how the musician is able to transcend the material and create something original. ... It is an art that can truly reflect, and give expression to paradoxes and ambiguities of our age. ... In jazz, musical creativity is at the centre, whatever the context. Where the music is used simply as a vehicle and has no life of its own, it may be good, like good Pop music, but it isn’t good jazz.

This is profound, and of great relevance to Wave. (To me) Westbrook is saying jazz is a process not a style. It is something that can be appreciated sociologically and culturally at the time and then understood musically sometime later after it becomes a fixed historical entity. So, Wave never played a jazz standard or any swing quavers all night, but the absence of fixed historical jazz-styles references doesn’t mean it isn’t jazz. Wave’s music is clearly process based, but this isn’t reductive: I am not saying they execute preordained roles methodologically; it was Marx who said that methodologically defined work removes the human element and reduces the contingent reactions of the creators to a form of objective relations between things (for me, some so-called ‘jazz’ bands playing ‘standards’ by following the rules do exactly this and thereby disqualify themselves from being jazz at all). Describing the work of cutting-edge artists such as Wave is not an easy thing to set down, but I think cultural theorist Raymond Williams gets the closest:

It is a way of responding to a particular world which in practice is not felt as one way among others ... Its means, its elements, are not propositions or techniques; they are embodied, related feelings. In the same sense, it is accessible to others - not by formal argument or by professional skills, on their own, but by direct experience - a form and a meaning, a feeling and a rhythm - in the work of art as a whole. ... It is known primarily as a deep personal feeling; indeed it often seems, to a particular artist, unique, incommunicable, and lonely. ... The artist’s importance has to do above all with the fact that it is a structure: not an uninformed flux of new responses, interests and perceptions, but a formation of these into a new way of seeing ourselves and the world.

The last sentence should make us sit up. Ian Chambers said of popular culture that its social exercise of forms, as tastes and activities, flexibly attuned to the present, rejects the narrow access to the cerebral world of official culture; instead it offers a more democratic prospect for appropriating and transforming everyday life. Fisclin and Heble too noted that:

... improvisation, in some profound sense, intensifies humanity, and that it does so, as we have been arguing, by intensifying acts of communication, by demanding that choices that go into building communities be confronted [...] jazz has always been about animating civic space with the spirit of dialogue and collaboration.
Lawrence Alloway - the man credited with first using the term ‘Pop Art’ - said such true artists were revealing a ‘sense of the city’ as a ‘symbol-thick scene, criss-crossed with the tracks of human activity’; Wave too gave their audience a subjective sense-of-the-city as a known place defined contextually by Alloway’s crowds (gatherings) and games (performances) and fashions (tastes): i.e. extra-musical feelings, not formal musical principles. In The Jazz Book Joachim Berendt said:

Taking an active interest in jazz means improving the quality of the ‘sounds around us’ the level of musical quality, which implies, if there is any justification in talking about musical quality, the spiritual, intellectual, human quality, the level of consciousness. In these times, when musical sounds accompany the take-off of a plane as well as a detergent sales pitch, the ‘sounds around us’ directly influence our way of life, our life styles. That is why we can say that taking an active interest in jazz means carrying some of the power, warmth, and intensity of jazz into our lives.

Westbrook said: ‘an artist’s work is to try to create a language to express his vision of the world’. This is because, as he says in another place:

... parallel to the world of everyday things there is a world of the imagination, of beauty and strangeness, of the unknown. And it is the role of the artist, the poet and musician, to unlock our minds and senses to a world of possibilities, and help us to a fuller awareness of what it means to be alive.

Bauhaus artists rejected styles and categories and instead put first the materials and the structures and the working with perceptual relationships in a team. The Bauhaus movement, for improving quality of life, was initiated by none other than an architect. All this explains why the Wave gig was so refreshing; they were working and communicating to us on our level in the hear-and-now. Such ‘blue-collar’ art (artworks as performances bearing the marks of the manufacturers) is long overdue and welcome in putting art before technique and vanquishing the tired, dreary, and predictable. Even in the 1960s performance artist Allan Kaprow noted people were getting weary concerning the formulaic ‘fantasy of classy good-taste’ passing as ‘art’. He saw: ‘no end to the white walls, tasteful aluminium frames, lovely lighting, fawn gray rugs, cocktails, polite conversation’; he saw this ‘fluorescent reception’ not as ‘bad’ but ‘unaware’. Such hollow reproductions lack authenticity and sincerity. With Wave awareness, authenticity, and sincerity, are at its heart.

A specific feature of the group is the absence of a bass player. It is not at all obvious why, but again it seems to be zeitgeist at work again. Wave picks up on something shared by Chris Potter’s Underground quartet and the trios of Robin Eubanks and Ellery Eskelin. You certainly won’t get the answer (definitively or even convincingly) from these bands themselves. Marx had something to say about this too according to Herbert Marcuse in his Reason and Revolution: ‘... far from being a mere economic activity ... labour is the ‘existential activity’ of man; his ‘free, conscious activity’ for developing his ‘universal nature’ ... he recognises himself in a world he himself has made’. I reckon something new is taking shape here, something real in the world and not just a arty novelty; Wave is part of it: last words go to Pierre Boulez who said:

It sometimes happens that certain aspects of a composer’s music remain as it were submerged for a time, and only then emerge into the general consciousness [...] once that legitimation has been established, our strength is not simply a pale reflection of the other composers: we have as it were transmuted their strength so that it serves as a base for our own, which is distinct in nature, origin, and quality.