Vale, John Clare [1940 – 2020]

The Great John Clare passed away today; he was one of those rare humans who had the chance to pack many lives into one; a brilliant writer, and a passionate champion of jazz, he gave us one of the seminal books on Australian Jazz, Bodgie Dada & the Cult of Cool (a must-read), among many many other things. Our jazz community is left poorer without him. 
In memoriam, we repost his article an outstanding piece of action writing, where Jackson Pollock, James Joyce, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor coexist with Marc Hannaford and other legends. A universe in which he had rightfully earned a place.

Jackson Pollock, Marc Hannaford And Other Whirling Matter

[originally posted on 19 June 2012]

Jackson Pollock would throw something down, sometimes directly – splat! – sometimes with a spin, an arabesque of splatter, or splatter-tracked.

His canvas was usually large and lay flat on the floor so he could move all around it, pacing, running, stalking, tensely pausing. From then on every stroke, slash, splash, dribble, black calligraphic accent or whirling tangleweed of multi-coloured tracery was in dialogue with what was there already; with that which had just been said, or what had been said before that or the time before that – a dynamic process that some found more gripping than the paintings themselves.

Apart from a famous drunken collaboration that somehow proved he was a fraud, Pollock painted alone, in a barn, so he had to move around fast to keep the process immediate: a dialogue with the immediate past that could also seem like a race with drying paint in order to build up the simultaneity, the babble and tumult he required.

Scientifically speaking there is no present moment throughout a universe in which time moves at different speeds, but he pursued all-at-once-ness. While spontanaiety was paramount, so was interaction and composition, and the effect of being able to look through onto other levels of seething activity; and through yet further to effulgent washes of colour. All-at-once-ness.

We are talking here about Pollock’s ‘action painting’ period: the period from which some drew the conclusion that he was a ‘talentless drunk’. Much earlier than that he had been mentored on a WPA mural project by the quite conservative Hart Benton. who was impressed by his ability. This is neither here nor there. Some thought Picasso could not draw.

There was a movement in jazz whose seeds can be found in the mid to late 1950s with Ornette Coleman and others. It was dubbed ‘free jazz’, and it was also called, very generally, ‘the jazz avant garde’. Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists listened to Cecil Taylor, who was connected to the free jazz movement, though at an extreme to Ornette Coleman (he was immensely technical, even if he played in a frenzy or a state of possession, while Coleman sounded both avant garde and folk-like at the same time.)  Pollock’s ‘White Light’ is reproduced inside the gatefold cover of Coleman’s 1961 album Free Jazz. This is one of my favourite albums, though it is really a series of often very free solos and duets framed by loosely played Coleman compositions and accompanied by two drummers and two bassists playing simultaneously, plus tangles of collective free improvisation.

The curious buoyancy of these loosely related pulses, tanglings and splinterings, which seem to run about bumping and sparking jolting and spinning, running and returning like dodgem cars, is different to any previous music in a quite fundamental way. Quite different, we note to the pair of quite placid free improvisations – Intuition and Digression – recorded by Lennie Tristano’s band in 1949 and just left there until Ornette Coleman and others began moving in that direction again in the mid 1950s.

As we got further into the 1960s, after Free Jazz, more liberties were taken, until it seemed not too far-fetched at all to say that some of this music was somewhat like Jackson Pollock’s ‘action painting’.

But while Pollock created his frozen hubbub alone, there were often several musicians complementing, deliberately interrupting but always in some way interacting with each other in performance. You might say it too was frozen when it was recorded – except of course that it was still moving in time and you could hear it forming itself in the air.

Sound exists in wave forms, vibrations, movement. When the wind stops blowing and the coyotes stop howling, there is silence on the prairie. When nothing moves nothing is heard. Freeze music and it vanishes.

Digital movement is tiny compared to the wide orbiting of a spinning turntable, but it is movement nevertheless. There is sometimes silence within this music, and often so much hubbub that the web of sound seems to reach a stasis. Like a photograph of an exploding sun reaching us from light years ago. At this remove stupendous violence becomes serenity. Where is the present? Many hear this music as chaos, and indeed chaos is sometimes the aim.

I have a lot of this music and sometimes I return to it. And sometimes I think it is all a mistake – as when you dive into Finnegans Wake again – but not for long. In the best of it something happens that can’t be heard elsewhere. Not quite anyway.

There are moments that could be accidents, instances of telepathy or of freakish group reflexes. As for instance when everybody decides on the instant to play at the very top of their range and you feel as if you are standing amongst bright hailstones that are bouncing back over your head.

An orchestra tuning up can remind you of some free jazz and an artist’s paint-splashed smock might remind us of a Jackson Pollock, or vice versa, until you happen to see a paint-splashed smock or palette in juxtaposition with a Pollock.

There is of course something sunny and attractive about the accidental splashes and flecks, and something of that is caught in some Pollocks, but the juxtaposition removes much of the sense of accident from the Pollock, and all sense of purpose from the smock or pallette. Pollock is always intent, focussed and purposeful. Some of my favourites – such as Sounds In The Grass, Eyes In The Heat and White Light – have almost no resemblance to a paint-splashed smock or studio floor, or to any kind of accident.

Orchestras tuning up and bands imploding. It is interesting to hear surviving members of The Who talking about smashing their instruments in the old days. It was of course a kind of anarchic theatre, and a final gesture after they’d reached their rocking limits, but they actually loved the sounds that were created. And there is some similarity with some free jazz. I don’t think The Who were influenced – consciously at any rate – with free jazz, but some rock bands of the time were. They certainly came to hear Ornette Coleman when he appeared at Ronnie Scott’s in London. I was there. So was Spike Milligan.

There is so much more to be said, but I am trying to keep it simple. Writing very fast is helping me to condense while attempting to say everything at once. This technique, appropriate I hope to the subject matter, is the opposite of editing. It is an attempt to compress at high speed. To say it all at once. It is unlikely to collapse under its own gravity like an imploding star. Let’s leave that accident there.

We have mentioned Cecil Taylor. He is a pianist and composer, still playing with ravenous energy in his eighties. Sometimes he has used an ensemble with written sections accompanied by a glittering surf of free improvisation, and sometimes he plays freely on his own. He is all over the piano, thundering, scintillating; and sometimes treble lightning will appear to startling effect as though it is being ejected, rather than striking from above, from a turbulent field of lava. And sometimes the palms and fingers of both hands come down suddenly with a sound like a sheet of galvanised iron falling from about eight stories and landing flat. The late Roger Frampton and I saw a Taylor solo performance at a music festival in Brisbane many years ago. It was a performance in the fullest sense, theatrical and ritualistic with chanting and peculiar dancing as Taylor appeared from the wings crouching and crawling and virtually stalking the piano. Perhaps trying to charm it. But the music was torrential, explosive, kaleidoscopic and shattering. Romantic elements surprised us, echoes even of Tchaikovsky. Roger remembered it for the rest of his life and I expect I will do the same.

Unfortunately I never saw Jackson Pollock painting, except on film, but I have seen a number of his works in New York, and of course Blue Poles at the Art Gallery Of New South Wales – and then at the National Gallery In Canberra. I wish they’d bring it back here so I could stroll across The Domain and see it every now and then.

Melbourne pianist Mark Hannaford mentioned Cecil Taylor in a recent interview on this site conducted by Miriam Zolin. They were discussing two digital recordings Hannaford had just made – burning off a copy of each for this ancient scribbler. One is called Sarcophile and the other Ordinary Madness. To tune in to these see Miriam’s interview. My purpose here is to recommend these recordings, to recommend anything Hannaford is involved with (including those on the remarkable Melbourne label Extreme), and perhaps to make some connection for you with players such as Cecil Taylor who have inspired him and whom he now is reacting against in some ways (refer the Zolin/Hannaford interview).

Before returning to Cecil Taylor and that general area, I should point out that, when playing with the great Melbourne drummer Allan Browne (check ShreveportStomp on Jazzhead) Hannaford displays an incredible idiomatic affinity with several styles of recent and early jazz styles and also renders Brian Wilson’s Wonderful in a very different but moving way (we are both Wilson worshippers). Now, Hannaford is very different to Cecil Taylor. He often sounds more deliberated, less abandoned, less orgiastic and wild. Yet force and dynamism is not absent, and in its pursuit of intensity through complex processes, deep satisfaction and indeed a particular ecstacy can mount. A more obvious comparison might be drawn between Hannaford and, say, Andrew Hill, but we are talking now about a movement that probably began with Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nicholls in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

We are talking about a freedom with time and harmony, combined with a deep knowledge of these elements as they were extended in 20th century classical music.

The Extreme recordings – and here I am referring only to those that can be related to the general area under discussion – have involved some of the most formidable musicians Australia has produced, from the point of view of sheer capability, flexibility and knowledge. They include trumpeter Scott Tinkler, violinist John Rodgers, pianists Hannaford and Paul Grabowsky, bassist Phillip Rex and drummer Ken Edie. While some early exponents of this stream of music – Ornette Coleman for instance – have been seen as primitives, no musically literate listener could make that mistake regarding Cecil Taylor or any of the Australians I have mentioned. The sometimes violent force notwithstanding, their music has undeniably an intellectual aspect.

Let us look at two extremes of music making. One seeks, primarily and almost exclusively, to create major emotions: love, loss, nostalgia, hate, patriotism, desire and so on. This motivation does not preclude inventiveness by any means. But the setting for these primary emotions – the universe in short, or some detail of the universe – is secondary, indeed incidental. On the other hand there is a body of music which seeks to evoke the majesty and intricate fascination of the universe itself. No music can encompass the universe. Therefore it explores a parallel – music itself, its laws, sensations and textures. Some of this music is religious, but instead of simply praising God, who must be fairly sick of praise by now (I mean, give Me a break, fellows: sometimes I like to don a disguise and just wander about among the sinners, the rabble, the hoi polloi – quite relaxing really) it evokes in some small way the processes, laws and mathematical principles and progressions of the Creation itself. In the case of J.S. Bach, for instance, the exhilaration created (for some of us at any rate) amounts to an emotion, or is accompanied by an emotion, a gladness that transcends the simple release of adrenalin.

Some feelings are so subtle we might hesitate to call them emotions, but just as sound and colour do not exist until they reach the eardrum and the rods and cones of the eyes to be synthesised by the brain, emotion causes, or is caused by, or is dependant on, a physical reaction.

Somewhere in there resides the music I am talking about. But unlike either of these extremes in the classical or popular mainstreams, this music seeks to embrace chaos. In Hannaford there is perhaps more of the deliberate, jostling impulses of spontaneous process and perhaps less of the cataclysmic events, the implosions of dying stars, the strewing of cosmic dust that we find in Cecil Taylor. Yet both are there in both of them.

In the above I have made assumptions about intent. Some free jazz had a political motivation, and in Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and others there is a wealth of melody and raw emotion, but I know this much: all are deeply concerned with music itself; with its forms, processes, textures, tone colours and sensations.

Chaotic, explosive and spectacular as it may seem, the universe, as we are able to observe it, is more or less the same in every direction. Or so it would be if there were not fluctuations of density present in the big bang itself.

Thus with a Pollock. Thus with extreme free jazz. In fact that freedom is often restricted, in the music of which I speak, to interludes within formal episodes. All music, all art, may, consciously or not, attempt to create a parallel to the universe, or part thereof. The full name of Duke Elington’s Harlem is A Tone Parallel To Harlem. New York’s Harlem (named after Harlem in Holland) is one of many cities within a city. There is also China Town, Little Italy, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and so on. Yet each can seem like a microcosm of the universal city, and indeed of the universe.

A great deal of art is description, or at least representation. Describing or representing love, hate, the universe. None is the right description. Nor the wrong one. This is art after all.

Did we mention Finnegan’s Wake?

Ah yes, indeed. This begins with the end of a sentence whose beginning is at the end of the book (or to put it another way, the last sentence on the last page stops part way through and is completed by the first sentence on the first page). Thus the book is circular, although few, and certainly not me, have read it straight through, thus experiencing that circularity in motion. You may recall my saying that when I return to free jazz and/or its offshoots, I sometimes think that this was all a mistake. But not for long. So it is with Finnegan’s Wake.

While this music will never be hugely popular it has an audience and practitioners throughout the world – some of whom still associate themselves with free jazz and some of whom have severed those connections for various reasons (including the association of jazz with America) – who carry its spirit onward, couched though it may be in evolving forms and technologies. There is no law that says you have to like this music. I’m just telling you it is there. Also there is no law that says you have to stop liking music from any country because you dislike some of that country’s actions.